To examine poetry is to engage in re-examination until its cogs and gears are revealed, and then you are allowed to build its meaning from the ground up using your interpretation.
Similarly, to examine a novel or short story is to first analyze its forms and structure while not removing yourself too much from its narrative or wonder.
It was Shakespeare, however, who wrote in Hamlet that "The play's the thing." While Hamlet used the "play-inside-of-a-play" mechanism to judge Polonius, that multi-level exposition exploded views of the theatre and led to the revolution of contemporary theatre.
In the body of a play, one encounters, usually, three levels of characters. The tertiary level is occupied by characters who may not speak but may perform a task (i.e. soldiers marching, washing and hanging up clothes) that lend reality to what the audience is viewing.
The secondary level features characters who may have a few lines or even a moment (i.e. a messenger with news from the King, someone delivering a telegram or a message delivered by carrier pigeon).
Finally, the primary level is where the main characters announce themselves, interact and bring the play to life.
Beyond the proscenium arch, plays in the 20th century abandoned structure altogether. The best plays were scrutinized and examined microscopically to find meaning.
In the absurdist/existential classic "Waiting For Godot," the stage is barren, the characters are ragged and the dialogue is florid.
There are four characters in the play. Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo) are your leads. Pozzo is a supporting character whose presence provides more conflict, and Lucky is his "possession."Given the implications of the levels that characters exist upon, one would think Lucky to be the most insignificant. He is introduced in the play as a man yoked, leading Pozzo and carrying his suitcases.
At the moment Pozzo announces he is about to sell Lucky, however, Lucky bursts into the most intelligent-sounding, cryptic soliloquy of the entire play. 733 words at length - longer than the two most famous speeches in Shakespeare (Hamlet "To be, or not to be.." and Richard III "Now is the winter of our discontent...") combined.
Samuel Beckett in "Waiting For Godot" is completely upending theatre.
Beckett was a smart Irish-born writer. Gifted beyond his years, Beckett never sought fame for himself. He painstakingly worked on his plays, short stories, novels and poems until they met his stringent benchmarks.
Yet, even after that striving for an unseen perfection in the staging of his plays and work from his actors, critics call his work "The Theatre of the Absurd" because it has no purpose or goal.
I ask you, however, what if its purpose was to provoke thought. While making you think, the ambiguity of its structure and dialogue allows you to draw your own conclusion.
Our example "Godot," has been interpreted to reflect social change, religious struggle and political manipulation. The psychological theories of both Freud and Jung have been applied to the characters and their interactions. To read the words is revelatory; the rhythms of their speech being tossed back and forth is like watching tennis players volley. Watching the multiple interpretations of it shines a light on how Beckett is a bit like the decathlon for actors.
In a play where there is no central message and really no comparison to anything else, the actors must display a range of emotion and draw the audience into this nether world without the benefit of too many narrative devices.
You may not "understand" it, but to be honest, that too is OK. Beckett's nephew Edward found a copy in the library while at University. Edward excitedly contacted his uncle to let him know that he would be reading it.
Samuel simply responded, "You might want to wait a few years."
If this all sounds too highbrow, it is not. On a daily basis, we catch glimpse of people having conversations in public without any context and are left to judge the situation for ourselves.
If this all sounds like a play ungrounded, it surely is not. In the hands of the right actors (many of the best were schooled by Beckett himself), you will laugh and cry, even if you do not know why.
The theatre was largely about performance until this crop of absurdists came along.
The words, direction, timing and plot were all the gears and cogs coming together in the machine to communicate with you sitting rows and rows away. Reduce that machine down to one gear or one cog, and you turn the task of making them work over to the audience.
Actors must elicit a panoply of emotion and make jagged poetic lines on the page into trains of thought. They also must interact with each other on a variety of different levels. Suddenly no character is insignificant, no line a throwaway, no movement too small or too broad. Everything has its purpose. There is nothing absurd about that.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.