Lawrence and Lee’s “Inherit the Wind.” Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism and Evolution. Fundamentalism, McCarthyism, Trumpism and Democracy.

Lawrence and Lee’s Inherit the Wind.

Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism and Evolution.

Fundamentalism, McCarthyism, Trumpism and Democracy.

 Burton Weltman

The Relevance of Inherit the Wind: Problems with Democracy.

Inherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee is a fictional dramatization of the celebrated 1925 Monkey Trial in which a Tennessee teacher, John Scopes, was prosecuted for teaching evolution in his biology classes.[1]  Teaching evolution in public schools was prohibited by Tennessee state law.  The play, which was first performed in 1955, was intended as an implied criticism of the anti-Communist witch-hunts then being conducted in the United States by Senator Joseph McCarthy and others.  The authors considered both the Scopes Monkey Trial and McCarthy’s loyalty hearings to be antidemocratic attacks on freedom of speech.

The play focuses on the dangers to democracy when a ruling majority persecutes less powerful minorities.  Majority rule becomes a travesty of democracy when elected officials and popular leaders abuse their positions of authority to bully dissenters and nonconformists, and when demagogues stoke fear and hatred in traditionalists by demonizing progressives, pitting religion against science, prejudice against reason, and promoting visceral reactions and simplistic solutions to complex problems.  The authors’ intention was to portray the crusade against evolution in the United States during the 1920’s as analogous to the crusade against Communism during the 1950’s, and to condemn both.

It is unfortunate for us in the United States today (April, 2019) that what with having to cope with the presidency of Donald Trump and the threats to democracy that his administration represents, the play continues to be relevant.  Demagogic bullying, authoritarian tactics, and fear-mongering that demonizes progressives and vilifies immigrants, pits religion against science, prejudice against reason, and fear against hope, have become Trump’s standard operating procedures.  Deja vu all over again.

Inherit the Wind was a Broadway hit when it first appeared and has been widely popular ever since.  It has been filmed four times, each time with a stellar cast, most memorably in 1960 with Spencer Tracy, Frederick March, and Gene Kelly in the main roles.  It is a brilliant play.  Facetiously funny.  Dramatically poignant.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking.  A vehicle for excellent acting.  It leaves readers and viewers with more questions than answers.  And its themes are easily accessible.  For these reasons, the play works as a perfect assignment for middle school and high school students, and it has been widely read in literature classes and performed in drama classes since its first publication.

Inherit the Wind is a pedagogic play.  Its authors are trying to teach us something about society and social change, and it contains lessons that the authors hope we will learn.  Given the play’s continuing popularity and widespread use in schools, I think it is important to understand what those lessons are and to evaluate their applicability to the present day.  What ideas about society and social change will students get from the play, and are they helpful ideas?  In my reading of the play and my perusal of educational websites that are designed to help students understand it, I have come to believe that the play teaches three key lessons, each of which is problematical in my opinion.[2]

The first lesson is about the relation between science and religion, and particularly the relation between the Book of Genesis in the Bible and the theory of evolution.  As portrayed in the play, the lesson is that science and religion are incompatible.  We have an either/or choice between one and the other, and science is the proper choice.

The second lesson is about the relation between liberty and democracy, and particularly the relation between individual belief and majority opinion.   As portrayed in the play, the lesson is that enlightened individuals must stand up against the ignorance and intolerance of the masses, and against the demagogues who manipulate the masses. The play depicts the descent of majority rule into mobocracy, and promotes individualism as the antidote to a tyranny of the majority.  We have an either/or choice between the dignity of the individual and the mandates of mass society, and individualism is the proper choice.

The third lesson is about the relation between people who politically disagree and the nature of political debate between them.  Political debate is portrayed in the play in the form of the criminal trial of the biology teacher.  A criminal trial is a conflict in which one side wins, the other side loses, and never the twain shall meet.  If political debate is like a criminal trial, then the goal is to defeat those who disagree with you, and not to try to find some common solution.  In this view, political and intellectual differences invariably involve either/or choices.

The play brilliantly teaches these lessons.  It is very convincing.  My problem with the play is that I do not think these are the best lessons to teach about the relations between science and religion, liberty and democracy, and the parties in a political debate.  Promoting science over religion, valuing individualism over democracy, and insisting on a winner in every political debate are, in my opinion, recipes for irreconcilable conflict and unresolved social issues.

I am especially concerned that the play leaves young people with a wrong impression about how things can and should work in our democratic society.  While some issues are inherently either/or choices, it can be unproductive and even counterproductive to approach most political and intellectual disagreements in that way.  Consensus, compromise, and coexistence are just a few of the possible alternatives to an all-out either/or conflict.  The purpose of this essay is to explain my concerns with the play, offer a way of teaching the play critically, and suggest some ideas of what might be more productive ways to approach the issues in the play.

Background: Testing the limits of the law at the real Monkey Trial.

The Monkey Trial was the result of a law enacted in 1925 by the State of Tennessee making it illegal to teach evolution in public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union decided to challenge the law as unconstitutional, and a volunteer to test the law was sought among Tennessee biology teachers.  John Scopes volunteered to be the test case.  He then sought to be arrested for teaching evolution in his classes, and recruited some of his students to testify that he had taught them about evolution.  The prosecution of Scopes was what might be considered a friendly litigation in which both proponents and opponents of the law sought clarification from the courts as to what was and was not permitted under the United States Constitution.[3]

Evolution was a cause celebre in the United States during the 1920’s among both opponents and proponents of the theory.  There was a major expansion of high school education in the country during that decade and the nature of the secondary school curriculum was still evolving. Fundamentalist Protestant Christians claimed that the theory of evolution contradicted the Bible’s account of creation and was therefore sacrilegious.  Teaching it in the public schools, they insisted, would be tantamount to government support for atheism.  It could even be considered promoting satanism in impressionable students. To scientists who supported the theory, evolution was an icon of scientific discovery and a key to understanding the world.  Teaching evolution was fostering human progress and even helping to do God’s work.

Both opponents and proponents of teaching evolution approached the Scopes trial as a high-stakes political contest.  As such, both sides wanted the trial to be conducted with a maximum of publicity so as to be able to get national attention for their respective positions.  Toward this end, the prosecution brought in William Jennings Bryan, former Secretary of State and three-time Democratic Presidential nominee.  Scopes’ defense was headed by the nationally renowned attorney Clarence Darrow.  H.L. Mencken, the famous, maliciously irreverent columnist for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, which helped pay for Scopes’ defense, covered the trial.  He invented the term Monkey Trial to mock the proceedings, an apt description that stuck in the public mind.

Scopes’ situation was ironic in many respects.  Among them was the fact that public school biology teachers were required by the Tennessee Department of Education to use a textbook that taught the theory of evolution, and it was the only biology book they were allowed to use.  Scopes was effectively caught in a double bind, violating one law in order to obey another.

The trial was conducted in a friendly almost circus-like atmosphere.  The site of the trial was the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, which warmly welcomed everyone involved in the case, whatever their position on evolution.  The trial was a major tourist attraction and the atmosphere in town was like a county fair, with entertainments, circus acts, and popular exhibits all around.[4]

The opposing parties were also mostly cordial.  Scopes was never jailed and he did not face jail-time if convicted.  The prosecution sought a $100 fine and Bryan offered to pay the fine if Scopes was convicted.  The judge in the trial was respectful to the defense but interpreted the scope of the proceedings very narrowly.  He refused to admit testimony from a battery of scientists and theologians that the defense had hoped would show the reasonableness of evolution and its consistency with the Bible.  The judge ruled that the only issue in the case was whether Scopes had taught evolution contrary to the law, not whether the law was reasonable or right.  The judge did, however, allow the experts to submit written arguments that the defense could use if the defense appealed a guilty verdict against Scope.  Which they did.

Contrary to popular opinion, the trial did not pit Christian believers against atheist non-believers.  It pitted fundamentalist Christians who believed in a literal reading of the Bible against modernist Christians who believed in a metaphorical and allegorical reading of the Bible.  To modernists a “day” in the Book of Genesis could, for example, stand for millions or billions of years in evolution.  There was, they claimed, no necessary conflict between the Book of Genesis and the theory of evolution.  In attacking the law, the modernists were not trying to force an either/or choice between the Bible and science.  They were offering an inclusive solution of the sort that the Catholic Church has generally taken in recent years.

Likewise, contrary to the situation today, opponents of the theory of evolution were not uniformly identified with political conservatism.  Just the opposite.  Bryan was a long-time champion of liberalism who opposed evolutionary theory mainly because it was widely associated with political conservatism.  Much to Charles Darwin’s chagrin, no sooner did he publish his theory of biological evolution by natural selection than the conservative philosopher Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe the process and applied it to social evolution.  Spencer and his colleagues contended that not only did natural selection operate between species but also within species and that it explained social differences.

In what came to be known as Social Darwinism, Spencer claimed that evolution was essentially a free-for-all in which the stronger survived and thrived, and the weaker justifiably perished.  He compared evolution to free-market capitalism which he extolled as the best of all possible economic systems.  He claimed that among humans there were fitter races, in particular the so-called white race, and that among the fitter races there were fitter social classes, in particular the rich.  By dint of fighting their way to the top of the economic system, rich people demonstrated their fitness to rule over the lower classes.  Social Darwinism also discouraged labor unionism and higher wages for workers and philanthropy toward the poor as contrary to the laws of nature.

Although Darwin rejected Social Darwinism and tried to distance his theory from it, the theory was popularized in the United States by the distinguished sociology professor William Graham Sumner and was essentially adopted as the law of the land by the Supreme Court during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries[5]  Many populist progressives, such as Bryan, rejected evolution in large part because of what Bryan condemned as the “brutishness” of Social Darwinism.  Bryan embraced creationism on the grounds that Genesis established that all humans were created equal as was also proclaimed in the sacred Declaration of Independence.

Bryan was not initially a fundamentalist.  He began his career as an adherent of Social Gospel Christianity and what could be considered a modernist Biblical interpretation. The Social Gospel movement promoted Christianity as a benevolent religion, focusing on Jesus as a teacher, healer and comforter.  To Bryan, Christianity was a “gospel of collective good works.” In contrast, fundamentalism promoted Christianity as an antidote to human wickedness, and focused on the crucified Christ who died for our original and ongoing sins.  It was a harsh and rigid religion.

Bryan moved toward fundamentalism when his mainly small town and rural supporters rejected modernism as the theory of an upper class urban intellectual elite.  Ironically, fundamentalism evolved to promote what was essentially the harshly conservative Social Darwinist social message that had led Bryan to reject modernist Christianity and the theory of evolution.[6]

One of the great political and social transformations of the early twentieth century was the transmogrification of the corn and wheat belt Midwest from radical populism and socialism to anti-government and individualist conservatism.  Oklahoma, for example, at one time the state with the highest percentage of Socialist Party members and voters in the country, turned 180 degrees to become one of the most archconservative states in the union.  As a result, Bryan ended his career fronting for a much different message than the one he began with.

In a celebrated portion of the Scopes trial, Bryan took the stand to testify as an expert on the Bible and Darrow questioned him about such things as where did Cain get his wife if Cain and Able were the only two offspring of the only two humans in the world, Adam and Eve, and what would physically happen to the world if God had actually stopped the sun to help Joshua win the battle of Jericho.  Bryan was not very comfortable or convincing in his responses, essentially just claiming that an almighty God could do anything He wanted.  In asking these questions, Darrow, although himself an agnostic, was not trying to discredit the Bible but merely trying to promote the modernist Christian view of the Bible as metaphor and allegory.[7]

Scopes was found guilty, as was expected by all parties.  And then the defense appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which was the defense’s plan all along.  The appeal was based on three key grounds.  The first was that the term “evolution” was too vague and too broad to be the subject of a ban. The term was used in many contexts and about many things that were scientifically and historically verified and that had nothing to do with the Bible.  The law was, thus, unclear and unenforceable.  In this ground of appeal, the defense was essentially offering the court a way to void the law without having to address the validity of evolutionary theory.

The second ground of appeal was that the law violated the separation of church and state and the protection of individual religious belief required by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The third ground was that the law violated the free speech rights of individuals and groups guaranteed by the First Amendment.  In these latter two grounds of appeal, the defense was essentially offering the court other ways to void the law without having to address the validity of the theory of evolution.

The Court didn’t accept these offers but it upheld the law without addressing the validity of either evolution or the Bible.  The justices narrowly ruled that Tennessee had the right to set the curriculum for its public schools and that banning the teaching of evolution was within the state’s educational jurisdiction.  And that was the end of the matter in Tennessee until 1967 when the state legislature repealed the Butler Act.  Then in 1968, the United States Supreme Court ruled that banning the teaching of evolution in public schools violated the separation of church and state required by the First Amendment.  The position of the defendants in the Monkey Trial was thereby validated and vindicated.[8]

The Plot: Making monkeys out of the townspeople and the prosecutors.

Inherit the Wind was not intended to be historically precise.  That is a reason why the main characters were all renamed.  Bryan became Matthew Harrison Brady in the play, Darrow became Henry Drummond, and Mencken became E.K. Hornbeck.  And while the play follows most of the basic arguments that were made in the actual trial, including the famous Darrow-Bryan interchange on the Bible, it deviates from actuality in its characterizations of the protagonists, its description of the atmosphere around the trial, and, most important, its presentation of the debate at the trial.  The changes are significant and diminish the usefulness of the play as a model of political debate for progressives, which was a main purpose of the play.

Unlike the actual townspeople of Dayton, the fictional townspeople in the play are portrayed as almost unanimously hostile to outsiders, and act towards outsiders as though they are agents of the devil, which their preacher Reverend Brown continuously proclaims.  Reverend Brown, who does not represent anyone in the actual town of Dayton, is portrayed as a wild-eyed zealot who would sacrifice anything, even his own daughter, to the fundamentalist cause.  The fictional townspeople are depicted as ignorant yokels who are ready at the drop of a damnation by their preacher to become a lynch mob.  They are seemingly irredeemable to the cause of knowledge and progress that is being promoted by the character Drummond and the authors of the play.

Matthew Harrison Brady, the surrogate for Bryan, is portrayed as a blathering, publicity-seeking fool.  He is vehemently hostile to the teacher Cates.  Almost everything in the play is melodramatized to make the anti-evolutionists all seem like ignoramuses and extremists.  Unlike the actual case, the teacher in the play has been locked up in jail and remains there throughout the trial.  He is repeatedly damned to hell by Reverend Brown.  And when Cates is fined $100 after being found guilty, Brady, instead of offering to pay his fine as Bryan did for Scopes, goes on a rampage because the teacher wasn’t sent to prison for his heinous offense.

The religiosity of Scopes’ actual defenders is left out of the play.  They are portrayed as concerned only with promoting the sacredness of science, to hell with the Bible, and protecting the right of the individual to speak his mind, the interests of the community be damned.  In all, the play presents the discussion of religion and evolution as an either/or debate, and the relation between the individual’s freedom and the community’s concerns as an either/or choice, very different than the actual trial.  I think this is a mistake, both historically and politically.

Cognitive Dissonance as a Human Condition: Free Will Determinists and Agnostic Theists.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” By that definition, I think that almost everybody must have a first-rate intelligence, because it is almost impossible for humans to live without holding contradictory ideas. Living with cognitive dissonance is seemingly part of the human condition, and may be one of the key things that distinguishes us from other animals.

One of the characteristics of an extremist is the unwillingness or inability to tolerate cognitive dissonance, and the insistence on adhering to only one side of the contradictions with which we have to live.  Extremists insist on posing all issues in either/or terms and refuse to recognize that some things, including some very important things, cannot fit within that framework of debate.  But, despite themselves, extremists can’t really avoid the dissonance in our lives and minds, and can only desperately try to fool themselves while making trouble for others.

Take, for example, the contradictory ideas of determinism and free will.  Determinism essentially means that everything is the product of a chain of causes and effects.  Present events are determined by past events.  What will be, will be.  And there is no choice about it.  Free will essentially means that people have the ability to make choices.  Things are not predetermined by a chain of causes and effects.  What I will, will be.

It is virtually impossible not to act as though you believe in both of these ideas.  Take, for example, the mindset of an evolutionary biologist.  In their professional work, biologists are generally proponents of determinism.  They look for the causes of things, and they professionally see the world in deterministic terms.  But the evolutionary biologist who proclaims determinism in her work will come home from her laboratory and choose what to have for dinner as though she has free will and a choice in the matter.  Likewise in more important matters such as whether to marry, whom to vote for, what medical treatments to take, and so forth.  She can’t not choose.  And she must live with the cognitive dissonance of accepting two contradictory ideas.

On the other side of this contradiction, fundamentalist Christians generally claim that people have free will and must choose what they will do and be.  Sin, for example, is generally not sinful to a fundamentalist unless the sinner has freely chosen to behave in that way.  But those same proponents of free-will will also generally have to accept that genetic predispositions, social circumstances, and psychological conditions will sometimes cause people to behave in ways that are not a product of free choice.  In sum, whatever our ideological presuppositions, the ideas of both causality and free will are engrained in our brains and we cannot pragmatically go forward without accepting them both.

