By Bob Shuman
Camille Paglia has noted that Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is part of the counterfeit legacy of the American sixties—it never belonged here, along with the academic poststructuralists, who gave it currency: “the work is shot through with callow wordplay and oafish low comedy, the defense mechanism of clammy, adolescent males squirming before the complexity of biology–the procreative realm ruled by woman.” Paglia claimed 1960s Pop Art was the real inheritance, instead—“passionate engagement” with our art, borne out of sexual experience and emergent as: “Dionysian rock ‘n’ roll, based in African-American rhythm and blues . . . our pagan ode to life.” Hers is not the only assessment, however—Cuban-American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, who died in November, had another—one many would like to have had. She said, “The first play that amazed me (I thought it was the most powerful thing of all—not only in theatre but in painting, film, everything!) was Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. I saw the play in Paris and I didn’t understand a word of the French, but I left the theatre as if I’d been hit over the head. I understood every moment of it. That play had a profound influence on me. When I returned from Europe, I started writing. That was 1959.” During the 1970s and beyond, Beckett was someone to be talked about later—after a painstaking and painful anesthetizing. The film director, Todd Solondz, at a Beckett reading, from Mabou Mines in the 1980s, noted the similarity of the set design to an Excedrin tablet—one he wished he could have taken.
Waiting for Godot
Maybe the Irish director, Garry Hynes, from Druid Theatre Company, who brought her production of Waiting for Godot to America in October and November, as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival at John Jay College, can give helpful advice for those feeling similar distress (she apparently considered doing the project with trepidation): actually she recommends, not asking too much of yourself, as an audience member (realize that Beckett may be refusing to give more): simply witness.
(Listen to a BBC Garry Hynes interview on Beckett.)
Godot (here pronounced GOD-oh, not Good-oh, as is more common in the States) is perhaps a metaphysical name or even a curse word, linked to other informal, maybe even nonsensical names (some believe they represent nationalities): Gogo or Estragon (French), Vladimir or Didi (Russian), Pozzo (Italian; more specifically, a Mussolini), and Lucky (American)—here, played with long hair. These can be important to the play because Waiting for Godot may reflect a state of consciousness resultant of WWII’s destruction. As noted on a BBC4 podcast on the play, Beckett, who was part of the French resistance, waited for the end of the war in France (where subsistence might have depended on the root vegetables noted in the play: “I’ll never forget this carrot.” He most likely left Ireland because of its conservativism and wrote this play in French (and also translated his work back into English) to distance himself from an overwhelming literary influence—for whom he also acted as an assistant and researcher: James Joyce. Hynes also contends that there is another Irish presence to be reckoned with regarding Godot, which is not reactionary: A play by J. M. Synge called The Well of the Saints, which also includes beggars waiting in the elements for the miracle of having their sight restored (Pozzo has lost his sight in the second half of Godot). Once it is, they see the ugliness of the world and wish they had never been able to see.
Marty Rea is the taller Vladimir and Aaron Monaghan is Estragon, a Laurel and Hardy team (almost out of a T.V. cartoon) performing over the abyss. Instead of a vision of the cruelty of living, based on imagery of hanging, beatings, whips, killings, and humiliation, and for all the issues that the writer refutes—plot, as an example, as well as setting–Hynes discovers a warmer Godot, maybe one that can even be said to have charm. She appreciates clever humor in the play and makes use of pantomime, mirroring and repetition with her actors, as they walk arm in arm, march, and pose melodramatically. Peter Brook, who knew Beckett and staged his pieces—including one close in subject and characters to Waiting for Godot, “Rough for Theatre I,” recalls Beckett as less severe than his public face—actually he “loved a drink, adored a joke, and loved women.” Hynes’s production infuses the text with Beckett’s lost Irish legacy—the colors of the white-bordered set, by Francis O’Connor, are the earth tones of Irish ceramics (although the larger effect may remind of sculpture by Henry Moore or even Seurat’s paintings–from an American point of view, the costumes give an almost Amish look to the actors.
