The Endless Wait for Godot
A country road. A tree.
Those are the opening stage directions. They suggest a bare landscape, an emptiness, perhaps a kind of isolation on the stage itself. Beckett, it seems to me, takes place on a different realm, an elemental realm, a realm where language is everything.
Waiting for Godot is the story of two Irish tramps, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), who sit around a barren desolated country road waiting for a fella named Godot. They are in a place where Time seems to stagger, where nature consists of a stone, a dried up tree on a small mound, an ambiguous sky. As they wait, they scramble to pass the time, riffing back and forth about the Bible’s inconsistencies, dreams, their past, death, suicide. Along this country road come some visitors, among them a man named Pozzo and his slave Lucky. Pozzo is a rather pompous and potent character, cruel and at the same time vulnerable. Lucky is his “carrier” a man weighted down by Pozzo’s belongings and a rope around his neck. They are also met by a little boy who brings messages from Mr. Godot. All the time Vladamir and Estragon visit and re-visit topics, hoping, waiting, and unable to go anywhere because of this mysterious Godot for whom they MUST wait.
Charming spot. Inspiring Prospects.
The first time I read Waiting for Godot, I was perplexed. Befuddled. Relieved and at the same time, appalled. APPALLED. Like many things when I was 21, I understood it on a very innate level, but with time the play has deepened. For within that time I have, naturally, encountered this reality Beckett suggests a little bit more: the restlessness, the stasis, the often carousel-like revolution of life. It is revolving, repetitive, but comedic and musical at the same time. It is absurd, but also grand. Beckett’s work has a visceral quality to it, a bare knuckle quality, that even when one does not get the full complexity of the blow, it takes the air out of you just the same.
This past week, I had a chance to sit in a rehearsal and talk to the cast of the play. Mark Medoff, writer and actor, plays Vladimir, Richard Rundell plays Estragon, David Edwards plays Pozzo and Brandon Brown plays Lucky. (Unfortunately neither Lucky or the director were there that day, but their presence was, nonetheless, felt.)
Throughout the play Vladimir and Estragon insist that they want to go, leave, that is, but they can’t; they are waiting for Godot. So they pass the time, they laugh and hassle each other as two old comrades with fifty years of friendship behind them. There are moments of tenderness and moments of disagreement between them. Ultimately, however, it is clear that Didi and Gogo depend on each other; they are afraid to part, afraid to be alone. They are, as Medoff put it, “an old married couple.”
Samuel Beckett was a fan of 1920’s silent films and that kind of slap stick, physical comedy. Chaplin. Buster Keaton. Laurel and Hardy. There are very clear elements of this in the play, for Estragon and Vladimir play off each other with a three stooge-like patter. And this, in a lot of ways, is what gives the play its comedic relief, it’s musicality, its charm. So while many people consider Beckett as this avant-garde dark existential playwright, Godot has so much comedic potential and lots of optimism embedded.
“At some point,” Edwards said, “Beckett wanted to use Laurel and Hardy.” That is itself an indication of how the play is not just meant to be a dismal look at the human condition. It is ripe with absurd quandaries and physical comedy.
At the end of the play (spoiler alert!) Beckett ends with a familiar vaudeville stunt. One of the characters’ trousers fall down to his ankles, nearly the final image of the play.
“Beckett manages to puncture the gravity of this great absurdist existential philosophical conundrum play by ending it with a pants drop,” said Rundell. “It’s a little bit like Shakespeare, the comic relief tends to puncture when it gets to ponderous and overly philosophical.”
This production of the play takes Beckett with a new spin. Instead of the two Irish tramps in a country road, this production is giving the Beckett classic a unique perspective.
“Vladimir and Estragon, not as in the original Beckett, are two failed hedgefund managers, who crashed in 2008, considered suicide, and now are living essentially as bums in a park in downtown Manhattan near Wall Street.” Said Rundell.
There are a number of modernized bits to the play and having not known this as I walked in to the rehearsal, it took me a little by surprise when I saw Pozzo fist bump Estragon. It struck me as rather refreshing. Not long after that, a cell phone was pulled out and Pozzo and Didi take a selfie. (Shown Above)
It had never occurred to me actually that just like in Shakespeare, productions often alter the context or setting to give the play new meaning, a new skin. In fact, because Beckett’s stage directions and set are somewhat minimal, there are many possibilities to, as Rundell put it, add “modernized tweaks to an old classic.” But it’s not just in the props where this new spin manifests itself; it seems to also inform the actors, to give them an additional movement vocabulary, to provide angles, layers, weight, a different light.
