Unknown, Unkissed, and Lost Part 4: Beckett & Kaufman


Traditional theatre features a plot, a central conflict by which the protagonist can grow and learn lessons. It has a consistent internal logic, governed by a clear cause and effect. It involves decorative sets, lifelike performances, and realistic emotions that immerse the audience into the world of the play. The theatre of Samuel Beckett, however, subverts these hallmarks of good storytelling in favor of stagnant stories, perplexing worlds, and one-dimensional characters. Although drawing from Brecht’s focus on idea-driven theatre and the physical and language-based humor of vaudeville, the result was a new kind of theatre that captures what is truly absurd about our world – it makes sense why his work is categorized as the Theatre of the Absurd. While Kaufman’s stories are comparatively more rooted in reality, both authors explore the absurdity of existence through manipulating time in their stories, exposing the basic discordance that characterizes human relationships, and putting on display the failures of language.


Both Kaufman and Beckett construct worlds that make no rational sense, lacking internal logic. This feature is perhaps most apparent in the authors’ manipulation of time and how their characters perceive it.

Time does not exist in any meaningful sense in Beckett’s plays. In Waiting for Godot, for instance, the each of the characters are under the pressure of time because they are in a constant state of waiting. However, they are simultaneously divorced from time; when Vladimir mentions that their appointment is on a Saturday, Estragon asks “But what Saturday? And is it Saturday? Is it not rather Sunday?” (Godot 7). The characters cannot even take cues from their surroundings; when night falls, it happens suddenly and unnaturally, switching straight from full brightness to darkness, muddling further the concept of time (25). Characters like Pozzo attempt to establish order through time, relying on his pockwaiting-for-godot_garest.lazareetwatch and referring to how he is “[observing] my schedule,” to which Vladimir bluntly responds “Time has stopped” (28). This same sense of stagnancy is reflected in Beckett’s Endgame as well; when Hamm asks “What time is it?” Clov responds “The same as usual.” Time no longer exists, not because things fail to change, but because time “is not experienced as a linear development towards a goal, but as a deep emptiness” through which Hamm and Clov must simply wait (Majeed 254).

While time in Beckett’s plays is stagnant, time in Kaufman’s films is always changing at such an inconsistent pace that his characters fail to keep track of it. This is most evident in Synecdoche, New York, where these shifts in time emphasize the absurdity of life and to highlight Caden’s disconnect to the world. The ever-changing dates in the opening scene set up this inconsistency, with the dates on newspapers and food labels revealing the breakfast scene to take place over the course of a few months rather than minutes. This confusion with time continues into the rest of the film. In the car ride back from the hospital, Olive sings “And today is Tuesday,” but Adele corrects her, saying “No honey today is Friday,” reflecting again the speeding of time (Synecdoche). These small-scale changes in time amplify as Caden’s life becomes increasingly more lost. For instance, he insists to Maria that his daughter Hazel “is a four year old;” however, she reminds him that “She’s almost over eleven now” (Synecdoche). This distorted sense of time demonstrates Caden’s psyche is from the rest of the world and how he still lingers on the trauma of his wife and daughter leaving him, continually living in the past instead of acting in the present.

While Kaufman and Beckett deal with time in different ways, they both show time to work against the desires of their characters; it is either too fast or too slow, too constant or too inconstant. Characters can never be in sync with time because time itself is an absurd human idea.


The characters in Beckett’s and Kaufman’s stories not only find their word absurd, but also their interpersonal relationships and how their characters’ minds react to intimacy.

For instance, in Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon constantly push away and pull towards one another. Estragon concerns himself more with the physical and impulsive, shouting out his feelings like “I’m hungry!” at random and seeking out Pozzo’s bones to lick when he is finished eating (Godot 12). He relies more on intuition than reason, feeling than thinking. On the other hand, Vladimir stands for reason and inquiry, which makes sense considering his name “echoes in the Latin validus, meaning strong, valid, and truthful” (Betsalel). He begins to notice the absurd inconsistencies in their world and asking questions about the changes (or lack thereof) he notices.

