Stage: Waiting for meaning and Godot knows what else...
Brace yourselves, there's a play coming to the Galway International Arts Festival, a work of modernist genius. Modern, and yet the cast is made up of five males. Women don't perform in it, because the author's literary estate doesn't like that. It's set on a country road where, one notes, "everything's dead but the tree". There two ragged men wait. No one comes. When someone does come, it's the wrong man, a beastly slave-driver and his deranged "pig". The men joke, but consider suicide. Nothing happens, twice. And it's brought to you by Druid, so it's all sold out.
Are you excited for Waiting for Godot?
I had hoped you might be. Since that first production of En Attendant Godot, which Samuel Beckett wrote in his adoptive French and which opened at the Theatre de Babylon on the Left Bank of Paris on January 5, 1953, the play has excited people - excited rage and frustration, dizzy praise and volumes of scholarship.
Of course it has - so little happens on stage that the audience sitting waiting is called to action off stage. Those first shows during the 1950s across Europe set off a scramble of meaning-making. People had all the answers.
Max McGuinness points out in his book Beckett's Friendship that Waiting for Godot has "been interpreted as an allegory for British colonialism in Ireland, for the author's experiences in the French Resistance, for the Cold War and fear of nuclear holocaust, for the Death of God, for the Second Coming, for Hegel's master-slave dialectic, for Freud's structural model of the psyche, for Jung's theory of the self, and for Camus' ideas about the absurdity of existence".
All of which exasperated Beckett. He disliked talking about his work. He declined to explain it, and gave away only tiny hints of his intention - the name Godot was inspired by the French word godillot, slang for boot, he said. He did not know more than what was written in the text, he said. All theatre is waiting, he said.
The play that launched Beckett's fame had scarcely begun its first run before he was fed up with it. He didn't attend opening night in the Babylon. He cringed at people's reactions to what he soon referred to as "this f**king play". "Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can't make out," he wrote.
People are such a drag. No matter what Beckett said, we can't just enjoy not understanding something. We still want to know whether these two homeless men are waiting for something bigger than us.
Who is Godot? I asked Garry Hynes, Druid's Tony-winning artistic director, 40 years at the vanguard of Irish theatre. Surely she'll know.
"I don't know," she says on the phone from rehearsals in Galway. "I'll answer the way Beckett answered when he was asked if Godot was God. He said if he'd meant it to be God he would have written God."
The play is so widely staged, she says, that when some of her ensemble (Marty Rea, Rory Nolan, Aaron Monaghan, Garrett Lombard) told her they would like to do it, "my reaction was, did the world need another production of Waiting for Godot?" But she realised it was "the right thing to do". For her, the play is about "the loneliness of the individual trying to make sense of the world".
What does Hynes think is happening on this country road?
"The play is nothing but what it is. You are watching nothing other than two people waiting for this person called Godot. I think it's the struggle to say it's a metaphor for this or it's a metaphor for that, that makes it complicated. Actually, it's easy. It's a metaphor for nothing. It is what it is."
Beckett may not have been able to say who Vladimir and Estragon and Pozzo and Lucky and the Boy were, or what they were waiting for, but he knew one thing you didn't need a PhD in existential philosophy to understand: the experience of waiting is very unsettling. Waiting for medical tests. Waiting for a phone call. Waiting for someone who is late. Waiting, we are reduced to passive onlookers. But through waiting you find ways of surviving. You invent games and pastimes, you make friends with people. You go from boredom into a state of calm. Sometimes you go mad. The thing you're waiting for starts to shrink in importance. Or it grows into a God.
After the success Godot brought him, Beckett turned down the requests for media interviews. But he did answer the letters of prisoners who had performed the play behind bars. One unnamed German inmate offered a lucid interpretation: "We are all waiting for Godot and do not know that he is already here. Yes, here. Godot is my neighbour in the cell next to mine. Let's do something to help him then, change the shoes that are hurting him!"
A thought for the day, while we wait for Mr Godot, or Mrs Godot, or whoever it is.
Waiting for Godot: July 7/23, Mick Lally Theatre. Galway International Arts Festival See giaf.ie