31 October 2015

'Waiting for Godot'



“I think Beckett was a genius and that Godot is a masterpiece.”  I confessed this sentiment 6½ years ago in a post called “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?” (17 April 2009), and I haven’t changed my mind on that score since I first saw the play at my college theater my freshman year.  (I’m old enough that the play was only nine years past its U.S. début and Broadway première when the Troubadour Theater put it on.)   I’d never seen, or even heard, of anything like it at that point in my cultural life—I was 18 and “Theater of the Absurd” was a whole new idea to me.  (A year or two later, the Troubs staged Peter Weiss’s The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade—in which I had a role—and if Waiting for Godot and Theater of the Absurd opened my eyes, Marat/Sade and Theater of Cruelty blew my mind!  We did exciting stuff at Washington and Lee University back in the day.)

I haven’t always been able to see new productions of Samuel Beckett’s most famous play, so when I read that the Jack H. Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University, just down 5th Avenue from my home, was hosting a performance of Godot, I jumped at the chance to catch it during its short stay here (13-17 October).  My frequent theater companion, Diana, agreed to go with me, so on Saturday evening, 17 October, we met at the Skirball Center on LaGuardia Place just south of Washington Square for the show’s 8 p.m. closing performance. 

A co-production of Gare St Lazare Ireland and the Dublin Theatre Festival, this presentation of Waiting for Godot premiered at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in October 2013 and toured to the Lyric Theatre for the Belfast Festival at Queen’s University and then to Boston, Massachusetts, to perform at ArtsEmerson: The World On Stage in November 2013.  In 2014, the show traveled to Shanghai as part of the ACT International Festival of Contemporary Theatre at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre.  

In 1991, after graduating from college with a BA in fine arts, Judy Hegarty Lovett, who directed the current Godot, moved to Paris and joined Gare St Lazare Chicago; Conor Lovett, who appears as Vladimir, was also a member of the Paris troupe, where they worked together as director and actor on several productions.  In 1996, the Lovetts founded Gare St Lazare Players Ireland, of which they are joint artistic directors, in County Cork.  Dedicated to the faithful rendering of Samuel Beckett’s plays—it has 17 of his titles in its repertoire—Gare St Lazare Ireland has also adapted Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick (2009) and produced the original play Title and Deed (world première, 2011), written specifically for the troupe by American Will Eno and seen in New York at the Signature Theatre Company in 2012 as part of Eno’s STC residency.  GSLI has also staged works by Michael Harding (Swallow, 2003) and Conor McPherson (The Good Thief, première, 2006).  The company has become Ireland’s most traveled theater troupe, going to over 60 sites in Ireland and making more than 200 tours to 80 cities outside Ireland in 25 countries on six continents. 

The NYU Skirball Center, funded in part by the Skirball Foundation and named for Jack H. Skirball (1896-1985), a rabbi who became a producer in Hollywood as well as on Broadway, is part of the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for University Life, the NYU student center on Washington Square South (West 4th Street), replacing the Loeb Student Center which was demolished in 1999.  The 860-seat theater opened in 2003, and this was only the second time I’d ever been there.  (The first show I saw at the Skirball was Not by Bread Alone; my report, posted on 12 February 2013, contains some additional details on the Skirball Center.)

Samuel Beckett was born near Dublin, Ireland, in 1906, the second son of middle-class parents.  He graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, with a major in French and Italian.  His first job in 1928 was teaching English in the École Normale Supérieur in Paris.  During this time, the young Beckett met James Joyce and quickly became part of the older writer’s circle.  In 1931, he returned to Ireland as a lecturer in French literature, received his masters degree in French, and subsequently returned to Paris as a teacher in 1932.  He made Paris his home from then on, except for visits abroad and a retreat to the Unoccupied Zone in Vichy, France, from 1942-44. 

Beckett found teaching disagreeable and soon turned all of his attention to writing.  During the 1930s and ’40s, his writing consisted of critical studies (“Proust” and others), poems, and two novels (Murphy and Watt), all written in English.  During these Wanderjahre, he moved to Dublin to London to Paris and traveled through France and Germany.  Whenever he passed through Paris, he called on Joyce.  Once or twice, Joyce, whose sight had been failing for a long time, dictated passages from Finnegan’s Wake to Beckett.

