Volume 75, Number 23 | Oct. 26 - Nov. 01, 2005

Godot on Broadway ’56

By Jerry Tallmer

In a world that most of us today would rather trade in for some other one – but which?—this remarkable merit somehow yet remains: the really important new work of art (“Guernica,” [ITAL] Ulysses, Finnegan, [UNITAL] the poetry of Dylan Thomas) is recognized for its greatness, no matter by at first how few, the moment it presents itself among us.

  That there are also unimportant works so hailed, and indeed many more, goes I think without saying. So here we are with “Waiting for Godot,” and the big question is and must be: Which? I lay no special claim to being one of “the few,” now or ever—nor are they actually by now so very few; the bandwagon has formed and it is rolling. I am aboard it, without shame. I too look on “Waiting for Godot” as the dramatic event of my generation—the coming into being, that is, of this two-act tragicomedy by Samuel Beckett.

  Its production in America is another extremely significant event, and I am glad that it has happened. But the play as produced by Michael Myerberg on Broadway is not the play as written in Paris by Beckett, or as read by me, at any rate, here in New York.

  This is what I should chiefly like to talk about in the paragraphs remaining, and since no space presently available to me would suffice for even the barest précis—after considerable trial, I have abandoned [ITAL] that [UNITAL] game—the assumption will have to be that you have not been off on Mars this past fortnight, but know at least that “Godot” consists principally, or rather wholly, of some bleak, funny, desultory conversation between two characters named Estragon and Vladimir, interspersed with “scenes” involving a top-hatted whip-snapping man named Pozzo and an abject creature named Lucky who is his haltered, half-human slave. There is also a little boy who comes in just before the end of each of the acts—or is it two different little boys?—to inform Vladimir and Estragon that the Godot for whom they have been waiting has been delayed, and that they must return tomorrow.

  Everything takes place on a country road, at evening, on two apparently separate days. There is a tree, nothing else. In Act I the tree is bare, in Act II the tree has a few leaves. At the end of Act I, Vladimir and Estragon talk of suicide and of parting; at the end of Act II (and of the play) they talk of suicide and of hanging themselves tomorrow, unless Godot comes. Estragon: And if he comes? Vladimir: We’ll be saved … Well, shall we go? Estragon: Yes, let’s go. (They do not move. Final curtain.)

Nearly everybody is agreed that “Godot” is in large part a play about God, and that Godot among other things stands for God; I certainly cannot disagree. In addition the play seems to me—though it is pretty early to be publicly hypothesizing, as the uptown critics were cripplingly aware; but what the hell—the play seems to me to be about the Christian God specifically, Jesus Christ, and about suicide and salvation, and about man’s duality, body and mind, and about dignity and ignominy, and the nature of society and the nature of Nature, and of Life, Time, Damnation, many other things.

It is without any doubt the most serious piece of writing to come our way since the death of Joyce. As such, it cannot in its raw form ever be palatable to audiences of what Eric Bentley calls the commodity theater—the theater of Broadway in the twentieth century—even though it is in truth, everything else to the contrary notwithstanding, one of the funniest plays ever written: but mordantly, violently, compassionately funny. A “straight” production could never succeed on Broadway in a million years.

  Mr. Myerberg (understandably) wanted to succeed. He found himself a wonderful, much-loved burleycue-vaudeville comedian named Bert Lahr, and took it from there. That the gambit worked (whether the Broadway run makes money or not, and my guess is that it will) is proved by nothing so much as the twenty splendidly Philistine inches a man as intelligent and devout as Walter F. Kerr could give in the [Herald] Tribune to raptures about Lahr, while coldly and curtly dismissing the play itself as at best a bore, at worst a fraud.

  For six months now it has been my professional obligation and personal pleasure to tout the off-Broadway theater as the only place in town where anything worthwhile is (on occasion) taking place.

  Today it is with I think complete detachment that I tell you that only here, off Broadway, could “Waiting for Godot” have received that kind of American production which would have been in some measure honest, undistorted, faithful to the play as written (in other words, a flop production—but maybe possibly just barely perhaps not).

  Some day it will probably receive such a production. Meanwhile, you will have to go up to 45th Street to see Bert Lahr—on his own terms, marvelous – clowning it up with “Godot” on all six, and with a curious collateral tinge of bubble-and-flutter I had not noticed in him before. You will see a play wrongly accented into comic neo-realism, wrongly loaded (in violence to the printed text) with comic “business,” wrongly milked for every surface effect at the expense of the plumbless depths beneath.

  You will see an expert job of direction (again on its own terms) by Herbert Berghoff; an incredibly brilliant stretch of acting by Alvin Epstein as the slave, Lucky; another miraculous—though I feel too sharp-edged—performance by E.G. Marshall in the role of Vladimir; a good Kurt Kasznar performance out of Kurt Kasznar; and you will see many moving and even electrifying moments of humor and pathos and mystery and terror, but you will not see the pure, sweet, piercing, infinitely simple, infinitely complicated seventeenth-century morality play that is “Waiting for Godot.”

  To see that “Godot” you will have to do some waiting of your own, as I have indicated, but do I think you ought to wait? The answer in words of one syllable is No. If there is any way on earth for you to raise the subway fare and the price of the ticket, go uptown tonight to catch the next best thing. It is doubtless going to be a long time before “Godot” gets the American production that’s really coming to it, and masterpieces come along very seldom more than once in a lifetime.

–Reprinted verbatim [with increased paragraphing] from The Village Voice of April 25, 1956

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