Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan


Stratford's "Waiting for Godot," another celebrated production!

Stephen Ouimette, Estragon, Tom Rooney, Vladimir. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Stephen Ouimette, Estragon and Tom Rooney, Vladimirin - Stratford's Waiting for Godot

Back in 1996 again at the spare Tom Patterson Theatre, I watched in awe my first Stratford production of Waiting for Godot whose themes may be condensed by Samuel Beckett 's words themselves - "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!" Some other appropriate descriptive word capsules are: "This is becoming really insignificant," and "That would have passed the time...it would have passed anyway." Without getting into probable or disguised religious interpretations, directed by Brian Bedford, it was simply the best play that I have ever seen acted. So what is this incredible opus about?

For me, Beckett's main thrust is how wasteful human lives are, how we habitually forsake living in the now and how we postpone engagement with life with silly distractions that keep us too busy or preoccupied to confront any experience which might engulf us. It's about the human need to conscript others into the same process such that we share a false sense of companionship or camaraderie or even stewardship as we trip through T.S. Eliot's Wasteland and it's about how our "companionship" is used and abused in every possible fashion. Finally, it's Beckett's take (à la Sartre) that life is ultimately a joke or as Shakespeare phrased it, "a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Beckett has written the quintessential existentialist 's manifesto, a precise secular credo that challenges competing theological hocus pocus.

Way back then, the two philosopher tramps were terrific, and at one point in the evening, something remarkable happened. A lady in the audience laughed so hard in such a long and hysterical fashion that both Stephen Ouimette (Estragon) and Tom McCamus (Vladimir) simultaneously cracked up on stage - momentarily, and then immediately returned to their roles which amused the audience even more. Beckett himself would certainly have approved, even with Sesame Street's spoof of his play - Monsterpiece Theater "Waiting for Elmo" in which the characters find it difficult to be alone.

In 2013, the production is equally good with Ouimette returning as Estragon and Tom Rooney replacing McCamus as Vladimir. Brian Dennehy is Pozzo, Randy Hughson is a rather unlucky Lucky and Noah Jalava plays the Boy.

Dennehy bemoans human fate with: "They give birth astride a grave," he rasps, "the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." And to complement this dreary theme along with the waiting, as moon gives way to sun, set designer Teresa Przybylski utilizes a mechanical clock-like orb that literally turns off and on our mechanical 24-hour universe amidst the set's narrow pathway that's slightly elevated, the colour of parched earth or dried bones, which itself limits the theatre space, punctuated only by a barren tree so emaciated that it belongs in a Nazi concentration camp.

As with the characters in Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, Ouimette's Estragon and Rooney's Vladimir know exactly which buttons to press to alternately torment then offer compassion, half beings that cannot exist alone. "Let's abuse each other to pass time" and so they repeatedly insult each other. What they share is classic ennui as they wait in vain for Godot. To compound their misery, there is another doomed duo, Pozzo and Lucky, master and servant, the latter attached to a rope wrapped tightly around his neck.

Dennehy as Pozzo might easily be a southern cotton landowner screaming at and lashing the black slave, Lucky played eloquently by Randy Hughson, outfitted with clanking pots around his neck, and his "quaquaquaqua" soliloquy when ordered to "think" is a compelling monologue that rivets us to our seats despite the fact that it's totally incomprehensible. Pozzo is blind in the second act and at one point all four characters lay in a heap like football players at the end of a run.

Tarver's set and cast is first class. Teresa Przybylski's emaciated tree in act two sprouts two pathetic leaves, the sparse vegetation a sad symbol of hope. Rooney plays Vladimir, the optimist while Ouimette plays Estragon the pessimist, each with appropriate costumes. Their acting chemistry and coordination is a joy to watch unfold. Dennehy as Pozzo becomes a howling beast who I'm sure missed a few lines but in this play, how would one know? Hughson is so constrained that he is actually painful to watch. Each is superb as is Beckett's work.

Addendum
Jennifer Tarver in her "Director's Notes" - A Humorous Human Experiment - in the program says, "I am entranced by Samuel Beckett's writing. He has an incredible theatrical sense: he knows the power of live performance and everything it entails in terms of choreography, rhythm of movement, lighting and all the other resources of the medium. It's almost as if he writes the theatre before he writes the play, telling the story through those three-dimensional elements rather than beginning with text that then has to be translated onto the stage. Some of his plays don't even have any spoken words. I love that kind of inherently theatrical drama. And then on top of that, the words he does write are heartstoppingly beautiful poetry."