In the late 1940s, he began writing in French, partly in rejection of his homeland.  Asked why he found Ireland uncongenial, he offered the same explanation as fellow Irish expatriates Sean O’Casey and Joyce: he couldn’t tolerate the many restrictive aspects of Irish life, especially the arbitrary censorship of the Catholic clergy and anti-intellectual cultural bias.  In 1958, during the International Theatre Festival in Dublin, a play of his compatriot O’Casey was banned, and Beckett, in protest, withdrew his own plays, none of which were seen in Ireland until many years later.

During the 1960s, Beckett became an influential figure in all dramatic media.  In British television studios; in the streets of New York where his Film (1965) starring Buster Keaton was shot; in the legitimate theater in which he worked firmly but easily with directors and actors, many of whom regard him as a genius.  At the end of his career, he served as his own producer.

When not in rehearsal, he divided his time between his Paris house and a country cottage bought with the proceeds from Godot.  He gave few interviews, was rarely photographed, and indeed, after winning the Nobel Prize in 1969, gave away all the prize money and went into complete seclusion for several months.  News from his friends, however, indicated that the great bi-lingual artist was exploring a new world of imagination, using innovative forms, which his English publisher John Calder, described in 1970 as “more painterly than literary.”

In the 1970s, partly because of failing eyesight and recurring ill health, Beckett wrote little; most works published were collected short pieces written years earlier.  Major honors, however, were accorded him during the decade: he was elected to the German Academy of Art in 1973 and the Royal Court company produced a two-part Beckett Festival to honor his 70th birthday in 1976.  A number of small works, including several short plays, were published and produced around the world.  In 1983, three new short plays opened in New York under the title “The Beckett Plays,” and ran 10 months on Theater Row.  In 1984, Beckett was elected Saoi of Aosdána (literally, the “wise man” of the “people of the arts”), the highest honor of the Irish national artists association.

Confined to a nursing home and suffering from emphysema and possibly Parkinson’s disease, Beckett died on 22 December 1989. He was interred with his wife Suzanne, who had predeceased the playwright by just five months, in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris where they share a simple granite gravestone.  He wrote his last work, the poem “What is the Word” (“Comment dire”), dedicated to Joe Chaikin, at the nursing home in 1988.  His writings still influence current novelists, poets, and playwrights, and his plays, which arguably introduced world audiences to what Martin Esslin came to call the Theater of the Absurd, continue to be a significant influence on dramatists, actors, and directors today

En attendant Godot was composed between 1947 and 1949 when Beckett was experiencing the first of two sustained creative bursts.  The French version was published in 1952 and opened in Paris on 5 January 1953, for a run of more than 300 performances.  It was directed by Roger Blin, who also played Pozzo, with Lucien Raimbourg as Vladimir, Pierre Latour as Estragon, Jean Martin as Lucky, and Serge Lacointe as the Boy.  The English version, which Beckett didn’t so much translate from the French as write again in English, was published in New York in 1954, débuted in London the following year with a cast of Paul Daneman as Vladimir, Peter Woodthorpe as Estragon, Timothy Bateson as Lucky, Peter Bull as Pozzo, and Michael Walker as the Boy, under the direction of Peter Hall.  The Irish première at the Pike Theatre in Beckett’s native Dublin, directed by Alan Simpson, was on 28 October 1955.  The play had its American première under the direction of Alan Schneider at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, Florida, on 3 January 1956, with Bert Lahr as Gogo, Tom Ewell as Didi, J. Scott Smart as Pozzo, Arthur Mallet as Lucky, and Jimmy Oster as the Boy.  It bombed.  Lahr played Gogo again when the show moved to New York on 19 April under the new director, Herbert Berghof, with E. G. Marshall as Didi, Kurt Kasznar as Pozzo, Alvin Epstein as Lucky, and Luchino Solito de Solis as the Boy—all of whom repeated their roles for the Columbia Masterworks recording produced the same year.  Since then the play has been performed in over twenty tongues—in such scattered parts of the world as Japan, Sweden, Yugoslavia—and in all types of theaters, including on campus, in summer stock, in “little theaters,” and in prisons. 

