How 2020 is the year of the tragicomedy and why Samuel Beckett must have wrote it
Samuel Beckett remains one of Ireland’s most renowned and celebrated writers, with his work still being studied and performed globally. Amongst Beckett’s most notable work, lies the theme of existentialism and the absurdity of life. Two of his most absurd plays, Endgame and Waiting for Godot, draw eerie parallels to life under Covid as we know it. Which begs the question, are we living in a Samuel Beckett play? Themes of isolation, time and suffering all seem too real for most of us as we try to grasp the complexity of ‘the new normal’, but Beckett seems to make ease of it all as he presents life as the ultimate tragicomedy.
Isolation has never been more prevalent in our lives, having spent the best part of four months only being allowed to leave the house for essential work or needs. Seeing the same faces day in and day out, and on occasion, not being able to see anyone for 14 days. Mental Health campaigns for coping with the reality of Covid spread throughout the country as the HSE realised that, although most aren’t physically sick, the isolation can pay a toll on our minds. Beckett’s 1957 Endgame presents a very familiar isolation to the one we’ve all grown to know. Although there are four characters in this play, the focus remains around Clov and Hamm. Both men stay isolated inside the house as Hamm notes that “outside of here it’s death”. In today’s day and age, not only can we take this quote as literal, but we can also take it as a time to reflect on our state of isolation. A pessimist’s view on the world as the time we’ve spent not socialising or living our old lives, leads to existential thought and a more inward way of thinking. We see this reflected in reality when we look back on all our well-intended plans for bettering ourselves by getting into shape, learning a language or baking, that may or may not have worked out.
The other two characters Beckett graces us with are Nag and Nell, who each live in separate dustbins. Nag and Nell are able to communicate with each other from their dustbins while also having the luxury of exiting the conversation by closing over the lid, or better yet, not even engaging in the conversation to begin with by not responding. Pre-Covid, it was hard to get away from the outside world. Dealing with the people we see regularly in real life and then dealing with the people in our virtual world. During lockdown, we relied heavily on our virtual worlds to stay communicated, but like Nag and Nell, we were able to close over the lid of our dustbins and not reply to that text, or not come out of our dustbins at all by not accepting that call. Although now, as we enter into the ‘new world’, we may find ourselves saturated with communication from both in our physical and virtual world, we will never escape our inner Nag and Nell, as we may just find ourselves back in our dustbins.
This pandemic has also brought with it a longing for another time, a better time, be it times behind us or times ahead. Beckett’s Endgame and Waiting for Godot channel this longing. “Ah yesterday” says Nell as she responds to Nag’s reminiscence. Nell’s suggested fondness of yesterday is something that resonates with most of us now. Remembering when we used to go shopping without fear of standing too close to someone, or vice versa. Remembering the times we used to do the things we once did without fear of breaking a restriction. These are all the things we long for and mirror with the same fondness of Nell as she reflects on yesterday.
While Nell replicates the collective reflection of better times, Vladimir and Estragon (Waiting for Godot) are comparable to the present state of ‘waiting around’. As Vladimir tells Estragon, they can’t leave because they’re ‘”waiting for Godot”, and they can’t seem to do anything else until they meet him. Although one aspect of their lives seems to be at a standstill in anticipation for the arrival of the mysterious Godot, the other shows that life still goes on as they exist, and continue to exist, together. Their main objective is to meet with Godot and to do so they must pass the time by entertaining themselves. To come out of the other side of Covid, we, like Vladimir and Estragon, must wait it out. We are waiting with uncertainty and anticipation for something and our lives are at a standstill, but we still exist. We find things to pass the time as it brings us closer to what we think will be the end of Covid, but the time “would have passed in any case”, however, as Vladimir notes “not so rapidly”.
“You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” If there is one thing that Beckett has taught us, it is that life can be as cruel as you’d like or let it be. Endgame’s Hamm knows all about suffering and what it means to suffer, as he notes the cureless existence of life on earth. 2020 has been the year we all will watch on Reeling in the Years in time to come, and watch in despair as absolutely nothing good happens. Global Pandemic, Australian bushfires, George Floyd and social unrest, recession, the explosion in Lebanon, just to name a few. Whether it is natural causes or a crisis of humanity, it is all happening on our little planet and as it goes, perhaps Hamm is right, maybe there is no cure. Although all these bad things are happening on this planet, we still exist and that should reason enough to be happy.
The struggle to be happy in both these plays starts with the question of what reason is there to be? “Say you are, even if it’s not true”, is Vladimir’s priceless advice to Estragon about happiness, “Say, I am happy.” As we wait around for Covid to end, just as Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot, we must ask the question, do we really need a crystallised reason to be happy? Maybe we already are, as Vladimir the philosopher states “You must be happy too, deep down, if you only knew it.”
2020 has been the year of the tragicomedy, and it is not over yet. The year has been set out with the intention to disrupt your plans, ruin your finances and your sociability. Most importantly, this year has set out to threaten your mortality, or at least give you a sobering moment to reflect on it. Beckett’s existentialism revolves around the journey of life, what it means (if there is a meaning), to be alive and happy while suffering. Maybe we aren’t living a literal Beckett play, but isolation, time and suffering all seem too close to home for a lot of us right now, that a metaphorical one can not be ruled out. As the year continues, and surely more bad things to come, we continue to exist on the cureless planet and find humour in the tragicomedy of life through our memes and satires, as “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”