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

Still waiting after all these years

By Jerry Tallmer

The opening of what’s being billed as a “50th Anniversary production” of the first Broadway staging of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” falls oddly and wonderfully congruent with the happy surprise of this year’s award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Harold Pinter.

  By the time 75-year-old Harold Pinter, ailment-ridden or not, is standing up in Stockholm on December 10 to say a few words both dark and bright in acceptance of the Nobel that puts him in the eternal company of William Butler Yeats, Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, and, yes, Samuel Beckett, the off-Broadway “Waiting for Godot” that opens November 16 at St. Clements on West 46th Street should be into the fourth week of its scheduled 10-week run.

  And if it makes it, as scheduled, into the new year of 2006, then it will indeed be a 50th-anniversary reverberation of the opening of “Godot” at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre on April 19, 1956, under Herbert Berghof’s direction, with Bert Lahr as Estragon, E.G. Marshall as Vladimir, Kurt Kasznar as Pozzo, Alvin Epstein as Lucky, and Luchino Solito de Solis as the boy who twice enters to say that Mr. Godot has been delayed and won’t come today.

A little further touch of Beckett-Pinter propinquity: Pinter the actor has lately disclosed that in 2006 he will take on the role of Krapp in Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” in celebration of the 50th anniversary of London’s Royal Court Theatre

  Some quick Googling (a Pinteresque word if ever I heard one!) brings forth the reminder that when Pinter’s very early, 1957 “The Birthday Party” went from Cambridge University to the Lyric Theatre, London, it was greeted with what a distressed Harold Hobson called “extremely bad notices.” Hobson himself, one of the few live-wire drama critics then in England (the other one was Kenneth Tynan), had immediately recognized in the 27-year-old Pinter “the most original, disturbing, and arresting talent in theatrical London.”

  That same recognition arrived on this side of the pond, and, mysteriously, on my desk at The Village Voice, in the form of a little offbeat London theater magazine called Encore, the first issue of which, in 1959, was devoted to the complete text of “The Birthday Party.”

  I opened it, and shortly found myself plunged into a drama of deep residual delayed-action menace (like the little unaware boy carrying the bomb through the streets of London in the Hitchcock movie) conveyed in the unstressed, banal, everyday disjunctive language of those same hoodlum streets in London. The language, one might say, that foresaw the actuality of London’s murderous Kray brothers by five or six years.

  The resultant appreciation in The Voice may perhaps have been the first mention of Harold Pinter anywhere in the American press, just as a piece in an earlier issue of that newspaper by a young man named Howard Fertig, who had seen “Waiting for Godot” in 1955 in Paris, was maybe the first journalistic mention of Samuel Beckett in the same United States.

  “Waiting for Godot” was to open (unwisely) in Florida, of all places, with director Alan Schneider the unfortunate fall guy. It then was brought by producer Michael Myerberg to New York, where – as noted in the 1956 “Godot on Broadway” article reprinted herewith – it ran into the same wall of hostility, or nervous sneering, or total bafflement, from the establishment reviewers that, back in London, would knock Pinter over the head two years later.

  And now? Now it scarcely needs saying that all drama, and all literature, and all thinking in this world of ours, or most of it, has been affected, colored, changed, armed, multiplied, expanded, plumbed, made manifest, made scarier, [ITAL] brought home, [UNITAL] by the plays and other writings of Samuel Beckett, the plays and other writings of Harold Pinter.

  In Pinter’s case, beyond “The Birthday Party” and several other personal favorites (“Old Times,” “No Man’s Land,” “Betrayal”), it is a number of the movies done from his screenplays that have dug deepest beneath my own skin, in particular “The Servant” (still gives the shivers), “The Pumpkin Eater” (still makes the heart race), “Accident” (underrated), and an incredible distillation of Proust’s massive “A la recherche” on which Pinter spent the entire year of 1972 for a film that was never made.

  In Beckett’s case, one masterpiece followed another followed another, and it is very hard to find fault or play favorites as between “Endgame” (which for me paints the desolate world of today more – I guess the word is topically – than even “Godot,”), “Act Without Words,” “Krapp’s Last Tape,” “All That Fall,” “Happy Days,” or, for that matter, the later difficult minimalist works for one performer, one face, one mouth.

  And “Godot”? The test of “Godot,” right from the start, was how it instantly struck closest to the bone upon audiences who knew about entrapment; about hope as a crapshoot; above all, about Waiting. Prison audiences. Black audiences in tiny communities of the American South during tours of the (immensely courageous) Free Southern Theater during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

  I remember, I remember. Five years after “Godot” hit Broadway, the same Walter Kerr who so coldly and curtly dismissed that drama was still so antipathetic to Beckett that he insisted on being listed – in perpetuity – as “abstaining” from the 1961-62 Obie Award to that same playwright for “Happy Days.”

  And I remember one magical night in the summer of 1964 when Samuel Beckett in his Deux Chevaux, a sort of sardine can on wheels, conveyed this admirer across Paris to a workmen’s restaurant in Montmartre, where, for want of a parking space, Beckett drove up onto the sidewalk, turned off the key, got out, and asked me to follow. “Don’t you get parking tickets here?” I asked. “Sure,” said the future Nobel Prizewinner. “You tear them up.”

  And then, after dinner, and plenty of red wine, he stood me across the river from Notre Dame, raved at length over the genius of Viollet le Duc, the 19th-century architect who had restored some of its arches, and some minutes later, as we walked through the darkened streets, talked about and replicated, hoarsely, in agony, the death rattle in the throat of his dying father – the toxin that sounds throughout even the most hilarious baggy-pants lines and moments of “Waiting for Godot” and everything else in Beckett.

  Some of the non-hilarious lines of “Godot” were spoken, stunningly, rapid-fire — as never before or since in my “Godot’-going — by Alvin Epstein as Lucky the slave. I am indeed happy to be able to say that Alvin Epstein these 50 years later, like “Godot,” like Beckett, like Pinter, is still on the boards as an actor, still marvelous, and still a lot more lucky than Lucky. So are we all. Except for all of us.

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