Samuel Beckett: Still Waiting for Godot

Midway in the first act of the drama Waiting for Godot, the martinet/interloper character, Pozzo, offers Estragon (Gogo) his handkerchief to wipe away the tears of Pozzo’s leashed slave, Lucky. Rather than expressing gratitude, he kicks Gogo in the shin, causing him to cry and bleed. Pozzo intones, “The tears of the world are a constant quantity; for each one who starts to weep, somewhere else another stops.”

Our world today is filled with much pain and weeping as we try to shelter in place. Uncertainty reigns for many, as it always has, its flames fanned by bullies in high places who have an insatiable thirst for publicity and power.

Like many of you, I have used this “stay at home” time to revisit beloved movies, many of them last seen long ago, and I have also spent lots of time watching The Criterion Channel and TCM. I am especially fond of Eddie Muller's TCM series, Noir Alley, with his always intricately told introductions to these dark "B" features. I've also been rediscovering many "lost" DVDs as I've sorted and re-shelved CDs, DVDs and books after years of catch-all collecting.

This week, while watching director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 2001 film adaptation of Waiting for Godot, a play that has long loomed over my own life with compelling mystery, I was struck by how well this once-controversial, “absurd” (according to critic Martin Esslin) theater piece speaks to the current moment — perhaps even more than it did to its original audience in January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. Opening less than a decade after the horror show of another global war, one that ended with both celebration and trepidation for the future of mankind, Samuel Beckett’s play was received as a kind of jeremiad of Man’s uncertain present and future — a future that might end under an apocalyptic nuclear cloud.

Hooted at and jeered in its first production, Godot has become a singular, defining masterpiece of 20th-century art, much like Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and James Joyce’s Ulysses, both of which were also born into a critical/societal minefield. Godot has not fallen into history's dustbin like many other modernist works of art. Just a few years after its premiere, in November 1957, the play’s beating heart pulsed strongly for the inmates of California’s San Quentin Prison when it was performed by the San Francisco Actors Workshop. Actor Alan Mandell remembers the performance:

Herb Blau (the company’s principal director) had explained to them that the play was about what we do while we’re waiting — waiting for Godot — which for some people represents the end and nothingness; for others, it may be God and salvation. Well, these guys really understood what waiting was about. 

 

The reception was “screams and shouts and applause.” The play not only spoke to the inmates in a direct, demotic voice, it also spoke to their “existential” experience of living in an uncertain present while awaiting an uncertain future.

Nearly every day now, while watching news about the novel coronavirus, I hear reporters discuss how trapped people have come to feel, confined to their homes under government mandates. One metaphor some have referenced for this new way of living is the movie Groundhog Day, the title of which has become more than just a passing allusion to one’s occasional sense of mundane ritual. Now it’s a full-throated cri de coeur of being “in lockdown,” each day succeeding the last with little differentiation except for decisions about what to watch on video or the net, and what’s for dinner. 

It’s safe to say that while our film crew was making Groundhog Day, we had little sense of its future cultural impact. We thought it was an entertaining Bill Murray comedy with a sprinkling of drama-accented scenes. Even more surprising was its designation as a psychological “syndrome” by the psychiatric community. And today, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become a quotable meme expressing a sense of timeless, placeless daily life, of waiting for an unknown tomorrow. It’s no surprise that Groundhog Day has led me back to my deep-set memories of Godot, a work whose lucid yet elemental, existential expression of our lives hovers in space like a static, vaporous virus.

Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett

I first saw Waiting for Godot in the spring of 1963 while a student in Vienna. It was a German-language production in a tiny theater well off the path of the national playhouse, the Burgtheater on the Ringstrasse, the venerable home of the poetic dramas of Goethe and Schiller. Seated in a cupboard-sized, avant-garde theater where everyone seemed eager to “outhip” his neighbor, I felt every bit the cultural and linguistic outlier. Godot’s main characters, Didi and Gogo, souls discovered on a barren stretch of dirt road, ever hopeful of finding out why they are there, express a state of being which resonates still in my mind and heart more than half a century later. 