It is the same with matters of religious belief in which it is virtually impossible not to be both a theist and either an atheist, agnostic or antitheist.  In fact, the evolution of the word “atheism” is an example of the wrongheaded consequences that can come from insisting on an either/or conclusion to a debate.  As a general rule, when you place an “a” in front of a word, it connotes that one is uninterested in the thing that the word denotes.  It is a matter of indifference, but not opposition.  An “a” is not the same as “anti.”

When, for example, you place an “a” in front of the word “political” and say that a person is apolitical, it means that the person is not interested in politics.  It does not mean that the person is opposed to politics, which would be “antipolitical.”  Likewise, with the word “social.”  An asocial person is not interested in society, but that is not the same as an antisocial person who would be opposed to being in society.  The same goes for lots of other words.

The word “atheism” was apparently coined in the sixteenth century during the European religious wars between Catholics and Protestants in which adherents of the two Christian religions were slaughtering each other over their differences as to how they thought God wanted people to believe and live.  In the midst of the carnage, a small group of pacifistic Protestants suggested that maybe people should be allowed to worship as they pleased and that social policy should be decided without reference to God.  They did not deny the existence of God, and were in fact true believers.  They just thought that there was so much confusion over what God wanted that maybe what He really wanted was for people to decide on their own.

These self-styled atheists proposed separating sacred worship from secular activities so that adherents of different religions could worship as they pleased on their own and at their own peril if they got it wrong in the eyes of God, but still work together within the same community.  This would allow space for the sacred and the secular to coexist side by side, albeit with a bit of cognitive dissonance.  As such, the word “atheist” originally denominated a person who just believed that God was irrelevant to the discussion of worldly affairs.  It did not mean that the person was opposed to belief in God, which would make him an antitheist.

The word “atheism” was not, however, allowed to keep that neutral meaning.  Both the Catholic Church and the Protestant churches, which could not agree on anything else, agreed on this one thing, that they would allow no middle ground between believers and non-believers in what each church deemed the true religion, and no secular cooperation between those they deemed the righteous and the damned.  They insisted that one either believe wholly in their God and do what they insisted He wanted or be cut down as an agent of the devil.  So, both the Catholic and Protestants churches deemed atheism to mean antitheism, which is how the word is generally used today, and together they righteously slaughtered the atheists.  A perfectly good word and useful concept was, thereby, ruined by either/or thinking.[9]

In the late nineteenth century, Thomas Huxley, who was a devoted follower of Charles Darwin and a ferocious proponent of the theory of evolution – he was known as “Darwin’s bulldog” — determined that there was need for a word that described what he saw as the neutral relationship between science and religion, and particularly between evolution and God.  Huxley’s point was not to deny the existence of God.  God may exist and may be in some sense the Creator.  But, Huxley insisted, His hands were off of evolution, which He allowed to work on its own.

Huxley took the word “atheism” which like “theism” is based on a Latin word for God, “deus,” and he substituted a Greek word for God, “gnosis.”  The result was the word “agnosticism,” which essentially denotes the same thing as the original meaning of the word “atheism.” That is, a middle ground between theism and antitheism, which allows people to believe in God but keep Him out of the discussion of scientific issues and social problems.  It was a peaceful resolution of the ostensible conflict between science and religion.  Although the meaning of the word “agnosticism” has devolved over the years into denoting someone who is unsure of the existence of God, rather than someone who just thinks God is irrelevant to worldly issues, it has retained at least some of its original connotations.

In any case, it is virtually impossible for an atheist, agnostic or antitheist not to harbor at least some hidden faith in some sort of god, even if the person finds the idea of God unbelievable or unacceptable.  The reason is simple.  It is impossible for humans to live from one moment to the next and to go on doing whatever they are doing without feeling that the universe is orderly.  That is, that things will not all of the sudden go haywire.  That we can have faith in the laws of gravity.  That we can count on counting.  And so forth.

Well, that assumption of orderliness in the universe is not unlike a faith in a god, even if it is a nature god.  A sense of confidence in the orderliness of the universe is a key thing that gods provide to the faithful, and when we act with that confidence, we are essentially acting out an assumption of god.  It may be merely a feeling and not a belief, that is, not an idea, but no matter what we think and say about God, actions speak louder than ideas and words.

It is, in turn, almost impossible for a theist or true believer in God to deny a certain amount of uncertainty and disorderliness in the universe, and some uneasiness about God’s intentions.  This is particularly the case with the existence of evil in the world.  A perennial question that has chronically plagued theists is how could an all-powerful and ostensibly all-good God permit so much evil to exist, particularly the suffering of innocent people, and especially little children.  No theologian has ever come up with an intellectually and ethically satisfying answer to that question.  As a result, intellectually and ethically honest theists have to accept that there are things in heaven and on earth that they cannot explain and that could justify in good faith an agnostic and even antitheist position on the question of God.

The inevitability of belief and disbelief in God going hand in hand, faith and doubt coexisting side by side in the same mind, is a case of cognitive dissonance that seems to call for tolerance among believers, doubters, and non-believers.  This was the position of those naïve sixteenth century pacifists who coined the word “atheism” and who were massacred for their tolerance by extremist Protestants and Catholics alike.

Fundamentalists for Evolution: Science meets Religion.

Although the play Inherit the Wind leaves the impression that there is no room for tolerance between religion and science, there are many ways for theists to accept both Genesis and the theory of evolution, and seemingly most theists do so even if it involves some cognitive dissonance.  The most pragmatic way to reconcile Genesis and evolution is to maintain that the Bible was inspired by God and reflects His core messages, but to accept that the Bible was compiled by fallible humans who expressed their religious views in the language and cultural concepts of their own time and place, which may not be the same as ours today.

In this view, the Bible should not be taken as the literal Word of God but as inspired words that have to be translated from ancient Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew into modern languages and into modern-day concepts of the universe.  The Truth may be there but you have to work your way past the literal words to get at it.  In this process, people will likely disagree about the meaning of the words, but that is the nature of words and translations, and it is seemingly what God intended.  It is cognitive dissonance in action and a God-given characteristic of humans.

A second way of reconciling the Bible with evolution is to see the Bible as an exercise in metaphor.  This is the modernist approach taken by the people who defended Scopes in the actual Monkey Trial.  In this approach, a day in Genesis can stand for billions of years.  Making humans out of dust can stand for the evolution of people from inorganic matter.  Interpreting the Bible as metaphor is inevitably a contentious process since different people will almost inevitably have different interpretations of the images and ideas in the Bible.  The same people may even have different interpretations at different times.  But that is the nature of metaphor and was seemingly intended by God.  It is cognitive dissonance at work and a test of our faith.

Fundamentalist Christians, such as those portrayed in Inherit the Wind, are unwilling to accept either a nonliteral or a metaphorical reading of the Bible, and they take an either/or view of Genesis. You either take Genesis in its literal sense or you are damned.  They have, in turn, historically insisted that this requires rejecting the theory of evolution.  The agnostic authors of the play also seem to take an either/or view of the Bible but in the opposite way.  To them, if you take a literal reading of Genesis and reject evolution, you are doomed.  I would suggest that within the terms of their own positions, neither fundamentalists nor agnostics need to reach such categorical conclusions about either Genesis or evolution.

Jesus famously warned about beholding the mote or speck of dust in another person’s eye while missing the beam or piece of wood in one’s own, or at least that is how the conventional translation goes.  I think this parable may apply to the authors of Inherit the Wind. The play portrays fundamentalists as dogmatic and dictatorial but the authors of the play seem to be just as doctrinaire and quite arrogant.  This is exemplified in the play’s title.  The title is drawn from the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 11.  The chapter contains a series of either/or propositions about righteousness versus wickedness.  Either follow the straight and narrow or be damned.

The chapter includes the admonition that is translated in the King James Bible as “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise at heart.”  In the Jerusalem Bible, this sentence is translated as “He who misgoverns his house inherits the wind, and the fool becomes the slave to the wise.”  Interpreters of the play almost invariably focus solely on the first clause of this proverb about inheriting the wind, and generally conclude that the title of the play is a warning from the authors to fundamentalists who are like Brady and Brown that if they disturb the house of science and education, they will be blown away by history.  This is pretty high-hatted stuff.  But the second part of the proverb gets even harsher.

This second clause – about the fool becoming the servant or slave of the wise – implies that fundamentalists are fools to reject science and will rue their willful ignorance when they are essentially enslaved by those in the know.  That is, the world will inevitably be ruled by educated people who are capable of using scientific knowledge, such as evolutionary theory, to get things done and to gain power. Those who reject that knowledge will be ruled over by them and be second-class citizens, at best.  In sum, the play’s authors seemed to be giving fundamentalists an either/or choice: Either give up a literal reading of Genesis or be doomed to domination.

Blowing in the wind and bowing down to an educated elite was the fate predicted by Lawrence and Lee for fundamentalists unless they saw the light of science.  With respect to blowing in the wind, it seemed to many during the 1950’s, when Lawrence and Lee wrote their play, that fundamentalism had in fact been vanquished by science and was disappearing.  We know today that this was not so.  In the ebb and flow of religiosity in the history of the United States, fundamentalism may have ebbed in the 1950’s but it is blowing up a storm today.  So, Inherit the Wind conveys an incorrect impression of the fate of fundamentalism and the state of religiosity in America.  The snide journalist Hornbeck may have the last laugh in the play, but the winner, if any, of the reality show is still undecided.

With respect to wise men and the fools, it seemed to many during the 1950’s and 1960’s that scientists were, in fact, going to rule the world.  During this period, the idea of meritocracy was being widely promoted by members of the highly educated classes.  The idea was that the world had become so complex and required so much knowledge to succeed that only those with the most expertise and experience would and should control things.  That is, those who merited power based on their knowledge and skills would rule the world.  Those who held onto outdated superstitions and ideas, such as fundamentalism, would be relegated to second-class status.

The idea of meritocracy was effectively a new form of what could be called Social Darwinism with rule by the rich replaced with rule by the best and brightest, as this new elite was called.[10] The appeal of Trumpism today to those with less formal education, so-called low information voters, can be construed as in part a backlash against this idea.

But is the choice between subservience to an educated elite and rejection of a literal reading of the Bible the only option for fundamentalists?  Or might it instead be possible for a person to believe in both the literal truth of the creation story in Genesis and the theory of evolution?  Most fundamentalist believers in the Bible and most adherents of science would say “No.”  But I think the answer is “Yes,” and I would suggest that for a fundamentalist not to accept the theory of evolution could be considered blasphemy.  The logic behind this conclusion is simple.

Based on calculating the peoples’ lives and the events described in the Old Testament, an early eighteenth-century Anglican Bishop named Usher claimed that God created the universe in 4004 BCE.  His calculations essentially start with some historically known events, such as the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 725 BCE and the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BCE, and proceed back to the beginning in Genesis.  Christian fundamentalists tend to treat this starting date of 4004 BCE as gospel, and it was an issue in the Scopes Monkey Trial.

Modern scientists, however, date the creation of the universe to some 15 billion BCE and trace the development of life as an evolutionary process since that time.  The problem for those fundamentalists who want to pit Genesis against evolution is that all of the factual evidence that exists, and there is an enormous amount of it, points toward a starting point for the universe and for life on earth, including human life, that precedes the year 4004 BCE by a large margin.[11]

Now, here is the point: if one believes that God created the universe in 4004 BCE as Bishop Usher concluded from Biblical sources, God created it in 4004 BCE to look and work as though it was created billions of years ago.  He also made it to look as though humans evolved from other animals some hundreds of thousands of years ago.  Why would God do that if He didn’t want us to treat the universe and human life as though they were the result of an evolutionary process lasting many billions of years?

Even a fundamentalist who believes in a literal reading of the Bible must consider God’s creation to be no less a statement of His thinking than the Bible.  And to a religious believer, whenever and however God created the universe, she has no choice but to read it in evolutionary terms.  To do otherwise would be to accuse God of being a liar and a trickster, of saying one thing in the Bible but then saying something else in His creation that He does not want us to believe.  Fundamentalists must, therefore, I think, believe in them both.  It is, seemingly, God’s will.

To a religious believer, we are put here on earth to do God’s will and to exercise a stewardship over His creation.  In order to do God’s will on earth, we must understand how the world works, and the only way we can understand that is through treating it as a product of a multi-billion-year evolution.  Almost all the modern sciences and developments in other areas depend in some way on evolutionary ideas.  So, fulfilling God’s will requires an acceptance of the theory of evolution.

In sum, fundamentalists may believe that the universe was created in 4004 BCE as seemingly described in Genesis, but they must leave that belief aside when they enter into the work of the world and their social relations with other people.  In their work and social relations, they must accept the theory of evolution and the cognitive dissonance that goes along with that acceptance.

In turn, evolutionists must be willing to accept the possibility that Genesis is right and that the universe was created in 4004 BCE.  After all, as the factual Bryan and the fictional Brady repeatedly argued, an almighty God can do whatever He wants.  If there is such a God — and it cannot be proven beyond any doubt that there isn’t — then God could seemingly create a universe in 4004 BCE that looks as though it is fifteen billion years old, and that for all practical purposes – and this is the key – it has to be dealt with as though it is fifteen billion years old.

Approaching the theory of evolution in this way will not convince dogmatic fundamentalists.  The Reverend Browns of the world will not be swayed by reason or practical rationality.  But if evolutionists were willing and able to treat fundamentalists with respect, rather than ridicule them as the authors do in Inherit the Wind, it might make pragmatic sense to some of them.  And that could make a difference in the debate over teaching and accepting the theory of evolution.

Problems of Democracy: Freedom of Speech for Individuals and Groups.

Inherit the Wind is a play about what happens when a popular majority is mobilized to suppress unpopular ideas and unconventional people.  In the play, the theory of evolution is the unpopular idea and the biology teacher Cates is the unconventional individual, but the target of popular enmity could be any innovative idea or person.  When this happens, democracy becomes mobocracy, as we see in the play when the townspeople become a rabid mob and the once-upon-a-time Democratic leader Brady becomes a raving fanatic.

As it is portrayed in the play, democracy is essentially defined as the sum of individuals’ rights, especially the right to free speech that is guaranteed to individuals by the First Amendment to the Constitution.  In turn, in portraying the problems that can undermine a democracy, the play focuses on the suppression of the rights of individuals, especially individuals’ freedom of speech.  Drummond, the Clarence Darrow figure in the play, repeatedly complains that Cates’ freedom of speech is being denied by the law that prohibits him from teaching about evolution.  The authors of the play condemned the crusade against teaching evolution during the 1920’s and, by implication, the crusade against preaching socialism during the 1950’s because the crusades suppressed the speech rights of individuals.  While I agree with their concerns, I am concerned that the authors’ view of democracy and the First Amendment is too narrow and individualistic.

In emphasizing individual rights, the play fails to address the equally important rights of unconventional minority groups and their suppression by a conventional majority.  The biology teacher Cates not only represents the right of an individual to speak and the right of an unconventional idea to be heard but the right of a minority group, the scientific community, to speak and be heard.  Cates’ lawyer Drummond lets pass all-too-easily the rejection of the scientific community’s testimony by the judge conducting the trial and the rejection of the scientific community’s expertise by the legislature that passed the law.  This is an important omission when it comes to the play’s real target, which was McCarthyism.

The suppression of individuals’ rights during the McCarthy period was egregious but the real targets of the witch hunters were political and intellectual groups.  It is the same with the Trumpists today.  In focusing solely on individual rights, the play leaves us with a too narrow view of the scope of the First Amendment, and a too shallow view of the problems posed by McCarthyism during the 1950’s and, by extension, Trumpism today.  The First Amendment does not merely guarantee the rights of individuals.  It encompasses and connects freedom of speech with freedom of assembly, and guarantees both.  Freedom for unconventional and minority groups is a key to democracy, as the Founders of the country repeatedly emphasized.

The Founders had two overriding political concerns in constructing and construing the Constitution: the potential for a demagogue to become a dictator, and the potential for a majority group to ride roughshod over minority groups.  By minority groups, they meant not merely the racial, ethnic, religious and other social groups with which we are much concerned today, but also economic, geographical and political groups.  Conflicts between the rich and the poor, urbanites versus rural folks, Easterners versus Westerners and Northerners versus Southerners, and reformers versus traditionalists, were among their concerns.[12]

The Founders were concerned that a majority group that gained power might attempt to keep that power through tyrannical means, thereby denying minority political and social groups the opportunity to possibly win enough support to rule as a new majority.  The First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and assembly were efforts to thwart a tyranny of the majority.  The various checks and balances and divisions of powers that the Founders built into the Constitution, many of which are under attack and being overridden by President Trump today, were intended to deter potential dictators and protect the rights of minority groups.

Consistent with the Founders’ view of government, democracy can be described as a system of majority rule with minority rights, the most important of which is the right of the minority to someday possibly become the majority.  Groups are made up of individuals and, thus, the rights of individuals are fundamental to the rights of minority groups.  But it is the rights of minority groups that makes for democracy as opposed to mobocracy or a tyranny of the majority.  And this is a main concern of the First Amendment and the Constitution as a whole.

