note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
Estragon … John Kuntz
Vladimir … Austin Pendleton
Lucky … Bates Wilder
Pozzo … Ken Baltin
A Boy … Gabe Goodman
When the house lights came up, the woman on my left turned to her friend and said, “If my husband had come with us, he wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes.” --- and she looked none too pleased, herself. The scene was the New Repertory Theatre; the woman had just sat through a 50th anniversary performance of Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT and thought it a perfect waste of time and money --- in other words, she did not “get” it. Sadly, I can hear her now, telling family and friends, “Don’t bother.” --- and she may not have been alone in dismissing this landmark play. As scribbler, I feel it is my duty to enlighten those unfamiliar with GODOT and are planning to attend New Rep’s perfectly respectable production so that they do “get” it and, perhaps, even enjoy and be moved by it.
The plot is as bare as the blasted gray world that GODOT is laid in: two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, wait by the side of a country road for someone called Godot --- why they wait, who Godot is and what he has to offer is never explained.
I repeat: WHY THEY WAIT, WHO GODOT IS AND WHAT HE HAS TO OFFER IS NEVER EXPLAINED.
Two travelers, the sadistic Pozzo and his mistreated servant/slave, Lucky, stop to pass the time, then move on. A Boy enters to tell Vladimir and Estragon that Godot will not come today as promised but will definitely come tomorrow. Act Two rewinds Act One and plays it again with little variation. The play ends with Vladimir and Estragon still waiting for Godot.
I repeat: THE PLAY ENDS WITH VLADIMIR AND ESTRAGON STILL WAITING FOR GODOT.
Now, you may be angry at my giving away the so-called ending --- but there is no ending, really (an Act Three would be a repeat of Act Two, an Act Four would be, etc.) --- but now you can stop dwelling on the GODOT part and concentrate on the WAITING, which is what Mr. Beckett’s play is all about --- the waiting, waiting, waiting for someone/something who may never come. Hope springs eternal. Fools rush in. “Like a circle in a spiral / Like a wheel within a wheel / Never end or beginning on an ever-spinning wheel…” Had my disappointed neighbor been terminally ill or a Holocaust survivor or a felon serving a life sentence of solitary confinement or a homeless person or a soul roasting in hell --- any situation where time stands still and Man questions why was he born if only to suffer --- or had she even been told that GODOT first appeared on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, she might have “gotten” it. But, for the sake of argument, let me conjure up a playgoer coming to see GODOT:
PLAYGOER: Already I don’t “get” it. You say those men are waiting for someone who isn’t coming. That’s it?
CR: That’s it.
PLAYGOER: What’s the point?
CR: The point is, there IS no point. Welcome to the Theatre of the Absurd.
PLAYGOER: It’s not absurd --- it’s WEIRD!
CR: No, it’s Absurd. “Theatre of the Absurd” is a phrase coined to described a new kind of writing that came out of post-WWII Europe. Having lived through the horrors of Nazism, all-out war, the Holocaust, and the Bomb, European writers explored the absurdity, the pointlessness of Man’s existence, the banality of evil --- there is no God, no truth; only anti-heroes, anti-climaxes, anti-tragedy, anti-everything. (Albert Camus equated Modern Man with the Greek myth of Sisyphus, condemned to forever roll a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down again.) Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and (later) Harold Pinter were among the leading European Absurdists; in America, Edward Albee’s one-act plays were considered Absurd, but American Absurdism had its roots in the Beat generation, closeted homosexuals, mind-expanding drugs, and the growing counter-culture. (Interesting to note that European Absurdists created in a shattered world; American Absurdists, in a land of booming postwar affluence --- having everything can prove to be just as empty as having nothing.)
PLAYGOER: How was I to know all this? Am I supposed to research every play that I want to see?
