Monday, April 29, 2013

Still waiting for God(ot)

It occurred to me this weekend, as I was reading a book about Samuel Beckett, that modern theater was born 60 years ago this winter, when "Waiting for Godot" premiered in Paris. It doesn't say much for the English-speaking world that it took two and a half years to get to England and three to reach America, where its initial production (in Coconut Grove, Fla.) bombed.

Before this play, naturalistic theater dominated Broadway: "The Diary of Anne Frank" won the Tony for best play of 1955, and "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" won in 1956. Beckett didn't care about linear narratives or valuable morals or credible behavior. His two tramps, stranded in a wilderness they neither recognize nor escape, wait for the unseen title character to provide some meaning for their lives. (I hope it's not a spoiler to say he doesn't come.)

Beckett refused to explain the play, though he did say Godot wasn't God. On the other hand, he insisted the word be pronounced GOD-oh, not God-OH. And the Irish have a habit of putting an "oh" sound at the end of a familiar word, such as "boyo" for "boy."

He wrote the play in French just a few years after World War II had ended, and his view -- that there was no meaning to be found in life, but that we had to struggle forward whether we found one or not -- came as a shock to people who wanted to believe that the defeat of the Nazis meant God was in is heaven.

"They give birth astride of a grave," says the harsh Pozzo, after he goes blind. "The light gleams an instant, then it's night once more." One of the tramps sadly acknowledges that "We are all born mad. Some remain so." These were not sentiments Americans and Brits wanted to hear after making the world safe for democracy.

Actors love to play these parts: Robin Williams and Steve Martin starred as the tramps in a 1988 Lincoln Center revival, while Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart took those roles in the West End of London in 2009. That same year, Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin starred in a Broadway revival; poor old "Godot" was finally nominated for a Tony as best revival but lost to "The Norman Conquests."

I own a recording of the play but have never seen it. If it has been performed in Charlotte since I came back on the theater beat five years ago, I haven't heard about it. (Theatre Charlotte did a version I didn't see in winter 2007.) Producer Don Cook wanted to do an all-female version recently, but the Beckett estate is a stickler for following his stage directions and nixed the idea.

We've seen Beckett's influence many times over the intervening decades, through works as diverse as Tom Stoppard's play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" and Kevin Smith's movie "Clerks." But I'm still waiting for "Godot" on my theatrical watch.