To me, the old joke that Waiting for Godot is a play in which "nothing happens, twice" is inherently untrue. On the contrary, what doesn't happen in this play? Everything happens. Beckett takes humanity and the universe and puts them under a microscope. When you look at a blade of grass through a microscope, it becomes unrecognizable: a whole other world of fine detail is revealed. Likewise, to some people it might seem on the surface that nothing happens in Godot, but if you look at it through the right lens, as I hope we do in this production, it reveals not just a blade of grass but a whole tropical rainforest of events and action and story.

I don't think Beckett set out to mystify people; to me, Godot is written in a very straightforward way. As I see it, he's conducting an experiment, with himself as the subject. In the play, Vladimir is an intellectual: he analyzes and tries to understand. He seeks purpose and meaning in the world around him, which is how I imagine Beckett to be. I can imagine Beckett saying, "Wouldn't it be hilarious if I made a little puppet of myself, with my own character tendencies taken to extremes, and dropped him into various scenarios - caught, for instance, between a dictator and a slave? What's he going to do? How does he respond? What decisions does he make? What meaning does he try to construct?" He's experimenting with certain basic human situations, painting various character types to see how each might react in accordance to a given extremity. How do we respond to atrocities, to abuse, to tyrants? How do we respond to people who are severely handicapped? And I think it's in those responses that the story of Godot lies.

Beckett said he wrote the play to relax: I think he wanted to make himself laugh - and to laugh at himself - in a post-war period when people needed to laugh. On a larger scale, I think his experiment is about what happens to us as human beings when we try relentlessly to find meaning. Where does that get us? Is it, in the end, the wisest road to follow?

The following article by Allan Pero, associate professor of English and writing at Western University is found in the play's program:

But Surely Tomorrow
Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot was written in French in the late autumn and early winter of 1948-49 but did not reach the stage until 1953. Its most famous and succinct review was provided by Vivian Mercier, who declared that it was a play in which "nothing happens, twice."

But we should be wary of enjoying the flippancy that may, on the surface, linger in that remark. After all, one of the most popular sitcoms of the last twenty years shares this very premise: Seinfeld is, of course, famously a show about nothing. It is, like Beckett's play, self-mocking about its status as a performance. For example, when Jerry and George try to sell the idea of the show "about nothing!" to NBC, we recall that Vladimir and Estragon, Beckett's tramps, acknowledge at moments that their exchanges are like empty scripts, shticks that they have difficulty performing. The four men in Waiting for Godot are, in effect, condemned to repeat themselves, just as the Seinfeld gang is. In the series' final episode, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are jailed; condemned to be together, just as Beckett's characters are, and they repeat the conversation that opened the series several years before.

What then, are the more pressing implications of a play about "nothing"? Beckett wrote Godot during a period of intense, searching examination, in which he was trying to define what the role of writing could be in a post-war world, when so many of our assumptions about morality and humanity had been radically undermined by the rise of fascism and the Holocaust. (It is important to recall that Beckett was in the French Resistance. He had to sift through and translate intelligence about the Germans, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre after the war by Charles de Gaulle. For a period, he had to live on the run from the Nazis; he wandered the French countryside, sleeping in ditches, subsisting on turnips and bad black bread. As we see, there is an experiential dimension of Godot we should keep in mind. It is not as "abstract" as some might like to imagine.)

One of the results of Beckett's investigation into the value and purpose of writing was to assert that consciousness - or, if you prefer, our perception of reality - was an illusion sustained only through language. His task, as he wrote in a famous letter, was to make "language most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused.... To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it - be it something or nothing - begins to seep through." When we think about it, it is extremely difficult to say something thoughtful and provocative about the nothingness which may lurk behind language. He set himself a huge task.

But this resolution did not mean that Beckett had abandoned its comic potential. He had hoped to interest Charles Chaplin in the first English production but was unable to tempt him. Beckett loved slapstick comedy and, in addition to Chaplin, was especially fond of performers like Buster Keaton (with whom he did his only film, called, appropriately enough, Film, in the 1960s) and the Marx Brothers. His love of these figures was fuelled in part by their mockery of everyday or received notions about what we like to call "reality," of giving us hilarious, startling perspectives on those very notions.