As a result of these fundamental differences, both characters stay unfulfilled from their relationship, wanting more out of the other. Estragon consistently wishes to confide in Vladimir what he dreamt about; however, Vladimir always rejects Estragon, at times yelling “DON’T TELL ME!” (Godot 8). Vladimir is more concerned with the nature of his universe, peeling apart the absurdity of their world such as when he points out that “things have changed here since yesterday;” however, Estragon, more focused on his present needs and desires, never remembers enough to help Vladimir in his inquiries, saying “Either I forget immediately or I never forget” (51). Even though Vladimir and Estragon pick up on these conflicting values, noting “We weren’t made for the same road,” the two still meet up each day and depend on each other’s company (44). Despite all rational explanations, Vladimir and Estragon choose to remain friends. Estragon sums up these contradictory emotions in his commands to Vladimir at the beginning of Act II when he shouts “Don’t touch me! Don’t question me! Don’t speak to me! Stay with me!” (49). As much as they their relationship is broken and as much as they push each other away, they still need each other.

facebook-cover-eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind-screenshot-cosmic-orgasm-quotesThis situation mirrors that of Joel and Clementine in Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both have traits that make their relationship inherently incompatible– Joel, socially awkward and introverted, idealizes elements of Clementine. In one memory Clementine explains “complete them or I’m going to make them alive, but I’m just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind,” but despite this, Joel comments “I still thought you were going to save me. Even after that” (Eternal Sunshine). Joel even continues to make this mistake in falling in love with her again during the procedure. Instead of falling in love with the actual Clementine, he falls in love with the version of Clementine his subconscious creates. This is a simply a part of how Joel approaches his romantic relationships. On the other hand, Clementine is more impulsive and irrational, as seen in how she begins screaming and weeping in public when Joel insinuates she’d make a poor mother, yelling “I’m creative and smart and I’d make a fucking great mother! It’s you Joel! It’s you who can’t commit to anything;” she is unafraid to make a scene to prove her point, which grates against Joel’s reserved temperament (Eternal Sunshine).

Once Joel and Clementine listen to their past selves on the Lacuna tapes and discover the flaws of their past relationship, Clementine points out “You will think of things [you don’t like about me]. And I’ll get bored with you and feel trapped because that’s what happens with me,” prompting Joel to respond with a simple “Okay” (Eternal Sunshine). Much in the same way that Estragon and Vladimir constantly push each other away but need each other’s company to face the absurdity, so do Joel and Clementine accept the flaws of their relationship for some fleeting joy despite the elements of their personalities that doom it.


Both Beckett and Kaufman test the limits of language, showing how language fails to correspond to our thoughts and to the very meaning they are meant to convey.

Traditional theatre often features dialogue that contains meaning, reveals the emotions of the characters, and allows for relationships to develop. However, the language in Beckett’s plays are so disjointed and off-kilter that language ends up feeling more like a play-thing rather than a tool for conveying meaning. For instance, in Beckett’s Endgame, the manipulative Hamm continually uses language to exercise his pow(pic - Story) Endgame - Stageer. He forces his parents and Clov to listen to his stories, even making them feign interest in it by commanding “Ask me where I’ve got to” when Clov doesn’t ask about the new additions to the narrative (Endgame). However, once he believes Clov has left, he has no one left to speak to, meaning this tactic to maintain power fails and his use of language implodes. The result is a disjointed, nearly indecipherable monologue:


Well, there we are, there I am, that’s enough.

(He raises the whistle to his lips, hesitates, drops it. Pause.)

Yes, truly!

(He whistles. Pause. Louder. Pause.)




(Pause. Louder.)





We’re coming.


And to end up with?



(He throws away the dog. He tears the whistle from his neck.)

