Watching Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s production of Waiting For Godot, made as part of Beckett On Film, I finally came to realize the play’s true power and why it’s held up as a masterwork of 20th century drama. I once read it and found it tedious, and the only production I had seen was an inferior one where the actors resorted to physical comedy to keep the audience interested because they lacked the skill required to cope with the intense demands Beckett’s writing makes upon the actor.
Johnny Murphy and Barry McGovern play Beckett’s iconic tramps Vladimir and Estragon, who, situated in the middle of nowhere and with only a tree for company, wait for a certain Mr Godot to arrive. The acting is a model of excellence: simple and true, direct and generous, Murphy and McGovern exclude the non-essential, and both posses the skill and discipline required to deliver Beckett’s intricate and rapid-fire dialogue with the necessary precision of intention and cleanliness of action (further, they are able to deliver the speeches at high velocity and yet nothing is lost, I recommend their work as a demonstration of the power of superb diction) thus revealing the humor and sadness of the play, (as oppose to stamping on it with good ideas and characterization). And so then, this production is an excellent example of how high quality actors can unlock the true power of great writing. My guess is this is fairly close to Beckett’s original intentions. *
Many interpretations of the play refer to the “futility of life” and the “absurdity of man’s existence”, I, however, view the play as an acknowledgement that, yes, life can be a grind, that it can be disappointing and sad and miserable and even humiliating, but also that hope can inspire resilience. What’s great about Vladimir and Estragon is that even though they are disappointed at Godot’s failure to arrive on the first day, they stick to their task , and come back and wait to see if he’ll turn up the next day. They have nothing to go on apart from a young boy who is sent by Godot to inform Vladimir and Estragon that he wont be coming. Several times during the play one of the tramps suggests to the other they move on, but each time one reminds the other that they cannot move on because they’re “waiting for Godot”, and if he doesn’t come today, he may come tomorrow or the day after that or the day after that and so on. Nothing is certain, there is only hope, nothing is concrete. And herein lies the greatness of our lives: that despite the disappointments of today, we will try again tomorrow.
If this is an expression of the human condition, then that expression takes a concentrated form in the life of the actor, which is, in truth, many ephemeral lives, short and intense, lived out before an audience. When the actor is not performing, his time is spent waiting to be given the opportunity to perform, and when that opportunity is offered to him and hungrily accepted, a whole lifetime is lived by the actor during those couple of hours of his performance, but with an intensity that, for everyone else, is spread out over one life time. The non-performing part of the actor’s life is empty, and lacks meaning and direction, he is often confused and uncertain and dissatisfied, his personality only makes sense when he is playing a character. Away from the stage or the camera the actor looks for ways to fill his time, usually by engaging in projects which he pretends are important but which are quickly dropped once the chance to perform comes along again. This time is the equivalent to Beckett’s protagonists who play out games in order to avoid the silence. We never see Godot’s arrival during the course of the play, but for the actor in life, Godot does arrive occasionally in the form of a performance, and he occasionally arrives for all of us at various moments over the course of a lifetime.
* Alan Stanford as Pozzo, Stephen Brennan as Lucky and Sam McGovern as the Boy are also superb, especially Brennan as Lucky, check out his tommy-gun delivery of the stream of consciousness speech.