Two-time Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Morris Panych has done with What Lies Before Us the almost unthinkable: he has turned Waiting for Godot into a comedy while simultaneously heightening rather than minimizing the profound existential questions it asks. But this play is no mere parody of a theatre classic, nor is it a “history play.” The roots of Panych’s comedy extend to the confrontation of Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” with their “educated betters,” and to the fundamentally and hilariously irreconcilable differences between the world views of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
The English Mr. Keating and the Scottish Mr. Ambrose are assistant surveyors camped in the Rocky Mountains with Mr. Wing, their Chinese coolie, starving as they wait for “the Major,” an American adventurer, to show up and lead their railroad survey party in the nation-building enterprise called Canada. Of course, the Major never shows up, leaving the rude and uneducated Keating and the disillusioned and highly schooled Ambrose to engage in an increasingly absurd hair-splitting and sidesplitting dialogue about the meaning of life, and both of them utterly frustrated in their ongoing attempts to communicate with Wing, who speaks only Cantonese. Heightening our sense of the darkly comic is that we know things are not going to end well: Keating is dying of rabies he got from a squirrel bite, and Ambrose is about to succumb to a gangrenous broken leg, which no one can quite bring himself to cut off. Functioning as both a comic foil to Keating and Ambrose, and an incomprehensible chorus to the audience (unless it understands Cantonese), Wing is about to have the last word. Finally understood, translated into English through a trick of stagecraft, Wing’s final speech completely inverts the play with a devastatingly poignant version of the events we have just witnessed.