As it is portrayed in Inherit the Wind, democracy seems to consist merely of individual rights and these rights are endangered by majority rule.  “Majority” was a suspect term among intellectual circles during the 1950’s.  Concern for what was called a tyranny of the majority, in which individuals would be suppressed, was widespread.  The concern stemmed in large part from the fact that masses of people in Europe had supported Nazi and Fascist regimes during the 1930’s and 1940’s, seemingly mesmerized by the irrational appeals of Hitler, Mussolini, et al.

Concern with the potentially malign malleability of the majority was magnified by what were seen as the dangers of conformity in what was seemingly becoming a mass society, that is, a society in which individuals were being subjugated by the mass media and molded into whatever shape advertisers and demagogic politicians might want.[13]  In a mass society, progressive intellectuals such as the authors of Inherit the Wind worried, democracy can readily descend into a tyranny of the majority, as represented by the law against teaching evolution in the play, and into mobocracy, as represented by the rabid townspeople in the play.  To many people, seemingly including Lawrence and Lee, an assertion of individualism was the only way to save democracy.  I don’t agree.

The victims of McCarthyism were individuals but the real targets of McCarthy and his cohorts were political and social groups.  Most especially political liberals.  And that was for both sincere ideological reasons and cynical political purposes.  Liberal Democrats had largely controlled the federal government from 1932 to 1952.  Anti-Communism was a convenient way for Republicans to attack Democrats during the 1950’s.  Stoking paranoia was a political tactic.[14]

Communists were not even the main targets of the McCarthyite redbaiters. Their targets were usually those they condemned as so-called fellow travelers of Communism and Communist sympathizers who favored liberal policies that were also promoted by Communists. These liberal policies included support for labor unions, civil rights, civil liberties, national health insurance and other social welfare programs.  That Communists might like something was enough to taint it as subversive and un-American.  Liberals were condemned as facilitators of Communism.

McCarthyites claimed that Communists and especially their liberal allies were insidiously undermining American values, traditions and institutions, which McCarthyites equated with the dominance of white people and especially white men.  Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican Presidential candidate in 1964, famously claimed that liberals were a greater danger to America and Americanism than Communists because liberals were pushing the country onto the slippery slope of creeping socialism.  Like the frog who was blithely boiled to death through small increments of heat, we would supposedly end up in thralldom to Communism through increments of liberal reform.  It might feel nice as it goes along, but the end would be fatal.

Trump and his collaborators today are working out of the same playbook.  This is not surprising since Trump’s longtime mentor, from whom he admits he learned his politics, was Roy Cohn.  Roy Cohn was McCarthy’s right-hand man and the brains behind McCarthy’s tactics.  Trump, thus, learned from the master.  Trump’s attacks on Muslims, immigrants, blacks, gays and other minority social groups are a means for him and his allies to attack the Democrats who have liberalized American society in recent years and even elected a black man as President.

We are even starting to hear warnings from Trumpists about creeping socialism.  Liberal social and economic policies will end in our enslavement, they proclaim.  In the name of public safety, liberals will take away our guns and in the name of climate change, they will take away our pickup trucks.  Democrats are Communists in fluffy sheep’s clothing.  The goal of this Trumpist demagoguery, along with gerrymandering and voter suppression, is to secure an enduring conservative Republican majority in the government and to suppress any opposition.  This is exactly the sort of thing the Founders were intent on avoiding.  Deja vue all over again.

In focusing solely on the rights of the individual, the authors of Inherit the Wind missed the greater threat of fundamentalism to the minority group of scientists during the 1920’s and the threat of McCarthyism to the minority group of liberals during the 1950’s.  Similarly, the play does not speak to the threat of Trumpism against progressive groups today.

Trumpists, like their McCarthyist forefathers, are extremists, mostly elderly people, who won’t or can’t accept the cognitive dissonance of living in changing times, even as they take advantage of the changes.  They are epitomized by the anti-government right-wingers who vehemently insist that the government keep its hands off of their Medicare, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Medicare is itself a relatively recent liberal government program.  But that incognizance could be an opportunity and not merely an obstacle to meaningful communication between liberals and these conservatives.  They like their Medicare.  So, what else might they like?

The Nature of Political Discourse: Setting the terms of debate.

Inherit the Wind is a play about political debate.  In a debate, two or more parties present differing points of view on an issue and try either to defeat the others or come to some agreement with them.  A key factor in which side will likely gain the upper hand is the way in which the terms of the debate are defined.  That is, the way in which the issues are presented, the way in which the participants are characterized, and the range of positions from which auditors of the debate are allowed to choose a winner.  This can be more important than anything that is actually said in the debate, and can determine what readers and audiences will take away from the debate.

For example, if you are setting up a political debate in which you are a participant and you want to fix it so that your position will most likely gain the audience’s approval, just make sure that your position is in the middle of the range of plausible options, and that there is someone more conservative than you on your right and someone more liberal than you on your left.  It often does not matter what your position is so long as you have people more extreme on both sides of you.  Most people naturally go for the middle and seemingly more moderate position in a controversy, and will most likely see your position as the most reasonable.

Another important factor in setting up a debate is whether the issues are presented in solely “either/or” terms or whether there are other options.  That is, do the terms of the debate present the plausible options in exclusively “Yes or No” terms or also provide for “Yes, but” or “Yes, and” options.  “No” is a dispositive response.  It effectively forecloses any negotiated solution.  A “Yes or No” debate is a fight to the finish with no chance of consensus.  In the end, one side will win and the other side will be disgruntled.  A “Yes or No” debate also usually favors the conservative alternative.  Most people will naturally choose the least disruptive solution to a problem and in an either/or debate that will usually be the more conservative choice.

“Yes” is a more nuanced and flexible response, and has more progressive possibilities.  It can open the door to possible agreement with the other side or at least to tolerance of his position for purposes of going forward on other issues.[15] “Yes, but,” for example, allows debaters to reach partial agreement or mutual tolerance, albeit with ongoing areas of disagreement.  “Yes, and” allows for partial agreement or acceptance with the possibility of additional areas of agreement or acceptance.  In both cases, tolerance of the other party’s position on an issue does not require agreement on the issue.  It just means the parties are going to ignore their disagreement on that issue in order to go forward on others.  “Yes, but” and “Yes, and” have agnostic connotations.

Some debates naturally fall into “Yes or No” either/or terms.  They must be fought to the end.  With most debatable issues, however, you have a wider choice.  And a debate that allows for “Yes, but” or “Yes, and” conclusions leaves open the possibility of agreement among at least some of the debaters on enough things to be able to go forward together, even if it requires some of them to accept, overlook or set aside things in which they don’t believe for the sake of going forward on others.  It may require them to live with some cognitive dissonance because they must simultaneously accept or at least tolerate opposed ideas.  But it gives peace a chance.

It is my conclusion that despite the best of progressive intentions on the part of its authors, Inherit the Wind does not depict a viable method for dealing with fear mongering demagogues and intolerant majorities.  To the contrary, I think that unless the play is approached with a critical eye, it could leave readers and audiences, particularly middle and high school students, with a counterproductive model of political debate.  In portraying the terms of political debate in either/or terms (science versus religion in the Monkey Trial) and rejecting any possibility of a “Yes, but” or “Yes, and” option (science plus religion, as was an option in the actual Scopes trial), the authors are playing into the hands of demagogues who thrive on irreconcilable conflict.  Likewise, in ridiculing as hopeless ignoramuses all those who fall prey to demagogues (the townspeople in the play), the authors eliminate any possibility of swaying some of those in the intolerant majority into switching to a more tolerant and reasonable position.

The fact of the matter is that the oppressive fundamentalism and arch-conservatism that dominated politics and culture during the 1920’s in America came to an end during the 1930’s as a consequence of the actions of political parties, labor unions, teachers organizations, and other minority groups that came together to make a majority and the New Deal.  It was the actions of groups, not just individuals, and it was a New Deal that reached out to fundamentalists and traditionalists through Social Security, support for small farmers, and other social programs.

Likewise, the oppressive anti-Communism and anti-liberalism of the 1950’s was brought to an end during the 1960’s by civil rights organizations, labor unions, anti-war demonstrators, progressive professors and students, and other minority groups to make a majority and the Great Society programs.  The great reform movements of that time were made up of groups as well as individuals, and it was a Great Society that reached out to traditionally conservative people through Medicaid and Medicare medical programs for the poor and the elderly.

The lessons of the 1930’s and 1960’s are that the way to counter reactionaries, demagogues and fear mongers is through organizing progressive groups and promoting inclusive social programs.  Reach out to unthinking opponents and encourage them to think, rather than ridicule them as the authors do in Inherit the Wind.  Ridicule the demagogue.  Try to reason with his followers.

In the present day, Trump’s proposed elimination of Obamacare would hurt proportionately more so-called Red State residents than Blue State residents.  His denial of climate change and tax cuts for the wealthy are hurting Red State residents more than Blue States.  There may, therefore, be opportunities for “Yes, but” and even “Yes, and” cooperation between progressives and some traditional conservatives, maybe enough to end the scourge of Trumpism.

In sum, I think Inherit the Wind is a great play and a potentially great teaching resource.  But I think it is important to approach the play both sympathetically and critically, balancing its dramatic strengths with its messaging weaknesses.


[1] Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee.  Inherit the Wind.  New York: Ballentine Books, 2003.

[2] “Inherit the Wind.” Accessed 3/8/19.  Cliff “Inherit the Wind: Themes.” Accessed 3/8/19. “Inherit the Wind.” Accessed 3/8/19. “Inherit the Wind (Play)” Accessed 3/8/19.

[3] Wikipedia.  “The Scopes Trial.”  Accessed 3/8/19.

[4] Frederick Lewis Allen. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties. New York: Bantam Books, 1931/1946. Pp.227-233.

[5] Richard Hofstader.  Social Darwinism in American Thought.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1965.

[6] Michael Kazin. A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. New York: Anchor Books, 2007. Pp.123-125.

[7] Ray Ginger. Six Days or Forever. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

[8] Wikipedia.  “The Scopes Trial.” Accessed 3/8/19.

[9] Norman Cohn. The Pursuit of the Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957.

[10] Michael Young. The Rise of the Meritocracy. London: Taylor & Francis, 1958.

[11] See for example Richard Dawkins. The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

[12] Alexander Hamilton, James Madison & John Jay.  The Federalist Papers. New York: New American Library, 1961.  See especially James Madison’s famous essay Federalist #10.

[13] See for example David Reisman et al. The Lonely Crowd. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950.

[14] See for example David Caute. The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978.

[15] See for example Jonathan Haidt.  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.  Pp.58-59.


Hope for humanity in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Just how dead are they? A fateful misstep need not be a fatal mistake.

Hope for humanity in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Just how dead are they?  A fateful misstep need not be a fatal mistake.

 Burton Weltman

 “We cannot choose our circumstances,

but we can always choose how we respond to them.”



1.Prologue: Existentialist Nightmares.

“We are our choices.”   Jean Paul Sartre.

We have all had this nightmare.  You are trapped in a scary place that you can’t get out of, or you are being chased by someone or something that you can’t get away from.  You almost get free, but then not.  You are baffled and can’t figure out what to do.  But, just before you are done in by whatever is threatening you, you wake up, shaking, but free of the danger.

That is essentially the experience of two minor characters from Hamlet as they are portrayed in Tom Stoppard’s comic play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  Caught in what appears to them, and to us in the audience, as a nightmare, they stumble about, futilely trying to figure out what is going on, and how to get out of whatever it is.  The dreamlike quality of their existence is exemplified by their frequent inability to remember things, including the events of their own lives before they were caught up in Hamlet’s story.  They also repeatedly find themselves in scenes of Hamlet and not remembering how they got there.  It is like a nightmare.  Only they don’t wake up.  And they are done in at the end.[1]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a play set inside another play, Hamlet, and it runs in tandem with the other play.  Whatever happens in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is bounded and limited by what happened in Hamlet.  That is, nothing can occur in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that would conflict with or contradict the script of Hamlet.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must work out their own fates within the confines of Hamlet’s tragedy.

Stoppard is generally considered to be an existentialist playwright.  Existentialism is generally considered to be a philosophy of choices.  In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard has created a situation of severely constricted choices.  He has, thereby, pushed the existential situation to its extremes.  Since Hamlet ends with an announcement of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we the audience watch the humorous antics of the two bumbling characters in Stoppard’s play with muted horror because we already know the ending of Hamlet.  But we still hope against hope that they will wake up to their situation and escape what seems to be their fatal fate.  They don’t wake up from their nightmare and they don’t escape, but could they have?  I think this is the crucial question of the play.

Were there options that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have taken within the confines of Hamlet that would have allowed them to survive, despite the announcement of their deaths at the end of that play?  Were there choices that Stoppard could have had them make that would have enabled them to survive, despite being constrained by the terms of Hamlet.  I say “Yes,” there were.  They could have survived, and that is the main point of Stoppard’s play.

2.The Plot: Such as it is.

“Man is conditioned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two young Danes, apparently Prince Hamlet’s childhood friends and classmates at Wittenberg University in Germany.  They have been summoned by the newly installed Danish King Claudius to the King’s castle to spy on Hamlet.  Hamlet has recently returned from Germany to attend the funeral of his father, the late King Hamlet.  Prince Hamlet is behaving in suspicious ways, which is of concern to the new King since he had secretly murdered Hamlet’s father in order to gain the throne, and he would not want the Prince digging up the dirt on him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, seeming to have no real option but to obey the command of their King, agree to watch Hamlet and report on him.

The two characters spend the rest of their own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, wandering around inside Hamlet’s play.  They show up at key dramatic moments of Hamlet, openly appearing in the action of Hamlet where they have been written into the script of that play, secretly behind the scenes of Hamlet where they are not in the Hamlet script.  They observe the action in Hamlet, but play no active role in the course of either Hamlet or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They are passive actors in both plays.  But, although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were by the terms of their play unable to alter the course of Hamlet’s play, that does not mean they were without options and choices.

3. A story inside a story: An existentialist dilemma.

“I rebel; therefore, I exist.” The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus.

Every story, whether factual or fictional, begins with some sort of “Once upon a time” scenario.  “Once upon a time” creates the existential situation within which the characters in the story will make their way.  It provides the background and the setup of the story, that is, the status quo from which the story proceeds.  The story’s plotline will then disrupt the status quo – that is the gist of the story – and the story will generally end with some new ordering of things.

The opening is critically important to a story because the opening usually portends the story’s ending.  The setup of a story generally indicates who and what is important, and inclines events in a certain direction.  The options allowed to the characters, and the existential choices they can make, are defined and constrained by the opening setup.  It is like setting up a debate.  Whoever gets to set the terms of the debate is most likely to win, and if you join the debate on someone else’s terms, you are most likely to lose.

It is often the case in a fictional story that if you are not there at the beginning, you are likely to meet a bad end.  That is one of the problems facing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their play.  They are there at the beginning of their own play, but they are almost an afterthought in Hamlet’s story and, as such, they were expendable to Hamlet.  But that does not mean they weren’t important to themselves, or that they were expendable to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Tom Stoppard did something quite unusual in this play, for which there isn’t even a name.  He told a story about two minor characters in Hamlet, and did so within the confines of that play.  It is a story inside a story, which is different than a play within a play, such as the one Shakespeare included in Hamlet.  The play within Hamlet was part of the plot.  It was a device used by young Hamlet to further his goal of unmasking Claudius as a murderer.  But Stoppard’s play is not part of the plot of Hamlet.  It occurs in, but is not of, Hamlet.  

It is not uncommon for an author to piggyback his work onto an existing popular story, either a story by another author or by him/herself.  This can be done in a variety of ways.  There are prequels that tell the backstory of the original work; interquels that fill in happenings taking place between events in the original story; sidequels that tell of things taking place at the same time as the original story; and sequels that tell of what happened after the end of the story.

In the case of Hamlet, a prequel might have described young Hamlet’s childhood. An interquel might have described what Laertes did while he was away from Denmark during the middle of the play.  A sidequel might have described what Fortinbras was doing before he appeared at the end of the playAnd a sequel might have described what happened in Denmark after all the main characters in the play were dead and Fortinbras had taken over.  In composing each of these types of “quels,” an author must be consistent with the original story, but he/she is essentially operating outside of that story and has a good deal of latitude in composing his/her own plot.

But Stoppard did something else.  He placed his story directly inside the story of Hamlet and, thereby, narrowly limited the scope of his invention and his characters’ options.  His two main characters must repeatedly come up to the mark of their roles in Hamlet.  Whatever they do or wherever they go, they must be back to make their scheduled appearances in Hamlet, and nothing they do can conflict with their roles in that play.

But that does not mean that Stoppard had no latitude within which to play, or that his characters could not act on their own behalf in their own play.  There was wiggle room in Hamlet within which he could create and they could react.  So, how could Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have escaped their seemingly fated deaths, and why didn’t they?

4. Free Will, Determinism, and Compatibilism: Finding Existential Wiggle Room.

“Freedom is what we do with what has been done to us.”   Jean Paul Sartre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a philosophic play that raises many questions, including questions about whether people are capable of willing freely what they choose, or are bound by deterministic chains of cause and effect.  Most critics claim that the play is intended to illustrate the randomness of the universe as it appears to us and the determinism of the universe as it is in reality.  The play, they say, emphasizes the contradiction between the way in which we experience the world as freedom and the way in which the world really is.

