Samuel Beckett’s classic and controversial “Waiting For Godot” — which revolutionized theatre when it debuted in the 1950s — opens tonight

Samuel Beckett’s classic and controversial “Waiting For Godot” — which revolutionized theatre when it debuted in the 1950s — opens tonight

Waiting for Godot

Samuel Beckett’s existentialist masterpiece opens tonight, Wednesday, Jan. 21, at the Key City Theatre

Yme Woensdregt

… and waiting and waiting and waiting. “Waiting for Godot” has often been described as “the play where nothing happens” — and justifiably so.

The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, dressed as tramps with bowler hats, wait on a bare stage with only a bare tree, a large, upended crate, and, at the edges, tall blank blocks which suggest faceless skyscrapers.

The couple, who often refer to each other by the pet names of Didi and Gogo, are not sure if they’ve ever met Godot, or if they’re waiting in the right place, or even whether Godot will even show up.

While they wait, Gogo and Didi fill their time with mundane activities (like taking a boot off) and trivial conversation. After a while Lucky arrives, a man/servant/pet with a thick rope around his neck, the other end held by his master Pozzo. The four of them do together what Gogo and Didi were doing earlier—nothing. After a while, Pozzo and Lucky leave, and the original two characters can continue doing nothing by themselves.

That roughly describes what goes on in Act 1. Act 2 has the same structure of nothingness, with minor variations. Each act ends with a young boy who comes to announce that Godot isn’t coming today but will be there tomorrow.

Samuel Beckett published his play in 1949. It was premiered in its original French language form in 1953 in a small theatre in Paris; and Beckett’s English translation premiered two years later in London.

Many critics at the opening were baffled by it. “Gibberish! Uninspiring! A really remarkable piece of twaddle!” said one critic. Others hailed the play as a masterpiece which would transform the theatre. Beckett takes “the very ordinary stuff of life, the undramatic, and turns it into drama.”

Today, it is recognized as a literary masterpiece. Irish literary critic Vivian Mercier described it as a “play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.” Beckett won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969.

Barry Coulter (left) as Vladimir and Barry Borgstrom as Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

Beckett was one of the primary authors in the movement which came to be called the “Theatre of the Absurd.” Following existentialist philosophers like Albert Camus, these authors claimed that human existence is essentially meaningless and has no purpose, and that all communication simply breaks down. Humanity is left feeling hopeless and anxious.

The context in which this movement arose makes it understandable: the atrocities of World War 2 and the developing Cold War in which nuclear annihilation became an ever–present threat.

Local director and producer, the ever–ambitious Paul Kershaw, said that “Good drama depends on good literature, so I chose one of the best.” He chose five actors who have graced Cranbrook’s stages many times, and who brought this drama to vivid life.

Barry Borgstrom (Estragon) and Barry Coulter (Vladimir) offer a sympathetic and vibrant interpretation. They have developed an extraordinary chemistry between them, and feed off each other as the meaningless conversation progresses. Listening to them interact with each other was akin to watching a skillfully played tennis game — which would come close to my definition of meaninglessness! They come together and move apart in a delicious choreography of words and movement.

Mark Casey is a suitably tamed Lucky, who comes out of his normal stupor and delivers a shines marvelously in the one brilliant soliloquy he is given. Dave Prinn is a boisterous Pozzo, commanding the stage whenever he appears, demanding our attention. Austin McAra, who plays the young lad who appears at the end of each act, holds his own with the rest of the talent onstage.

The play contains a very broad kind of humour, filled with puns and clichés and non sequiturs. What particularly interested me were the many references to Biblical and Christian themes. Although it lacks a plot, and has no character development, it held my interest throughout the two hours. I recommend it highly.

Afterwards, I found myself wondering about these two characters. Where did they come from? Where are they going? Are they symbols of something deeper? Or are they just some of the traumatic detritus of life as we face possible extinction?

One final comment. I came to the play as someone who disagrees deeply with this absurdist philosophy. I believe that we are always engaged in activities which make meaning in our lives. The search for meaning is the big question for human beings in this era. Granted, that quest is not an easy one … but even Gogo and Didi give up on suicide as a way out of their meaningless life.

Near the end of the play, Vladimir declaims, “Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be?”

For me, the truth will be in that he and Estragon cared for each other. “Nothing is certain,” says Estragon. Yet they stay together and find a touch of meaning in their relationship.

“Waiting for Godot” plays at the Key City Theatre Wednesday through Saturday, Jan. 21–24, at 7:30 pm.