Samuel Beckett, the great outsider, the last modernist, the writer of one of theatre’s most celebrated plays. The thing is, this is a play with no plot, no beginning, middle or end, no climax and no conclusion. Just how has a play with no story become a mainstay in West End theatre?
At Paris’ Théâtre de Babylone, January the 5th 1953, there was a watershed moment in modern theatre, in a playhouse littered with the Parisian high-brow, a play was performed in which Irish Time writer, Vivian Merceir wrote “nothing happens. Twice.”
It begins with two homeless men, waiting at a roadside by a lone tree. They are at no time, and at no real place, they are neither here nor there, anywhere and everywhere, waiting for someone who will never turn up.
Regardless of this, the play was a storming success - "All the thousands who claimed they were there could never have been at the premiere. There weren't enough seats," says James Knowlson, Beckett's official biographer.
But why? Why are still waiting for Godot? Maybe it’s because the whole thing is completely open to interpretation. It isn’t in a time or a place, so it’s universally relatable and never dated, it asks the eternal questions of life and death and that bit in-between, but from no particular era. Throughout the years, it’s become a critique of apartheid in South Africa to a symbol for a community’s recovery in a post-Katrina New Orleans. It’s nothingness is it’s appeal, it can represent anything to anyone, no matter time or place. It’s a play of what it means to be human, which is why it’s been cited as such a catalyst for change.
Perhaps the popularity comes back to the writer himself, classically Irish, Knowlson described him as a man who could be “very convivial, very witty, very good company, with a great sense of humour. But there was an element of depression and despair that was part of his life, particularly after the war when he was deeply involved in writing the novels." His name is a literary brand, and his style of avant-garde, dark humour perfect for the Irish ‘Face Life Signing’ attitude.
Throughout the play, there is a dark comedy lurking under the bleak and the gloom, a lightening to the world’s dark. Beckett himself was guilty of the same. An article for the BBC recounts an anecdote of then publisher, John Calder – he once met an anxious Beckett fleeing a plane about to take off. Godot must have been haunting his creator, as the flight began with a cheerful introduction from a ‘Captain Godot’, welcoming his passengers onbaord.
Beckett’s response as he fled?" I wondered if my destiny had caught up with me at last."
Credit to Flickr user sillygwailo for the top image