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Play It Again, Sam

Waiting for Godot

a play by Samuel Beckett, directed by Mike Nichols
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center, New York City

Mike Nichols’s production of Waiting for Godot is so up-to-the-minute that Estragon (Robin Williams), determined to reduce Lucky (Bill Irwin) to silence, screams the supreme insult available in the Age of Bush: “You’re a Liberal.” En attendant Godot was first performed on January 5, 1953, at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris. In London, it opened at the Arts Theatre on August 3, 1955. In the United States, the life of the play began and nearly ended at the Coconut Grove Play-house, Miami, in January 1956: it was revived, with little popular success, at the Golden Theater, New York, in April 1956 with Bert Lahr as Estragon. On everybody’s short list of masterpieces, it is not performed as often as its fame would suggest. Many of those who saw the play at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York may have been seeing it for the first time.

Waiting for Godot is what the published version calls it: a tragicomedy in two acts. Three acts would have forced Beckett to develop further the dramatic situation. He would have to give his layabouts Estragon and Vladimir (Steve Martin) a formal and therefore a moral destiny. In two acts, no concession to theatrical piety is required. The play is allowed to remain nearly what Vivien Mercier has called it, a play in which nothing happens, twice. Nearly: because the second act is not exactly the same as the first, many appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

According to Beckett’s fable, two vagrants, Estragon and Vladimir, are waiting for someone called Godot; if he comes, they will be saved, or at least their situation will be transformed. Meanwhile they hang about, passing time which would have passed anyway, though more slowly. They divert themselves with verbal games, fabricated quarrels, Laurel-and-Hardy routines which they invariably cut short for lack of interest. They lapse into silence. Estragon tries to sleep, perchance to dream, but Vladimir, lonely, drags him back to whatever passes for reality. Godot doesn’t come, but word arrives through a boy (Lukas Haas) that he will certainly come tomorrow. So they wait. Godot doesn’t come, but Pozzo (F. Murray Abraham) and, in the noose of Pozzo’s rope, Lucky do come: they are master and slave, voluble in the first act, grounded and blind (Pozzo) and dumb (Lucky) in the second, a consequence eliciting from Estragon and Vladimir not a whit of fellow feeling.

Hugh Kenner once remarked in my hearing that Waiting for Godot may have issued from Beckett’s wartime experience in the French resistance. Members of the maquis spent most of their time hanging about, receiving or failing to receive messages. War may be Hell, but much of it is ennui. The difference between one day and the next is no more dramatic than that between a tree apparently dead and the same tree with a leaf or two on it. The best commentary on Waiting for Godot may be those passages in Beckett’s book on Proust where the themes are time, repetition, habit, “the poisonous ingenuity of time in the science of affliction.” In his later plays, especially End-game (1957), All That Fall (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1961), Proustian memories of a happy day are allowed to interrupt the otherwise malignant proceedings. In Waiting for Godot the play of repartee with no apparent point beyond itself is the only alleviation permitted. As a parody of the heroics sponsored by a one-time Existentialism, the play is ruefully decisive.

The text of Waiting for Godot is providing a long headache for the scholars to whom that matter has been entrusted. Whenever Beckett has taken an interest in a particular production of the play, he has tinkered with the references to time and place; notably for a German production at the Schiller Theatre, a performance at San Quentin Penitentiary, and a performance in Dublin last August. In any strict sense, there is no established text of the play. The New York production “uses a text provided by Samuel Beckett in August, 1988, which will be published soon by Faber and Faber.” It may turn out that every word delivered by Robin Williams is in the new text, though some of them sounded to me like improvised ad-libbing. Certain details from the current published text of 1954 probably can’t survive. When Pozzo says, “I’ve lost my Kapp and Peterson!” the reference must be obscure to anyone who doesn’t know that Kapp and Peterson is a distinguished Dublin pipe-making firm. For the play’s first several years, such local references as the play had were French: the Eiffel Tower, the Macon country, the Rhone. In the Dublin production, unless my ears deceived me, the Macon country became the Napa Valley, thereby facilitating a bout of rage—“the Crappa Country”—from Estragon. Otherwise, in the Dublin version, there was no indication of the play’s setting: the stage was bare, except for a stone and an abstract tree; it could have been anywhere or nowhere.

In Mike Nichols’s version, the scene is somewhere in the United States—bad-lands, a bit of desert, a waste patch littered with a few stones, rusty detritus of trucks, hubcaps, a truck tire, bumper, a broken spring, a buffalo skull, a sheep skull. It is theater in the round, befitting a rigmarole in which Estragon and Vladimir, agreeing to go somewhere, do not move. The play has been updated, mainly by having Robin Williams as Estragon and Steve Martin as Vladimir play to an audience deemed to share, as their common culture, TV programs and old movies rerun on TV. There were signs that Martin wanted to recall Oliver Hardy, but none that Williams was willing to play Stan Laurel: he clearly wanted to make people think they were watching him on Saturday Night Live. The production gave him his head.