Stoppard, these critics argue, portrays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “moving towards an inescapable fate,” despite what they experience as “the randomness of life.”  The two characters are chronically befuddled, and have no real options or choices.[2]  The play shows people “at the mercy of external forces,” and “unable to make any significant choices.”[3]  It is “a play about the tricks of fate” which render Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “incapable of helping themselves,” and make them symbols of  a helpless and hopeless humanity.[4]  In this view, Stoppard portrays the world as “absurd” and “uncertain,” and the “hapless” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exemplify humanity’s inability to make significant choices and take meaningful action.[5]  In sum, the moral of the story is the futility of free will and the fatality of determinism.

In support of this reading, critics point to views in the play expressed by the Player and seconded by Guildenstern.  Stoppard identifies the Player as the chief of the actors hired by Hamlet to enact the play within his play.  These actors play a small role in Hamlet but a big role in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Much of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern consists of discussions between Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the Player about life and living.  Consistent with his vocation as an actor, the Player holds that all of life is scripted for us, and that our role in life is to follow the script.  “We have no control,” he declaims. “Wheels have been set in motion,” and “Events must play themselves out,” he insists.[6]

The Player’s is essentially a deterministic view of life.  It is a view, however, that relegates most of us to playing subordinate roles in scripts written by and for others, putting ourselves in the service of others, and without any say-so.  The actors in the Player’s troupe are, in fact, willing to perform any script and any action for anyone.  They don’t even need to be paid money.  They merely need an audience.  Significantly, they apparently moonlight as male prostitutes.  Guildenstern buys into the Player’s rationale, and it is on this basis he and Rosencrantz act.

Many critics claim that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent anti-existentialist characters because they repeatedly refuse to choose, and just meander along within Hamlet’s play.  The play, in this view, is a refutation of existentialism.  But that is not accurate.  Existentialism claims that we cannot refuse to choose.  We are choosing all the time, even when we refuse to choose.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and especially Guildenstern, may not want to choose, but they are choosing anyway.

While the setup of the play mitigates against the idea of free will – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must perform their roles in Hamlet and are not free to choose otherwise – there is a third way of looking at the human condition that encompasses both free will and determinism.  And it is a way that is consistent with the existentialist point of view with which Stoppard is usually associated.  It is called compatibilism, and I think it is what the play is mainly about.  Compatibilism proposes that “My action is free, because the event which immediately precedes it is an act of will; it is necessitated because it comes at the end of a series each of whose items is a necessary consequence of its predecessor.”[7]

That is, in retrospect, we can look at a result and see how a chain of causes and effects led to the result.  But, we can also see the choices that were made in creating that chain of events, and we can see that if different choices had been made, the chain would have been changed and the result would have been different.  In turn, we can prospectively see the options we have and choices we must make, which will be the beginning of another chain of events.  We have free will, but it operates within the constraints of our context which consists of chains of events that we cannot change.  For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, their context is the play Hamlet, but they are free to move about within the constraints of that play.

Compatibilism essentially encompasses what existentialists describe as the facticity and anxiety of the human situation.  The facticity is that we find ourselves in a universe that we didn’t make or choose, that we don’t control, and that is essentially indifferent to our existence.  The anxiety stems from the fact that we must choose what to do, and how to make our way.  Refusing to choose, which we are free to do, is still choosing.  And we can’t make choices or make our way on our own.  We must do what we can with what we have, and do it with others.  Others are part of our context.  The stories of our lives are inevitably intertwined with others, and we can do nothing without the cooperation of others.

“I’ll let you be in my dream if you’ll let me be in yours,” intones Bob Dylan in a song about surviving the nightmare of nuclear war.  No one’s survival is secure without the survival of the others.[8]  Hamlet tried to compose and enact his story on his own, not trusting to include even his best friend Horatio in his plans, and Hamlet failed badly.  His story became a bloody nightmare that none of the principles escaped.  If only he had confided to Horatio about his interactions with the Ghost, the play may have ended very differently, and he might have survived.  So might have Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes, who were innocent bystanders to Hamlet’s story, as were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a similar choice to spin out their tale on their own, without confiding in Hamlet or anyone else, and they, too, did not survive.  But they could have.

5. In for a penny, in for a pounding: Rationale vs. Rationalization.

“Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.” Samuel Beckett.

Literature is full of twosome heroes and heroines.  The pairs can take different forms and serve different functions within the stories in which they appear.  Sometimes, as with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the dominant character is the smarter of the two and comes up with the answers to their problems.  Other times, as with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, it is the subordinate character who is smarter and has the answers.  Quixote is a scholar while Panza is illiterate, but Quixote is also a fool and Panza is clever.  In the play Waiting for Godot, to which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is often compared, the dominant character, Vladimir, is the more intellectual of the two.  He frequently philosophizes and rationalizes about the predicament in which he and his sidekick, Estragon, find themselves.  And his conclusions generally help.  So, the two of them are able to work through their crises, and make their situation bearable.[9]

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the dominant character, Guildenstern, is the more intellectual of the two, but his rationalizations of their situation only lead the two of them into deeper trouble.  Rosencrantz is intellectually feeble, but intuitively a genius.  In the 1990 movie version of the play, which was directed by Stoppard, Rosencrantz repeatedly stumbles into inventing all sorts of modern devices.  He also repeatedly tells Guildenstern that something is dreadfully wrong with the situation they are in and that they should get out of there fast.  Guildenstern, however, dismisses Rosencrantz’s inventions in the movie as silly and, in both the movie and in the script for the play, he dismisses Rosencrantz’s rationales for leaving as foolish.  Guildenstern, instead, constructs rationalizations for their staying the course.  So, they stay.

Guildenstern’s rationalizations essentially take the form of what in scientific circles during Shakespeare’s time were known as “saving the appearances.”  “Saving the appearances” was a phrase that from ancient times through the seventeenth century was applied to the attempts of astronomers to make sense of the geo-centered Ptolemaic model of the universe.  The Ptolemaic model put the Earth at the center of the universe and portrayed the other planets and the stars as revolving around the Earth.  Over the course of the centuries, however, astronomers discovered new planets and stars that did not fit within the original geo-centered model.  So, they adduced increasingly weird orbits for these planets and stars – epicycles and other wrinkles – in order to save the appearances of the model.  It was a brilliant construction that occupied some of the best minds for two millenniums, but it became very complicated and convoluted.

The Ptolemaic system was finally rejected by Copernicus and his followers during the sixteenth century in favor of a simpler helio-centric model that encompassed all of the observations of the planets and stars without all of the complications of the geo-centered model.  Conservatives, including the Catholic Church, resisted the new model on the grounds that it demoted the place of humanity within God’s creation and conflicted with passages in the Bible.  For the Catholic Church of that time, science was supposed to serve dogma, and facts were supposed to be massaged to uphold what was considered Gospel.  Willingness to go along with saving the appearances in astronomy and other scientific fields became a life and death issue for scientists in some Catholic countries, as Galileo, among others, found out.[10]

The Copernican system was, however, readily accepted in Protestant countries such as Shakespeare’s England, where the practice of saving the appearances of preconceived notions through rationalizing away inconsistent evidence was rejected by empiricists such as Frances Bacon.  For many Protestants, science was a means of discovering God’s word as it was embodied in the physical universe.  So, facts mattered, even in the study of alchemy, magic and ghosts, which were important subjects of study for scientists such as Bacon and, later, Newton.  And theories must conform to the facts.

The conflict between facts and preconceived notions, and the problems that arise when people try to save the appearances of preconceived notions, is a theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays.  This includes Hamlet, as when Hamlet adjures Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Facts count, Shakespeare repeatedly emphasizes, even if they don’t fit our cherished theories.  The problem with trying to save the appearances is also a main theme in Stoppard’s plays, as exemplified in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by Guildenstern’s rationalizations of his and Rosencrantz’s situation.

Guildenstern seems unable to think outside the box, to use the current terminology for the problem of trying to save appearances.  He has been caught up within the Hamlet story and cannot think his way out.  He is brilliant and knowledgeable, but terminally narrow-minded.  “We are presented with alternatives,” he intones, “But not choice.”  “We’ve been caught up” in Hamlet’s story, he explains, and “there is a logic at work.”  So, he concludes, he and Rosencrantz should just relax and “be taken in hand and led, like being a child again.”[11]

Rosencrantz is slow-witted and ignorant, and doesn’t even seem to know there is a box.  But that enables him to be inventive (look at all the things he unwittingly contrives) and intuitive.  He can think outside the story, and can think pragmatically rather than dogmatically.  He knows trouble when he senses it.  Rosencrantz is a wise fool, a type that is a favorite of Stoppard.[12]

6. What is to be done?

 “There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

Given that they are caught in Hamlet and can’t contravene that script, there are still things Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have done in their own play that might have saved them from the death announced in Hamlet.  Built into Stoppard’s play are opportunities for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make choices that could have changed things for them.  They were not fated to act as they did, even if they failed to take advantage of the opportunities that Stoppard provides for them.   They could, for example, have confided in Hamlet at various points of their play.  Shakespeare provides a perfect opening for such a confidence in Hamlet when Hamlet first encounters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

After welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as old friends, Hamlet asks “Were you not sent for?…Come, come deal justly with me.”  Hamlet wants to know whether the King has set them to spy on him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern equivocate.  Hamlet repeatedly presses them, conjuring them “by the rights of our fellowship, by the constancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love.”  Prompted by Rosencrantz, Guildenstern finally admits “My lord, we were sent for.”  The three of them then engage in desultory conversation, ending in the coming of the actors whom Hamlet will hire for his play.

This was a perfect opportunity within the context of Hamlet for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to consult with Hamlet in the context of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Having admitted that the King had sent for them to spy on Hamlet, they could reasonably have followed up that admission with a discussion with their old friend about what was going on.  This is particularly the case since in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two of them quickly come to their own conclusion that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father.  Once they have reached that conclusion, it is unreasonable of them not to open up with Hamlet.  But they choose not to.

There were many opportunities within both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for them to consult with Hamlet.  But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hem and haw throughout the play, saying to themselves that they want to talk with Hamlet, but unable to get themselves to do it.  They even practice various ways in which to begin conversations with Hamlet, but never carry them out.  In any case, Guildenstern’s rationalizations in defense of doing nothing keep them from saying or doing anything that might change their situation.  That was their choice.

Their rationalizing and equivocating come to a head when the two of them discover in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the letter from Claudius that they are carrying to England requests that the King of England kill Hamlet.  At that point, Rosencrantz has had enough.  He wants to confide in Hamlet.  “We’re his friends,” Rosencrantz insists.  How can they be accomplices to the murder of Hamlet?

But Rosencrantz’s humanity is overridden by Guildenstern’s callousness and cowardice, as he once again rationalizes in favor of doing nothing.  Death isn’t so bad, he claims, and Hamlet’s death would be just one man dying so, “from the social point of view…the loss would be well within reason and convenience.”  Besides, Guildenstern concludes, “there are wheels within wheels,” and who are they to try to change things.  It is bad faith rationalization at its worst, and it is that which leads to their own deaths.[13]

If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had confided in Hamlet at any point in the play, the three of them could have worked out a joint plan for saving all of their lives.  Since Hamlet was explicitly doomed by the script of Hamlet – he dies onstage in full view of the audience – such a plan would not have saved him.  But it could have worked for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Their deaths are only announced in Hamlet, not actually seen by the audience.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could, for example, have colluded with Hamlet to change Claudius’ letter as Hamlet does in Hamlet. They could then have faked the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so as to avoid any blame and punishment that Claudius might hit them with because his scheme for Hamlet’s death had failed.  Hamlet’s later comment to Horatio in Hamlet that he cared not that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might be dead could then be part of this joint plot.  Stoppard could have written something like this into his play – the key is faking the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – without contradicting Hamlet.  He didn’t.  Why not?

7. Comedy, Tragedy, and a Good Conscience.

“Life begins on the other side of despair.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

“The play’s the thing wherein to capture the conscience of the king,” Hamlet proclaims.  So, too, the play may be the thing to capture the consciences of the audience for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or maybe touch their vanity.  Hamlet is a tragedy.  A tragedy has been described as a story of too much of a good thing becoming bad.  Tragedy generally involves a character who pursues a too narrowly prescribed good too far until it turns on itself, becomes bad and precipitates a disaster.  The character’s “tragic flaw” is a lack of perspective, the failure to see things in a broader context, for example failing to recognize that one person’s good may be someone else’s bad, and an individual’s good ultimately depends on the good of all.[14]

Tragedy is a story of hubris versus humility, the failure of the tragic character to recognize his/her personal limits, and to reconcile contradictions within him/herself, within his/her society and/or between him/herself and society.[15]  In the case of Hamlet, it is arguably his hubris combined with his gullibility toward the ghost who, I think, is an agent of the Devil, that leads almost inevitably to disaster.[16]  In any case, a tragedy may contain humor, but it is not expected to be funny.

In contrast with Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a comedy.  It is expected to be funny.  A comedy has been described as a humorous conflict between folly and wisdom, foolish people and wise people, with a happy ending that results from the wise peacefully overcoming the fools and their foolishness.  In comedy, the problem is created by someone acting out of stupidity or ignorance, “the intervention of fools.”  The solution is for the fools either to be corrected or constrained.[17]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are both fools.  Much of their story is also very funny.  But the play ends with their being hanged.  That’s not funny.  And while they don’t know what’s in store for them as they wander through their play, we do.  How can an audience in good conscience laugh at the high jinks and foolishness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knowing that the play will end after the somber line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead?”

I don’t think an audience can in good conscience laugh at the thought of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  I think that either members of the audience must be people of bad conscience, smug in their superior knowledge to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and callous at the death of two fools – losers in the parlance of Donald Trump – or audience members must believe that somehow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t really dead.  And maybe they aren’t.

8. Epilogue: Life after reported death?

Estragon: “I can’t go on.” 

Vladimir: “That’s what you think.” 

Waiting for Godot.  Samuel Beckett.

When his demise was wrongly reported in the newspapers of his day, Mark Twain quipped “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  Might the same be true of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?  In his last speech before seemingly being executed, Guildenstern muses that “Well, we’ll know better next time.”  Next time?  What’s with this “next time?”

In the movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the actors that Hamlet has hired show Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how to fake being hanged.  At the end of the movie, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are shown being hanged.  But are they?  Maybe it’s a fake hanging.  In the play, they merely disappear at the end, and it is not clear how they died.  Or maybe they didn’t.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make farewell speeches, but maybe they are just fooling everyone, including us in the audience.  Are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually dead?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is full of trickery and slight-of-hand, starting with the opening scene in which a flipped coin repeatedly comes up heads, seeming to contradict the laws of probability.  Then there are the numerous inventions that Rosencrantz stumbles onto in the movie version of the play, which was directed by Stoppard.  In the movie version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also repeatedly saved by chance or random choice from discovery or death.  Faking their deaths at the end of the play could be Stoppard’s last bit of trickery, a trick played on the audience.

In any case, dead or alive, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is, I think, ultimately a hopeful play.  Despite operating within an extremely narrow range of options, being tied into and almost tied up by the script of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still had options to survive the demise announced for them in that play.  If they didn’t survive, it was a result of their own lack of imagination and their own choices.  In his farewell speech, Guildenstern muses that they should have just said “No” when they were summoned by the King.  And they should have.  A moral of their story is that you don’t want to get caught up in someone else’s story in which you are just a throwaway bystander.

So, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a fateful misstep into Hamlet’s story.  But that fateful misstep need not have become a fatal mistake.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern implies that in even the tightest and direst situations, there still may be leeway and hope.  And just when you may seem to be without options, there may still be choices you can make.

B.W. 12/17

[1] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp.16, 38.

[2] Evar Johnson. “Characters in search of a purpose: Meaning in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

[3] “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Existential Antiheroes.” The Stanford Freedom Project. Fall, 2015.

[4] Peter Travers. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” Rolling Stone. 2/18/91.

[5] Shmuel Ben-Gad. “A Semi-Existentialist Comedy: Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.’” American Culture. 5/20/15.

[6] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp..25, 63, 79.

[7] Anthony Kennedy. A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010. p.666.

[8] Bob Dylan. Talkin’ World War III Blues.

[9] For an analysis of the play as a love story, see my post on this blog “Waiting for Godot: Why do we keep waiting? Hope among the Hopeless.”                       

[10] Thomas B. Kuhn. The Copernican Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.

[11] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp.39- 40.

[12] For an analysis of Arcadia that discusses this theme, see my essay on this blog entitled “Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?”

[13] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. p.110.

[14] Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954. pp.35, 172.

[15] Kenneth Burke Attitudes toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. p.37.  Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. p.81-83.

[16] For a discussion of the ghost in Hamlet as an agent of the Devil, see my post at this blog website “Better Dead than Red: Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England.”

[17] Aristotle 1961, 59.  Burke 1961, 41.  Goodman 1954, 82-100.

Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?

Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:

Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?

Burton Weltman

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice.  He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”    Karl Marx.  The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

Prologue: Dancing in and out of time.

Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia is the story of a family and some friends of the family that takes place in two different time periods, the early 1800’s and the early 1990’s.  The play is billed as a dramatization of the theories of entropy in physics and Chaos in math.  The characters and events of the later period appear to be pale reflections of those in the earlier period.  Their seeming insipidity could arguably be a result of entropy, that is, the eventual decline of the universe from vividness and order into blandness and disorder, as predicted by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  But, maybe not.  Arcadia is a funny play, full of witty byplay and intellectual conundrums.  It challenges our minds, hearts and funny-bones, and leaves us much to ponder.

At the end of the play, two couples, one from each time, are dancing.  The first couple consists of a sparkling intellectual in his early twenties and a brilliant girl of sixteen from the 1800’s.  They are waltzing gracefully in time to the music.  We know that the girl will tragically die in a fire later that evening, and that the man will then spend the rest of his life as a hermit.  The second couple consists of a run-of-the-mill scholar in her late thirties and a mute boy of fifteen from the 1990’s.  They are dancing awkwardly, and they are often out of time to the music.  The difference in the ages of the people in this second couple, along with their clumsiness, makes them look almost farcical.  We don’t know what will become of them in their futures.

So, is this a funny but depressing play about human history repeating itself in cycles that descend toward decrepitude?  Are we supposed to perceive the moral of the story as the inevitability of entropy in human affairs?  In this context, must we see the waltzing of the first couple as a symbolic evocation of Irving Berlin’s melancholic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” as one critic has suggested?  Is their dancing an omen of the end of things, and a warning that we must stoically resign ourselves to it?[1]

Or might we instead focus on the efforts of the second couple, and maybe see their stumbling about as the first tentative steps toward a new way of dancing, something less formal than a waltz, but perhaps more energetic. Something like “rock & roll,” not as graceful as a waltz, but reeking with negentropy, the opposite of entropy.  In sum, does this last scene foreshadow the inevitable decline of humanity, or might it be a sign and source of hope for the future?  The conventional view of the play takes the former view.  I take the latter, and I think it matters.

Fractals, Feedback Loops, Self-Similarity, and Strange Attractors: Chaos in Action.

Stoppard has said that Arcadia was inspired by James Gleick’s book Chaos: Making a New Science in which Gleick explains the origins and evolution of Chaos Theory in mathematics.  It is a relatively new theory because it requires an immense number of calculations to apply it, and it is only recently that computers have been developed that can effectively perform those calculations.  The play discusses Chaos Theory, but also exemplifies it in many ways.

Chaos Theory (capital “C”) is an attempt to find order in what seems to be disorder and, as such, is not the same as chaos (small “c”), which is actual disorder.  Chaos Theory is an antidote to the helplessness and hopelessness of what seems to be chaos in those cases where order actually prevails beneath apparent disorder.  It is also, thereby, arguably a counter to theories of entropy that take every appearance of disorder as an instance of the descent of the universe into universal randomness, blandness, and disarray.  The moral of Chaos Theory seems to be that all may not be as bad as it seems.

Gleick says that while “the Second Law [of Thermodynamics] is a rule from which there appears no appeal,” it is still the case that “Nature forms patterns.  Some are orderly in space but disorderly in time, others orderly in time but disorderly in space.”  It is the goal of Chaos Theory to identify patterns where they least seem to exist.[2]  In the course of the play Arcadia, the waltzing teenage girl from the early 1800’s, whose name is Thomasina, ostensibly discovers the basic ideas of both the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Chaos Theory.  Lacking computers, she is unable to fully develop her ideas.  It remains for later generations with adequate technology to rediscover these theories and be able to develop them.

The development of Chaos Theory was inspired in recent years in large part by the inability of meteorologists to reliably predict the weather more than two days in advance, despite having computers and algorithms that can accommodate a myriad of factors that make up the weather.  Beyond two days, the algorithms go wild and chaos ensues in the calculations.  This apparent chaos in the weather, and in other systems that are similarly unpredictable, seems to be a function of two main factors.[3]

First, systems that do not have strong foundations and/or built-in inertia are liable to undergo big changes in their behavior as a consequence of small changes in their surrounding conditions, and long-range predictions thereby become precarious.  Since most systems inevitably experience at least some small changes in their operating conditions, long range predictions about those systems will be thrown off unless they have strong foundations and/or inertia.  This is the problem with predicting the weather.  A host of volatile elements determines the weather, and small changes in any of those elements can throw off weather forecasting.  The oft cited example is that of a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil leading to a typhoon in Asia.

Chaos Theory seemingly has democratic implications.  It claims that the smallest actions can initiate the biggest results, such as the flapping of a butterfly resulting in a typhoon.  It is, thereby, bottom-up in its implications.  It stresses the importance of little guys and factors that are often considered too unimportant to be respected.  In this regard, Chaos Theory can be regarded as a cautionary tale, akin to the warning sounded by Cinderella in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, “You move just a finger, Say the slightest word, Something’s bound to linger, Be heard.”  But it can also be taken as a hopeful idea, as in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, in which the slightest squeak by the smallest Who is enough the save the universe of the Whos.  So, when Gus and Hannah dance at the end of the play, maybe the song is “This Could Be the Start of Something Big?”

A second factor involved in creating chaos is the feedback that a system encounters.  If the feedback that results from a system’s operations is stronger than the system’s foundations and/or inertia, then the system’s patterns and predictions will be thrown off.  This is the case with weather.  A strong wind can literally blow a weather system in a different direction.[4]  At the same time, implicit in this theory is the hope that if you build a strong enough foundation, your system or structure may withstand the whirlwinds of change.  And that foundation may be democratically made up of many small individuals or things, as represented in the political slogan “The people united cannot be defeated.”

It is not the case, however, that chaos is always disorderly.  Chaos theorists claim that one can often find orderly patterns underneath the superficial disorder of many systems, albeit they are likely to be patterns that are unstable and cannot be predicted in advance.  Chaos Theory holds that systems may behave in logical and deterministic ways, even though their patterns can only be discerned in retrospect.   And the patterns may change in an instant.  Gleick notes that Chaos (capital “C”) is “a delicate balance between forces of stability and forces of instability.”[5]

Two of the main types of Chaos patterns are fractals and attractors, which can exist separately or can combine to make what is called a strange attractor.  It is not possible to predict the behavior of either fractals or attractors in advance, but they can be seen in retrospect as orderly and deterministic.  A fractal is a shape that reproduces itself through self-similarity.  A fractal can be successively subdivided, with each iteration essentially the same as the previous one, albeit slightly different and smaller than the last.

Fractals can be fitted together like pieces of a puzzle so that an infinite number of ever smaller replications can be fitted within a delimited space.  Fractals are, thereby, the most efficient way to maximize the coverage of the surface of a space with shapes.  Fractals are also the most efficient way to create a complex orderly pattern because all that needs to be done is to replicate the initial shape in decreasing sizes that fit in with the rest.  Blood vessels in a human body are spaced in a fractal pattern, thereby most efficiently distributing blood throughout the body.  Veins in a leaf are also spaced in a fractal pattern, as are many other natural systems.

A formula for producing fractals is to take the solution of an “X & Y” equation, plug the “Y” back into the equation as the new “X” and repeat the equation, then do this again and again ad infinitum.  When you plot the results of the equation on a graph, you get new shapes that are similar but not the same as the previous ones, thereby adding a new layer of complexity to the system.  This is the formula that Thomasina ostensibly discovered during the early 1800’s.  In the case of fractals, smaller does not mean lesser.  The new shapes are as complex as the previous ones.  And there are an increasing number of the new shapes as they decrease in size.  Fractals can seemingly, therefore, function as agents of negentropy, as they energetically reproduce themselves in an ongoing and orderly complexity toward infinity.

An attractor is the locus of another form of Chaotic pattern.  It is a point around which successive iterations of a loop swirl.  It represents a form of topology, which is the twisting and stretching of a loop into an everchanging series of shapes.  The loops that swirl around an attractor can take on weird shapes that seem unrelated except that they focus on the attractor point.  The loops may or may not decrease in diameter as they replicate, and may or may not descend toward the point.  Weather patterns apparently swirl around attractors.  Finally, there are strange attractors that combine a swirling motion with a fractal structure.[6]

So, what does all this have to do with Arcadia?  The question is whether the plot of the play might be interpreted as exemplifying entropy theory, Chaos Theory, or both.   And if the plot exemplifies Chaos Theory, is it in the form of an attractor, a fractal, or both as a strange attractor?  I think the answer to both questions is “both” and, again, it matters.

The Plot: Back to the Future, Back to the Past, Again and Again.

Arcadia is set in a mansion on the English country estate of Sidley Park.  All of the action takes place in one room, and cycles back and forth in that room between the early 1800’s and the early 1990’s.  There are four main human characters in each period.  The estate of Sidley Park also functions as a major character in the play, in that it is, I think, the strange attractor around which the play revolves.  It is a place of civility that fosters intellectual curiosity and honest, if sometimes heated, debate.  It is also a locus of romance and amorous adventures.  The two different time periods are like loops that whirl around an attractor, and the human characters and events are like fractals, that is, iterations which are similar but still significantly different.

The main character from the early 1800’s, and for the entire play, is Thomasina, a precocious teenager who critiques the conventional Newtonian physics of her time by asking why when she stirs jam into her pudding, she cannot then unstir it.  Likewise, when a pudding has cooled down, why won’t it ever spontaneously heat back up.  “Newton’s equations,” Thomasina contends, “go forwards and backwards, they do not care which way.  But the heat equation cares very much, it only goes one way.”  Based on her pudding question, and speculations on why steam engines run down, she ostensibly discovers what was later known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Similarly, based on her critique of conventional geometry, which focuses on simple shapes such as squares that go through predicable changes, Thomasina develops the formula described above for creating self-replicating fractals. Fractals are complex geometric shapes that go through unpredictable changes based on repeatedly taking the “Y” from an “X & Y” equation and plugging it back into the equation as the new “X.”  Thomasina takes a leaf and proposes to graph it using her new ideas.  The formula she ostensibly developed is a mainstay of Chaos Theory.

The second key character from that time is Septimus, who is Thomasina’s tutor.  He is a genial Enlightenment intellectual and a friend of the poet Byron, who is himself an unseen visitor at Sidley Park.  A third character is Chater, a second-rate poet with whose wife Septimus has been sleeping.  He provides a frequent target for Septimus’ wit.  The fourth main character is Noakes, a landscape architect who is transforming the Sidley Park terraces from a Classical formal garden into a Romantic wilderness, complete with an ersatz hermitage.  This change is taken by characters in both the earlier and later periods to symbolize the decline of reason and orderliness and the rise of emotional and intellectual disorder.

The main characters in the later period are similar to those in the earlier, almost fractal-like, but with different genders and roles.  The central character is Hannah, a second-rate historian who has written a biography of one of Byron’s mistresses.  She is doing research on a hermit who might have lived in the hermitage in the Sidley Park gardens during the early nineteenth century.  She is a mundane but solid thinker, and is intellectually similar to Septimus but less brilliant.

Hannah’s main foil is Bernard, a second-rate literary critic who is doing research on the poet Chater, and is trying to prove that Byron killed Chater at Sidley Park in a duel over Chater’s wife.  He is a bold thinker, like Thomasina, but a cad and usually wrong in his speculations.  He is an egotistical and cynical proponent of the idea that nothing ever really changes.

Valentine is a graduate student in zoology and a computer geek, who is trying to apply Chaos Theory to the reproductive cycles of grouse.  He comes to realize that Thomasina developed the basic ideas of entropy and Chaos Theory before her time, and before there were computers that could do the complex mathematics required to fully explicate and apply those theories.  Valentine explains the theories to Hannah and to the audience.  He is a proponent of the idea that things really do change, and that science makes a positive intellectual difference.

Gus is a mute teenage member of the Sidley Park family.  He gives Hannah an apple that she puts down on a table, and that is eaten by Septimus later in the play, albeit earlier in time, which is a paradox.  The apple incident seems to be an instance of time working backwards as well as forwards which, in turn, seems consistent with Newtonian physics and contrary to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  Gus does not talk, but his actions provide a link between the two periods, and they are perhaps vehicles of energy and a symbol of negentropy.

The main action in the earlier period centers around Thomasina’s scientific discoveries and Septimus’ amorous adventures.  Septimus is repeatedly confronted by Chater for having slept with Mrs. Chater, and for having written a scathing review of Chater’s poetry.  Septimus also later sleeps with Thomasina’s mother before finally falling in love with Thomasina.  There is a lot of witty dialogue among the characters in this earlier period, full of high cultural references.

The main action in the second period centers around Bernard’s researches and theories as to Byron and Chater, and Hannah’s researches on the alleged hermit.  Bernard makes some shrewd initial deductions about Byron being at Sidley Park in 1809, but then his thinking goes awry as conflicting evidence overwhelms him, and he repeatedly misconstrues the evidence.  His theories about Byron killing Chater prove to be nonsense.  It is much like what happens to weather forecasting when you try to extend your predictions too far.  Under persistent challenging from Hannah, he is finally forced begrudgingly to admit the failure of his theories.

Meanwhile, Hannah comes to the correct conclusion that Septimus was the hermit who was reported to have lived in the garden, and that a mass of papers covered with odd scribblings that had been discovered in the hermitage were his futile attempts to work out Thomasina’s theories by hand.  Hannah’s work is conducted in a less speculative way than Bernard’s, and she gets assistance from Valentine in explaining entropy and Chaos Theory.

Much of the dialogue in the later period consists of insulting repartee between Hannah and Bernard, civil but biting.  Hannah wins that battle.  There is also some unconsummated sexual tension between Hannah and Bernard, and a pervasive sextual tension among the other characters, with an occasional offstage consummation.  This keeps things lively in the house and in the play despite all the talking.

But the brilliance of the characters and conversation in the earlier period are in sharp contrast with the more desultory dialogue in the later period.  The earlier period is filled with poets and innovators.  They are creators.  The second period is dominated by historians and critics who merely study the work of past creators, and a guy who is studying the mating habits of grouse.

The play ends with the characters in the earlier period having a formal ball, and the characters in the later period having a costume ball in which they dress up as imitations of people in the earlier period.  Characters from both periods are on stage at the same time, but are seemingly unaware of each other.  The universe of the play seems to be winding down until, I contend, Gus asks Hannah to dance.

Conventional Interpretations: Facing the Music.

“Soon, we’ll be without the moon…So while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.”  Irving Berlin.  Let’s Face the Music and Dance.  [7]

Arcadia is widely considered to be “a masterpiece.”[8]   It has been hailed as “the finest play written in my lifetime” by Brad Leithauser[9] and “the greatest play of our age” by Johann Hari.[10]  Like Hari, most critics see the play as “a laugh-filled tragedy”[11] with a depressingly resigned conclusion about life, the universe, and everything.  Entropy is the reason for this.

Early in the play, when Thomasina explains her theory of entropy to Septimus, he complains “So we are all doomed!”, to which Thomasina replies “Yes.”  Similarly, later in the play, after Valentine has explained entropy to Hannah, she asks him “Do you see the world as saved after all?” and he replies “No, it’s still doomed.”  Thomasina’s and Valentine’s replies have been taken by most critics as reflecting the viewpoint of the play that entropy is unstoppable and irreversible.  The play, says Leithauser, is “a sort of dance to the music of time,” and the song is Irving Berlin’s melancholic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”[12]  “The elegance of the past is gone,” was similarly the summary of the play by another reviewer.[13]  “Ergo, the future is disorder,” concluded yet another.[14]  The play, in this view, is all about entropy, and about history repeating itself in cycles that spiral downward, with each iteration duller and deader than the last.

The moral of the story according to these critics is that since entropy is humanity’s fate, the play’s main message is a challenge to our courage.  The play forces us to face the question of “How should we live with the knowledge that extinction is certain – not just of ourselves, but of our species?”[15]  In this conventional view, the play’s answer is contained in Hannah’s stoical statement that “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter,” even if we are doomed.  For most critics, the play confronts us with the tragedy of knowing our fate and being unable to do anything about it.  I don’t agree.  I think these critics missed the point that the play is not only about entropy, but is also about Chaos.

An Alternative Interpretation: Dancing in the Streets.

  “Callin’ out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?”                        Marvin Gaye.  Dancing in the Streets.[16]

“Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”  This is the opening line of the play, spoken by thirteen-year-old Thomasina to her tutor Septimus.  She goes on to say that she had heard the butler saying that Mrs. Chater had been discovered in a carnal embrace in the gazebo, and she wants to know what that means.  Septimus is nonplussed.  He has set Thomasina the task of finding a solution to Fermat’s famous Last Equation, which was still unsolved in the early 1800’s.  It is clearly not a problem that he expects her to solve, and the task is merely intended to keep her busy while he is doing other things.  But Thomasina finds questions about sex more interesting.

Sex and sexual tension play a big role in this play.  There is a lot of sexual attraction and action.  It keeps the characters in motion, and keeps up the audience’s interest, in the midst of all the mathematical, historical and philosophical discussions that are the meat of the play.  In turn, while sex is a source of confusion and disorder in the play, and in human society generally, it is also a vehicle for bringing couples together and a means of fractal-like human reproduction.

