If, from time to time during the current news cycle, you find yourself mulling the existential void, or laughing bleakly at the tragicomedy of “alternative facts,” find some comfort in the fact that you are not alone. “You’re on earth,” the character Clov states at one point in Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame. “There’s no cure for that.”
Beckett, in fact, might be the perfect arbiter of these times, between his ineffably pessimistic view of life and his determination to laugh at it. Hence the sequence Stephen Colbert presented last night on The Late Show: a riff on the Republican efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, interpreted as theater of the absurd. Billed as “Samuel Beckett’s never-before-seen masterpiece, Waiting for Godot’s Obamacare Replacement,” the skit starred Patrick Stewart as Vladimir and Stephen Colbert as Estragon, two of theater’s most notorious fatalists.
The pair had the requisite bowler hats and air of existential—and possibly medical—malaise. “Nothing to be done,” Stewart’s Vladimir sighed, both an accurate statement about medical reform in the U.S., and the verbatim opening line from Waiting for Godot (it’s actually uttered by Estragon in the play). “Do you think a replacement will ever come?” Colbert’s Estragon asked.
The update, though, had the benefit of topical humor. Consider this exchange:
Estragon/Colbert: Perhaps it will come today.
Vladimir/Stewart: Or tomorrow.
Estragon/Colbert: Or the day after that.
Vladimir/Stewart: If we wait, it will come.
Estragon/Colbert: Why hasn’t it come already?
Vladimir/Stewart: He said it was more complicated than anyone thought.
Stewart is best-known in the U.S. for his film and TV roles, but he has a rich history in the theater. He played Vladimir alongside Ian McKellen’s Estragon in a revival of Waiting for Godot that ran in London in 2009, and in New York in repertory with Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land in 2013. Reviewing the New York production, the Times’s Ben Brantley noted how efficiently the play captured a very modern feeling of isolation and disconnection: “They are speaking, like you and me, to fill a void, to pass the hours, to assert their identities, to pretend that they’re truly connected to someone, anyone else.”
Grim, no? But Stewart and Colbert took things a degree further. “Owwww,” Colbert’s Estragon moaned. “Do you think my pre-existing condition will be covered?” Stewart offered philosophy (and Field of Dreams-style optimism) in response: “We will know, when the replacement comes.” Then, after briefly pondering whether they should move to Canada, the pair offered a dramatic subversion of Beckett’s play, in which (spoiler) Godot never comes—Didi and Gogo were beamed up into an invisible spaceship. A neat conclusion to a two-minute late-night skit, but perhaps an unrealistic solution to the roiling healthcare debate.