Most of the routines were the sort of thing Williams does, even more clearly than the sort of thing Steve Martin does. In the horseplay when Estragon, Vladimir, and Pozzo are trying to stop Lucky from tirading forever, Estragon keeps pressing an imaginary remote control, trying to change the channel; he runs over to Lucky and uses the sheep skull as a movie clapper for a new take; he breaks in with his Rod Serling voice from The Twilight Zone, sticks an imaginary microphone under Lucky’s mouth, and urges him to “thank the Academy.” When Lucky’s tirade comes to “the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of Essy-in-Possy,” Estragon interjects: “Did he say pussy?” Calling to Vladimir, Estragon sings his name to the music of The Twilight Zone. Hearing noises off, Estragon seizes a truck exhaust pipe and wields it, Rambo-style—or is it John Wayne?—saying over his shoulder to Vladimir: “It’s great to be back-to-back with you again, like in the old days,” or words to that effect. Vladimir, meanwhile, is reduced to flinging pebbles or crumbs at the unstoppable Lucky and trying to hang himself from the tree with Pozzo’s whip.

The Nichols production is only the third I have seen. I didn’t see the original one in Paris. I saw the first London one, and because of Peter Bull’s performance as Pozzo I’ve lived with the conviction that Pozzo is central to the play, and that his being a monster is the means Beckett uses to keep the play terrifying. It is because of Pozzo that one thinks of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony and Metamorphosis. I didn’t see the much-praised German version. But in Dublin, and now in New York, the play has been domesticated by taking much of the harm out of Pozzo. I still think he’s supposed to be Mussolini, and that Peter Bull’s huge bull-like head and roaring voice got him right. But Alan Stanton in the Dublin production and F. Murray Abraham in the New York one make Pozzo almost genial, a good fellow at heart though for the moment a bit rough on Lucky.

There was better reason for this in New York than in Dublin. In Dublin, Barry McGovern played Estragon as a melancholic, occasionally stirred to resentment. There were no comic gyrations; it was a play of dismal routine, relieved only by lyric effusions as brief as they were poignant. Pozzo was easily assimilated to a culture that has often thought of itself as eloquently doomed. But in New York, the play is played not only for laughs but for the wild but ultimately containable laughs for which Robin Williams and Steve Martin are diversely famous. Estragon has to go along with Robin Williams’s TV antics, as in Mork and Mindy, and with his monkey business in The World According to Garp. Steve Martin plays Vladimir as if he felt misgivings about making him too reminiscent of his roles in Pennies from Heaven and Roxanne but couldn’t quite decide what form antics complementary to Robin Williams’s might take. Favoring Williams’s Estragon to such an extent, the play couldn’t have a Mussolini-inspired Pozzo, if only because the conventions of TV don’t contain monsters within the genre of tragicomedy. So Pozzo has to be picturesquely daft rather than sinister.

In Nichols’s production, F. Murray Abraham’s interpretation of Pozzo becomes crucial, but in another sense. It is his pathos, near the end of the play—“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more”—and his final command—“On!”—to Lucky that makes it possible for Vladimir and Estragon, Vladimir more than Estragon, to bring their antics to an end rather than merely call them off. It is Pozzo who makes it heartbreakingly convincing for Vladimir to say, near the end, and while Estragon is dozing off,

Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can’t go on! (Pause.) What have I said?

The sense in which words lead us by the nose, or throw a noose around our necks and then shout “On!”, has to be acknowledged, but doesn’t have to be connived with. Equally, the sense in which words may be selected and joined by a master-craftsman in such a way as to provide spaces in which their participants may somehow, however briefly, live is to be respected. All is not lost.

After the Dublin production, I felt that the domestication of Waiting for Godot was now achieved, its power to horrify having been sung away, lullabied into a bourgeois sleep. A society in no mood for apocalypses had triumphed again. After the New York production, which succeeded in being funny in ways for which TV has schooled us, I’m not inclined to make a fuss about the playing down of the metaphysics, the visionary post–World War II talk of Existenz: that, too, was a cultural moment, a convention like the Theater of the Absurd it incited. Mike Nichols’s direction of the play is highly intelligent and resourceful, interpreting the play by moving it from one twilight zone to another. The comedy issues from different social and political conditions; it has more to do with Reagan and Bush than with Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. No matter: the play has not been abused. If it is a mark of the classic, as Frank Kermode maintains, that it is patient of interpretation—it doesn’t demand to be received in any one authorized version—this production is valid, in the sense that it allows the audience to enjoy many laughs but not the complacency of thinking that it has had the last one.

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