Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Douglas Messerli "Living in the Details" (on Beckett's Waiting for Godot)

living in the details
by Douglas Messerli

Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum (the production I saw was on April 7, 2012)

Witnessing the brilliant production, directed by Michael Arabian, of the Mark Taper Forum's Waiting for Godot, I was struck by something that I had not previously noticed by viewing or reading the play. Watching Alan Mandell (as Estragon), Barry McGovern (as Vladimir), James Cromwell (as Pozzo) and Hugo Armstrong (as Lucky), one gets the sense that, except for an occasional overlong pauses which slowed down this production a bit, that the performances were about as close to perfect as one gets. Particularly the long-time Beckett thespians, Mandell and McGovern, spout the often fast-paced dialogue in a rhythm that is pitch perfect, along with bodily motions that reveal their every thought.

     Yet, for the first time in this moving production, I became aware of just how spare Beckett's great work truly is. My companion Howard, enjoying the first act, however commented on the obvious: "Beckett seems to have presented all his themes in the first few minutes. I can't imagine what he might have to say in the second act."

     Well, I mused, "That's true. But his themes are really not what matter most. The fact that we live in a universe promising the return of a missing God, that some men, like Pozzo, are entirely about themselves, mean men of power who do nothing but to rule over other lives—while those themes are certainly there in Beckett's work, they are not central of the play at all. Suffering, despair, pain, boredom, yes, these are the givens of Beckett's universe, but they are not what makes his work so remarkable. It is the various ways, the numerous things we do each day to get through the suffering, despair, pain, boredom, loneliness, etc. that are at the center his plays and fictions. And that is everything, isn't it?"

      By the end of the 2nd act, Howard, who had never before seen a production of the play, understood what I was talking about. Beckett, more than nearly any other playwright, takes chances in Waiting for Godot by so pruning down the play's large themes that the work almost mocks itself. Particularly Estragon, who is always about to or, at least, declaring himself ready to do so—even though his time apart from his long-time companion, Vladimir, results in endless beatings in a ditch—is reminded again and again by his friend that their existence on this bleak plateau with only a tree and a rock is to wait, to wait for Godot. That is their only purpose, despite the seeming meaninglessness of that. Whoever this Godot is, whether he is the personal God of vengeance (if they don't wait, Vladimir suggests at one point, they will be punished) or a New Testament God of love, it is clear that Godot may never come, may never return their patient and often impatient waiting on earth. He may not even be a loving God; after all, so we are told by the messenger boy, he beats the boy's brother. What kind of deity is that?

      It hardly matters, so reverent are these two clowns who represent us. What is important is the waiting itself. But how to survive that? How to live through each day? That is at the heart of Beckett's play, is at the center of Beckett's melodious language. How might these two men, not necessarily "gay" men, but men who have, nonetheless, lived together for 50 years, get on. Fighting, contradicting one another, attacking each other, cajoling, complaining, laughing, watching, hugging, comforting, hating, and threatening to part (particularly Estragon), and even contemplating suicide, they entertain one another, they talk and haggle, and cry and laugh the way each of us does daily. Godot may be what they think they are waiting for, but what these men do with their lives is try to communicate in the hundred ways man communicates with one another and himself. The play is such a moving work of art not because of its over-arching thematics, not through its structure, but because of its presentation of everyday life, its barebones revelation of how mankind converts the emptiness of daily living into something of worth, of meaning, sometimes even rapturous joy, mostly ridiculous acts.

      Living, suggests Beckett, is not played out in the tectonics of great ideas, but in the details of everyday life. In Waiting for Godot it can even take on the accidental encounter, much like that of theater itself, of two ridiculous strangers, Pozzo and Lucky, the second tortured by the first, while the power-hungry man is equally dependent upon his servant, a kind of lesson in Marxist-like theory. Or it can focus on the simple rediscovery of one's own boots. For Didi and Gogo—their personal nicknames for each other—getting through each day is sometimes even centered upon just talking about how they might get on or the contemplation of separating, the observation of tree suddenly spouting leaves. For Vladimir, in particular, surviving depends upon memory, while for Estragon, survival requires sleep. Beckett moves his play forward, in short, through his characters' attempts to move forward, to get on through just one more day and another after that.

      Such a structure, wherein the author reveals the creative act itself, is a dangerous one, particularly for an audience which may desire to be told everything, to be led forward by the author himself. In Waiting for Godot, however, the audience is put on edge, wondering what these two fools will come up with next, how will the plot move forward, how will they get through yet another day? But in that wonderment, the audience members are forced to reimagine their own lives. Even the theater piece they are attending is a kind of way to pass the time, to move forward through the day. They too must go home, eat a carrot, chew on a piece of radish, crawl into the ditch of their beds to be pummeled in lonely dreams throughout the night. Some may even contemplate bringing it all to an end. But most will arise to meet again, to work, to talk and haggle, cry and laugh, just like the two clowns of Beckett's play do through the two days we witness of their lives.

Los Angeles, March 9, 2012

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