“We did it to inject new life into it, so as not to be locked down to Beckett’s original concept. This isn’t a museum piece. It’s not a snapshot of a past performance.”
Many Beckett productions attempt to keep the original minimal quality of his work, but perhaps injecting this new meaning can add color. The list of ringers that have played Beckett is rather impressive: Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, John Goodman, Nathan Lane, John Glover, Barry McGovern, John Murphy. This means that the play has been explored through various personalities and is thus apt for experimentation.
And it’s not unusual, I came to find out, that there are nontraditional performances of Beckett, some of which might even take on more political undertones. In 2006 a performance of Godot was done with all black actors in response to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. This Classical Theater of Harlem’s production, directed by Christopher McElroen, alluded to Godot being the federal emergency management agency.
Edwards mentioned a famous production done in a prison. In San Quentin. “They [inmates] certainly understand the waiting,” he said.
An interesting tid bit: Beckett said that the voice of men was necessary for the play, that the main roles should not be performed by women, but there have been several productions, especially after Beckett's death, with women casts. Some of which have made the news because of lawsuits from Beckett's estate.
Medoff described the image that came to him when thinking of the year 2008, which is when the luck of these hedge fund characters would have crashed, along with many other things that crashed in 2008.
“If you take the eight and turn it on its side it’s an infinity symbol. This set out an explosion. It could be anytime…It is that notion of infinite endless time.”
And the idea of endless time is certainly indisputable in the play, but this might also suggest then that the play itself is infinite, that there are infinite possibilities, infinite scenarios in which this waiting could occur. For the waiting is universal in some respect or another. We all wait. We wait for happiness, or love, or safety. We wait for reassurance and acceptance. We wait in doctors offices, we wait in line at the DMV, we wait in the airports for delayed flights. And what we do while we wait might be key.
The four actors are life long friends, having worked with each other in various projects throughout decades. The director of the play is actually Medoff’s daughter, Jessica Medoff Bunchmann, who has been performing since she was a kid. Sadly, I didn't get to talk to her, but understand that she too has worked with the actors in other projects. They told me about working with her when she was six or seven years old.. The part of the messenger, who appears twice in the play to bring news from Mr. Godot, is played by Medoff’s granddaughter, twelve year old Grace Marks. So the cast for the play is more of an ensemble.
Medoff first performed Beckett in 1978, when he also played the part of Pozzo. Rundell too has played the part of Pozzo and actually met Beckett himself in the late seventies, sat in on one of his rehearsals. Rundell describes him as very meticulous, with an incredible attention to detail. “He actually choreographed every step, nothing was left to chance.”
“Which would drive us crazy,” interjected Medoff, prompting laughter and agreement from both Edwards and Rundell. That style of directing, they said, is almost like a straitjacket for an actor.
Edwards, who plays Pozzo, had never played Beckett before, “I’ve never done the play,” said Edwards, “I’ve read it, I’ve seen it. I used it as an exercise for my acting students when I was teaching and now…we’re coming up with a lot of little nuances that are a lot of fun… We’ve had a lot of really great time exploring Pozzo and Lucky and exploring their relationship with each other and their relationship to them [Vladamir and Estragon]...”
The three seemed to play off each other quite well, stopping at times to laugh or give a note.
“We have all this stuff bursting everyday, ideas, ideas, ideas.” Said Medoff. “Everyday we’ll stop somewhere and one of us we’ll say, ‘Ha!’ I just thought of something.”
As they rehearsed there were moments of laughter, of self correction, and it was all done with an air of playfulness. The chemistry and camaraderie was apparent. And in this play, so much rides on the relationship between Vladimir and Estragon. They are interdependent and yet constantly wonder whether it would be best for them to part, but they can’t, or they seem to be unable.
“The relationship will endure even though we [referring to Vladimir and Estragon] part every night and we come back together every evening to wait for Godot.”
There is something else that brings Vladimir and Estragon together: their past. In the play that Didi and Gogo talk about a mysterious past, a dark one. The modernized back story of this production brings a different light to some of these lines.
“There’s a whole section that Beckett’s got where they become more and more morose about what they’ve done to people.” Said Medoff.
“We have ruined people in order to make a lot of money. Think of Bernie Madoff.” Said Rundell.
The best thing would be to kill me. Like the other
The other. What other?
Like billions of others.
“They haven’t literally killed anybody although they probably have indirectly, but they have certainly ruined enough lives” said Edwards. “Pozzo even makes a reference to that and he says, ‘the best thing to do would be to kill him.’”
