Samuel Beckett’s groundbreaking play Waiting For Godot saw its first publication in English in 1954, exactly 70 years ago. It’s one of those iconic cultural products that more people have heard about than read, so in observation of its seventieth birthday this would be a good time to experience the play in which, it’s often said, nothing happens – twice.
Beckett strove for a minimalism that made Hemingway look flamboyant. He envied musical composers who, he said wistfully, weren’t condemned to explicitness. As his career went on, his writing for the theater got sparer and sparer. His already modest cast sizes got smaller and smaller. He hid his actors in trash cans or half-buried them in the dirt. He cast Krapp’s Last Tape with only one actor and a tape recorder. Soon he was writing plays to be performed by specific body parts. His play Breath is about 35 seconds long and features no actors at all.
Compared to these later works, Waiting for Godot is positively expansive: two acts, four guys, one boy, and a tree. In it, two beleaguered itinerants wait for a mutual acquaintance to arrive. Spoiler alert: he never does. But in the space created by that waiting, Beckett plays language games, indulges in vaudevillian slapstick, philosophizes, and oscillates between comedy and despair.
The original cast included seasoned vaudevillian (and Cowardly Lion) Bert Lahr. Other actors who’ve tackled the show through the years include Zero Mostel, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, Nathan Lane, Ethan Hawke, Mel Gibson, and – in a successful Off-Broadway run that only just recently ended – Michael Shannon. Beckett’s a stubbornly singular original – if you haven’t encountered his dramatic writings before, they’re worth a look.