Almost every opening night of Godot has been marked by extreme reactions.  The Paris production was hailed by many critics as a major dramatic breakthrough.  No less a literary figure than Jean Anouilh declared in Arts-Spectacle on 27 January 1953:

Godot is a masterpiece that will cause despair for men in general and playwrights in particular.  I think the opening night at the Théâtre de Babylone is as important as the opening of Pirandello in Paris in 1923 . . . .

At San Quentin Prison, on 19 November 1957, the inmates responded as never before to a theatrical piece.  The anonymous reviewer for the San Quentin News described this scene:

The trio of muscle-men, biceps overflowing . . . parked all 642 lbs. on the aisle and waited for the girls and funny stuff.  When this didn’t appear they audibly fumed and audibly decided to wait until the house lights dimmed before escaping.  They made one error.  They listened and looked two minutes too long—and stayed.  Left at the end.  All shook . . . .

But in Miami, a large segment of the audience left in disgust before the curtain rose for act two.  As director Alan Schneider put it in the 1958 Chelsea Review two years after it closed:

Doing Godot in Miami was, as Bert Lahr [the original Gogo] himself said, like doing Giselle in Roseland.  Even though Bert and Tommy [Ewell, who played Didi in Miami] each contributed brilliantly comic and extremely touching performances, . . . it was—in the words of the trade—a spectacular flop.  The opening night audience in Miami, at best not too sophisticated or attuned to this type of material and at worst totally misled by advertising billing the play as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” walked out in droves.  And the so-called reviewers not only could not make heads or tails of the play but accused us of pulling some sort of hoax on them.

And in London, Peter Bull, who played Pozzo in the original British production in 1955, witnessed a similar occurrence: in his memoirs, I Know the Face, But . . . (P. Davies [1959]), he wrote:

I have a habit of comforting myself on first nights by trying to think of appalling experiences during the war, when terror struck from all sides, but the windiness felt on the Italian beachheads . . . was nothing to compare with one’s panic on that evening of August 3, 1955 . . . .  Waves of hostility came whirling over the footlights, and the mass exodus . . . started quite soon after the curtain had risen.  The audible groans were also fairly disconcerting.

En attendant Godot was first performed in the small auditorium of the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris on 5 January 1953.  Typical of the enthusiastic response—and most prophetic of all—was the opinion of Sylvain Zegel, who wrote in La Libération:

Theater-lovers rarely have the pleasure of discovering a new author worthy of the name; an author who can give his dialogue true poetic force, who can animate his characters so vividly that the audience identifies with them; who, having meditated, does not amuse himself with mere word juggling; who deserves comparison with the greatest . . . .  In my opinion Samuel Beckett’s first play Waiting for Godot, at the Théâtre de Babylone, will be spoken of for a long time.

English-speaking audiences, which hadn’t seen as much avant-garde drama as had the Parisians (who’d already seen premières of Jean Genet’s The Maids in 1947 and Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, 1950, The Lesson, 1951, and The Chairs, 1952), reacted with mixed feelings.  Harold Hobson concluded his review in the London Times by saying: “Go and see Waiting for Godot.  At the worst you will discover a curiosity, a four-leaved clover, a black tulip; at the best something that will surely lodge in a corner of your mind for as long as you live.”  In The Observer, Kenneth Tynan, Hobson’s fellow doyen of London criticism, asserted, “It is vividly new, and hence I declare myself, as the Spanish would say, Godotista.”  But the American critic Marya Mannes, wrote acidly in The Reporter about the same London production:

The play concerns two tramps who inform each other and the audience at the outset that they smell.  It takes place in what appears to be the town dump, with a blasted tree rising out of a welter of rusting junk including plumbing parts.  They talk gibberish to each other and to two ‘symbolic’ maniacs for several hours, their dialogue punctuated every few minutes by such remarks as ‘What are we waiting for?’ ‘Nothing is happening,’ and ‘Let’s hang ourselves.’  The last was a good suggestion, unhappily discarded.

