Monday, September 28, 2009

Play #8: Waiting for Godot

"I know creatures are supposed to have no secrets from their authors, but I'm afraid mine for me have little else." Samuel Beckett

To prepare us, here is a funny Beckett story from John Heilpern: "One day he was walking through a London park with a friend. It was a glorious day and Beckett seemed almost uncharacteristically happy. The friend said it was the kind of sunny day that made one glad to be alive. 'I wouldn't go that far', replied Beckett...and that is pretty much what you need to know to understand and appreciate Samuel Beckett!

I first read Godot as I was preparing for grad school in 1995. At the time, I was totally perplexed about what this play was supposed to be about. Reading it again in 2009, it is easier to understand it intellectually and to appreciate it as a great work of art, but ultimately it is not for me.

Vladimir and Estragon, two tramps (Beckett loved Chaplin and especially Buster Keaton) are perpetually waiting for someone called Godot to meet them in a kind of wasteland whose dominating feature is a kind of gnarled old tree, and that's what they do...they wait. If the breath of drama is found in action, the breath of Godot can be found in inaction. The action of the play is almost all misdirection....Didi and Gogo (as Vladimir and Estragon call each other) wait, they question, they seek, they fret, and they wait. Two characters called Pozzo and Lucky appear, Lucky is a kind of slave to Pozzo and Pozzo waits with Didi and Gogo. The time passes (the time would have passed anyway, as one of them says to the other) and in the end, we find out that Mr Godot will not come today, but surely will come tomorrow...and for the tramps, the never ending cycle starts all over.

Absurdism is where we are and as a style, it kind of had its hay day in the 1950's with playwrights like Beckett and Ionesco. I think what made absurdism what it was, and gave it its dramatic power, was a direct result of the time that produced the plays. For the first time in the history of humanity, someone could press a button and destroy, wipe out, obliterate all of humanity. It made for an existential crisis, what was the point of humanity? Why bother? If language could be perverted to support the policies of (pick one) communism, capitalism, racism, genocide etc than there is clearly no meaning in language. Words themselves are is meaningless. You are born, you suffer, you die...the end. That is what Beckett is getting at with Godot.

While I intellectually appreciate the play and I can see how good actors could attack it, I don't think I would be terribly inclined to see it in a theatre. A couple of years ago, I saw a sensational production of Endgame at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and while I admired the production (the acting, directing and design were all first rate) I could not love the play. As I stated earlier, I have to find some ray of light for me to fully engage in a production or play. I know life sucks, I go to the theatre to find alternatives and perhaps even better, deeper ways of living. To be told "why bother" is disheartening.

As I mentioned in my Look Back in Anger post, Godot is the 2nd of three plays I contend changed forever the English speaking theatre world. Godot had its world premiere in Paris during the 1952-53 theatre season and even though Beckett was Irish, the play was written in French and didn't have its English language premiere until 1955, when Peter Hall directed it at the Arts Theatre in London. Of the English language production, Kenneth Tynan wrote that he cared "little for its enormous success in Europe over the past three years." He did, however and much like Look Back in Anger, ultimately give it his seal of approval. "It forced me to re-examine the rules which have hitherto governed the drama; and, having done so, to pronounce them not elastic enough."

In his autobiography, Making an Exhibition of Myself, Peter Hall discusses the original English language production in some detail: "I, and everyone else at the Arts, thought the enterprise was a huge gamble. The text had arrived in my little cupboard of an office several weeks earlier and in the most conventional way possible -- through the post. With it was a letter from Donald Albery, a leading West End manager, asking if I would like to stage it. Attempts to set up a West End production had completely failed. Many luminaries, Gielgud, Richardson, and Guinness among them, had refused to appear in it."