Thomasina’s opening question, therefore, introduces the basic themes of entropy and negentropy, and order and disorder, that the play explores.  The subsequent dialogue between Thomasina and Septimus is itself like a Chaos pattern spiraling toward an attractor.  Septimus wants to avoid her question about carnal embrace, but Thomasina persists.  Their discussion circles around and around the definition of sex, and around what Septimus has been up to with Mrs. Chater.  It homes in eventually on the point to which it has been tending, a biological explanation by Septimus of sexual intercourse and an admission by him that he has had sexual intercourse with Mrs. Chater in the gazebo.

Sex is an attractor in this instance and throughout the play.  It is an unpredictable wildcard that can disrupt the most orderly patterns of life.  But it is also follows a pattern, especially in the case of Mrs. Chater, who will seemingly sleep with any male in sight.  There is an underlying order and a negentropic energy to life with her around.  But the same is the case with the others in the play, as the characters buzz around each other like bees in a Sidley Park flower bed.

Entropy in the universe seems to be accepted as a universal law in and by the play but, I would contend, entropy in society and human affairs is not.  While the characters in the later period of the play are less interesting than those in the earlier period, people of that later time have computers that can deal with the mathematics of Chaos and entropy that people in the earlier time couldn’t.  Valentine can do computations in a minute that Septimus apparently could not do in a lifetime.  And women like Hannah in the later period do not have to hide their lights under a bushel, as did Thomasina in the earlier period.  This addition of women to full equal status might make for greater social chaos in the 1990’s, but also for complexity in the play that is energizing.

I think that Septimus’ message to Thomasina about things that are seemingly lost in history trumps Hannah’s resignation to historical entropy. When Thomasina laments that so many of the great books in the ancient Library of Alexandria have been lost to us because of the destruction of the Library, Septimus says that nothing is lost in the long course of history.  “The missing plays by Sophocles will turn up piece by piece,” he says, “or be written again in another language,” as will everything else that makes life interesting.  Things come and go, and come again, just as good and maybe even better.  This is exactly what happens in the course of the play as Thomasina’s lost copy books that contained her ideas turn up, and it turns out that her lost ideas had been perfected by subsequent generations.

Chaos Theory is two sided as to the ability of humans to predict and plan.  On the one hand, it introduces uncertainty in planning by telling us that many things tend to fall apart at the slightest touch and then seemingly become chaotic.  On the other hand, it provides us with some measure of comfort by telling us that what seems like chaos may in fact be orderly, albeit unpredictable. That things can’t be exactly predicted does not mean they can’t be planned and prepared for.  And a way to avoid chaos in the first place is to construct systems that have foundations strong enough to withstand changes in conditions and blowback, whether they be social systems, computer programs, political organizations, healthcare plans, or whatever.  In the play, this seems to be the case with Sidley Park, despite periodic changes to the gardens.

I think the moral of the play may be that just when things looked bleak, in the midst of a costume party in which characters from the 1990’s were dressed up as pale imitations of characters from the early 1800’s, a mute boy gets up and dances with a pretty woman.  And maybe, you get yet another rebirth of an even better rock ‘n roll.  That, I think, is a better interpretation of the play.

So why does it matter?  It is not appropriate to read things into a play that are not there.  But when one can interpret the play as proposing either that the glass is half empty, which is the conventional view of Arcadia, or that it is half full, which is mine, I think it is important to at least recognize the plausibility of the latter interpretation.  It matters because we live in an age that seems to have abolished utopian ideals, big dreams of social justice, and theories of universal harmony that energized people during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  We no long hear much about fulfilling the political ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, or the ethical ideal of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, or the social ideal that the self-development of each should be the basis of the self-development of all.

As exemplified by the conventional interpretations of the play Arcadia, we seem to be overwhelmed with weltschmerz and demoralized by the idea of entropy.  But Arcadia seems to say that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The big ideals that we think we have left behind, that we think we are too mature to entertain any longer, are promoted and practiced in the play by the characters at Sidley Park and by the place itself as an institution.

Marshall McCluhan used to claim that the medium was the message, and I think that is the basic message in this play.  Underneath all of the swirling and the cyclical recurrences that characterize the people and events in Arcadia, the hopefulness of the place, Sidley Park, is the underlying message of the play.  And it is the sort of place that can perhaps be replicated on ever larger scales, so that the great ideals and the big negentropic dreams of the past might in the future be resurrected and implemented.

Postscript: Karl Marx and Historical Cycles.

Karl Marx is more commonly known for his economic theories of capitalism, and for having his name misappropriated in support of oppressive Communist regimes, than for the historical and political writings for which he was better known during his own day.  Marx was for many years a highly regarded foreign correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune newspaper, and was well known in the United States for his analyses of political events in Europe.[17]

Marx’s famous comment that history repeats itself, occurring first as tragedy and then as farce, was directed at the ascension of Napoleon III to the title of Emperor of France in 1851, a title previously held by his Uncle Napoleon I during the early 1800’s.[18]  The tragedy to which Marx was referring was the overthrow of the first French Republic in the early 1800’s by Napoleon I.  That republic had emerged out of the French Revolution against King Louis XVI in the early 1790’s, and had reflected the hopes of the revolutionaries for a society based on the political ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.  Napoleon I was a villain, but he was a great villain who did enormous things, until he was himself overthrown as a result of losing the Napoleonic Wars (he even had a twenty-year series of wars named after him), and he was replaced by a new King.

Napoleon III became emperor by overthrowing the second French Republic that had emerged after a second French Revolution, this time against King Louis Philippe.  The second republic had projected even greater social goals than the first, with economic justice as well as political democracy as one of its aims.  Napoleon III was a villain, but a pale and paltry replica of his uncle.  Marx, with his comment about history repeating itself, was mocking this cycle of kings, republics, and emperors, that had resulted in the poltroon Emperor Napoleon III.

In proposing that history repeats itself, occurring first as tragedy, then as farce, Marx did not suggest what the third, fourth and subsequent cycles of history would be like.  When he wrote about the ascension of Napoleon III in 1852, he could not have foreseen the way in which the cycles would continue in France.  What actually happened was that Napoleon III was overthrown in 1871 as the result of losing a war with Prussia.  He was followed by another French Republic, which was itself overthrown by the Nazis and the dictatorial Petain government during World War II.

The Nazi and Petain regimes were, themselves, then overthrown as a consequence of losing the war, and were replaced by yet another French Republic.  This republic extended its goals even further than the previous republics to encompass religious, ethnic and gender justice, but it has wavered between more and less democratic forms to the present day.

Marx’s comment about history repeating itself came at only the beginning of this cyclical series of absolutist and republican, authoritarian and democratic, progressive and reactionary regimes in France.  Similar cycles ran their courses in other parts of the world.  Do these cycles represent entropy, with the later regimes invariably paler and farcical reflections of the earlier.  Are these cycles evidence of an entropic decline of society into lameness and listlessness?

If one looks at the stature of the leading characters involved in these changes, one might answer this question with a “Yes.”  With respect to France, comparing Napoleon I with Napoleon III, or Charles de Gaulle with Emmanuel Macron, the differences seem obvious.  But if one looks at the lot of ordinary French citizens, comparing the lives of most people during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the lives of most French people today, I think one must conclude with a “No.”  As part of each cycle, republican governments have become socially and politically more progressive.  And this has been the case in most places around the world, despite problems of poverty, oppression and warfare that many people in many countries are still forced to endure.

Life is less oppressive today, and living standards are higher, for a higher percentage of the world’s population than in the past, and life is also more complex.[19]  While the physical universe may be falling prey to entropy, the social universe seems to be subject to negentropy.  The relatively simple order of a slow-moving agricultural society has been replaced in most parts of the world by the complex structures and the high-powered energy of urban, industrial and post-industrial societies.  The setting of Arcadia in Sidley Park exemplifies this change.  In the early 1800’s, places like Sidley Park were at the economic, social and political center of English society.  In the 1990’s, Sidley Park is merely a resort for recreation and reflection, surviving on the fringes of an urban society.

This is by no means to say that life has become the best in the best of all possible worlds, or that things might not get much worse rather than better.  The political cycle in the United States that has given us the horrendous farce of President Donald Trump following close upon the tragedy of President George W. Bush, with the decency of President Barack Obama as an interlude, is proof of this.  The problem we most urgently face today, however, is not the entropic death of a cooling universe, but the negentropic heat-death of a nuclear war or global warming.  It is the catastrophic danger of too much heat, not too little, that is the problem.

When facing the possibility of disaster, finding hope where it can be sighted is an important part of trying to avoid catastrophe.  In this context, conventional interpretations of Acardia that pessimistically focus on the inevitability of entropy seem not only wrong but wrongheaded in contributing to the disaster the critics bemoan.  Even if history is sometimes tragical and sometimes farcical, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, Arcadia seems to support the conclusion that as unpredictable as historical comings and goings may be, there is hope for a better future.  So long as the music plays on and people continue to dance.

[1] Brad Leithauser. “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia,’ at Twenty.”  The New Yorker. 8/8/13.

[2] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.308.

[3] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.20.

[4] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.284.

[5] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. p.309.

[6] James Gleick. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. pp.103-105, 109, 139, 227.

[7] Irving Berlin. Let’s Face the Music and Dance. 1936.

[8] Chris Jones. “’Arcadia’ brims with intelligence in Writers’ bright new house.” Chicago Tribune. 3/24/16.

[9] Brad Leithauser. “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia,’ at Twenty.”  The New Yorker. 8/8/13.

[10] Johann Hari. “Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia the greatest play of our age?” Independent. 5/21/09.

[11] Johann Hari. “Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia the greatest play of our age?” Independent. 5/21/09.

[12] Brad Leithauser. “Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia,’ at Twenty.”  The New Yorker. 8/8/13.

[13] Sharon Kilarski. “Theater Review: ‘Arcadia.’” Epoch Times. 8/31/16.

[14] Chris Jones. “’Arcadia’ brims with intelligence in Writers’ bright new house.” Chicago Tribune. 3/24/16.

[15] Ben Brantley. “The 180-year Itch, Metaphysically Speaking.” The New York Times. 3/17/11.”

Johann Hari. “Is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia the greatest play of our age?” Independent. 5/21/09.

[16] Marvin Gaye. Dancing in the Streets. 1964.

[17] Isaiah Berlin. Karl Marx: His Life and Environment. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959. pp.184-185.

[18] Karl Marx. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. New York: International Publishers, 1963. p.15.

[19] Richard Easterlin. “The Worldwide Standard of Living Since 1800.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol.14, #1. Winter, 2000. pp.7-26.

Sartre’s No Exit as A Rorschach Test. Why don’t they leave when they get the chance? Is it Bad Faith or The Gaze?

Sartre’s No Exit as A Rorschach Test.

Why don’t they leave when they get the chance?

Is it Bad Faith or The Gaze?

Burton Weltman

“Freedom is what we do with what is done to us”

          John-Paul Sartre.

Prologue: Looking for an Honest Man.

Diogenes the Cynic, so the story goes, spent his life searching for an honest man.  So, too, I think, did Jean-Paul Sartre, and his play No Exit is an instance of his search.  The thesis of this essay is twofold: (1) The play is best seen as a dramatization of Sartre’s philosophical concept of “bad faith” rather than, as it is usually interpreted, his concept of “the gaze” or “the look.”  The behavior of the characters is intended to be seen as a function of their dishonesty toward themselves and each other, rather than their scrutiny of each other; and, (2) The play essentially functions as a sort of Rorschach Test of the good faith of its readers and viewers.  People who see the play as a reflection of “the gaze” will likely tolerate “bad faith” in themselves and expect it in others.  And that is the moral and morality of the story.

No Exit or In Camera: What’s in a Name?

“But, my dear man, reality is only a Rorschach ink-blot, you know.”

            Alan Watts.

No Exit is a one-act play written in 1943 by Jean-Paul Sartre.  First performed in 1944 in Nazi occupied Paris, its title in the original French is Huis Clos.  It portrays the tribulations of three recently deceased people who find themselves together in a small room in what they think is Hell.  They quickly realize that they are completely incompatible as roommates, with each one grating horribly on the other two.  They conclude that the almighty authorities of the universe have condemned them to being psychologically tortured by each other for all eternity.

The play is a dark drama that has been a mainstay of the stage from the mid-1940’s to the present day.  It is widely held to “capture Sartre’s existentialism,” and to dramatize the essentials of existentialist philosophy.[1]  Although reviewers rarely cite Sartre’s philosophical concepts of “the gaze” and “bad faith,” their interpretations almost invariably reflect those concepts because they are deeply embedded in the play.  Most reviewers focus on aspects of the play that reflect “the gaze” as representing the meaning and moral of the drama.  This essay presents an argument to the contrary.

There is very little action in the play.  It consists mainly of the three main characters talking to each other and looking at each other.  Each of the characters, a man and two women, has a long history of sociopathic behavior, the truth of which emerges as the play unfolds.  They all initially claim to be innocent of wrongdoing, but each one wilts under the grilling of the other two, and they all eventually admit to having repeatedly in their lives betrayed and abused those who loved and depended on them.

The man, Garcin, regularly abused his wife, and was executed for betraying his comrades and deserting the army in time of war.  Estelle, one of the women, was a female philanderer, who betrayed her husband, killed her unwanted baby, and effectively drove her lover to suicide.  Inez, the other woman, was a lesbian, who was killed by her abused lover, who also killed herself.

The characters constitute an anti-menage-a-trois.  Inez immediately becomes sexually attracted to Estelle, but Estelle is repelled by lesbianism.  Estelle is sexually attracted to Garcin, but Garcin insists on getting emotional support from her that she is incapable of giving.  Garcin, in turn, looks to Inez for emotional support, but she despises him and won’t give it.  They are committed narcissists, and are unwilling or unable to connect with each other.

Having realized their incompatibility, the characters make ineffective efforts to ignore each other.  But they are goaded and galled by the existence of the others.  So, the three of them emotionally torture each other in a vicious cycle of attraction and repulsion, and conclude that tormenting each other for eternity is their hellish fate.  This is also the conclusion that most interpreters of the play reach.  I don’t agree.

The French title of the play, Huis Clos, has usually been translated into English as No Exit. But the phrase huis clos literally means “closed door” in French, and colloquially means in camera.  In camera refers to a court proceeding that is conducted privately in a judge’s chambers behind closed doors.  Translating the play’s title as No Exit implies that the trial of the three characters is over, the judging has been finally done, and they have been conclusively sentenced to Hell.  In this view, the characters have become what they really are, their essences have been exposed to view, and there are no choices available to them to change their ways and their fates.

Translating the title as In Camera, however, implies that their trial is still ongoing, final judgments have not been rendered, and the characters might still be able to do things that could change their fates. That is, they have been placed in a sort of Purgatory, and are not necessarily permanently ensconced in Hell.  In this view, the action in the play is part of their trial, the authorities are watching and waiting to render a final judgment, and there are still choices the characters could make to change their ways and alter their fates.

The majority translation of the title is No Exit, the minority is In Camera.  Although few commentators on the play make explicit reference to Sartre’s philosophical works, their differences in translating the title of the play, and corresponding differences in interpreting it, can be translated into Sartrean philosophical terms.  Sartre published his major philosophical work Being and Nothingness in 1943, the same year as the play.[2]  In this book, he developed his ideas of “the gaze” and “bad faith” that are represented in the play

The majority view that the title should be No Exit corresponds with a view of the play that emphasizes Sartre’s philosophical concept of “the gaze.”  The minority view that the title should be In Camera corresponds with Sartre’s philosophical concept of “bad faith.”  Proponents of each view can point to elements of the play in support of their positions, and the play does not conclusively back either.

In fact, the play may function as a sort of Rorschach Test of the social inclinations of its audience.  A Rorschach Test is a bunch of images that a person is asked to make sense of.  The sense the person makes of the images is ostensibly an indication of how the person thinks, and what the person is like.  No Exit/In Camera seems to function in this way.  The way a person interprets the play may be an indication of how the person views him/herself and the world.

The primary thesis of this essay is that the play is best titled in English as In Camera, and best seen as a criticism of the three main characters as people who are guilty of “bad faith.”  A secondary thesis is that interpreting the play in terms of “the gaze” could reflect an inclination on the part of interpreters towards tolerating bad faith in others, and possibly themselves.

To See or Not to See, that is the Question: The Gaze and Bad Faith.

“You are not what you are, and you are what you are not”

            John-Paul Sartre.

Sartre’s concept of “the gaze” describes an ontological and psychological process that he claims is characteristic of most elementary interactions between people.  This process can be analyzed into three main components.  First, we live surrounded by other people who are continually trying to foist on us their image of what they think we are.  They take a sample of things we have done, and fashion out of those things a fixed and finished persona which they then use to judge us.  Second, we are continually being watched and judged by other people.  In the face of all that scrutiny, we are inclined to accept and act in accordance with the fixed and finished personas they have crafted for us.  Third, in accepting those fixed and finished images of ourselves, we end up being robbed by others of our freedom to choose who we will be and what we will do in the future.  The net result is that we can end up trapped in our past as it has been interpreted by others.  Ontologically and psychologically, we become their prisoners.[3]

In Sartre’s words, “the gaze” is an attempt by “the Other” to objectify me based on things I have done, and make me conform to his/her conception of me.  The Other tries to make me one-dimensional and predictable, which robs me of choice and a future different than my past.  In turn, I try to do the same to him/her.  “While I attempt to free myself from the hold of the Other, the Other is trying to free himself (sic) from mine; while I seek to enslave the Other, the Other seeks to enslave me.”[4]  Existence, in the face of “the gaze,” is a war of each against all, and all against each, with each person trying to assert his/her freedom by psychologically imprisoning the others.  In turn, other people are enemies that one must battle to be free.