And surveying the London theater in 1957 for Sewanee Review, Bonamy Dobrée said flatly about Godot that

it is time to affirm that anything that can be called art must ultimately be in praise of life, or must at least promote acceptance of life, thus indicating some values.

Dobrée thus epitomized the widely-accepted view of the time that Beckett’s work, because of its “nihilism,” could not “be called art.” 

The New York production of 1956 garnered a mixture of critical response.  In the Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr wrote on 29 April 1956 that “Mr. Lahr has . . . been in touch with what goes on in the minds and hearts of the folk out front.  I wish that Mr. Beckett were as intimately in touch with the texture of things.”  In the New Republic on 14 May 1956, Eric Bentley dubbed the play “like all modern plays . . . undramatic but highly theatrical.”  He declared that “what has brought the play before audiences in so many countries—aside from snobberies and phony publicity—is its theatricality.”  (Eleven years later, Bentley revised his estimation upwards.)  On the other hand, for the New Yorker, Kenneth Tynan, already on record in London as praising the play, described the audience reaction: “And when the curtain fell, the house stood up to cheer a man [Bert Lahr] who had never before appeared in a legitimate play . . . .  Without him, the Broadway production . . . would be admirable; with him, it is transfigured.”  And the dean of New York critics, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times on 20 April 1956, calling the play “a mystery wrapped in an enigma,” wrote:

Although “Waiting for Godot” is a “puzzlement,” as the King of Siam would express it, Mr. Beckett is no charlatan.  He has strong feelings about the denigration of mankind, and he has given vent to them copiously.  “Waiting for Godot” is all feeling.  Perhaps that is why it is puzzling and convincing at the same time.  Theatregoers can rail at it, but they cannot ignore it.  For Mr. Beckett is a valid writer.

Even as late as 1988, when New York’s Lincoln Center Theatre produced Godot, than which the New York Times’ Frank Rich asserted “no play could be more elemental in either form or content” and which “began remaking the world’s theater” when it first appeared on stage, playwright Robert Patrick demeaned Beckett as “a pleasantly lugubrious, collegiate skit writer” and Waiting for Godot as “trash and trivia” and a “mediocrity” which ought to be “placed among the space junk.”  (Patrick’s remarks are the subject of my blog post “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” mentioned earlier.) 

Regardless of the direction of the response—for or against—no one seemed to be able to leave it alone.  It stirred something in all audiences—be it anger or praise, but it stirred.  Somehow that seems appropriately Beckettian—and, as the French say, godotesque.

In more recent years, the play, still controversial, has continued to be produced all over the world.  In 1984, Israeli director Ilan Ronen and the Haifa Municipal Theatre presented a bi-lingual production of Godot in Hebrew and Arabic (with Arab actors as Didi and Gogo and Jewish actors as Lucky and Pozzo).  British director Sean Mathias directed Ian McKellen as Gogo and Patrick Stewart as Didi as his first production as artistic director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company. Dubbed the X-Men Godot (because both stars had appeared in that 2000 film and some of its sequels), it toured the U.K. prior to opening in London on 30 April 2009.  Sydney Theatre staged Godot in November 2013 directed by Andrew Upton, husband of actress Cate Blanchett.

In New York, Berghof staged a 6-performance Broadway return of Godot in 1957 at the Ethyl Barrymore Theatre with an entirely new cast.  In 2009, the Roundabout Theatre Company staged a revival at Studio 54, a former club that the Off-Broadway company converted into a Broadway house, directed by Anthony Page with a cast of John Glover (Lucky), John Goodman (Pozzo), Bill Irwin (Vladimir), Nathan Lane (Estragon), and Matthew Schechter (Boy); it ran 84 performances.  A new production staged by Mathias was mounted at Broadway’s Cort Theatre in 2013-14 in which McKellen and Stewart reprised their West End roles and Billy Crudup played Lucky, Shuler Hensley played Pozzo, and Colin Critchley and Aidan Gemme alternated as the Boy for a run of 77 performances in rep with Harold Pinter’s No Mans Land

