The greatest play from the second half of the 20th century came, quite literally, out of nowhere. After writing Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett (who had no real history as a playwright) wrote a letter to his pal Michel Polac in which he admits, "I have no ideas about the theatre. I never go."
Fair enough. Things get a touch alarming, though, when Beckett goes on to announce that he has no ideas about Waiting for Godot, either. Was he in earnest?
Either way, it's the stance of knowing nothing that makes Godot such a seismic shift in the course of world literature. Just before Beckett, titans such as James Joyce and Marcel Proust had achieved the ne plus ultra of descriptive prowess with impossibly ornate texts like Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time.
The only place to go, after hitting that lofty height, is down. Down into the bleakness, the mystery, the gross meaninglessness of our actual, dreary lives. It's not stating anything new to mention that nothing happens in Godot (or that nothing happens twice). A pair of tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, sit under a tree for the play's entirety and bicker vaguely while they wait for someone named Godot to arrive. He does not. We go for intermission. And afterward, Godot does not arrive again. All this is, famously, a raised middle finger to the expectations of audiences. Or it was back in 1953.
When Blackbird Theatre, Vancouver's finest presenter of classic theatre, produces Godot almost 60 years later, it feels more like a superbly enacted piece of history than the rip in space/time it once was.
Certain elements cannot be scrubbed off a masterpiece by the vagaries of time, though. And this Godot has a fresh humour to it that left me seeing some aspects of the play as though they were just penned – even if I did wonder whether Beckett's seriousness was being diluted by the audience's laughter. (Then again, maybe the angst and the laughter are one: A friend once told me that the trick to Beckett is that he makes you laugh in the theatre but contemplate suicide later when you go to bed.)
Anthony F. Ingram plays Vladimir with a desperate hopefulness that shuttles the pair down an endless series of blind conversational alleys. And opposite Ingram is the stoic hobo-heavy Simon Webb, who presents as more prone to true despair. The pair manage to spar and spit at each other with real gusto throughout; they deliver a comedy of pettiness that often turns, unexpectedly, into true, bleeding pathos. ("I can't go on like this," says Estragon. "That's what you think," replies Vladimir.)
Those depressed fellows don't spend the whole play solely with each other. They are visited by the irascible Pozzo (a truly magnetic William Samples) and his hapless slave Lucky (Adam Henderson). Pozzo's interruptions – brief storms in both acts – serve to emphasize the horrifying calm before and afterward. Samples manages to create a figure as meaty as Falstaff in this production, and as fascinating.
But perhaps I was most affected by a singular exchange between Ingram's desperate Vladimir and a boy (Zander Constant) who wanders by. Vladimir, who is suddenly, crucially aware of the nightmare he's been living, his awful lack of purpose, cries to the boy: "You're sure you saw me? You won't come back tomorrow and say you never saw me?" Vladimir longs, as we all do, to be known, to be recognized, to have our lives count in the souls of others. Godot is ultimately a play about waiting, and the anguished uncertainty of life after God. But Ingram gives his Vladimir such human tenderness in that moment, such vulnerability, that we cannot help but transcend that loneliness. For a singular moment, it's not a play about nothing at all. It's about all of us, about how our fear that there's "nothing to be done" can actually bind us together.
Waiting for Godot
- Written by Samuel Beckett
- Directed by John Wright
- Starring Anthony F. Ingram and Simon Webb
- At The Cultch in Vancouver on Thursday