In the majority view of No Exit, the most telling line in the play is Garcin’s despairing cry toward the end that “Hell is other people!”  This declaration has become an oft-repeated, iconic Sartrean line, and most critics would seemingly agree with the statement of one commentator that “No dramatist ever summed up a work more succinctly than Jean-Paul Sartre did in that line from No Exit.”[5] Garcin was prompted to this cri de coeur by his frustration at being stuck with two incompatible and incorrigible roommates, their mere presence galling him, especially their continually watching him.  He is in agony at being imprisoned by their scrutiny.    

The plight of which Garcin complains is an example of “the gaze.”  In the play, each of the characters attempts to pin a label on the others, and pin them down so that they can be controlled thereby.  Inez labels Garcin a coward.  Estelle labels Inez a pervert.  Inez labels Estelle a baby killer.  And so on.  In turn, each tries to escape the labeling of the others.  Looking is labeling, which is shaming, which is controlling.

Most commentators on the play seem to accept this situation as the moral of the play and of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy.  They claim that the characters are being seen by the others as they really are, that the characters cannot change who they are, and that the same goes for us in the audience.  Like the characters in the play, “We constantly feel scrutinized by others,” and this scrutiny reveals our essence, something we may have tried to cover up, but can do so no longer.[6]   The three characters in the play have become “finished fully formed souls facing who they are,”[7] and Hell is other people because other people “see us as we really are.”[8]

Or as another critic put it, Hell is “where the accumulated failures of a lifetime are endlessly enacted.”[9]  We are our history, and we are forever bound by the causal chains of past events as those events are seen by others.  Others’ views of us, thereby, become a prison from which we cannot escape, even in death.[10]  At least, that is what the characters claim and complain about.

But their views may not be Sartre’s view.  The three characters are, after all, sociopaths who seem to be continuing their lifelong practice of blaming everyone and everything else, other than themselves, for their problems.  I think the play is better seen as a portrayal of Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” something of which the characters, and maybe many of us, are guilty.

Bad faith is the other side of the ontological coin from “the gaze.”  It, too, can be analyzed into three main components.  First, we tend to want to settle on fixed and finished images of ourselves.  These images may be of own fashioning or the fashioning of others, and may be favorable or even unfavorable.  In any case, we accept them as who we really are.  Second, we try to foist those fixed and finished images of ourselves on others.  We insist that the images represent the real and unchangeable us.  Third, we try to renounce our freedom to choose what we will do and be in the future, and thereby try to avoid responsibility for those choices.  We pretend that we have no choice but to be what we are, and no exit from where we happen to be.

Bad faith is an attempt to escape freedom.  But it is a lie, because ontologically we cannot escape from the fact that we freely choose our fates.  We exercise our freedom of choice even as we choose to renounce that freedom, and try to avoid committing ourselves to a future.  “We can define man only in relation to his commitments,” Sartre claims, and we are continually committing ourselves to one thing and then the next, whether we like it or not.  Commitment cannot be avoided.  “Bad faith is obviously a lie,” Sartre concludes, “because it is a dissimulation of man’s full freedom of commitment.”[11]  In this context, the attempt of the characters in the play to blame their miserable situation on the looks of their roommates or on the almighty authorities, rather than on their own choices, can be seen as an example of bad faith.

The problem of bad faith, but also its solution, arises from the fact of human self-consciousness.   As soon as a person becomes something, the person’s self-consciousness of that fact puts him/her beyond that something.  The person must then choose and commit to be something else.  Bad faith is an effort to deny the ontological reality that you are your future choices, and to avoid having to choose what one will do and become next, by holding permanently onto what one has already done or become.[12] It is an attempt to use the past to avoid having to make present choices toward the future.  But, Sartre counsels, the past is not who we are, but merely the material out of which we construct our future selves.  The future is everything.[13]

Self-consciousness is the source of the problem by making us aware of the fragility of ourselves, but it is also the solution in providing us the means of choosing to commit ourselves to the next thing, and to do it with others, not against them.  In this view, others are not the enemy, we are the enemy when we try to imprison ourselves in ossified self-images.  The only way out of that bind is to work with others.  We cannot escape others, and we would be nothing without them.  It is only through cooperating with them that we can be free.  When we freely commit with others to a common cause, we pull all of us into the future.

In this interpretation of the play as a portrayal of bad faith, the telling line is uttered by Garcin toward the middle of the play, when the characters are considering ways they might cooperate with each other and make their coexistence tolerable.  He says that “A man is what he wills himself to be.”  But Garcin does not follow up on this insight.  He merely talks about committing himself to change, but does not put that talk into practice.

The telling moment in this view of the play comes shortly after, when Garcin beats on the door, demanding to be let out, and the door opens.  He and the women are then faced with the choice of leaving or staying.  After brief consideration, each of them chooses to stay, and they close the door.  They then rationalize their decision along the lines of the devil you know is better than the one you don’t know, but it is clear they are committed to staying where and how they are.  They don’t want to change, and this is their free choice.  This commitment is an instance of ontological cowardice and bad faith in Sartrean terms.

“Bad faith” and “the gaze” are essentially two sides of the same coin.  Both are violations of the Sartrean principle that we are all caught up in a perpetual stream of becoming.  But seeing things in terms of “bad faith” forces you to take responsibility for where and what you are, and for making choices about what and where you will be next.  Seeing things in terms of “the gaze” gives you a way to rationalize doing nothing, and resigning yourself to the status quo.  It can be a cop out, and an instance of bad faith, as I think it is for the characters in this play.  Sartrean existentialism means that we are never a fixed and finished product, and that we are continually having to choose what we become next, whether we and others want to recognize it or not.

Existentialism and the Human Condition: Resignation or Resistance?

“Commitment is an act, not a word.”

            Jean-Paul Sartre.

If No Exit/In Camera was intended by Sartre to be what I have loosely called a sort of Rorschach Test, he does not make it easy to pass the test.  There is a lot of looking and a lot of “the gaze” in the play.  As it opens, all of the three characters are absorbed in watching what is being said about them by people they knew who are still alive on earth.  They complain that they are being defined and defiled by people whom they did not like and who did not like them.  Their past deeds are being used to hang a fixed image on them.  And they cannot do anything about it.  This is an example of “the gaze” in operation.

When these visions fade away, and the characters are cut off from life on earth, they begin watching each other.  The room they are in is small.  It contains three couches and an ugly little statue.  It has no mirrors.  There are no books.  The characters are unable to sleep.  There is nothing to do except think, talk, and look at each other.  With no mirrors and no one else with whom to talk, each can see him/herself only through the eyes and the words of the other two.  Since they are in perpetual conflict with each other, it is not a pretty picture that they each see of themselves.  This is another example of “the gaze” in practice.

From these scenes comes the majority’s interpretation that the play is based on “the gaze,” and that it espouses a misanthropic anti-social individualism.  The majority view accepts the resignation of the characters to their situation at the end of the play as the message of the play.  It is the triumph of “the gaze,” and the last line of the play ostensibly sums it up.  In this line, Garcin declares his and the other characters’ acceptance of an eternity of mutual incrimination and self-incrimination with the sigh “Eh bien, continuons.”  This line is usually translated as “Well, let’s get on with it,” but it literally means “OK, let’s continue” which is, I think, a better translation.  With this line, Garcon declares that the three of them have no choice but to continue what they have been doing, and most commentators agree.  But is that the intended message of the play?  I think not.

I think that “bad faith” trumps “the gaze” as the primary message of the play.  “The look” is what others try to do to me when they recognize my separate existence, and what I try to do to them in return if we are not mutually committed and engaged in a joint enterprise.  Social relations are antagonistic unless we are mutually committed and engaged in a joint enterprise.  Sartre explains that “I will always depend on my comrades-in-arms in the struggle, inasmuch as they are committed, as I am, to a definite common cause.”[14]  Comradeship in a commitment to a common cause can dissipate the effects of “the gaze.”  Failing to join with others, and merely accepting the effects of “the gaze,” is bad faith.

This view of the play is supported by the context of its original production.  Huis Clos was first performed in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II.  Sartre had previously been incarcerated by the Germans as a prisoner of war, but had escaped and then joined the underground French Resistance to the Nazis.  Working in the Resistance required intense collaboration with others, and perilous reliance on the courage and good faith of others.  It also required vigilance against Nazi collaborators and bad faith infiltrators.

Even as he was risking his life in the Resistance, Sartre daringly produced writings that could be interpreted as encouraging that resistance.  In this context, Huis Clos can be seen as having been “written in direct response to the intellectual paralysis of German-occupied Paris,” that is the hell on earth that was Nazi rule.  The intent of the play was to encourage people to “embrace honesty and hope,” rather than the cowardice, dishonesty and misanthropy of the three characters.[15]  The play, in this view, implicitly calls for resistance rather than resignation to hellishness.  This includes resistance to “the gaze” with which the Nazis were trying to demoralize and imprison the French, but also “the gaze” with which the French were demoralizing and imprisoning themselves.

Praxis makes Perfect: Existence precedes Essence.

Inez: “They’re waiting.”

Garcin: “They’re watching.”

The majority view of No Exit reflects a very cynical view of social relations, more so than even that of Diogenes the original Cynic.  Diogenes at least continued his search for an honest man.  In the majority view of the play, Sartre has given up.  The play portrays the views of three narcissistic sociopaths, who have betrayed everyone around them, and who seemingly have no significant experience of commitment to anyone.  No choice and no exit could be the mantras of their lives.  In the majority view, the three characters represent us in the audience and their predicament represents ours.  In turn, the majority view is that the characters’ cynical views of the world represent Sartre’s views.

But maybe that isn’t the case.  Maybe the play has a less cynical message.  At several points in the play, the characters claim that the higher authorities seem to be looking down on them.  They rationalize this scrutiny as the authorities’ controlling the characters’ every move, after having planned their punishments down to the smallest details.  This scrutiny from on high becomes a further excuse for the three characters to do nothing to change their ways.  “The Devil made me do it” is essentially their excuse.

But this excuse is essentially a cop-out, and another instance of bad faith.  It seems just as likely that the authorities are watching the three of them to see what the three are doing, and to see if they warrant any further punishment.  It is just as likely that the fates of the three are not sealed, and that their present behavior is being judged by higher authorities, which includes us in the audience.  We, too, are watching them, judging them, and waiting to see if they can take steps to change their ways and their situation.  Like maybe walking out the door when it opens.  I have watched the play many times, and I keep hoping that the characters will someday walk out that open door.

As to the Rorschach Test, those who interpret the play in terms of “the gaze” are, in effect, giving the characters a pass on the characters’ ongoing responsibility for their predicament.  These interpreters are willing to accept the characters’ bad faith rationalizations of their resignation, and their bad faith excuse for continuing to do just what they had always done.  If these interpreters are willing to accept others’ bad faith excuses for inaction, maybe they would also be inclined to rationalize their own unwillingness to take responsibility for their own choices and for joining with others to make a better world?

In this majority view, the play promotes resignation to the fact that the human condition is hell on earth, and in the hereafter.  I don’t buy that view.  I think that view is itself an instance of bad faith thinking, and represents the sort of cynicism that led Diogenes to become a Cynic.  I contend that Huis Clos is a call to arms against bad faith, and that the message of the play is that you are never fixed in who you are or by what you have done.  You can always do something different, because the next opportunity to choose immediately succeeds the last choice.  And the only way to realize your own freedom is through promoting the freedom of others.

June 23, 2017.

[1] Francesca Baretta. “Review ‘No Exit.’” The Oxford Cultural Review. 6/2/16.

[2] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

[3] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. pp.252 et seq.

[4] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. p.364.

[5] Lawrence Bommer. “Review of No Exit.”  Chicago Reader. 9/6/90.

[6] Francesca Baretta. “Review ‘No Exit.’” The Oxford Cultural Review. 6/2/16.

[7] Leah Frank.  “Theater Review; ‘No Exit,’ Sartre’s Version of Hell.” The New York Times. 10/22/89.

[8] Leah Frank.  “Theater Review; ‘No Exit,’ Sartre’s Version of Hell.” The New York Times. 10/22/89.

[9] Lawrence Bommer. “Review of No Exit.”  Chicago Reader. 9/6/90.

[10] Robert Hurwitt. “’No Exit’ Review: Welcome to Hotel Sartre.” SFGATE. 4/14/11.   Zachary Stewart. “No Exit.” Theatre Mania. 3/9/14.  Mike Fischer. “Theater Review: Self-absorbed pay the price in ‘No Exit.Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinal. 8/12/16.

[11] Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.46, 48.

[12] Jean Paul Sartre.  Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. p.66.

[13] Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.47.

[14] Jean-Paul Sartre. Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2007. p.35.

[15] David Rooney. “The Other People Are Back: Do They Ever Leave? Sartre’s ‘No Exit’” The New York Times. 3/12/14.

Waiting for Godot: Why do we keep waiting? Hope among the Hopeless.

  Waiting for Godot: Why do we keep waiting? Hope among the Hopeless.                       

                                       Burton Weltman

A country road.  A tree.  Evening.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot.

He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

Setting and action at the beginning of Act I of Waiting for Godot.

A guy trying to take off his boots, and failing.  That is how Waiting for Godot opens, and it is a prime example of the sort of action that takes place during the play.  There is, in fact, very little dramatic action at the beginning of the play, and none at the end.  In between, two ragged men, Estragon and Vladimir (Gogo and Didi for short), wander back and forth on a bleak stage and talk at each other as they wait for the arrival of someone named Godot, whom they may never have met (it isn’t clear) and know almost nothing about.  They are briefly interrupted by four other characters, a poltroon named Pozzo with his slave Lucky, and two messenger boys sent by Godot.  That’s it.

Godot was completed in 1949 by Samuel Beckett in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II.  It was a time when many Europeans were suffering from what we might today call post traumatic stress disorder.  They were still trying to figure out what had hit them and what they could do about it.  Godot was part of a flood of existentialist works produced during the 1940’s and 1950’s by Beckett, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and other writers.  Sartre and Camus, the leading figures in the existentialist group, emphasized the helplessness, hopelessness, and pointlessness of human existence.  Godot has been compared with their works.  The setting of Godot is bleak, the main characters wander about to no obvious purpose, and the play has no obvious plot.  I intend to show, however, that Beckett makes a very different point than Sartre and Camus.

Godot has also been compared in recent years with the television comedy show Seinfeld.  Seinfeld has been famously characterized and satirized by its own characters as a show about nothing.  And although Seinfeld is amusing, it really is pretty much about nothing.  Godot has been similarly characterized as being about nothing because the play seems so unfocussed and nothing dramatic happens.  But this comparison is weak.  Godot is amusing, but there is also something to the play that has led critics to describe it as “mesmerizing,” and induced many to rate it as a great work of art.  One may ridicule Godot, it has been said, but one “cannot ignore it.”[1]  Very few people would say that about Seinfeld.  What is it about Godot that accounts for its hold on audiences?  I hope in this essay to show what that is.

A great work of art has been described as one that can be experienced repeatedly with something new gained each time.  A great book is, for example, one that can be read over and over, with the reader getting more and different things each time.  A great play is one that can be seen many times with new insights each time.  The more a work can be profitably reread or re-watched, the more there is to it and the greater it is.[2]

That is something we can do with the plays of William Shakespeare and the novels of Charles Dickens, and that is why people today frequently read and reread, watch and re-watch works by these authors.  It is not something that most people can do with the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporary and friend Christopher Marlowe or with the books of Dickens’ contemporary and friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton.   Marlow and Bulwer-Lytton were considered innovative and widely popular authors in their day.  But they have not stood well the test of time, and their works are not often performed or read.[3]  Bulwer-Lytton has even had the singular misfortune to have named after him an annual contest for the worst opening sentence for a novel, having opened one of his novels with the oft ridiculed line “It was a dark and stormy night.”[4]

Great literary works like those of Shakespeare and Dickens appeal to us to consider them carefully.  They connect with us in a way that says that there is more to them than meets the eye at our first glance, and that we are missing something important if we don’t try to find it.  Great works are also multidimensional, not merely one-dimensional, sentimental appeals to our emotions or didactic appeals to our intellect.  They appeal to us and challenge us in a variety of ways, intellectually, experientially, imaginatively, and emotionally.

A literary work is said, for example, to have intellectual appeal if it challenges our ideas about things.  It has experiential appeal if it relates to things with which we are familiar but focuses on things we have ignored.  A work has imaginative appeal if it is couched in imagery that opens our eyes to something we are capable of seeing but have not seen before.  It has  emotional appeal if it evokes empathy and emotionally involves us in unexpected ways.  A great work makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange.[5]  Godot does just that.  As I hope to demonstrate in this essay, the play appeals to our intellects, personal experiences, imaginations and emotions, and provokes us to think and feel about things in new ways.  It can also be seen over and over without exhausting its appeal.  In sum, it is well worth waiting for Godot.