Off-Broadway, Schneider, the director of the ill-fated Miami première of Godot, staged a revival at Greenwich Village’s Sheridan Square Playhouse in 1971 that ran for 277 performances.  In 1981, Schneider again directed the play, a three-performance presentation with the Acting Company at the Joseph Papp Public Theater’s Newman Theater in the East Village.  Mike Nichols, former stand-up comedian turned renowned film and stage director, mounted a much-publicized staging of the play at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in1988 for a run of 56 performances; it starred Robin Williams as Gogo; Steve Martin as Didi; F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo; Bill Irwin, in what I believe was his first dramatic stage role (he would later play Didi on Broadway), as Lucky; and Lucas Haas as the Boy.  In 2005-06, Alan Hruska  directed a production at the Theater at St. Clement’s Church in the Theatre District.  The Classical Theatre of Harlem produced an all-African American revival of Godot in 2006, directed by Christopher McElroen, the founder and then-artistic director of CTH.  In 2014, the New Yiddish Rep presented a revival of Godot performed in Yiddish with English supertitles under the direction of Moshe Yassur at the Barrow Street Theatre in the Village.

The BBC having aired the play on radio on 25 April 1960, NTA Film Network, a part-time network in the United States, broadcast a TV version on 3 April 1961 directed by Alan Schneider from his Miami production script.  The stars of the telecast, also shown in the U.K., were Zero Mostel as Gogo, Burgess Meredith as Didi and Luke Halpin as the Boy, with Kasznar and Epstein repeating their Broadway stage roles.  Becket pronounced himself displeased with the television staging, principally because of the confinement of the small screen.  On 29 June 1977, a TV version of the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre production of Waiting for Godot for Theater in America was broadcast on KCET, the Public Broadcasting System’s station in Los Angeles, with a cast of Dana Elcar as Vladimir, Donald Moffat as Estragon, Ralph Waite as Pozzo, Bruce French as Lucky, and Todd Lookinland as the Boy, directed by Charles S. Dubin and Gwen Arner.  In 2001, British director Michael Lindsay-Hogg made a film version—despite Beckett’s own admonition in 1967 that he did not “want any film of Godot.”  The playwright had insisted, “An adaptation would destroy it.”  (The film may never have been released in the U.S.)

The famous quip about Godot is that it’s “a play in which nothing happens, twice.”  I beg to differ, but . . . to each his own.  (I’ll just quote one of Beckett’s philosophical influences, Heraclitus of Ephesus: “Many people learn nothing from what they see and experience, nor do they understand what they hear explained, but imagine that they have.”)  In act one, Vladimir and Estragon, two music hall clowns or tramps (Beckett preferred the former but many productions go with the latter), are alone near a bare, roadside tree, where they meet daily to wait for Godot (which, in Anglo-Irish is pronounced GOD-OH, with both syllables stressed, not g’d-OH, as we Americans usually say).  Estragon struggles to get his stuck boot off his sore foot; Vladimir fusses with his hat.  Gogo (as his partner in waiting calls him) naps but can’t recount his dream because Didi (Gogo’s common name for his companion) won’t listen.  They discuss separation (but make up), suicide (but defer it), vegetables, religion, Didi’s urinary troubles, and Godot.  As Didi and Gogo sit in resignation, a loud cry terrifies them.  

Passing through are Pozzo and his servant Lucky on a leash, carrying Pozzo’s possessions.  Pozzo, who owns the surrounding terrain, introduces himself and has a meal of chicken and wine.  Gogo begs the bones.  Pozzo smokes his pipe, speaks of time, discusses selling Lucky, who weeps at this but rewards Gogo’s offer of a handkerchief with a kick.  On command of Gogo, Lucky “dances”; on command of Didi, he “thinks” (in the most astounding monologue ever staged).  Pozzo and Lucky resume their journey and Didi’s glad the incident helped pass the time while they waited.  (The French title, En attendant Godot, actually means “while waiting for Godot.”  The play is about what happens—what Didi and Gogo do—while waiting for Godot.)  The two wonder again what to do—besides wait for Godot.  They decide to make conversation about whether they’d previously known Pozzo and Lucky; no agreement is reached.  Gogo returns to tending his feet.  Out of nowhere, a goatherd arrives with a message: “Mr. Godot . . . won’t come this evening, but surely tomorrow.”  Didi questions him about his brother, a shepherd, and Mr. Godot.  The boy leaves.  Night falls.  Gogo sets his boots on the road for some passerby.  Agreeing to leave, the two stand still.