With my compliments.” (Endgame)

Although the words themselves carry very little meaning, the pauses and hampered delivery express Hamm’s mental breakdown even more than well-articulated words could express.

This breakdown of language throughout Hamm’s monologue has parallels in Michael’s speech at the end of Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa. While his speech starts out steadily, with Michael churning out his prepared, clean speech about how “The customer is an individual,” his speaking soon derails into a jumbled mix of despairing existential questions and customer service aphorisms. His language swings back and forth between a hopeless, desperate tone and a hollow, insincere one. Famous for his books and speeches, Michael is losing the one thing that brought him success in his life: his words. Michael finds himself in the opposite situation of Hamm, but still experiences the same emotions. Even though his is giving a speech in front of presumably hundreds of people, he repeats “I have no one to talk to, I have no one to talk to, I have no one to talk to” (Anomalisa). In both Hamm’s and Michael’s cases, a character who derives a large part of their identity from speech begins to lose that very ability when faced with true loneliness.

Not only does language fail in Beckett’s and Kaufman’s works when one is losing control, but it also serves as a poor means of communicating thoughts in regular conversation. Beckett showcases this fundamental issue of communication through having the characters literally speak in different languages, inserting French words and phrases into Waiting for Godot. For instance, when Pozzo asks for feedback on his monologue, Estragon responds “Oh tray bong, tray tray tray bong,” a Anglicization of the French “Très bon” for “Very good” (29). Not only are the words in French, making them difficult for English speakers to understand, but the spelling of the words even implies that they are severely mispronounced, meaning that French speakers would have an equally hard time understanding Estragon’s words. These words end up having meaning for no one, existing in a vacuum. Similarly, when Vladimir asks “Que voulez-vous?” which means “What do you want?” in French, Estragon replies “Ah, que voulez-vous! Exactly,” followed by silence; even when characters are trying to relate and please one another, they cannot find a way to connect through language (55). These miscommunications demonstrate how, in Beckett’s plays, “words not only are inadequate constructs for authentic experience but that, at best, they connect on different and variable wavelengths” (Gordon n.p.).

Kaufman also uses different languages to demonstrate the disconnect between his characters, such as through the progression of Olive in Synecdoche, New York. When Caden finally has the chance to speak to Olive after years of separation, they cannot speak directly, instead they must speak through an English-German translation device. Similarly, Olive cannot directly communicate her feelings about Caden, as she remains under the impression that he “abandoned [her] to have anal sex with [his] homosexual lover Eric” (Synecdoche). Their different languages emphasize how they have truly been living in completely different worlds, reflecting their disconnect through their different languages.

Both Kaufman and Beckett ignore core elements of traditional storytelling in favor of abstract, stagnant stories where time is constantly in flux, characters need and repel each other simultaneously, and where language loses it meaning. The result, while lacking a certain kind of realism, speaks more truths about the human condition and the frustrating, illogical realities of life.


Works Cited

Anomalisa. Dir. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson. Perf. David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh,

and Tom Noonan. Universal Pictures, 2016. DVD.

Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. Samuel-Beckett.net, 1957.

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts. N.p.: Grove Press, 2011. Print.

Betsalel, Ken. “A World Without Solace … Nearly Almost Always: Alienation in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.” Alienation. Ed. Harold Bloom and Blake Hobby. New York: Chelsea House Publications, 2009. N. pag. Bloom’s Literary Themes. Bloom’s Literature. Web. 3 Aug. 2017.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Dir. Michel Gondry. Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. 2004. DVD.

Gordon, Lois. “Waiting for Godot: The Existential Dimension.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Waiting for Godot. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 2008. pag. Bloom’s Literature. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.

Majeed, May Ahmed. “Dislocation of Temporality as a Fractured Dramatic Space in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Harold Pinter’s Old Times.” Alustath, vol. 2, no. 204, 2013.

Synecdoche, New York. Dir. Charlie Kaufman. Perf. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. 2008. DVD.