Estragon: Nothing to be done.

Vladimir: I am beginning to come around to that opinion.  All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t tried everything.  And I resumed the struggle.

Opening lines of Act I of Waiting for Godot.

“What is to be done?” asked Vladimir Lenin in the title of his famous book of 1901.  The book was written at a low point in working class struggles in Europe, at a time when apathetic workers seemed to be adapting to their oppression under the capitalist system.  Lenin’s answer was to build a revolutionary movement led by a vanguard cadre of radicals who would energize workers and show them the way.  Estragon parodies and critiques Lenin with his “Nothing to be done” as the opening salvo of the debate between him and his comrade Vladimir, which largely constitutes Godot.  Vladimir responds in Leninist fashion that whenever he feels at a low point, he thinks of all the things he has not yet tried, and then he resumes the struggle.

But there are limits to Vladimir’s stamina.  He is beginning to despair.  His despair recalls that of his namesake Lenin, wasting away in exile in Switzerland during January, 1917.  Lenin told a group of visiting comrades that they must reconcile themselves to the fact that there would probably be no revolution in Russia during their lifetimes.  But, he adjured, they must keep the faith and wait things out.  Quite unexpectedly, revolution broke out the next month in Russia and Lenin returned to lead it.  One never knows what can be done if one has not tried everything.

What is to be done, Estragon and Vladimir are continually asking?  How should they spend their time while they wait for God knows what?   So, they play with words and play verbal games, just as Beckett wrote plays and played with words.  They goad each other with what are seemingly intentional misunderstandings of the other, a way of making something of a conversation out of nothing.  “Let’s contradict each other,” Estragon suggests and later insists “Let’s ask each other questions.”  After one such episode, Estragon rejoices that “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist.”  “Yes, yes, we’re magicians,” Vladimir responds.

They sprinkle their conversation with allusions to books, events and ideas that they have difficulty recalling and construing, just as Beckett sprinkles Godot with allusions to things for us, the audience, to try to decipher and ponder.  Vladimir, for example, referring to the story that one of the two thieves who were to be crucified with Jesus was spared, notes that only one of the four Gospels mentions the story.  Estragon’s reply is “Well?  They don’t agree and that’s all there is to it.”  Vladimir’s response is “But all four were there and only one speaks of a thief being saved.  Why believe him rather than the other four?”  This is not only a question about the New Testament, it is a question about evidence and testimony of all sorts, and about ethical choices.

“It is a game, everything is a game,” Beckett once supposedly said about Godot.[6]  There is an almost endless number of things in the play for Estragon and Vladimir to think about, and us too.  The play has enormous intellectual appeal and appeal for intellectuals.  Philosophy, religion, politics, and ethics are just a few of the themes with which it deals, and which the characters discuss.  It is not clear that Estragon and Vladimir make any progress in their speculations, but they greet each day and each other with an embrace and a celebration.

Vladimir: It’s a scandal!

Pozzo: Are you alluding to anything in particular?                                                            

Vladimir: To treat a man…like that…I think that…no…a human being…no…it’s a         scandal.

Estragon: A disgrace.

Vladimir and Estragon reacting to Pozzo’s treatment of his slave Lucky in Act I.

“When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?,” asked the Lollard priest John Ball, one of the leaders of the English Peasant Revolt of 1381.  In fighting against the oppression of the peasants by their overlords, Ball exhorted his followers to return to the simplicity and social equality of the Garden of Eden, where there was no private property or social hierarchy.  Ball’s appeal tapped into a traditional Christian utopian dream of the sort that in modern times was voiced by John Lennon in his song Imagine.  “Imagine there’s no heaven…Imagine there’s no countries…Imagine there’s no possession,” John Lennon asks us.  And then, he says, imagine the wonderful consequences, with everyone living in peace, sharing the world, and living for today.

Lennon’s words are a surprisingly plausible way of describing the situation of Estragon and Vladimir in Godot.  They own virtually no property, and share what they have.  They do not demonstrate any tribal loyalties or prejudices.  They bicker a lot, but they do not actually fight.  They sometimes envy the seemingly wealthy Pozzo and hope for riches for themselves, but they don’t do anything about it.  They live totally for the day.  So, is Godot intended as a description of utopia?  Or a portrait of dystopia?  Is it a parody of the Garden of Eden?

Godot been called “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” [7]  It has also been declared so ambiguous as to be “Whatever you want it to be,” let your mind make of it what you will.[8]  Although I think that is an overstatement, the play does make a strong appeal to the imagination.  A big part of this appeal stems from its minimalism.  Godot has a minimalist script calling for a minimalist setting and a minimalist performance.  It strips life down to a bare minimum of things, and focuses on the moment-to-moment and day-to-day survival of its two main characters.  This minimalism makes for a maximum of interpretations.  Godot has been produced as a comedy, tragedy, tragic-comedy, farce, and melodrama.  It has been interpreted as a psychological, political, sociological, metaphysical, and/or religious drama.

The setting is stark, and the play has been described as “about nowhere and therefore about everywhere.”[9]  The stage set consists essentially of a dying tree and a rock.  If it is Eden, it is a devastated garden.  Beckett sets his characters in a barren physical and psychological environment in which they are starving for stimulation.  They seem to suffer from sensory and intellectual deprivation and, as a result, they often imagine things.  Upon first meeting Pozzo, for example, they mistake him for Godot.  Estragon explains: “That is to say…you understand…the dusk…the strain…waiting…I confess…I imagined…for a second.”  We, the audience, too thought that our waiting might be over, that Godot had arrived.  But no, we must wait further.

The imagery is haunting.  It is a post-apocalyptic setting that is befitting a Europe devastated by economic depression and war.  But the setting also befits a post-Holocaust and post-Hiroshima world that has been stripped of its moral veneer.  It is a world that needs an imaginative revival.   Beckett provides a structure for our imaginations, and forces us to think about the possibilities.

Estragon: Well, shall we go?

Vladimir:  Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

End of Act I of Waiting for Godot.

 “To be or not to be, that is the question,” Hamlet proclaims, as he contemplates suicide and ponders what he should be and how to be it.  Hamlet’s answer is essentially a cop-out.  He claims that killing oneself may not end one’s problems because there may be an afterlife in which one’s tribulations may continue and even increase.  But Hamlet then goes on to pontificate in terms that seem to negate taking action of any sort, and do not apply merely to committing suicide:

Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action.

This is an elaborate excuse for inaction.  Hamlet is a play about someone who does not want to choose, and does not want to act.  Godot is a play about people who are making choices and taking action.  This is the case even when the result looks like indecision and inaction.

In a seeming parody and rebuke of Hamlet, Vladimir claims that “What are we doing here? That is the question (emphasis in original).”  Suicide is not the question.  Action versus inaction is not the question.  The question is what should we do and why should we do it, since we are always doing something whether we like it or not.  This is the core question of the play and one that almost all of us ask ourselves at least sometimes, some of us a lot.  With this question, the play appeals to the personal experience of the audience, all of us wanderers in a time and place not of our choosing, searching for some meaning and for something meaningful to do with our lives.

Vladimir’s question is also arguably a response to Albert Camus’ influential book The Myth of Sisyphus.  Sisyphus was written in 1942, while France was under Nazi occupation and Camus was involved in the seemingly hopeless struggle of the French underground against the Nazi occupiers.  The opening words of Sisyphus are “There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”  As with Hamlet, suicide is the question.  For Camus, living without hope is the answer.[10]

Sisyphus was a character from Greek mythology who was condemned for eternity to push a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down, so that he would have to push it back up again.  Camus claims that Sisyphus embraces this “futile and hopeless labor” because “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn,” and Sisyphus’ scorn for the gods sets him free.  “Sisyphus,” Camus claims, “teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.”  He concludes that “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”[11]  Heroic endurance, an acceptance of hopelessness, and happiness through scorn for one’s oppressors is Camus’ answer to the question of suicide.

Although Beckett’s main characters in Godot repeatedly consider killing themselves, boredom seems to be the main philosophic question for them, not suicide.  In contrast with Sisyphus, Godot was written at a time when economic depression and war were giving way to economic and political recovery, and the conformity of mass society had become a main worry among intellectuals.  Cultural critics such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were warning about the coming loss of individuality in what was becoming a homogenized Western society.[12]

Adorno and Horkheimer were the advanced guard of a legion of critics concerned that an age of coerced uniformity by fascist dictators was being succeeded by an era of voluntary conformity, and by the boredom that comes from a paucity of imagination, genuine choices and meaning in people’s lives.  Beckett was writing at the dawn of the age of David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd[13] succeeded by Vance Packard’s The Organization Man,[14] which eventually became Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man.[15]  Self-suppression and willful conformity were their main concerns.  Western culture, they complained, was becoming a domain of intellectual, experiential, imaginative, and emotional vacuity.

Physical suicide was not the problem for these intellectuals.  Psychological suicide was.  Both Act I and Act II of Godot end with Estragon and Vladimir saying they will kill themselves tomorrow.  But we know they won’t.  They are merely bored, and are entertaining themselves with speculations about committing suicide.  It is just one of the many things they think of doing, but don’t do.  Estragon and Vladimir are continually thinking about how to be, even when they are speculating about how not to be.  They seem to be Beckett’s response to the complaints of mass society theorists.  Beckett’s everymen are as shabby as they can be, but they are anything but conformists.  There is no “Keeping up with the Joneses” with them.  Beckett seems to be saying that a tawdry tedium should not be confused with a vacuous conformity.        

In a contrast with Hamlet, who does not really answer his own question about being, Vladimir answers his.  He says “And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear.  We are waiting for Godot to come.”  Unlike Hamlet, Estragon and Vladimir are not dithering around in a quandary about whether or not to do something.  They are doing something, according to Vladimir, even if, like Lenin biding his time in Switzerland, it is only keeping the faith and keeping themselves together while they wait for things to unfold.

“We are not saints,” Vladimir concludes, “but we have kept our appointment” with Godot, and that is something to be proud of.  It is also something with which we in the audience can empathize.  “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” Woody Allen once said.  “I can’t go on,” Estragon complains at one point.  “That’s what you think,” Vladimir responds, and they go on.  Vladimir and Estragon show up every day to wait for Godot.  Most of us would do well to do the same in our own lives.

Estragon: Well, shall we go?                                                                                                        

Vladimir:  Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

End of Act II of Waiting for Godot.

 “It’s all symbiosis,” Beckett is supposed to have once said about Godot.[16]  Beckett was extremely reluctant to comment on the meaning of his plays, but he seems hereby to have acknowledged that Godot is above all a play about human relationships.  Strip life down to its bare bones and what you have left is relationships.  Godot is frequently paired with Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit as a play about people who are trapped physically and psychologically, and who cannot get out of the vicious cycles in which their lives, or their afterlives in the case of No Exit, unhappily revolve.  No Exit portrays what Sartre saw as the contradiction between being metaphysically free but psychologically imprisoned, which is a frequent theme in existentialist writing.

Similar to Camus’ writing of Sisyphus, Sartre wrote No Exit in Paris during 1944,while France was still under Nazi occupation.  It is a story about three dead people, a man and two women, who are locked in a room. The room is ostensibly Hell.  In the beginning, they marvel at the idea that where they are is Hell, and they anticipate that they will be okay if being in a locked room is the worst they will suffer for their misdeeds in life.  But then their personalities start to come into play.

The man is chronically depressed and despondent.  One of the women increasingly lusts after him.  The other woman increasingly lusts after the first woman and scorns the man.  He, in turn, seeks the scornful woman’s approval.  The net result is a vicious circle in which each of them preys on the others.  Toward the end of the play, the door to the room opens so that they apparently could exit the room.  None of them, however, chooses to leave.  They seemingly want or need to be tortured.  Psychologically, there is no way out for them.

The man sums up what the play says about the human condition with the phrase: “L’enfer, ces les autres” or “Hell is other people.”  He also voices the moral of the story in the last words of the play: “Eh bien, continuons,” that is, “Let’s continue” or “Let’s get on with it.”  Written in circumstances similar to those in which Camus wrote Sisyphus, Sartre’s moral in No Exit is similar to Camus’ in Sisyphus.  We must resign ourselves to a living hell.  The moral of Godot is different.

There are three sets of symbiotic relationships in Godot: Estragon and Vladimir, Pozzo and Lucky, and the two messenger boys and Godot.  As Pozzo appears in the first act of the play, he is a pompous braggart and a wealthy bully.  He drags his slave Lucky around with a rope and routinely denigrates him.  Although Pozzo looks down upon Estragon and Vladimir for their poverty and for hanging about waiting for Godot, he goes hither and yon without seeming to get anywhere.  In the second act, Pozzo shows up having been accidentally blinded.  Now the slave is pulling him around by the rope.  Pozzo has gone from bumptious to pathetic, but Lucky remains his slave and neither knows how to get away from the other.  Theirs is a symbiotic master-slave relationship that has enslaved and degraded them both, but with no way out.

The two boys have an ambiguous relationship with Godot.  One is a shepherd, the other a goatherd.  Godot apparently mistreats and beats one of them, but it is not clear which.  This is like the Cain and Able story in the Bible in which God favors the shepherd Able over the farmer Cain for no apparent reason.  From passages such as this, many interpreters of the play claim that “It seem fairly certain that Godot stands for God.”[17]  In this view, waiting for Godot would seem like an act of religious faith.  This view is reinforced by Vladimir’s response to Estragon’s question about Godot.  “And if he comes?” asks Estragon.  “We’ll be saved,” answers Vladimir, with salvation generally regarded as a religious goal.  But Godot and salvation could stand for any number of things for which people hope, from God to Lenin’s revolution.  I do not think it matters to the moral of the play.

The moral of the play, I think, resides in the relationship between Estragon and Vladimir.  Most interpretations of the play focus on the dourness of the characters’ situation and the hopelessness of their enterprise.[18]  It has been said that the play has “a unique resonance during times of social and political crisis,” and that its appeal is as a catharsis for people’s despair.[19]  I do not see the play as a catharsis for despair.  I propose, instead, that the play is a success story with a happy ending, thus making for the strong emotional connection that we feel for the characters.

Waiting for the arrival of Godot is primarily an excuse for Estragon and Vladimir to stay together.  The real reason they sit and wait is that they complement each other, care about each other, and take care of each other.  They bicker constantly and repeatedly consider going their separate ways, but they don’t go and they don’t separate.  “It’d be better if we parted,” Estragon suggests for the nth time.  “You always say that,” Vladimir responds, “and you always come crawling back.”

Beckett has been quoted as saying that “Estragon and Vladimir are like a married couple who’ve been together too long.”[20]  They go nowhere, but they have each other.  They seem pathetic at first, but not later.  In the repetition of their daily tedium, Estragon and Vladimir encourage each other to assume a dignified posture, and they appeal to us in their striving for integrity and meaning in their lives.  As they struggle at one point with Estragon’s boots, he observes that “We don’t manage too badly, eh Didi, between the two of us.”  “Yes, yes,” Vladimir agrees, and the conclusion seems to apply to more than just the boots.

Pozzo looks down on Estragon and Vladimir in the first act when he is flying high, but envies them in the second act when he has fallen and they have stayed the same.  Vladimir asks Estragon at one point whether he thinks Pozzo and Lucky have changed.  “Very likely,” Estragon responds, “They all change.  Only we can’t.”  It has been said that the play mocks us, the audience.  We sit in the theater doing nothing while watching actors who do nothing.  We fill our meaningless time watching characters who fill their meaningless time waiting for a phantasm.[21]  I do not agree.

I think the play is in the end a love story, a story of endless love that abides through boredom and makes the tedium of daily life worthwhile.  “How long have we been together all time now?,” Estragon asks.  “I don’t know, fifty years maybe,” Vladimir answers.  Out of almost nothing, out of merely their meager selves, Estragon and Vladimir make meaningful lives through caring about each other and taking care of each other.  The hopefulness in their relationship belies the sparseness of their situation.  It does not matter whether Godot ever shows up.  And that, I believe, best explains the hold that the play has on audiences, and why people continue to sit time and again with Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for Godot.

[1] Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>


[2] Adler, Mortimer. How to Read a Book. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940.

[3] Bulwer-Lytton is even reportedly responsible for convincing Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations to leave open the possibility that Pip and Estelle will get together, a change that clearly weakened the ending.

[4] The contest has been held annually since 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University.

[5] Bruner, Jerome. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

[6] Quoted in www//

[7]  Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>


[8] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the

[9] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the

[10] Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. p.3.

[11]  Camus, Albert.  The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. pp.90-91.

[12] Adorno, Theodor & Max Horkheimer.

[13] Reisman, David, et al.  The Lonely Crowd.

[14] Packard, Vance. The Organization Man.

[15] Marcuse, Herbert. The One Dimensional Man.

[16] Quoted in www//

[17] Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>


[18] Atkinson, Brooks. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.'”  The New York Times. 4/20/56. at The New York Times>


[19] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the

[20] Smith, David; Imogen Carter; & Ally Carnwath.  “In Godot we trust.” 3/7/09.  The Guardian. at http://www.the

[21] Gardner, Lyn. “Waiting for Godot review – a dystopian Laurel and Hardy after an apocalypse.” 6/7/15.  Theatre. at