In act two, it’s the next day and Vladimir and Estragon are alone again.  The two begin waiting again with games, calisthenics, and philosophical talk.  Didi finds and wears Lucky’s hat; Gogo finds boots apparently left in exchange for his.  Pozzo, now blind, and Lucky, now mute, return and collapse in a heap.  Didi and Gogo deliberate over whether to help; they fall, too, but finally help Pozzo up.  Pozzo, disparaging clock-time, goads Lucky into traveling.  Gogo’d been napping again, but Didi won’t let him recount his dream.  Didi soliloquizes on his predicament.  A boy, this time the shepherd brother, brings the same message.  Didi questions him about Godot but frightens the boy, who runs off.  Night falls.  Didi and Gogo decide to hang themselves with the cord from Gogo’s pants.  The cord breaks, and Gogo’s trousers fall down.  The two decide to return tomorrow.  Agreeing to leave, they stand still.

Waiting for Godot, which runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission in GSLI’s mounting, is such a philosophical and metaphysical (not to forget religious) mélange, as well as a language puzzle, that writing out an interpretation is a book’s worth (even many books’ worth) endeavor, and I’m going to skip it.  As I said, it’s rationale is looking at what Vladimir and Estragon do while waiting for the mysterious Godot.  (Beckett didn’t write or often even talk about any of his work, and he refused to say what or whom Godot represented, so it’s up to each of us to decide—sometimes at each viewing or reading.)  I discovered on reading the French version, which Beckett wrote first and then rewrote into English, that some material was not rendered into English—largely because censorship in England was strict.  Not until the end of 1964 did an unabridged version of the script get a British staging—and reading the first version reveals a lot that’s not clearly spelled out (even for Godot) in the standard English script.  Over the years, I’ve done some reading and research on the play (there are four 2009 posts on ROT on Godot-related topics:  “History of Waiting For Godot,” 30 March; “Thoughts on Waiting For Godot,” 1 April; “More Thoughts on Waiting For Godot,” 3 April; “Is Waiting for Godot Trash?,” 17 April) and based on that work, I do have a few pithy ideas.  First, the spine of the play (in Harold Clurman’s sense of the term) is “To find salvation”—which usually becomes “to survive; to get through the day,” or, to use Vladimir’s words, “to keep the ball in play.”  (Some theater people call this the play’s “action”; it means the same thing.)

Second, the theme of Godot is universal helplessness and uncertainty.  Beckett’s key word is “perhaps”; he deals not with knowledge and strength, but ignorance and, therefore, impotence.  Beckett believed the first spoken words should introduce the play’s theme: “Nothing to be done”—that is, we have no control over what happens.  It’s important to note that “helplessness”—the inability to have an effect on events—is not hopelessness.  Lack of control is not synonymous in Godot with doom—there is always the possibility of hope.  We just can’t be sure.  One of Beckett’s favorite statements is from St. Augustine: “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved; do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”  Beckett liked it for the symmetry of its form; but it also balances hope with despair in equal measure—and Vladimir even sees this dichotomy in Godot.

The metaphor of the play, its central situation—the uncertain and endless waiting—is analogous to waiting for a bus at night on a strange route without watch or timetable.  You may be at the right spot for the bus to stop—or you may not; the last bus may have already passed—or you may be on time.  If you wait, and the bus hasn’t gone by, and you’re in the right place, you’ll catch your bus and be on your way (that is, “saved”).  If the bus has passed, or you’re in the wrong place, you’ll wait all night to no avail and jeopardize your chances of catching another somewhere else or finding a taxi.  But if you leave to find another spot, the bus may come at any moment and leave without you.  Your complete ignorance of the essential facts—time, bus route, schedule—makes you impotent to take any specific action.