CR: As the saying goes, ‘the more you put into it, the more you get out of it’. For starters, read the Notes on pages 22-23 of your GODOT program, though they only dole out chronological facts --- and please take director Rick Lombaro’s comment in The Boston Phoenix with a large grain of salt: “After 9/11[/2001], I knew that GODOT would address some of the questions we have. Why do these things happen? What do we do when we’re asked to go on, day after day, when there’s such uncertainty?” This is the third time in the last six months I’ve seen a director hoping to illuminate a play’s production with the dying embers of the World Trade Center --- no doubt there are more “relevant” productions on the way. For the record, folks: America got a wake-up call on 11 September 2001, just as it did on 7 December 1941; it did not have its heart kicked out and its backbone broken as did Europe in the 1930s and 40s; on the contrary, America’s heart is pumping strongly with (self-)righteous anger. Europe got blasted, blighted during WWII; her artists wrote what they saw and felt afterwards --- if the Theatre of the Absurd seems dated, obvious or unintentionally pointless today, it’s because so much Absurdism has crept into the lives of succeeding generations. My generation grew up in the shadow of the Bomb and Vietnam; the next generation grew up with Watergate and AIDS; today’s generation has terrorism, the Clinton scandal, threats of biological warfare, sexually abusive priests; what-have-you. It’s amazing how many Absurd things are in our lives and how we have come to accept and even deaden our hearts against them. “What is the point? Why does God allow this? What do we believe in? Who are our heroes?” has echoed in each of our hearts at least once. Don’t deny it. It has.) When you attend WAITING FOR GODOT, be prepared to wait with two homeless men for someone who may never come. What you bring to it is what you’ll take out of it.
PLAYGOER: I hear Godot is supposed to be God. They’re waiting for God, right?
CR: Mr. Beckett wrote WAITING FOR GODOT in French while living as an expatriate in Paris --- EN ATTENDANT GODOT; had he been writing about God, no doubt he would have called his play EN ATTENDANT DIEU. Mr. Beckett admitted he didn’t know who Godot is. Godot could be anyone --- God; a wealthy landowner; the Good Humor Man --- I wouldn’t dwell too much on it. It’s the WAITING that makes the play.
PLAYGOER: Does ANYTHING happen in GODOT?
CR: Many things happen. Estragon spends the first ten minutes of the play trying to take off his boot….
PLAYGOER: And ---?
CR: Finally, he does.
PLAYGOER: What’s the point of that?
CR: The boot was hurting his foot.
PLAYGOER: Ha-ha. What ELSE happens?
CR: Well….Vladimir goes off several times to urinate; he and Estragon contemplate hanging themselves; Estragon eats a carrot; the two men bicker and swear to part but always keep coming back to each other….
PLAYGOER: Are they gay?
CR: (Sighs.) Mr. Beckett implies that Vladimir and Estragon are well into middle-age; they are past the phases of love, marriage, raising a family, etc. and are now destitute; homeless. Think of the sweet dignity of baggy-pants clowns, of Laurel and Hardy; their camaraderie, whatever the emotional content, is sexless; childlike. Look at the bonding between homeless men on the streets; they bond for comfort, support and safety in numbers --- who wants to face the void alone?
PLAYGOER: Do YOU like WAITING FOR GODOT?
CR: I’m not crazy about Mr. Beckett’s work --- he had a fondness for clowns, vaudeville and slapstick, which is evident in many of his plays, but I find him anti-theatrical, slowly draining the life and the joy out of theatre. No wonder his plays got smaller and finally wordless as he went on. He shrunk as an artist rather than expanded. But he was enormously influential in his day, inventing a new kind of playwriting --- the dawn of the postwar era; a stunted harvest! --- and it took decades before playwrights moved out from beneath his shadow and started pumping blood back into their craft. WAITING FOR GODOT is a great work, but that doesn’t mean I like it.
PLAYGOER: Well, if YOU don’t like it, I’ll probably hate it.
CR: The point is not whether you love it or hate GODOT but whether you “get” it. Go to watch two clowns pass the time. Go to listen to Mr. Beckett’s bantering wordplay, which was quite innovative in its day….
PLAYGOER: But I still don’t “get” it. You say those men are waiting for someone who isn’t coming. That’s it?
CR: That’s it.
PLAYGOER: What’s the point?
And so on and so on, into our own Act Two….
