Waiting with bated breath

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'LIKE punk never happened." That was the tongue-in-cheek phrase they always used in the NME when musicians regressed to bloated pre-1977 ways. I've never heard an equivalent barb in the theatre but "like absurdism never happened" would come close. Or, more precisely, "like Pirandello and Beckett never happened".

With their most famous works, these two playwrights rewrote the rules. If Six Characters in Search of an Author is Never Mind the Bollocks, then Waiting for Godot is London Calling, genre-defining pieces that lay down a challenge to every play that succeeded them.

What is special about both plays is that, in the words of Peter Hall, Godot's first English-language director, they "returned theatre to its metaphorical roots". Although written three decades apart, they combine as a kind of theatrical year zero. Without Six Characters in Search of an Author there would be no La Cubana, Purple Rose of Cairo or Being John Malkovich. Without Waiting for Godot we'd lose the line from Harold Pinter through David Mamet to David Harrower.

By a perfect coincidence, both plays are being staged in Scotland this month, giving us the chance to see if they live up to their radical reputation. Waiting for Godot is being staged as the opening in-house production of the season at Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre, while the Pirandello kicks off at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum as part of a three-way collaboration with the Citizens' and the National Theatre of Scotland.

What makes the two plays stand out is not simply the fuss they caused on their debuts. Yes, half the first-night audience in Rome yelled, "Asylum, asylum!" and hounded Pirandello out of the theatre. Yes, after the line in Godot that runs, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It's awful," a voice from the auditorium shouted: "Hear! hear!" But there have been other incendiary plays – The Playboy of the Western World, The Plough and the Stars, Look Back in Anger – which have lost their shock value in a way that these two have not.

It is true that we have acclimatised a little to the Pirandello and Beckett. Today we find it funny to read the actor Robert Morley when he once lamented that "the success of Waiting for Godot means the end of the theatre as we know it". And we feel kinship with Albert Einstein, who is reputed to have gone backstage after a performance of Six Characters in Search of an Author and said to Pirandello: "We are soulmates." But however much we ourselves want to be soulmates with the writers, their plays retain a strangeness with which we can never be entirely comfortable.

"It's partly because they're formal explorations as well as explorations in terms of content," says Guy Hollands, the director of Waiting for Godot. "There is a challenge in how people perceive them. Godot is a play that doesn't give up its secrets easily. It's tantalising. It's hard to believe people were outraged, because it's become mainstream and accepted. I do feel people think they know this play and that they're comfortable with it, but actually the experience of it is surprising and fresh."

Over at the Royal Lyceum, director Mark Thomson says that although Six Characters in Search of an Author is rooted in the conventions of early-20th century theatre, its central question about the nature of identity is forever unsettling. "The play goes right to the heart of being," he says. "How do we feel real? How do we feel substantial? Today we're in a society set adrift, things are moving fast and we don't have a moral centre. That is absolutely Pirandello. He says that reason is the enemy of truth. I think we know how that feels now.

"Pirandello invented a form of theatre that didn't exist, and the reason they rioted was they didn't know what they were watching. The play has been so influential that you can't say it is still radical, but it is a remarkably fresh and brightly defined idea. Like many great works of art, its originality in its time manages to prevail through centuries. The idea is so bright and interesting that the whole company is being surprised by it."

The plays hold our attention because they use the theatre as a metaphor for life. Beckett sees the idle time we spend between curtain up and final applause as being like the meaningless passage from birth to death. When one character says a bit of stage business helped pass the time, the other replies, "It would have passed in any case." Meanwhile Pirandello, in David Harrower's translation, suggests we are as insubstantial as fictional characters because our personalities are always changing.

" 'Once you were somebody who believed certain things about himself; who saw things in a certain way,' goes one line in the play. 'Are you that same person now?' "

Today we'd call such meta-theatrics postmodern, and if these plays still strike us as innovative, it's partly because we're still racing to catch up.

"People are still writing plays that tie everything up and tell you what to think," says Hollands. "But Beckett demands a lot of us."

"What the two plays share is a real leanness of text that throws up a richness of philosophy," adds Thomson.

"But they're hugely compelling on a human level. Beckett and Pirandello make creations from an odd camera angle that we're not used to seeing. It's a view of the world that validates the irrational."

&149 Waiting for Godot is at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow; Six Characters in Search of an Author is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Both plays run 15 February until 8 March.