SL Paper 2 exemplar: Waiting for Godot and The Birthday Party

SL Paper 2 exemplar:  Waiting for Godot and The Birthday Party

This sample Standard Level response uses Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter to respond to a Paper 2 question on drama. The question used was from the May 2016 paper (TZ1): 

The purpose of comedy extends beyond laughter. Other than provoking laughter, compare the role of comedy in at least two plays you have studied.

Click on the icons below to see or to download the essay.  Ask your students to provide critique, as well as award marks in reference to the criteria, before taking a look at what the examiner has to say.

 SL response on The Birthday Party and Waiting for Godot

The Birthday Party and Waiting for Godot

Drama often uses various tools to engage the audience to make sure that they are in understanding of the playwright’s intentions.  Comedy is one of the most effective tools to do such, so that the playwrights ensure that the audience is enjoying themselves.  In both The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter and Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, comedy is used as a tool by which information is provided by the playwright to the audience about the plot and subtext, as it allows the audience to enjoy the play and question why humour is involved in the bigger picture of the play.  Pinter’s The Birthday Party is a play about a boarding house, resident to the owners, Meg and Petey, and another man, Stanley.  Two other men, Goldberg and McCann, enter the boarding house seeking a large interest in Stanley, indicating familiarity and a past that the three men shared.  Becket’s Waiting for Godot is an existential play about two men, Vladimir and Estragon, who converse as they wait for another man named Godot, who evidently does not show up. 

In The Birthday Party Pinter uses a combination of characterization to create comedy which allows the plot of the play to be set up and allows the audience to question Stanley as a good person.  One way in which this is done is through Meg’s delusion.  Throughout the play, the audience receives knowledge that Meg is constantly not informed or in delusion to her direct surroundings.  This is highlighted and most evident at the start and end of the play.  Right at the beginning, the play starts on a comedic note as Meg enters the scene asking if Petey is present.  To the audience, this is another comedic moment as Petey is obviously in the scene.  This places an immediate first impression on the audience about Meg, that she is either a sweet woman, delusional or both.  Examples of Meg asking obvious questions or not understanding her surroundings are constantly shown throughout the play, especially in the end when she asks Petey where Goldberg and McCann are taking Stanley.  Petey lies to Meg and she believes him, indiciating that even at the end of the play, Meg still doesn’t understand.  Pinter has created this effect of constant delusion by Meg because not only is the dramatic irony comedic and enjoyable, it allows the audience to question why Meg was lied to by her own husband, indicating that Petey had some important knowledge about who Goldberg and McCann are.  Another example is when McCann clearly lies to Stanley about smoking, when he was seen earlier to be smoking.  Similar to the example of Meg, McCann lies to Stanley, which is another example of dramatic irony, as the audience know that McCann is lying.  This allows the inference that McCann has lied to Stanley about many other things, and that he wants to make sure Stanley pays for his past sins.  In both cases, it is shown that personality construction by Pinter alongside delusion has caused comic moments to the audience. 

Pinter also uses the creation of chaos to allow comic moments to be formed, which once again allows the audience to not only enjoy, but question, the plot. One of the biggest examples of this is in the interrogation scene when Goldberg and McCann ask Stanley many questions, which leads to his breakdown.  This is perceived as comedic to the audience because the questions asked by Goldberg and McCann are random and had very little connection to their personal lives. For example, Goldberg and McCann ask Stanley if the number 846 was possible or necessary.  Questions as such, at a very large quantity, lead to Stanley breaking down, where he doesn’t have the ability to speak.  This is also comic because the audience has never seen Stanley in the state before, which allows them to question why random questions from two men made him like this.  This allows the inference to be made that Goldberg and McCann cause Stanley’s breakdown and not the actual questions.  Chaos is present through the rapid firing of questions and this effect is most likely created by Pinter to heighten the dramatic moment, hence highlighting this as a crucial scene in the plot.  Another example of this chaos is when everyone plays Blind Man’s Bluff.  The chaotic nature by which the lights are closed and no one knows what is happening is rather comic as the audience later finds out that Stanley has attacked Lulu, which is very unlike his personality.  Once again this represents how the audience begins to question Stanley’s fear and the intentions which Goldberg and McCann have.

Similarly, in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the creation of comedy by moment and action provide information on the existential nature of the play.  One example of this is the presentation of Pozzo and Lucky.  Lucky initially is seen when he enters the stage and makes his way to the centre of the stage.  The audience sees that he has a rope around his neck and the end of the rope is off stage.  This moment is comic as shortly after, Pozzo enters the stage, with the rope in hand, which is a rather absurd sight to see, a human fundamentally walking another human.  The animalistic imagery is very humorous to the audience as it is something we don’t see on a daily basis.  However, this may also trigger thoughts in the audience of sympathy, as Lucky is trapped within the rope.  This may provoke existential thoughts in the audience as they realise that Pozzo is also not free.  Another example of this, similar to the chaos created in The Birthday Party, is the swapping of the hats scene.  At first, this may seem chaotic and humorous as the characters are frantically swapping hats, but on second glance the audience might make some connections to existentialism.  Specifically, the audience learns that Pozzo cannot think without his hat, hence providing some evidence that his hat and other people’s hats, are a symbol of free thought and speech.  Hence, when Vlad and Estragon are swapping hats, the chaos is representative of how they are trapped by the Waiting for Godot, and are unable to escape.  Finally, another example of how movement creates comedy is through the lack of movement.  On multiple occasions Vlad or Estragon will ask the other to go, followed by no movement.  The contradiction between what is being said and what is being done is comic to the audience, but once again allows the audience to feel sympathy for the two men as they are trapped within the confines of the stage.  In some ways, the two plays are similar in the use of chaos but Waiting for Godot uses actions more to create comedy rather than dialogue, which is used much more in The Birthday Party.  In my opinion Beckett creates the effect of movement to create comedy to juxtapose the dry dialogue so that the audience is still engaged in the play, allowing them to make interpretations about the existential themes Beckett is exploring. 

Though comedy may be used to provoke ideas about the plot and story of drama, they also may be used on a superficial level to allow the audience to laugh once in a while to relieve the tension of conflict.  One example of this is the toy drum in The Birthday Party, which was given by Meg to Stanley.  This is especially comic, not only because the drum is a child’s plaything, which was given to a grown man, it is also comic because Meg is still delusional about her surroundings.  To the audience, this is pure comedy relieving them of the tension that is found between Goldberg and McCann with Stanley.  Waiting for Godot also has a few moments by which comic relief is provided. As mentioned earlier, the comedy that provokes thought in Waiting for Godot is made through creation of action, however comedy which is placed just for the sake of laughter is done through dialogue.  In this play, two men are Waiting for Godot, so to pass the time, Vladimir and Estragon converse in very unrelated topics of conversation, which is very similar to how in The Birthday Party, the questions asked by Goldberg and McCann are very random and unrelated.  This creates the occasional laugh as the absurdity of language provokes means by which the audience can laugh.  However, due to the unrelated nature of these topics of conversation, the audience would find it very difficult to create much meaning out of these conversations.  In my opinion, occasional spurts of comedy, used just for laughter, are placed in both Pinter’s and Beckett’s plays so that the audience is provided with some sort of relief to the tension caused by Goldberg and McCann in The Birthday Party, and by the anxious waiting for Godot in Waiting for Godot

To conclude, comedy has a role both in providing the audience with information about the subtext of the plot, as seen in Waiting for Godot and The Birthday Party.  However, also seen in these plays, comedy is used for comic relief to the tension brought by the characters in these plays, though in much less quantity but definitely impactful.  In both plays, there are different types and plentiful comedy, however the question about the effectiveness of comedy as the most efficient way of presenting information has to be considered.  In one sense, it allows the audience to be engaged within the story, however it also may dissipate the seriousness of the play.  Personally, comedy is an effective way to present information due to the fact that the human condition allows us to be engaged, involved and interested in the drama in a positive way. 

Examiner's comments and marks:

Criterion A:  Knowledge and Understanding (5 marks)

  • How much knowledge and understanding has the student shown of the part 3 works studied in relation to the question answered? 

4 out of 5

There is good knowledge and understanding of the part 3 works in relation to the question answered.

The response refers to a range of specific and relevant scenes from both plays in order to answer the question, demonstrating an assured knowledge and understanding. 

Criterion B:  Response to the question (5 marks)
  • How well has the student understood the specific demands of the question?
  • To what extent has the student responded to these demands?
  • How well have the works been compared and contrasted in relation to the demands of the question?

3 out of 5

The student responds to most of the main implications of the question, with relevant ideas. A comparison is made of the works used in relation to the question, but it may be superficial.

There is an attempt to explore what comedy does in both plays, beyond provoking laughter, and some comparison, although in both cases,  the answer remains fairly superficial.  

Criterion C: Appreciation of the literary conventions of the genre (5 marks)
  • To what extent does the student identify and appreciate the use of literary conventions in relation to the question and the works used?

3 out of 5

Examples of literary conventions are mostly correctly identified, and there is some development relevant to the question and the works used.

While fairly light in terms of literary terminology, the focus on comedy is sustained, with consideration of the ways in which props, dialogue, movement and action are used by playwrights - definitely enough for 3 here.  

Criterion D: Organization and development (5 marks)
  • How well organized, coherent and developed is the presentation of ideas?

3 out of 5

Ideas are adequately organized, with a suitable structure and some attention paid to coherence and development.

Structure is clear and the response has some development. 

Criterion E: Language (5 marks)
  • How clear, varied and accurate is the language?
  • How appropriate is the choice of register, style and terminology? (“Register” refers, in this context, to the student’s use of elements such as vocabulary, tone, sentence structure and terminology appropriate to the task.)

4 out of 5

Language is clear and carefully chosen, with a good degree of accuracy in grammar, vocabulary and sentence construction; register and style are consistently appropriate to the task.

The language and style are mostly accurate and appropriate throughout.  


17 out of 25

17 out of 25 is a 5.  This is a coherent, competent response to the question. 

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