This background certainly gives a different dimension to Didi and Gogo, to think that we are seeing the end result of a life of bad judgment, self interest, and indifference to others. That’s how I think of Bernie Madoff, someone who is far enough removed from the damage he does to people that he doesn’t feel it. Wolf of Wall Street style. But Didi and Estragon have somewhat recognized their past mistakes and are now waiting for answers, for clarity, for whatever Godot happens to be. They are reduced to pick pocketing and perpetual boredom, but capable of compassion and understanding; this much is clear in their attitude towards each other and even towards Lucky.
As we discussed, sitting in their rehearsal space in Medoff’s home, the actors seemed unable to help themselves, spontaneously bursting into scenes, interjecting their own conversation, thoughts, or my questions, with lines from the play.They have to talk about it. They make a noise like feathers. Like leaves. Like ashes. It was as if the play was so alive in their minds that it was difficult to shake it off.
“We’ve been talking about doing the play for about 35 years… we decided while we’re still upright, if we’re going to do it, we better do it.” Said Medoff.
The actors have known the play for longer than I’ve been alive and this is the beauty of a brilliant work of literature: That it lives with you, it ages with you, and it, like quick sand, will only pull you in deeper the longer you stand in it.
It’s happened to me recently after revisiting the play. Suddenly a line will come to me and I find that it is strangely pertinent to the moment I happen to find myself in. And then I perform it, to anyone who happens to be standing there.
And what do you expect? You always wait until the last moment.
I told a fellow writer recently as he made last minute corrections on a piece. The play and its language is so strong that it finds its way into real life.
WHO IS GODOT?
Don't expect an easy answer. Don't expect any answer. There have always been rumors or questions regarding the Godot mystery. What are they waiting for? People initially said that Godot meant GOD, but Beckett vehemently refused that. He said himself that if he had meant God, he would have said god. And yet numerous literary analysis are based on the premise that Beckett intended Godot to stand for the big man upstairs. This is the question that drives much of the play. What are Didi and Gogo waiting for? But perhaps that is not the main question, perhaps the question lies in the waiting. What is this waiting? Does it matter what they are waiting for? I posed the question to the cast.
“Wondering is part of the waiting process. We don’t know exactly who we are waiting for.” Said Rundell.
“It’s one of those things that you do while your waiting,” said David Edwards. “Life’s is what you do when you’re waiting, that’s really what it is. And he [Vladimir] has a line where he says, ‘we’ve kept our appointment and that’s an end to that’ So we’ve done what we’re supposed to do and now it’s up to whoever to absolve us or…” Kill us, he suggests. That is, whatever Gogo and Didi wait for, it’ll either be their salvation, or their end.
We’re waiting for Godot.
They are unable to walk away. They remain. As most of us do. And all the time together makes for a friendship which births these unforgettable moments. “They [Didi and Gogo] have lots of little diversions, like tennis matches.” Says Edwards.
And while they carry on, waiting, death is everywhere in the play. In suggestion, in actions, in the words themselves, in their thoughts about suicide and Time.
“We [Estragon and Vladamir] talk off and on about death. We consider hanging ourselves. We considered jumping off a building on Wall Street. We never do any of those things, but we think about it.”
What about hanging ourselves?
Hmmm. It'd give us an erection.
With all that follows.
Gogo and Didi mention hanging themselves several times. What stops them is that they have nothing to hang themselves with, but also, and more importantly perhaps, what stops them is that they have to wait for Godot; they have somehow resolved to carry on despite of everything.
Gogo has a terrible memory and forgets a lot; he does not remember that they were there yesterday and the day before. Didi, however, seems painfully aware of their situation and he goes on just the same. He continues. He carries on, though he wonders whether he is really there, whether anything will change.
“That’s the way we see the play.” Said Mark Medoff, referring to the Myth of Sisyphus. “I’m sure Beckett was influenced some by Camus and Camus by Beckett, but we roll a boulder up the mountain everyday, we know it’s going to roll back down. BUT we commit ourselves to that life. We’re going to do it and if we do it long enough, and well enough and with the right spirit maybe he [Pozzo] or Lucky, whoever has the power, will absolve us.”
And maybe, at some point, pushing that boulder up will make them happy. Time stretches itself out over the barren landscape, the moon rises and fades, and nobody comes and nobody goes, and ones laughter replaces another, and they hurt, and they embrace, and they sleep. And Gogo and Didi wait for all time.
And we must wait for opening night.
And that’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.