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 …

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