Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Stratford 2013 -- Waiting for Godot

When I was a Very Serious Theatre Student in high school and college, I, along with my fellow VSTS's, studied the works of Samuel Beckett as if they were the Sacred Scrolls that contained the Cosmic Truths of Real Theatre.  That melodramatic stuff by Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller was so self-important and strenuous when it tugged at the heartstrings, and comedy by the likes of Neil Simon was barely worthy of a glance.  Inge?  Middle American sophistry.  And when they labeled Beckett's work as "Theatre of the Absurd," there was some far deeper meaning to the words than just being "absurd."  Nothing absurd like the Marx Brothers or Abbot and Costello.  Even Charlie Chaplin, with all his introspection, didn't rise to the level of Beckett's definition of  "absurd."  There had to be depth beyond what the audience saw.  After all, Beckett was Irish and who knew more about depth than the Irish.  And he lived in Paris and wrote in French.  We just knew there had to be something more to his works.  Every word, every phrase, had to be dissected, parsed and analyzed, and many a night we spent trying -- as we did with Pinter -- to plumb the depths of his heaviosity, accompanied, of course, by chemical enhancements and Pop Tarts.

All these years later, it becomes clear that Samuel Beckett not only appreciated the absurdity of Charlie Chaplain, the Marx Brothers, and even Abbot and Costello, but he emulated them.  Waiting for Godot (and, by the way, it's pronounced "GOD-oh," not "Go-DOH."  As Brian Dennehy explained in a Q & A session after the performance, "Godot" is Dublin slum slang for God.  Beckett was from Dublin.)  The characters in the play are comic pairings of the same style as the comic geniuses as Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, and the dialogue in some scenes is evocative of Who's on First.  The overall effect is stunningly simple, and the blade of Beckett's wit and meaning slips effortlessly to the bone.

The context of the play is also important.  Beckett wrote it shortly after the end of World War II, a time when Europe was as desolate as the scene he describes for the play: "A country road.  A tree.  Evening."  Beckett himself barely survived being arrested by the Nazis in occupied Paris in 1942, and spent the war working with the French Resistance.  If he'd been caught, he would have most likely been executed.  That, along with the desperate devastation he saw around him, surely played a role in his work.  And Waiting for Godot shows it, but not in the way you might think.

In spite of the desolate setting, the poor and struggling characters, even the pain and sorrow that they bear and inflict on each other, and like the leaves that appear on the branches of the bare and seemingly lifeless tree, there is hope, albeit faint.  [Spoiler alert]  And while Godot does not arrive as promised, Vladimir and Estragon will be back to wait for him.  "Nothing to be done."

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