Strait is the Gate: Seattle gets a rare shot at seeing the definitive production of Beckett's 'Godot'

Some have said that "Waiting for Godot" is the quintessential play of the 20th century. Well, here we are in the 21st century still stumbling around, still trying to find the meaning of life in an absurd world. And Samuel Beckett's characters continue to remind us that we are not alone in our confusion.

Vladimir and Estragon have become icons for the absurd hopes of humankind and the meaninglessness of human life. They are waiting for the promised arrival of somebody named Godot. We don't know why, but clearly the guy is important, and his appearance is much anticipated. The problem is, he never shows up.

These tramps, or refugees or whatever they are, just talk, talk, talk, obsessively perhaps to keep desperation away. Their lives seem tedious. These are the insignificant people akin to those played by Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy, and the humor throughout the play has that comedic quality. We humans may have a hopeless destiny, but really isn't it a great joke on us all?

Beckett had good reason to question the meaning of life. One January night when he was in his early 30s, he was walking down a Parisian street with a friend when a pimp sprang out of the dark and knifed him, perforating a lung and barely missing his heart. The assailant didn't know Beckett, and at his trial said that he didn't know why he did it.

Beckett's recuperation was accomplished under the care of James Joyce's personal physician. Beckett, a great admirer of fellow Irishman Joyce, had become his close friend and a member of his creative circle. Both men loved language and word play. Joyce's death three years later was devastating to Beckett.

Beckett not only loved language, he studied it; his undergraduate degree was in French and Italian. He wrote "Godot" in French, and it was first performed in Paris in 1952. It followed World War II and debuted during a period marked by political instability and philosophical angst. These were the years when the existentialists Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre examined the ludicrous nature of human existence. Theirs was the reigning philosophical approach among the intellectual élite. Despite that, audiences and critics didn't quite get "Godot" at first. Reviews of the initial production were mixed.

The U.S. debut in 1956 was in Miami, Florida, of all places. It starred Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell. But it didn't fare well. Perhaps the audiences expected broad comedy rather than more subtle humor. At any rate, the play closed quickly. It did far better in a 1957 performance in San Quentin prison; Johnny Cash wasn't the first performer to find a receptive audience behind bars. From all reports, more than 1,400 inmates were wowed by Godot. They understood tedium. They knew what it was to wait and wait and wait some more.

As the years passed, the play was produced in repertory theatres around the world. It was included in major drama festivals and has been recognized as a theater masterpiece. It can be said that "Godot" broadened the definition of what a play needed if it were to be considered significant. Beckett is now recognized as one of the most important of modern dramatists. His influence is most keenly seen in the work of Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard and Tom Stoppard.

The production which opens tonight at the Moore Theatre and runs for only six performances comes to Seattle because of a special partnership between the Seattle Theatre Group and ACT Theatre. It was brought to us from the Gate Theatre of Dublin, and this Irish production is considered by most Beckett fans to be the definitive "Godot."

It was first mounted by the Gate in 1988 when Beckett approached the company's artistic director, Michael Colgan. With Colgan's go-ahead, Beckett asked his close friend Walter D. Asmus to direct that run. Asmus did so, and then again as part of the Beckett Festival in 1991 and now for this U.S. venture. Over the years the Gate's production has been presented almost 300 times around the world. It is played by actors who have been doing it for 20 years.

This 2006 tour of the United States includes six stops. Most recently, it was in New York at the end of October and in Berkeley earlier this week. Each city has been allotted just a few performances. Seattle's run ends on Sunday. Though the inmates at San Quentin loved it, most people agree that "Godot" is for the sophisticated theater audience. As one French theater critic has said, this is a play in which "nothing happens, twice." But oh, what meaty thoughts are tossed out for the audience to savor while nothing is happening.

Seattle was chosen as one of the sites for the current U.S. tour because it has more than its share of theater sophisticates. If you are one, or want to be one, this is an unusual opportunity.

'Waiting for Godot'

Through Nov. 12 at the Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave.

Tickets: $38.50-$43.50, available at 292-2787, or the Moore and The Paramount Theatre box offices at Ticketmaster outlets

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