Beckett at 100: Waiting for Godot and other New York Centenary Events

The Gate Theatre of Dublin brings Waiting for Godot to NYU’s Skirball Center October 24–28, capping New York’s sparse celebration of Samuel Beckett’s centenary. Mined from post–WWII cultural anxiety, written as relief from the phenomenally acute trilogy of novels on which his critical regard has been forged, Godot staked emotional ground we continue to exist within and spurred late twentieth century theater from Harold Pinter to Edward Albee, Tom Stoppard and David Mamet. To say the Gate’s _Godot is authoritative is to say the least: Walter Asmus was assistant director for Beckett’s own Berlin production, and the writer suggested Asmus direct as the Gate brought together their full cycle of the stage plays, which debuted in Dublin in 1991. The cast spotlights the play’s penetrating humor: Beckett-vet Barry McGovern’s Vladimir, Johnny Murphy (The Commitments) as stinky-footed Estragon, Alan Stanford as the stentorian Pozzo, and Stephen Brennan’s long suffering, insufferable Lucky.

Barry McGovern, who has played Godot’s Didi since that first Beckett Festival, spoke from Dublin where I’ll Go On—his solo show developed from the novel trilogy—was playing at the Gate, twenty-one years after debuting on their stage. “Some people look at Godot as a play about despair. I’m more inclined to think of it as a play about hope,” McGovern says. “It’s both, of course, dark, but very funny.” The production has toured internationally, including full Beckett Festivals in 1996 at Lincoln Center and London’s Barbican in 1999, and arrives here with “the same team—but we’re all ten years older, as everybody is. Things change in the world, and people say, ‘Oh—you’ve changed it!’ We’ve changed hardly anything. But you change, and your memories change.” McGovern was eager to return, saying “New York audiences have a broad sense of humor, unlike, say, a Deep South audience where they don’t have much sense of irony. Godot’s got almost a Jewish humor; it’s Irish humor, it’s universal.”

Born in a well-to-do Dublin suburb in 1906, Beckett made Paris his home. Endemically shy, he abhorred the attention when awarded 1969’s Nobel Prize; his impact on twentieth-century writing is only trumped by Beckettian implications resounding in our ways of being (who among us doesn’t wait for things to get better—or worse?) Ireland coined a Beckett euro this year, and action on Dublin’s streets and airwaves supplemented stage activities that ranged to Eh Joe, the haunted paean written for television, for which director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) cast Michael Gambon, and composer Morton Feldman’s opera Neither, with an original Beckett libretto. NYU’s Tom Bishop helped helm Paris’ enormous Beckett autumn (Bishop also spoke on Beckett here at the 92nd Street Y). The health of another Nobel laureate, Harold Pinter, forced him out of Krapp’s Last Tape in London, where for weeks the Barbican screened Beckett on Film, the project (out on DVD) for which directors including Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), Egoyan and Neal Jordan teamed for the nineteen stage plays with actors from Julianne Moore and Pinter to John Gielgud in his final role. In the U.S., Pittsburgh had productions or readings of all the stage works, and the Two River Theater Company featured three weeks of Godot in New Jersey, with director Jonathan Fox staging seven one-acts and events involving Edward Albee, Olympia Dukakis and the writer’s former Grove Press publisher and literary agent, Barney Rosset. New York, though, got by on isolated events. At MoMA, Rosset screened Beckett’s aptly titled Film starring Buster Keaton, commissioned in 1964 by Rosset’s Evergreen Review. Grove/Atlantic trumpeted their box of complete writings, and Classical Theater of Harlem’s winning post-Katrina Godot ran the first act exit by Pozzo (Chris McKinney) off a rooftop flooded to its eaves, landing with a butt-flop splash in the raft in which Lucky (Billy Eugene Jones) had towed him on stage.

Two sterling productions presented radio and television works as simulated broadcasts. At the 92nd Street Y, Harvard’s Robert Scanlan directed Words and Music and Cascando, bracing probes into creativity’s disputative sources that utilize music, with ...but the clouds… core-sampling mournful memory as a sequence of projected images. Words and Cascando, written for BBC radio commissions in the early sixties, featured new scores by Martin Pearlman, with Bill Camp’s voice cajoling in the former then hitting commanding sonorities in Cascando. Having worked with Scanlan, Beckett requested that the director report on maverick productions like the 1984 Endgame that Joanne Akalaitis set as a derelict subway station (“my advice was just to ignore it, and not make it immortal”); in the mid ’90s, Scanlan simultaneously staged, filmed and projected Boston and Strasbourg evenings of the TV plays Eh Joe, Ghost Trio and the exquisite, spare Nacht und Träume. For the Y program, he said, “I wanted to give the impression that, rather than another revival, we could continue chipping away, as Beckett did until the end. He instructed me on how to see; I was astounded by the amount of detail that he wanted. Great artists come along once or twice in a century; with Beckett, it’s foolish not to take the instructions he made.” Before his death in 1989, Beckett handed Scanlan his final typescript, Stirrings Still, “which was a farewell from him—and also to David Warrilow,” the actor who embodied Beckett’s late work and who performed Stirrings aware that he was terminally ill.

And in late May at the Cherry Lane theatre in the West Village, Kaliyuga Arts struck theatrical gold with All That Fall, the rollicking radio play set in the Dublin outskirts of Beckett’s youth. Helen Calthorpe, as exasperated and bawdy Maddy Rooney, shared twin studio mikes with a raucous succession of characters; then, more than halfway through, Rand Mitchell arrived as Maddy’s husband Dan. With solemn intensity, Mitchell struck an alerting minor key that led to new comic terrain like Dan’s outlandish guffaws with Maddy, then pointed Fall to its unsettling conclusion. “The journey Dan takes, between when we first see him and the end, is staggering,” Mitchell said at midtown’s Cafe Edison. “He doesn’t know what’s going to happen; none of us do.” Beckett was once approached by a company with their take on Fall’s ambiguous ending, but “he said, ‘I don’t want to know,’ yet added that the actor who plays Rooney must know,” Mitchell said. “That is breathtakingly courageous: to not know what a character of his was actually going to do. I found it the most direct of his plays, for the humor. Laurence Olivier pursued him for years after reading it,” as did Ingmar Berman, but Beckett did not share their urge to make Fall a stage play. In radio work, Mitchell noted, “what you see is what you hear.”

Mitchell first saw Godot in L.A. in 1959. “I went back seven nights in a row. You got that sense of humor and the innate mystery—which is a real reward for being in a Beckett play, as well.” The preeminent Beckett director Alan Schneider invited him to join David Warrilow in developing the legendary evening of Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe and What Where they toured through the eighties. Mitchell said that Warrilow, “with his exquisitely toned voice, would say that for him, in any Beckett play, it’s the [vocal] music that means so much.” Mitchell added, regarding Beckett’s requirement that stage directions be adhered to: “There’s not one thing that you can do that’s going to be better than what he’s already said for you to do. If you think of Da Vinci or Rembrandt, or Galileo or Einstein—these people know that what they have to say can’t be said any other way.”

The Gate Theatre of Dublin’s Waiting for Godot performs October 24 thru 28 at NYU’s Skirball Center.

Contributor

Alan Lockwood

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