Hall goes on to talk about his reaction to reading the play: "I found it enormously appealing, and written by a master. This was poetic theatre. What do I mean by poetic? Well, it wasn't sequinned with applied adjectives like Christopher Fry, or with dry ironic platitudes like T.S. Eliot. Here was a voice, a rhythm, a shape that was very particular: lyrical, yet colloquial; funny, yet mystical. Though expressed in natural speech, unpretentious and believable, it was much more than natural speech: there was a haunting subtext."

Hall's reporting of the opening night audience is a beautiful indicator that the artists tend to crave the new and the audience tends to crave the familiar: "On the first night, very little went right. After half an hour, there were yawns and mock snores and some barracking. Later on the audience nearly erupted into open hostility but then decided not to bother and settled instead into still, glum boredom. A few people laughed with genuine recognition; and the same few applauded enthusiastically at the end. It was a mixed reception, with the mixture very definitely on the side of failure."

Ultimately the play was saved by the Sunday critics, notably Harold Hobson, and was subsequently produced in America for the first time, in Miami of all places. The American production starred Bert Lahr as Estragon and was billed (oddly) as the "Laugh Sensation of 2 Continents." If the British reaction was mixed, the American was openly hostile (imagine that, Americans being threatened by something that requires thinking). At intermission on opening night, more than 2/3 of the audience had left. Lahr received a letter from someone who walked out: "How can you, Bert Lahr, who has charmed the youth of America as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, appear in this Communistic, atheistic, and existentialist play?"

And so it goes...what is the purpose of Art? What do we want our theatre to do? Is the theatre supposed to be something more than empty calorie entertainment? Does it need to strike a balance? I always refer to the Greek notion of Profit and Delight...yes it needs to be entertaining, but there needs to be more than that. I think the theatre should stimulate the heart and the head and that being challenged with some difficult intellectual concepts can be an ENTERTAINING night out. Of course, I am still searching for the theatre where this kind of work can thrive. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Know Theatre and Ensemble Theatre in Cincinnati are three companies that have a rigorous intellectual bent to their very entertaining work. From the outside, they seem to be thriving, or at least succeeding.

So the quest continues. I am off to Texas in the morning and hopefully will have some definitive news soon...stay tuned!

Rick St. Peter
September 28, 2009


  1. Like you, I gather, I don't really connect to this work. I too saw the excellent Cincy Shakes ENDGAME and, while I could admire the terrific performances and the technical virtuousity of the production, my one thought was: "Good, now I can say I've seen a good production and I never have to see it again."

    I remember my mentor, Charles Dickens, when he was directing me as Dionysus in his Julian Beck/Living Theatre (which was all the rage at the time) production of THE BACCHAE, confessing: "Of course, I rather being doing Noel Coward, smoking jackets and clever quips." I get that. While I can intellectually appreciate things like GODOT, existential/absurdist theatre will never be a look-forward-to night of theatre for me...even with guys like Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen doing it (Of course, if I saw it, I might well change my mind and that would be wonderful too...and if given the opportunity to see such performers perform such work, I'd go!).

    Still I always find the kind of theatre that most entertains me is the kind that "stimulates the heart and the head", makes me work for it, and challenges me.

  2. From a friend of mine named Noreen: "Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot... has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice." --- Vivian Mercier.

  3. At least most people have heard of Waiting for Godot, it would pass the old AGL Board test of good theatre.
    I too have never been able to connect to Beckett. I appreciate, but just don't like the absurdists. However they have had a profound effect on theatre, that I enjoy. Breaking down the rules as they did has made the possibilities open up even more. Of course there is always the question of how does the commercial or even non-profit theatre world we have developed in America support and explore these new forms or new styles?
    I have always maintained that my distaste for Becket must be taken with a grain of salt as I have never seen any of his plays performed, let alone an excellent production. As I trust both of your taste and reaction to Endgame, I may stop qualifying my distaste.

    Have a great trip to Texas, looking forward to hearing the details.

  4. I know why my Grandma always called Burt Lahr a 'Commie.'

    another Mystery of Life solved. thanks.