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A great writer forces us to see things his way. Samuel Beckett, who died in Paris Friday at the age of 83, managed this by infiltration. When "Waiting for Godot" first played New York in 1956 - after an abortive opening in Miami, where it was billed as "the laugh riot of two continents" - nobody understood it. When it last played New York, in 1989, with Robin Williams and Steve Martin, everybody understood it.

All without a word of explanation from Beckett, never a man to waste words. Written in obscurity, his plays and novels were what they were, and the world was free to make what use it wanted of them - or no use: It was all the same to him.But change one jot or tittle of his scripts - either the dialogue or the stage directions - and Beckett would be highly displeased. Director Joanne Akailitis set Beckett's "Endgame" in a bombed-out subway, rather than the "bare interior" prescribed by the writer, and there was almost a lawsuit.

Beckett knew how his plays needed to look and sound. Thin - a cricket's chirp in an empty house. Like Pascal, he saw man as a thinking reed, capable of doing nothing about the universe except talk about it - talk endlessly about it. Man was essentially a voice crying in the wilderness - but no prophet. Beckett's "Not I" is a monologue for a disembodied mouth, caught up in its own eternal yammer. An image of hell, or of the real world? Was there a difference?

All interiors in Beckett are bare while his exteriors are furnished with a stunted tree at best. "Nature" is a wasteland; the light is Milton's "darkness visible." In his most famous play, two tramps stumble onto this landscape, with an appointment to meet a certain M. Godot.

Who was Godot? How could a play where admittedly "nothing happens," be a satisfying dramatic experience? What did it all mean?

So went the debate in the 1950s, when Beckett was considered the last word in avant-garde obscurantism. Some of the critics who could understand him, like Kenneth Tynan, nevertheless disapproved of him as a metaphysical defeatist. And his later plays offered even less gratification to the senses. "Happy Days" began with a woman buried up to her waist in sand, and ended with the same woman buried up to her chin. This was dramatic action?

Yet new Beckett plays kept appearing through the '50s, '60s and '70s and the old ones kept being revived. And a strange thing happened. The more we looked at them, the more we adjusted to their scale. A drop of water can teem with life when seen through a microscope, and so with Beckett's "nothingness." With every revival, new action, interest, life, humor, swam into view.

Especially humor. It was clear from the beginning that "Godot" owed a stylistic tribute to vaudeville comedy, but at first this seemed an intellectual conceit.

But by the time of the Williams-Martin revival, "Godot" had truly become a knockabout comedy - even a warm one. Forlorn as its two tramps were, they at least had each other's company; and the moon over the desert had not quite gone cold. Director Mike Nichols was accused of softening the play, and Williams and Martin were accused of vulgarizing it. What nobody said, any more, was that Beckett was writing hopeless little fables about a race on the edge of extinction.

If his characters did inhabit that edge, we could now see them as permanently encamped there, doing what they could (like Winnie, in "Happy Days") to make the time pass amusingly.

If they were not prophets, they did exhibit honor: They showed up for that appointment with M. Godot, even if he did not. And perhaps there was some courage in all that yammering.

Beckett will never be seen as a genial writer. It's his severity that makes us trust him. But we have come to see his dramatic universe as a human one, not an abstract theorem.

His "Nothing" doesn't suggest the debates of existentialism these days so much as it does the plight of the homeless, bedding down on the sidewalk for another night. Today we know what Beckett is talking about; he has become a realist. And yet he didn't change one inch over the last 30 years.

It must have been us.