I pulled down "Waiting for Godot" on Friday and re-read it once again. What a piece of work. "Death of a Salesman" might be the better play, with its seamless mix of past and present, jumbled around in the crumbling psyche of Willy Loman, leading in lockstep to the heartbreaking conclusion. And "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is probably my favorite play, just for the nostalgia factor. But "Godot" somehow surpasses them both: spare and funny and perfect, not to mention deeply funny.
"You should have been a poet," Vladimir, the more sensible of the tramps says.
"I was," replies Estragon, gesturing toward his rags, "Isn't that obvious?"
When you look at Samuel Beckett's other works, the miraculousness of "Godot" becomes clear. Because while they have a surreal, nightmarish quality—particularly "Endgame"—Beckett would be shrouded in obscurity without it. With "Waiting for Godot," he won the Nobel Prize in literature, and who would dare say it wasn't deserved? The play hides depths under its simple surface, its two main characters contain multitudes.
For those unfamiliar, the play is mostly interplay between Vladimir and Estragon, bowler-hatted hoboes killing time on a blasted landscape enhanced by a single bare tree. They are waiting with a kind of hopeless hopefulness for Mr. Godot, but what he is or why they should wait for him, like the product Willy Loman is selling, is never made clear. Nor is what happened to the world they inhabit. Some lop off the last two letters of "Godot" to understand what this is about, though to me it's fairly plain that Godot is death, and the vaudeville capers the pair plays out, the business with their boots and hats, their philosophizing and self-pity, echo of the way we pass our brief spans between the womb and the grave, the light gleaming "for an instant, then it's dark once more."
A traveller arrives, Pozzo, leading a slave on a rope, a quite Trumpian figure, lost in self-regard. "I am Pozzo! Pozzo! Does that name mean nothing to you!"
The tramps seem constitutionally unable to understand. "Is it Pozzo or Bozzo?" wonders Vladimir.
There's no point in describing the plot too much. Brooks Atkinson, reviewing the Broadway debut of "Waiting for Godot" for the New York Times in 1956, called it "a mystery wrapped in an enigma." And so it is.
Beckett—who was James Joyce's secretary—wrote the play in French, then translated it into English, and he was clearly unsettled by the "disaster" of its growing fame. He exerted methodical control over productions with the frantic unease of a man whose creation had escaped him and was being mauled by others, batting away those who would tinker with the carefully-scripted confusion depicted on stage, trying to add meanings of their own, a practice his estate continued.
There were points to be made on both sides. The publishers insisted that Studio had signed a contract stating there would be no changes in the text or stage directions.
Director Joy Zinoman countered that stage directions include instructions such as "Vladimir and Estragon protest violently" or "general outcry" which seem to require ad-libbing.
"It's in the text," she told the Washington Post.
Negotiations were attempted but, as one actor put it, "racism got in the way."
Did it? Who was right? Did Beckett's estate suddenly get upset over ad-libs because they had a hip-hop flavor? Or did the production company toss an all-t00-easy charge at an artist -- or his estate anyway -- known for his meticulous attention to detail? Is improvised outcry fine so long as it isn't black slang? Is artistic control laudable except when exerted over a black cast, when it become racism?
Or is the entire matter the kind of empty peering into hats and the trying on of too tight boots that our pair of heroes perform to while away their two-act "tragicomedy"?
Beckett himself, a fearless member of the French resistance during World War II, was whatever the opposite of a racist is. "I know that very, very specifically" said South African playwright Athol Fugard, who approached Beckett personally in the 1970s to do an all-black production . "He had no hesitation."
Obviously I'm not reading Beckett in a vacuum, but in the after-echoes of the Chicago theater community kerfuffle that's been raging for weeks regarding Steppenwolf's production of "Pass Over" by Antoinette Nwandu, a reworking of "Waiting for Godot." The Sun-Times Hedy Weiss found fault with the production, and was promptly labelled a racist and, in a highly-unusual move, formally denounced by Steppenwolf.
I would regurgitate the entire matter—you can read more about it here—as several theater companies piled on Weiss, waving past criticisms they consider unfair. The Tribune sprang to her defense with the Sun-Times following suit.
But frankly, I haven't the stomach for it, except to say I smiled with recognition when, in the play, after going on about turnips and radishes, Vladimir observes, "This is becoming really insignificant."
Not of course to the outraged members of the theatrical community, who have identified a villain, to their apparent satisfaction, and are going after her with great—for want of a better word—drama. The temptation to settle old scores is very hard to resist. Weiss, meanwhile, showed admirable restraint, even sangfroid, and did not rise to the bait trolled all around her.
Then again, dumping on critics is a time-honored theater ritual and anyone sticking their hand into that cage needs armor-plated skin. Toward the end of "Godot," the two hoboes trade slurs, starting with "Ceremonious ape!"and "Punctilious pig" and working through "Moron! Vermin! Abortion! Morpion!"—a crab louse—then "Sewer Rat! Curate! Cretin!" and ending with Estragon trilling out the ultimate insult, the stage directions notes, "with finality" since beyond it there is no worse imaginable put-down and reply would be meaningless: