My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A play written in dramatic form , ‘The Sunset Limited’ is a story that reads like a dynamic exchange between two opposing poles of modern society trying to reconcile their clashing views on the meaning of life. This thinly-disguised, modern re-working of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ examines the fundamental ‘lacks’ within set communities and reveals some startling facts about faith, trust and goodwill.
The story opens on two strangers whose paths cross after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. ‘White’, a renowned and respected college professor who has given up on life finds himself in the most unlikely of places; the kitchen of an unemployed, ex-convict called ‘Black’. Black is equally surprised, considering that only an hour ago the man at his table attempted to throw himself in the path of an oncoming train. United on a whim of fate, they sit across from each other drinking coffee, staring at their own polar opposites.
For Black, the insufferable darkness within White poses an enigma. Before him is a man of success, intelligence and a mind far superior to his own. White was born lucky; he was spared the ethnic stigmas attached to being a certain colour of skin. Black is awed by this man who has everything to live for, and everything Black has ever wanted, but never had the chance to achieve and cannot comprehend why he would want to kill himself. Similarly, White is also confused by the positivity within Black, and is indifferent to his humanitarian pleas to give up on suicide because he fails to understand how a cold-blooded murderer and drug-addict can still claim to hear God’s word. In a dirty, run-down kitchen two men disguised as the forces of despair and hope lay out their arguments, each hoping to win the other over to his side.
As I stated before, McCarthy’s story borrows heavily from Beckett’s masterpiece, but seems to lack the potent prose and dry humour that made the former a modern classic. When I first read ‘Waiting for Godot’ in college, I was impressed by Beckett’s decision to strip the main concept of man’s inexhaustible search for meaning down to its bare bones. This theme of ‘hopeless hope’ is explored in many different lights and always shines through from whichever angle you care to look. Unfortunately I cannot say the same for ‘Sunset Limited’. I found the language too stale and repetitive. Repetition was a major part of ‘Waiting for Godot’, but in Becketts’ case it was a working feature of the play and had reason to be there. McCarthy’s version is repetitive from a lack of structure. It is a daring thing to write a play that focuses on only two characters, because all the focus will be on the dialogue. I am afraid to say that the dialogue in ‘Sunset Limited’ is a bit translucent at the best of times and tends to wander off at times. Having said that, the best part of the play was actually the ending, but I won’t give that away as I would like people to have something to look forward to if they do decide to read it.
Beckett’s play gave a strong message to its audience that is unmistakable even in plain text form. I have yet to see ‘Waiting for Godot’ on stage, but I wonder if my perspective of ‘Sunset Limited’ would change if I saw it performed. I didn’t want this review turning into a comparison between McCarthy and Beckett, but the similarities are uncanny and force my mind down that path. What the play eventually boils down to is this: While Becketts’ Vladimir and Estragon are forever waiting around for the arrival of the elusive ‘Godot’ and getting suicidal tendencies throughout their wait; White and Black have already drawn their conclusions of ‘Godot’ or ‘Gods’ existence. White is done waiting and decided on the path of suicide; while Black has found his own version of ‘Godot’ as a way to redeem his numerous sins.
While McCarthy takes the characters of Becketts’ play one step further, he does little to develop the plot they are embedded in and manages to displace them from their environment altogether (and his readers for that matter). Out of the two, I would say read Beckett instead, or go one better, and watch the play if you get the chance. The way I see it, if it isn’t broken don’t try to fix it.