Not Reg, not Morley, but Godot
In 1972 a poet friend in Melbourne wrote me a letter asking if an actor he knew could come and stay with us in Adelaide. My then girlfriend Donna had no objection, and so I wrote back with our telephone number, saying we looked forward to his arrival.
Reg was a small wiry Englishman. We couldn’t tell how old he was, but as we were both not even out of our teens he seemed older than anyone else we knew, other than our parents. But he had an engaging manner and wit, and instantly charmed us. He had come to Adelaide in a production of Waiting for Godot, and got us tickets, and we were suitably stunned by the searing comedic bleakness of Beckett’s vision. The production starred another English actor, Robert Morley, but for us the play was stolen by Reg as Lucky, the tramp on a leash prodded along in a storm of insults by his monstrous master, Pozzo.
As Lucky, Reg got to deliver the greatest speech in the modern theatre. I had read the play in high school, in French as well as English, but seeing it brought to life on stage convinced me that Beckett had succeeded in creating a language all his own.
Reg’s tickets were a great boon to two kids hardly able to afford the rent. We had a rather sour, Dickensian landlady, and one day when Donna was alone in the house she barged in without permission for an ad hoc inspection, reducing Donna to tears. When Reg came home he gently insisted on taking Donna to the police station to file a complaint against the landlady, so that justice would be done.
The morning before he left, Reg took me aside for a word, saying “that landlady is such a awful woman - and real estate is really cheap in Adelaide... you should buy a house.” To which the young radical student/journalist replied: “Why would I want to buy a house? I don’t want to buy into the whole property thing.” To which Reg replied: “So you’d prefer to pay rent all your life would you?”
The thought resonated, and even though my parents also said “what would you want to buy a house for?”, Donna and I did buy a little house, and later on that became another house with another partner, and then other houses, a chain of them that led to the home in which I now live. It is in many ways the house that Reg built. If he had not suggested buying a place back then, and in the way he had, I might never have owned anything, certainly not with what Australian “arts professionals” earn.
Reg himself did well enough as an arts professional. He scored parts in classic Australian movies like Mad Dog Morgan and Mad Max, and did dozens of TV dramas and soaps. I used to see his name in the papers or glimpse his face on the screen. A friend told me Reg had built a mudbrick house outside Melbourne and loved it, but I never managed to get to see him, and we never met or spoke again after those couple of weeks he stayed with us in the early 1970s.
After the Victorian Bushfires last year I saw his name again, as one of the 173 people who had died in those terrible fires. Apparently he had been helping a neighbour fight a blaze, which from what I remembered of Reg came as no surprise at all.
After hearing the news, I tried to remember him as he was when he came to stay with us, but my clearest memory was seeing him on stage, as a tramp in a blighted landscape, beneath a lone tree stretching its broken branches up towards a dark sky.
Beckett’s masterpiece immerses itself in our human tragedy, in our slow, ever-gnawing trauma of nothing to be done, and casts all of us as the tramps who suspend their existence, waiting for a Godot who will not come. But Beckett did something far greater, suffusing his sombre vision with humour: sardonic, dark, gallows humour yes, but humour, our true saviour.
The little thespian Reg Evans had that humour too, never more tellingly than that morning when he raised an eyebrow as he said to me, “So you’d prefer to pay rent all your life would you?”