Perhaps Godot always needed a transition from starkness to simplicity, as opposed to the concept of proving funny actors could demonstrate how unfunny the play actually is. Hynes also seems willing to believe that there is a story and a setting, by letting the audience see the play’s pentimento–in a play that happens nowhere, outside of time and place, there are references to the Pyrenees, yoga-posture, and Rodin’s “Thinker”–which give a sense of a generalized living place. She lets us know that the play takes place in a post-modern somewhere as opposed to a universal nowhere. To put it in Paglia’s terminology, the work now takes place in a “procreative realm.”
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Beckett’s tree for Godot is part of David Violi’s set for The Prisoner, which played at Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, from November 24 to December 16, 2018—a woman at a December 8 talkback confirmed the impression, although Peter Brook would probably dispute the observation. The text—the language is straightforward–by Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, concerns the punishment and repentance of a young man who must weigh his own physical crime against the moral one of his father.
The stage is open and unhyped—and the barefoot actors and mimes (the cast is made of five: Hiran Abeysekera, Hayley Carmichael, Herve Goffings, Omar Silva, and Kalieaswari Srinivasan) wear loose, unpretentious rehearsal clothing.
Brook is theatre’s spiritual guru—a great artist and a fabulous promoter–who pays particular attention to simplification (perhaps he might prefer the word “elimination”) and international influence and casting. The cultural atmosphere around him has changed, however, and Americans have lost their religion—philosophical debate on theatrical themes tends to end up being about dollars and cents. Theoretically, he is essential, but Brook’s recent fables are examples of his theory, not so much daring experiments, like ones he made in his past: for example, The Tragedy of Carmen (1981), and The Mahabharata (1985). Whether because he has made such an impact on theatrical culture (he is in his nineties) or because his storytelling methods can seem obvious today—Brook might say his work is renewing and deepening—one has to ask of the material: how differently would another director, with the same story–who never had access to Brook’s enormous experience and knowledge–actually stage it?
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Henrik Ibsen did not see himself as a proto-feminist—he was concerned about the rights of all human beings. This, however, has not stopped him, as well as other artists, from being employed to legitimize the writing of those less famous—and less talented. Much of the new work around the city really should be credited to two authors—the contemporary one, owning the politics necessary for a positive review, and the older, who is considered classic. Recently, besides the dour Norwegian, Hermann Melville, Camus, Chekhov, an ancient scribe, Cocteau, and Stanley Kubrick have been featured. The practice is not new, certainly, but it is unimaginative. Although it is the fashion, Heather Raffo really doesn’t even need Ibsen to give ballast to her play—she has materials and options enough not to set Noura (which plays at Playwrights Horizons until December 30) at Christmas (the large tree and stunning wooden, cubby-holed set are part of Andrew Lieberman’s scenic design), with a visit from someone from her past, interjections from an ardent admirer, like a Dr. Rank, and the inclusion of others of Ibsen’s concerns—for example, early paternity. Noura is too educated, wise, and of the world, to recall Nora, symbolically, really (Mrs. Helmer does not understand money, the law, or working in a profession—“a doll” whom, during the course of her ordeal, does not want to, and can not, play house anymore (closer, might be Ibsen’s haunted, orphanage story Ghosts).
Noura, by contrast, is a refugee, who has lost the option of being a homebody, at least eight years before. Yet, she continues to contribute money to a convent in Iraq. Raffo keeps adding different colors to her tale, which don’t become muddy—she’s game to take on virtually any contemporary issue, even if she doesn’t do justice to Ibsen. She’s a formidable actress, though (and a strong cast has been assembled around her: Dahlia Azama, Liam Campora, Matthew David, and Nabil Elouahabi), but there are holes in the script and maybe it is contradictory; Raffo also holds a tin cup for the understanding of second-wave feminists. Ingmar Bergman thought differently about A Doll’s House, actually, and has demonstrated that the play is also Torvald’s tragedy, not just Nora’s, (and you’ll see a nasty moment from Fanny and Alexander replayed in Joanna Settle’s direction).
Those who interpret the play usually pile on the husband, forcing the character to become a villain—in the ‘70s, Sam Waterston used a crutch to gain sympathy when he was playing the part. Certainly, Ibsen has been hijacked before, it is true, but perhaps without such poetic, or passionate force.
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Happy holidays from Stage Voices!
© 2018 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photo: Fornes, Playbill; Godot, The New York Times; Noura, Joan Marcus