Judy Hegarty Lovett is obviously well-versed in the ways and means of Beckettian theater, having staged nearly all of GSLI’s productions.  Another of the dramatist’s philosophical influences was William of Occam, and Lovett certainly knows his Law of Parsimony, commonly called “Occam’s Razor” because it cuts to the bone.  That’s how Lovett approached her staging concept of Waiting for Godot, simple, straightforward and unadorned with irrelevancies.  The setting Ferdia Murphy (who also designed the simple costumes) gave her and the very performances themselves are manifestations of this notion.  It contains everything the performers and the spectators need, and not a jot more—not a frill or furbelow.  Lovett’s production of Waiting for Godot is the theatrical equivalent of a minimalist painting—but fraught with content.  Not to mention whimsy.  Godot may have been oversold as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” but the play, which is labeled a tragi-comedy, is funny and Lovett lets it show.

This raises a point relative to Murphy’s costumes, which are a take on the most common scheme for Godot.  According to Beckett’s original choice, Didi and Gogo are baggy-pants clowns, not tramps.  The playwright was very enamored of music hall (vaudeville) and burlesque forms and made frequent use of “low comedy” techniques, routines, and lazzi in Godot, along with his other works.  (Roger Blin, the director of the French première, at first intended to set the play in a circus.)  The ideal image is Emmet Kelley, aka Weary Willy; Beckett was also taken with the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton (who starred in Film).  In Ms. Lovett’s cast, Conor Lovett’s Vladimir and Gary Lydon’s Estragon together on stage give the visual impression of Laurel and Hardy.  Murphy holds with this baggy-pants imagery. clothing the four adult men in variations of Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Chap” get-up.  (The bowler hats play a significant role in one recognizable vaudeville routine in which Vladimir and Estragon engage.  The hank of rope that serves as Gogo’s belt is also an important comedy prop.) 

Murphy’s scenic design is essentially circular, like the play’s structure.  In the center of the Skirball’s proscenium stage is a tilted disk of a playing area, devoid of any enhancements or décor except the famous bare tree, which here overhangs the platform at stage left (Peter Hall, for the London début, made the setting a junk yard).  This is a depiction of Beckett’s vision of emptiness of life and the unlocalized setting demonstrates that life is the same the world over, that no place is special.  Murphy has given Gogo an open trap stage right so he can sit on the platform and dangle his feel in the hole.  (The hole has no further use—no one pops out of it or drops down into it.  It’s sort of a small sink hole in the landscape.)  All entrances and exits are made through the black, upstage legs either from the right or from the left.  The set’s backdrop is a screen on which is projected images which establish the time of day, sunshine for day and a huge, white, full moon for night.  (Since there’s no program credit for the projections, I assume they are the work of lighting designer Sinead McKenna.)  It’s as plain as plain can be, the production’s most visible application of “Occam’s Razor,” which, according to Beckett, is intended to keep the situation uncluttered with irrelevancies, in which the human mind often seeks refuge in its flight from the truth.  McKenna’s lighting, too, follows this principal, simply lighting the playing area, brightly during the daytime and darkening into evening and then night (after the Boy announces that Godot won’t come).  Bravo!

The performances, once again, fall solidly and happily, into the ensemble category.  I think all productions of Waiting for Godot (and probably all of Beckett’s plays) need to work like little clocks, each part driving and driven by all the others.  (I wonder how that worked out with the various star-studded productions with all those powerful personalities coming together.  I imagine the rehearsals were either hilarious and stimulating or annoying and frustrating.)  In any case, Gare St Lazare Ireland put a marvelous two- and four-hand partnership on stage at the Skirball (the Boy’s two scenes being almost separate set pieces, though 10-year-old William Keppler-Robinson did a fine job), operating like a small, absurd machine.  Lydon’s Estragon is, appropriately, the more physically oriented of the central pair; he responds to life almost instinctively and accepts himself and the world readily, even his regular beatings.  Conor Lovett’s Vladimir is the spiritual and intellectual (and verbal) half of the pair, more concerned with emotions, compassion (for Lucky, for example), and philosophy (the fate of the two crucified thieves).  He’s more the leader, as the name Vladimir, a saint’s name that means “ruler of the world” in Russian, implies and is focused on his duty and responsibility to Estragon (French for tarragon, a spice used in making pickles and vinegar) and, especially, Godot. 

