“But for him all my thoughts, all my feelings, would have been of common things”: Beckett, Godot and the gleaming of the light.
A few years ago The Onion ran the following headline: ‘Overfunded public school forced to add jazz band.’ Though the California high school from which I graduated in 2002 was emphatically not public, it was often similarly torn about how to dispense its enormous budget. Rich and elite enough to have jazz bands within the jazz ensemble, the school also boasted choirs, orchestras, dance troupes (Latin, African, modern), classical pianists, a Junior Classical League, a multimedia team and state and even national champions in water polo, volleyball, golf and tennis. The students who filled these and the numerous other clubs and societies of Menlo School glided into the school car park in colossal 4x4s and expensive German autos which they would soon drive to the various high-ranking colleges of the Golden State (Stanford, a popular choice, was located in the adjacent town). It was a far and, I had to admit, somewhat welcome cry from the state secondary school I’d left behind in the northeast of England.
This academic and extra-curricular cornucopia was funded and then generously supplemented by a range of stellar athletes, executives and entrepreneurs eager to ready their children for a world of start ups and burst bubbles. I occasionally mocked the extravagance this fantastical funding encouraged (such as the one thousand dollars spent on invitations to the prom to which, by default, all students were welcome) and the ways in which many students took the unrelenting largesse for granted (by, for example, buying lunch off campus when the school cafeteria offered a free buffet). However, when it came to theatre I was happy to put my budding socialism to bed and have the drama head’s every whim indulged.
My new school did three performances a year: two in the theatre in the autumn and winter semesters and a grand musical outside on the school’s front lawn in the spring. In my sophomore and junior years I secured small roles in The Two Gentleman of Verona, The Matchmaker, The Crucible, Into the Woods and Kiss Me, Kate. Then came my big break. A pair of exceptionally talented and dynamic students organised an entirely student-run performance of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. I got the part of Erroneous, the bumbling old man who appears intermittently throughout the play to great comic effect. Despite being nearly cancelled on the orders of a rather prudish teacher, the show (set in and around a Roman brothel) was a huge success. I had my first taste of stardom.
By then, and with considerable help from my English accent, I was cutting quite a little swathe through my American surroundings. My routine of poking fun at the vast array of oddities and foibles in the land of the free, while not terribly original, earned me a great deal of notoriety and a small fan base. In the “fall” of my senior year the new drama teacher began auditioning for A Christmas Carol. I got the lead, broke a proverbial leg and began strutting to class with even more unbearable smugness.
It must have been while rehearsing Dickens’ yuletide tale that I met Tripp. Head of that multimedia team, he was also our lighting and special effects technician. He performed his exhausting and meticulous job with quiet efficiency and good humour; and was one of a number of teachers who insisted we refer to him by his first name. We got on well. He had the gait and glasses of a James Joyce or Fernando Pessoa; and sometimes made cultural references and quips that were beyond my comprehension. ‘Tripp,’ with its superfluous consonant and the feel of a surname, was a quintessentially American moniker; but he had a French-speaking wife, regularly travelled to Europe and held a European outlook, especially when it came to theatre.
In early spring, Tripp announced that, as part of his Master’s, he was hoping to direct a production of Waiting for Godot by an Irish writer named Samuel Beckett. I say ‘hoping’ because he must have wondered if he’d find enough players even for a cast of five. Most of the school’s drama talent would be committed to the spring musical (Oklahoma); and his chosen play was, to say the least, forbidding. Having heard of neither the play nor the playwright, nor existentialism, nor théâtre de l’absurd, I didn’t find Tripp’s description of the “plot” terribly reassuring. Even the fact that I’d been asked to take a role rather than having to audition like a commoner could not stifle my reluctance. After eventually being talked into playing Vladimir, there were times during the early rehearsals when the whole thing seemed as bleak and doomed as the hapless duo’s endless vigil. Bit by bit, though, as the winter rains eased and as Tripp added little brush strokes of insight from his collection of Beckett’s notes and correspondence, I realised that I was not only part of an intricate and puzzling — and funny — masterpiece, but also one of a motley pentad of which the great Irishman himself would have been proud.