Aside from a 1973 college production where four of the five characters were played by young women, this is the first production of GODOT I’ve seen and, again, it’s a perfectly respectable one. Rick Lombardo hasn’t updated it or Americanized it, thank you (everyone wears the traditional bowlers or semi-bowlers, which they plop on their heads with an under the arm/flick of the wrist flourish), and he conducts GODOT’s score very well, paying close attention to its vaudeville rhythms and cadences (though I never had a sense of two tall, burning towers; I was too busy enjoying myself). My only nitpick is Mr. Lombardo conducts with a heavy hand --- his Vladimir and Estragon are stunted critters; two bugs who know they’ll be stepped on sooner or later. As I said, Mr. Beckett loved clowns, and a wise director would know to counteract the man’s pessimism with the joy of living, the delight in everyday things, and the freedom that comes with boredom. Humor --- not soberness --- makes GODOT take flight, but many American directors are afraid/ashamed to use Humor to make a serious point when it comes to foreign scripts --- try telling American directors that Chekhov wrote comedies, not tragedies or that THE THREEPENNY OPERA is a cheeky revue. (If you had to choose between laughter or madness when confronted with disaster, which would you choose?) Something tends to get lost, not only in the translation but in the crossing over.
Austin Pendleton is in the right age bracket as Vladimir; his tramp may be but a husk of a man, but Mr. Pendleton’s mooncalf persona is better suited to Beckett than to Shakespeare (his New Rep Lear of two seasons ago was certainly an evening of Absurd). He’s an interesting actor to watch: he will plant himself in the earth like a divining rod and whatever wells up from below bursts out of him with startling force and then subsides until he plants himself again --- thus, Mr. Pendleton is far more effective at doing nothing than doing something (astonishingly, his mask and voice never changes --- I cannot tell if he’s expressing joy or grief). This self-absorption keeps Mr. Pendleton from becoming (or wanting?) to become an ensemble performer; he seems quite content to play to no one by himself.
I found John Kuntz to be miscast as Estragon. He is too young to be playing one of Beckett’s gentle, middle-aged tramps, and his stand-up clowning, though inventive, is by turns nasty or neurotic --- but, then, that was always Mr. Kuntz’s persona and Boston loves him for it. His patented screech, ever annoying and amateurish, rips the score to tatters (is Estragon sniffing burning concrete in the wind?); you’d better catch his performance sooner than later while he still has a voice. Yet I found myself watching Mr. Kuntz for shafts of humanity and caught a few glimpses --- when he relaxes and listens to his fellow players, Mr. Kuntz comes off as a smart, attractive yet guarded man staunchly resistant to becoming warm-hearted; loveable (he’s a brooder; last year I wished to see Mr. Kuntz as Tartuffe; now I’d rather see him as Jamie Tyrone in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT). But Mr. Lombardo has stirred the Messrs. Pendleton and Kuntz into this GODOT without ruining the recipe --- still, I’d rather have downed a cup of warm broth instead of treacle-and-vinegar.
What makes this production a GODOT to be cherished is Ken Baltin’s definitive Pozzo. I had only seen Mr. Baltin once before, as sadsack Shelley Levene in last year’s production of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (Lyric Stage); here, Mr. Baltin blessedly infuses life, humor, flesh and blood --- i.e., THEATRE! --- into his cruel yet charming lion and ringmaster rolled up into one --- he all but blows the Messrs. Pendleton and Kuntz off the stage (but that’s Pozzo, anyway; Mr. Beckett puts his tramps on hold whenever he appears). Mr. Baltin would make a marvelous Parolles, the braggart warrior, in ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL; that performance may prove to be my own Godot. Bates Wilder --- pale, with shaven head --- makes a hulking (also too young) Lucky akin to Peter Boyle’s monster in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, complete with leaden dance, but he hacks apart Lucky’s celebrated gibberish --- the sense of Lucky’s speech lies not in what is said, but in the rising speed it is delivered; Mr. Wilder breaks it into bite-sized chunks, stop/start, stop/start. The audience will not “get” it. Gabe Goodman, the Boy, wears a doughboy helmet --- enough said.
Again, a perfectly respectable production of an important play.
PLAYGOER: And all they do is sit and wait for Godot. And that’s all?
CR: That’s all. Get it?
PLAYGOER: Got it.