Nothing ever happens

Go see Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and decide for yourself what it means — if it means anything. As one of the play’s four characters laments, “Nothing ever happens!”

Two men, Estragon (“Gogo”) and Vladimir (“Didi”), are waiting for Godot (even though they seem unsure just who or what Godot is). And while they’re waiting, they find ways to pass the time — insulting each other, bantering back and forth, enduring a visit from fellow bums Pozzo and Lucky, attempting to hang themselves (but with Laurel-and-Hardy ineptitude) and concluding, “That passed the time.” “It would have passed in any case.”

It’s not the kind of play you’d turn into an action/thriller/commando flick with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For one thing, all four characters wear bowler hats — something post-Cold War Hollywood action heroes would die before stooping to.

Director Andrew Gall of Highland Repertory Theatre explains that when Beckett wrote Godot (in French in 1948), he “was very taken with [comedians] Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.” And despite the existentialist fatalism Beckett weaves into the dialogue and story line (if you can call it that), Gall sees Godot as “a very life-affirming play and not oppressive at all.”

Case in point: The physical antics of Estragon and Vladimir clearly recall those silent-movie icons — like the moment when Vladimir tries to help Estragon remove his boots. Their banter, too, evokes vintage movie slapstick: Having decided to try hanging themselves off the bough of a sorry excuse for a willow tree, Estragon says, “We can always try.”

“Go ahead,” says Vladimir.

“After you,” Estragon enjoins.

“No, no, you first,” says Vladimir — and the two proceed to argue over who’s lighter … or heavier.

Finally, Estragon declares, “Don’t let’s do anything. It’s safer.”

It’s an absurdist work about doing nothing (and how to go about it).

Alone in a hostile world

“It’s the most universal play, because it deals with the most basic questions — time and how it passes, and how faith in something gives your life purpose,” says Gall. Highland Rep, he remarks, picks plays that might be “something our audiences will be stimulated by [and] maybe challenged by.”

Every day, Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot, promising themselves, “Tomorrow everything will be better” (although tomorrow turns out to be suspiciously like today).

Some past productions, notes Gall, broke with Beckett’s intentions a bit — setting the play in a post-nuclear holocaust, or performing it as a treatise on oppression and slavery, or focusing on its Christian elements.

“I’m much more interested in having people see the play and decide what it means to them,” he says.

Waiting for Godot hasn’t been produced in Asheville since an all-female-cast version done at UNCA about 10 years ago, recalls Professor David Hopes, who plays Estragon. And though Hopes teaches the play as a classic example of existentialism — the notion that one is alone in a hostile world, and that human existence is unexplainable — in theater, he admits, “If you looked for a theme [in Godot], you’d have a hard time finding it.”

In 1956, critic Brooks Atkinson called the play “Mr. Beckett’s acrid cartoon of the story of mankind” and asserted that “it seems fairly certain that Godot stands for God.”

Beckett heartily refuted that notion, along with attempts to paint the play as some sort of allegory or a work replete with symbolism (a decidedly nonexistentialist business).

Maybe Gall’s right about letting audiences (not critics) decide what the play means: First performed in the Left Bank Theatre de Babylone in Paris in 1953, it slowly caught on among audiences around the world — most notably, perhaps, in a performance at San Quentin in 1957, where prisoners immediately identified with the characters.

Lois Oppenheim wrote of that production: “I remember opening night at San Quentin when, at the end of the play, Twin and Happy [the actors playing Vladimir and Estragon] were standing before that tree. Happy asks Twin, ‘Why don’t we hang ourselves?’ And Twin replies, ‘With what?’ Happy says, ‘You haven’t got a piece of rope?’ He is standing there asking his best friend if they should hang themselves. [The inmates are childhood friends from Watts, a Los Angeles ghetto.] I told them to talk to each other as though they were standing on the street in Watts. Then Happy says to his best friend, ‘And if he comes?’ What he is saying is, ‘What shall we do if the Department of Corrections opens the gates and we’re saved?’ So he faces the director of the Department of Corrections, and he smiles and says, ‘Then we are saved.’ That was my present to Sam Beckett. I gave him that. The production was for him and for us and the audience. And then I walked up onstage and gave each of the actors one red rose.”

A production at a Swedish facility elicited this response from a prisoner: “Do you know what is happening here? You are giving me my life. This play is my diary. What Vladimir is thinking about and talking about, screaming about and crying and laughing about is me.”

It’s worth noting that when Beckett made Paris his home in 1937, he was stabbed in the street by a man who had begged him for money; after recovering from a perforated lung, Beckett visited his assailant in prison and asked him why he had attacked. “Je ne sais pas, monsieur,” the man replied.

I don’t know.

Knowing this, you might find something depressing about Estragon’s quintessentially French existentialist remark, “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?”

Yet there’s something almost optimistic in Vladimir’s response: “Yes, yes, we’re magicians. But let us persevere in what we have resolved, before we forget.”

The cast includes David Hopes (Estragon), Ralph Redpath (Pozzo), Kermit Brown (Vladimir), Jesse Benz (Lucky) and 7th-grader Lee Storrow (boy). Hopes teaches literature and humanities at UNCA and is a poet, a regular in Asheville Community Theatre productions, and the founder/director of Black Swan Theater. Redpath, who was ACT’s artistic director for 11 years, serves on the boards of both the Asheville Area Arts Council and the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre. Asheville native Brown has performed at the Flat Rock Playhouse and such other renowned venues as the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Benz, who was a recurring character in the soap opera “All My Children,” played Billy in Highland Rep’s first Asheville production, The Language of Angels. Storrow’s favorite role to date has been Augustus Gloop in Tanglewood’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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