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.” belmont.edu

[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//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Godot

[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 guardian.com

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

[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//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Godot

[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 guardian.com

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

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