Buster Keaton

Marx Brothers

What we could say, then, about the apparent repetition that governs Waiting for Godot is that it is the struggle to discover and enjoy difference in the repetition itself - to seek again the differences that can surface through chance. If, as Beckett famously said, "I am not interested in stories of success - only in stories of failure," then how might his interest help us understand what happens? We could argue that Waiting for Godot is about trying to rescue difference by seizing upon the moments in which repetition, with its dulling unwavering rhythm, fails. It is these minimal differences, the struggle to mine these differences out of the rock of mind-numbing repetition, that produces the comedy of the play. But Godot is about both the comic and tragic dimensions of the uncanny, of the strangely familiar; if we think of the familiar as "repetition" and the strange as "difference," then the strangely familiar space of the play is not, in terms of the comic, the "return of the repressed" - some repressed trauma that keeps coming back to haunt us; rather, we could say that the comedy of the play emerges from the "return of the expressed," but in a different form - as tragedy. I will turn to the tragic dimension later.

There is an important distinction between the play-s title in French and in English. En Attendant Godot does not translate directly into "Waiting for Godot"; a better translation would be "While Waiting for Godot," that is, what to do while waiting for Godot. When we think about it, even though we constantly complain about how stressful and fast-paced life is, it is just as much governed by dead time, by waiting. To be blunt, we have a great horror of waiting, of silence - both of which the play exploits to comic and tragic effect. Consider for a moment how much of our lives is spent waiting - in traffic, for the bus, at the bank machine, in a grocery queue, for a phone call, for a text or email, for the take-out to arrive, or for romance to enter (or exit) our lives. Speed and technology, iPods, BlackBerrys and iPads exist in part to give us something to do while waiting. They are distractions that are meant to pacify. For instance, is not the "musicalization" of experience, our insistence that our lives have a soundtrack, not just about the pleasure of listening but also about keeping at bay the dread of waiting, or the terror of silence?

And here we come to an important difference between us and Vladimir and Estragon: we have any number of distractions to protect us from boredom or anxiety - they do not. So what are they waiting for? Godot, of course. But who or what is Godot? He casts a shadow over everything, but is strangely, maddeningly absent. He is what we could call an absent presence. When Beckett was asked about Godot, questions that were largely thinly veiled attempts to get him to admit that Godot was God, he would playfully offer different origins of the name: godille, French slang for "useless," or godasse, slang for "shoe" or "boot." Another version of Godot's origin was that Beckett once saw a crowd at the finish line of the Tour de France, waiting for the last competitor to arrive. "What are you doing?" he asked. "We're waiting for Godot," they replied. Godot is necessarily a slippery word. It is Vladimir and Estragon's relation to Godot that matters, not his identity. He fills a hole in their lives by giving them a structure, a sense of purpose, something to live for. It is a meager reward for continuing to live, the belief that "surely tomorrow" Godot will arrive. But this belief brings us to the tragic dimension of the play.

Tragedy is not just a genre; it produces a particular kind of space. It is a space in which characters are haunted by the past, by a debt to the past that has yet to be paid. For example, we think of ghosts haunting us because there is some debt they haven't paid or been able to pay. They ask for redemption. As we will see, ghosts haunt Waiting for Godot too, and help to shape the tragic place of its performance. Waiting for Godot is a tragicomedy; one way of describing it is that it is a comedy whose actions take place in the field of tragedy. The play tells us that it is a representation, and that it is about performance, but not merely for comic or ironic purposes. Representation, performance - we cling to them in order to make sense of the world, in order to survive. The disturbing, even tragic element of the play, which can produce anxiety or hostility as much as it does laughter, occurs not because it is so alien to us but because it is all too familiar.

Not only do Vladimir and Estragon's endless dialogues contend with Godot's deferred arrival, they are also marked by a dread of silence. Silences are crucial to Beckett; they are not simply pauses. Silence is the haunting white noise the characters struggle against. If, in everyday conversation, we are made uncomfortable by silence, the stakes are much greater for Beckett's tragic clowns. The silence speaks. Vladimir and Estragon are haunted by the whispering voices of the dead, the billions who have died before them, calling out for what? Retribution? Redemption? We do not know. These are the ghosts who haunt this play, who never give the tramps a moment's peace. In constantly repairing to the patter of comic routines, Vladimir and Estragon are trying to drown out the haunting silence that threatens to engulf them. The seemingly meaningless repetition also reassures them, offering proof that they in fact, still exist - that they have a purpose. No matter how absurd and laughable that purpose may be, there nevertheless remains tragic nobility in their continuing struggle to live without hope.

Brian Dennehy. Photo by Don Dixon


Waiting for Godot cast




Waiting for Godot (ending)

Harold Pinter on Samuel Beckett


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