Dominic J. Moore’s Pozzo is the personification of Raw Power and acts like the nouveau riche at its most arrogant.  He believes ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,’ and it’s important to know Pozzo.  Moore shows how important it is to Pozzo that he be top man.  Marcus Lamb’s Lucky, permanently stooped from carrying his constant burden—not just Pozzo’s literal possessions (which he can put down) but, metaphorically, also Pozzo and his whole world (which he can’t)—seems more animal than human.  Altogether, the work was stunning.

I’m disappointed to report that one lone blog review of the terrific New York performance of this modern classic was published (at least that’s all that I could find on line).  Several notices appeared during the 2013 Boston production, but in the world’s greatest theater town, a solitary word.  Shameful. 

I won’t quote any of the notices for the out-of-town performances (there are quite a few from Ireland) because the casts weren’t the same as the one that appeared at the NYU Skirball Center.  The single local review I found must have come on line just a day or so before I finished this report (it’s undated) because it wasn’t there all the while I was writing this—I kept checking.  On Theater Scene, Deirdre Donovan, pronouncing GSLI’s Waiting for Godot “something special,” opened her review saying, “Samuel Beckett’s great classic Waiting for Godot . . . seldom gets staged with such clockwork precision that it takes your breath away.”  Her one demurral was that “its one real drawback was that it left New York too soon.”  Warning that “Beckett didn’t create [Godot] to have you bask in the glow of its syrupy-sweet sentimentality,” Donovan asserted “the bleak poetry that plays out in this landmark work is unparalleled—and unforgettable.”  Declaring, “The Gare St. Lazare Ireland production was first-rate,” the cyber reviewer reported, “Its acting . . . was a real ensemble effort with no slouches.”  Judy Hegarty Lovett staged “each scene with razor-sharp clarity and kept the pace whip-fast.”  Donovan complimented GSLI’s “bent toward delivering prose with a fierce lyricism” and observed, “They took Beckett’s spare poetry and made it sing with a lilt.”  Her final remark was: “Indeed, this Waiting for Godot was funny, sad, and just as good as it gets.”

If you’re only going to get one review, this one’s a good un.  I’ll take it.



2 comments:

  1. When I was working on this play report, I went looking on the 'Net for the date of a review quotation. Among the dozens of sites I hit on, there was obviously my 2009 ROT post on the "History of 'Waiting for Godot'" (mentioned in the report above), but there was also one I never expected. It's headed "Waiting for Godot Study Guide - Scribd" (http://www.scribd.com/doc/137704505/Waiting-for-Godot-Study-Guide#scribd), and when I clicked on it and went in search of the quotation I was trying to date, I discovered that that Godot study guide had republished the history post! ROT is credited, so it's not plagiarism or anything, but I never knew anyone was using my blog as an actual resource. How 'bout that? (I posted a story about Harold Bloom taking my essay on Tennessee Williams's "plastic theater"--and then bowdlerizing it. I blogged about this in "The Case of the Purloined Paper" on 5 February 2010. This wasn't that.)

    ~Rick

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  2. As part of Lincoln Center's 2015 White Lights Festival, Gare St Lazare presented their stage adaptation of Beckett's short story "The End" at the Marjorie S. Deane Theater (West Side YMCA) on 2 and 3 November. 'The End' is a monologue performed by Conor Lovett under the directiion of Judy Hegarty Lovett. On 5, 6, and 7 November, also at the Deane, GSLI will present 'Here All Night,' a new piece for soprano and actor, drawn from Beckett's novel 'Watt,' his poetry and other writings, and original music by Paul Clark. The performances are from Conor Lovett and Melanie Pappenhein, with music composed by Caoiminh Ó Raghallaigh.

    ~Rick

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