There are certain things that as a cultured person you feel you ought to know, or read or see. There have been times when – despite being an aficionado of pop culture – I have failed myself profusely on some of these popular culture touchstones in literature, theater, movies and television. And I felt really lucky that I would have one of those failures remedied this season at the Shakespeare Theatre when they brought an Irish production of Waiting for Godot to the Lansburgh Theatre.
I’m pretty sure we discussed Waiting for Godot in the one English literature class I took in college. It’s very possible that I didn’t pay enough attention when we studied the play. I was never one who was good at discussing symbols, metaphor, hidden and double meanings. Add to that the fact that playwright Samuel Beckett was famously secretive about what the meaning behind Waiting for Godot might be. So it’s the kind of thing that scholars and critics like to discuss because they can go round and round forever, and no one is ever wrong…or right.
All of this is to say that I went into Waiting for Godot excited. I was finally going to see one of those cultural-bucket-list plays and and I was going to feel like a fancy person for having done it.
I was so disappointed.
I HATED it. In fact, for the first time in my life – I walked out of the theater at the intermission.
This isn’t to say that it’s any fault of the production that was staged. The set was beautiful. The costumes were interesting. The actors were obviously very talented. The actor playing Lucky has to be particularly gifted in order to pull off a stream-of-conciousness-style rant that is the peak of the first act. The lighting was evocative. Everyone involved in the production was obviously very gifted.
The problem is the play itself. There’s just not a lot to it as far as the Boy and I could see. Yes, you’ve got two characters waiting for the unseen Godot who will never arrive. And they discuss the meaning of life and they discuss the least important things in the world, but it’s all pointless. The entire play seems to be pointing towards a philosophy of nihilism, which in this way is just tedious. The entire thing feels like some kind of pretentious test as well – can you make it through this play which has no meaning and is super confusing? Will you be able to talk about it with other people and pretend that you understood and liked it? It just felt very hipster-beatnik in a way that it didn’t want to have a big audience of people who actually “got it” because then the play would lose all its cache. As soon as the masses can understand what’s happening, the production looses all it’s cool points.
Thank goodness that the Boy and I felt the same way about the show. Despite having slept well, and having been energized by a tasty dinner at SEI next door and a walk to get a cupcake from Red Velvet, we both struggled to stay awake. The audience too was the quietest we had ever experienced at the Shakespeare Theatre, with every rustle being heard, and every laugh feeling awkward and specific to the person who laughed it. At the very end of the first act we looked at each other questioningly, and moved out of the theater into the reception area to talk about the play. We moved towards the exit, to ostensibly talk outside, and it was in that moment as we walked out the door that we agreed we weren’t going back for the second act. Thank goodness our dinner was good, or else the night would have felt like a total bust!
In our discussion on the way back to the car, we decided that this was very likely a pivotal moment in our relationship. After years of attending the theater together and having enjoyed most everything we saw, this felt like the biggest of whiffs. And what if one of us had really liked it? What if the other had wanted to go, but the one said, “No – I’m intrigued! I want to see how it turns out!” Or worse, “You just don’t get it.” Because this feels like the kind of show where if you and your theater partner – especially if they are your significant other – do not agree, it means you have different philosophies of what good theater is, and perhaps you don’t get along as well as you think you do. So both knowing that we were happy to not return for the second act, and not having to do any convincing either way was probably the kind of thing that made our marriage stronger.
I’m not saying don’t go see it. Like I said – it’s technically very well done. The set, especially is beautiful in spite of (and maybe because of?) its simplicity, and it is the kind of show that is consistently praised as being “important”. But when you struggle to find any meaning in a play which has very little meaning ascribed to it, perhaps you could find a better use of your hard earned theater dollars.