Sunday, March 25, 2012

Still Waiting After All These Years

Recently I attended a performance of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles. I have never missed an opportunity to see Godot, and so have seen several productions. By far the best was one I attended while at film school in Paris. It took place in the hold of a barge on the Seine, in a small lake of mud. It remains for me the benchmark for productions of the play.

I first read "Waiting for Godot" in high-school when I was seventeen years old, and it changed my life. I had never thought that drama could take such a form. To me, to that point, plays were the silly, shallow spectacles of my childhood, usually involving animals or fantasies or popular songs. Godot changed all that. Its stark setting, bold barrenness of character and plot, and the beauty of its language opened my eyes to infinite possibilities of drama. I had been writing plays since I was thirteen, but from that day on, for many years, I immersed myself hungrily in Beckett's work and tried to write like him. In his austere, grim demeanor, he became a model to me as a writer; a hero of thin, pale light in darkness. That I write drama today is largely due to Godot.

The Taper production was beautifully laid on in the nearly circular theater, overawed by a towering backdrop of languidly gathering storm clouds from which a frail ribbon of road emerged, lolling across hillocks toward the stage. A few minutes before the play began, my nine-year-old pointed out urgently to me that a man was moving hypnotically across the road towards us, scarcely more than a silhouette of a stick figure. In all my years of reading, watching and thinking about the play (which I consider one of the two most important of the 20th century - Chekhov's "Cherry Orchard" being the other) it had never occurred to me to wonder how the tramps reached the intersection where they were to wait. I think Beckett would have approved of the effect.

The play calls for "a country road, a tree," and that is what the production gave us. The playing area, a rough circle hemmed by rocks, was suitably spare and featureless, which I found a bit of a disappointment. In the French production, the set had three dimensions, which gave the play a visual depth to accompany its intellectual one. It is not necessary to perform Godot in two dimensions as most people do; in fact, I think it is a mistake. So little happens during its two hours, that some visual variety is a relief, and opens possibilities of blocking of which the actors can make use, especially for comedic purposes.

The production at the Taper is a very good one. Barry McGovern as Vladimir is excellent; Alan Mandell as Estragon, rather less so. McGovern's Irish accent serves the dialogue well, sounding as it must have in Beckett's mind. Mandell's repertoire of gestures, both physical and verbal, is limited; there are too many shrugs and outstretched open palms. Still, his gentleness is a good counterpoint to McGovern's relentless, pensive questioning. James Cromwell is impressive as Pozzo, a commanding, cruel dictator to Hugo Armstrong's hapless Lucky. His rendering of Lucky's frantic, semi-coherent speech is one of the best I have ever heard.

The director, Michael Arabian, understands the need for naturalness and nuance in the dialogue, and he did a wonderful job of bringing out the humor in the play. The pacing was good and the blocking effective. My one reservation was in the rendering of the great, dramatic "Let us not waste our time" soliloquy, which Vladimir delivers strolling arm-in-arm with Estragon as if it were meant as an ironic commentary on the helplessness of Lucky and Pozzo. This is a mistake, I think, since the speech, in my view, is one of the loftiest and most weighty calls to action in the face of existential despair in all of Beckett. The blocking of the speech and the tone undercut its power.

The production does not make the mistake of most directors and indeed some actors of portraying Beckett's characters as if they were little more than mouthpieces for the poetry of the dialogue. This is often the case in the complete set of Beckett on Film which I own, and which I watch periodically (the worst example is Julianne Moore's "Not I"). For all their minimal other-worldliness, Beckett's characters should be played as real people, caught in real, if odd or unnatural, situations. They are not burlesque mannequins or philosophical practitioners: They are human beings trapped in landscapes not of their making or choosing, unable either to leave or to understand why they have to remain. They are, in short, humanity at its rugged, sensitive core.

The tramps in Godot, like most of Beckett's men and women, exist only on the stage for the length of the production; unlike Hamlet or Lear they do not live forever, and their lives do not suggest great events before and beyond them. They can scarcely remember the past and have no idea what to expect of the future. As far as we know, they have never been anywhere but where we encounter them (and they encounter one another), and they seem incapable of leaving, despite their confusion, uncertainty and suffering. Once again: They are us, in our daily lives of quiet desperation, if only we had the insight and courage to see those lives for what they truly are. Since we cannot (like them we cannot bear the spectacle of ourselves at heart), then Beckett presents us with them for an hour or two, in the hope that we will recognize ourselves and take from the play at least a sense of perspective if not of shame.

I love the two great speeches in Godot, the hortatory "Let us not waste our time in idle discourse. Let us do something while we have the chance!", and the poignant, profound attempt at meaning and even triumph, "Was I sleeping while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now?" They are, I think, among the greatest soliloquies in Western literature, expressing man's anxious search for meaning in the midst of the confusion and chaos of life, as well as his thirst for some sense of dignity and self-affirmation. The latter, especially, is as close as Beckett ever comes to declaring that we are capable of imposing meaning on our lives, and of declaring victory, no matter how poor and passive. We may not be in control of our circumstances and we may be at the mercy of our fate, but at least we know that we are, and in that knowledge, we can take some sense of pride. "Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear: We are waiting for Godot to come."

I had brought my nine-year-old son half in the hope that he would appreciate the play, half in the expectation that he would be baffled and bored. Indeed, the man behind us in the snack bar line at intermission announced, "I don't think I get it." But my son did. He was riveted. He laughed at the burlesque humor, enjoyed the fart joke and the dropped drawers as only a nine-year-old can, and was moved to silence by the distraught condition and poetic eloquence of the characters. And he made a comment, which had never occurred to me and which I thought was insightful and profound, and totally in the spirit of the play. We arrived ten minutes before the performance began, and after a few minutes he asked, "Is this part of the play?" I didn't understand at first, and then it hit me: We were waiting; waiting for Godot to come. He was right: Waiting for the play to begin is very much a part of the experience. When I asked afterwards what he thought of the production, he gave it a child's highest marks: "I liked it. It was good."

I, too, after all these years, still like it and think it is very good. Indeed, it retains the power to stir my deepest suspicions and fears about the human condition, and to evoke my dearest hope - that they also serve who only stand and wait, as John Milton said; and in T.S. Eliot's prayer, Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still. Whether sitting or standing still in this naked landscape of life, which we neither created nor chose and which we cannot escape, awaiting the arrival of some savior who never comes, we may yet, by finding humor in our suffering, and dignity in what Hopkins called our poor potsherd selves, salvage some shred of meaning to mark our inexorable passage from existence to extinction, from time to timelessness.