The other night I went to see Waiting for Godot - the production everyone has been shouting about, with the all-star cast of Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup. Like, I suspect, many of my generation, I studied the play for A level and wrote essays on it ad infinitum, covering topics about which I now remember next to nothing. The brain cells start dropping like flies around my vintage.
I do know three things. First, in the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, I was riveted from beginning to end. Great acting does that for you: the characters came to life convincingly as they never did from the ice-cold pages. McKellen's Estragon, almost the archetypal tramp, psyche wobbling and feet a continual obsession, seemed strange, pitiable and yet astute in flashes that made him all the more human; Stewart's Vladimir, the 'dominant partner', was most touching when taking best care of him. And the nightmare of the Pozzo-Lucky relationship, the master and slave of a failing era fettered together by the past and their own natures, has never seemed more believable or symbolic.
Secondly, I realise I managed to go through the entire A-level process without once twigging that the action takes place in France (did we even know that French was this play's first language?). Or that the world into which it was launched in the late 1940s was morphing from wartime into uneasy peace, the old structures bombed out or crumbling, the new only glints in a few eyes through strange-coloured specs. All of which means that the play makes sense - if put in that context. The French connection is rather obvious now. Our tramps have French names and French-style diminuitives. They talk about picking grapes near the Rhone, about the glory days when they were among the first people to go up the Eiffel Tower in the 1890s...
At A level, we picked apart every word, pondered the significance of one character blaming a fart on another (but couldn't it just be a moment of slapstick comedy/clever characterisation?), what exactly Vladimir means when he explains that they don't have rights because "we got rid of them". I suspect we wrote about the balance of power, the master/slave/victim/ self-perpetuating relationships and the concept of time, dislocated and unfathomable. And of course: who is Godot? I know beyond a doubt (no.3) that I didn't understand a word of it. And though I'm still not too sure I understand it now, in the hands of such expert performers it shines out as brilliant, startling and original as it must have been 60 years ago.
I was going to ask what on earth we'd been doing at school. We studied text, not context. Beckett was a label, not a person, let alone an author with an output. Did we read his other works? Did we hell. How can you take an exam on something and pass without knowing, at your core level, the first thing about its background, its historical context, its author, its roots, or the branches that are its influences? Pieces of writing don't get there on their own: they are dreamed up and decided upon by a human being of a particular mindset, living in a particular time, all of which can't help but impact on the work. Death of the Author my foot (as Estragon might say). Shouldn't that be a damning slur on the principles of English A Level back in the 1980s?
Ah, no...because I sat there loving my evening, while my companion, who'd never read a word of the play before, slumbered peacefully through half of it and declared he thought it was rubbish, even after researching its history on his iPhone during the interval. I don't know what other good that exam did, but it opened a door, and the door stayed open. Now, after all these years, there's a light on inside. I'm very grateful for that. Yay for exams.
WfG continues at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, until 9 August.
Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.
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