In early spring 2012, a production of Godot was mounted at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. I was more than eager to see this work again. I recalled a play rich with an Irish poetic rhythm that enveloped its seemingly prosaic, questioning cadences. 

I had just returned from a location shoot when I saw an ad for the Taper production, and I quickly booked tickets for the final two performances, matinee and evening shows scheduled for Sunday, April 22, on the Taper's in-the-round stage. Beckett was not a fan of that kind of space, as he felt a box-like, entrapped proscenium was crucial for performances of the play. (He also felt a female cast was impossible because women don’t have prostates; Didi is frequently absenting himself to urinate offstage.) I, however, found the Taper’s intimate presentation to be immersive, even inviting, almost making us spectators complicit in the characters’ waiting. I felt even more engaged during the evening performance, my emotions still fresh from the matinee a few hours earlier. 

A few years later, I bought the DVD box set Beckett on Film.

It includes all 19 of Beckett’s plays and is highlighted by Lindsay-Hogg’s movie, which stars Barry McGovern, Johnny Murphy and Alan Stanford. Not only is Linday-Hogg's film a performance in the round, it is all-around, using cinematic coverage. Photographed on a single set — a rocky, dirt road leading nowhere — it unfolds against an undefined sky that is broken only by a leafless, seemingly dead tree.The cast is nearly identical to the one that appeared at Dublin’s Gate Theatre. (The Taper production also featured McGovern as Didi, giving it a kind of Irish imprimatur.)

In notes for this production, Ojai dramaturg/critic Christopher Breyer wrote:

At Godot’s legendary 1956 American debut … the two figures shouting “Bravo” in Miami’s empty Coconut Grove Playhouse at the end of the evening were Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Tennessee Williams, then at the height of his power, and William Saroyan, who said of the play, “It will make it easier for me and everyone to write freely in the theater.”


Lindsay-Hogg’s visualization of this spare, reductive masterpiece honors the play’s cut-down, demotic language alongside rhetorical flashes of imagistic poetry. One can argue, I think, that the speech patterns and the play’s vocabulary have had a significant (if unrecognized) influence on the stumbling inarticulateness of many characters in 1970s New American Cinema — think of The Last Detail — perhaps even as early as Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, which was filmed only a few years after Godot’s premiere. But there is powerful, life-defining poetry as well, such as Didi’s final monologue just before the messenger boy reappears. I think it bears comparison to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be …” soliloquy.

VladimirWas I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be?

 

Alongside the tower of academic and critical babble written about the meaning of Godot, I found this welcome animated summary of the play that can serve as a brief introduction: 

It is this comedic element that is so often overlooked in productions and readings that are hellbent on expressing the darkness and meaninglessness that lie at the surface of the work. There was an infamous Broadway production of the play starring Steve Martin and Robin Williams that sought to walk the comedic tightrope but was widely reviled as farce. Publicizing another Broadway production, actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen talked to the Wall Street Journal about both the friendship and humor they find in Didi and Gogo. They also acknowledge the abiding love Beckett had for the great silent-film comedians Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. (It’s worth noting Keaton stars — alone — in Beckett’s deeply enigmatic film of 1965, Film.)

One of the play’s tributes to these comedians is this hat-swapping scene, here excerpted from Lindsay-Hogg’s production:

There is a fascinating “review” of the Lindsay-Hogg film by Egyptian movie critic Wael Khairy — actually more a reflection on the conundrum of film adaptations than a discussion of the movie itself, though he finds this film version admirable.

Here are several moments from the 2012 production I saw at the Taper. Again, you can see the humor flow between Mandell and McGovern. It was this production’s obvious tribute to vaudeville and silent film that so surprised me. 

Watching YouTube excerpts from several stage productions of Godot only hints at the surprise in store with the breadth and cinematic staging of Lindsay-Hogg’s film.

Beckett died in Paris a few days before Christmas in 1989. It’s impossible to know for certain, of course, but I feel he would have richly enjoyed Lindsay-Hogg’s film, which I’m sharing here via YouTube.

I think you will find it a sparsely cinematic window into our own feelings about the farce and absurdities on display in our daily television news, a situation devolving into a tragedy set in the corridors of power as we, the hapless audience, watch and wait … and wait.

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