First, my co-star on that country road. Although she was a bright and creative artist who had helped with many sets and costumes and filled the odd chorus role, Krista had had only one speaking part in a school play. This was a reflection of her unfettered spirit rather than any lack of talent; as she would prove, she was one of the finest actresses in the school. Having a big role in one of the official school plays never appealed to her: for all the joy and acclaim one garnered from such shows, the build-up featured much dawdling, childishness and melodrama — fools and foolishness she was not prepared to suffer. The chance to be in the high school equivalent of a low-budget, independent project of great intellectual integrity was much more to her liking.
I ought to pause here and address a salient point. Yes, Krista, a girl, played the role of Estragon, a man. I often forget to mention this when reminiscing about our little show, for Krista played the part as well as any male has or could. Even if there had been a surge of interest in his existentialist undertaking, I think Tripp would have detected that Krista had just the right amount of lucid absurdity to bring Gogo to life.
The choice presented some obvious physiological challenges, but these were easily overcome. Krista’s fairy-like beauty was subtle enough to submit to the right makeup and costume; and her suppleness and lithe grace served her well when it came to the physical comedy the part demands. She was also able to call on a slight but innate Bohemian boyishness, a trait most notable in her love of and ability to quote our favourite TV show, The Simpsons. “I am not what I am,” says Viola in Twelfth Night. Indeed, there was much more to our Estragon than met the eye.
Pozzo was another progressive choice. I doubt whether in even his most far-fetched visions Beckett ever imagined the befuddled gentleman being played by an African American. Race aside, Shawn, star of the school’s basketball team, also had very little theatre experience. In fact, prior to Godot one of his most memorable contributions to the school’s acting catalogue had been a cringe-inducing performance at Monologue Night two years previously when, just a few lines into a piece he hadn’t prepared for, he sheepishly exited the stage and slinked home. He never said it, but I think his playing of Pozzo was an attempt to expunge that ghost and prove to the school and himself that he was a good actor. To the surprise of many, he succeeded on both counts.
The part of Lucky, Pozzo’s ‘carrier,’ also went to a girl making her on-stage debut, as did the role of ‘Boy.’ The former was a slim, shy, soft-spoken sophomore who looked barely strong enough to carry all those bags, let alone deliver one of the most memorable monologues in 20th century theatre. Once again, though, whether through the power of Beckett’s words or the unlikely camaraderie, this apparent novice gave the performance of a lifetime.
Three girls, including one in the lead role; an African American basketball player; a haughty Englishman; and a media teacher with no experience of theatre directing: what an absurd ensemble we were! It was bold, not at all brash, and for everyone involved it would be an unforgettable experience.
I apologise if that last phrase appears stale or hackneyed (and certainly not at all worthy of Beckett), but it is simply the case that more than 10 years later I can still recall most of the lines, gestures and motifs. Once you have stood before Beckett’s bog you will never again be able to overlook a pair of boots or a weeping willow; or feel a chill in September without uttering, “Touch of autumn in the air this evening”; or hear Pozzo’s seemingly positive “Happy days” without contemplating what immediately precedes it (“He stinks”). That these (and many other) words are etched in my mind is a compliment to both their beauty and their abundance.
When I first flicked through the script the quantity of lines nearly overwhelmed me. That early pessimism I mentioned stemmed partly from the fear that I would never be able to memorise so many words. I’d absorbed Scrooge’s lines without too much difficulty (all that reciting of Homer Simpson’s wisdom had finally come in use), but in Godot the lines were both more numerous and more difficult; at times I had the feeling that Beckett was trying to catch the actor out. In act one, for example, watching Estragon struggle with his boots, Vladimir says, “Boots must be taken off every day. I’m tired telling you that.” I can still make out of the ‘of’ I’d inserted and then erased.
There’s another trap in act one that always made me flinch. At four other points in the play, Estragon’s order of “Let’s go” launches the play’s signature exchange:
Vladimir: We can’t.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We’re waiting for Godot.
Estragon: [despairingly] Ah yes!
In act one, not long after the first of these back-and-forths, Estragon again says “Let’s go!”, to which Vladimir, instead of bringing up their awful reality, offers hope and encouragement: “Where? Perhaps we’ll sleep tonight in his loft. All snug and dry, our bellies full, in the hay. That’s worth waiting for. No?” Beckett only added this tantalising vision to the English translation of his play 30 years after its publication. In the French version it had always been there.
Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in French and then translated it into English himself. En Attendant Godot was first performed in the now-closed Théâtre de Babylon in Paris in 1953. The English première came two years later in London. Tripp was familiar with both texts and enjoyed pointing out the differences in translation, of which his favourite was Estragon’s reaction to being reminded of his fate:
Estragon: Allons nous en.
Vladimir: On ne peut pas.
Estragon: Pourquoi pas?
Vladimir: On attend Godot.
Estragon: C’est vrai.
Perhaps it’s because there is no good English equivalent for “c’est vrai” (literally ‘it’s true’) that Beckett reduced it to a desperate “Ah yes!” In any case, I find the French version of this line – with its ambiguous emotion and stating of the obvious (a tendency common to all the characters) – has a certain superior je ne sais quoi.
The French are also fortunate that their romantic tongue offers only one way to pronounce the name of the eponymous antagonist. Take the first phoneme of ‘gun’, add ‘dough’, stress the second syllable and voilà: Godot. By pronouncing it with this touch of Gallic flair you’ll not only tip your hat to the play’s French origins, you’ll also quash any attempt to suggest that the absent hero’s name is meant to invoke the colloquial term for Yahweh. (As Estragon says to Vladimir when the latter thinks he hears Godot coming, “Pah! The wind in the reeds!”)
Tripp was quite adamant on this point. He was also very insistent that we follow Beckett’s stage directions as if they were instructions on how to dismantle a ticking bomb. Shakespeare, possibly to save precious ink and paper and perhaps safe in the knowledge that he would be part of the production, kept his directions terse, no matter how dramatic the action: ‘He dies’, ‘Flourish, exeunt’, etc. Beckett, by contrast, instructs his players with poetic and mathematical precision. To return to the passage above, after Vladimir asks “Where?” in reply to Estragon’s command of “Let’s go!” he is ordered to speak ‘seducingly.’
The precise adverb is Beckett’s tool of choice in the opening act of Godot. In the first 70 lines alone the pair’s actions are modified with ‘irritably,’ ‘coldly,’ ‘admiringly,’ ‘decisively,’ ‘gloomily,’ ‘cheerfully,’ ‘feebly,’ ‘angrily,’ ‘musingly‘ and, most cryptic of all, ‘sightlessly‘ (in the direction, ‘staring sightlessly before him’).
By act two the adverbs yield somewhat to marvellous verbs and adjectives. In the space of four lines early in the act, Vladimir goes from ‘joyous‘ to ‘indifferent‘ to ‘gloomy‘ to ‘vexed‘ before becoming ‘sententious.’ Finally, as he tries on Estragon’s hat not long before Pozzo’s second arrival, we get the most complete and poetic demand of all: ‘He turns his head coquettishly to and fro, mincing like a mannequin.’
Trickier still was plotting the difference between ‘Silence’, ‘Long silence’ and (my favourite) ‘Very long silence’. Tripp’s advice for that last one was to “hold it as long as you can bear and then wait five seconds.” In every performance, as those leaden moments ticked by, I could feel the discomfort swell in the audience as people began wondering whether someone in this high school production had forgotten a line.
For me, those weighted interludes contain the essence of the play. In Albert Camus’ L’étranger, published in 1942, the stoic Meursault says of his time in prison, “Toute la question, encore une fois, était de tuer le temps.” “It was, once again, a question of killing time.” Just over a decade later, Vladimir, with the play just a few minutes old, decides to recount the story of Jesus’ crucifixion because, “It’ll pass the time.” Some time later, he says of his first surreal encounter with Pozzo and Lucky: “That passed the time.”
Estragon: It would have passed in any case
Vladimir: Yes but not so rapidly.
Of the two, Vladimir is, if not the time keeper, the time worrier. About halfway through the first visit of Pozzo and Lucky he twice looks to the sky and asks, “Will night never come?” Shortly after the second of these, Pozzo consults his watch and decides he “must be getting along,” to which Vladimir says, “Time has stopped.”
Even with his pocket-watch and pretensions of importance, Pozzo is similarly “in the dark” about the hour of the day and how much time has elapsed, whether in terms of minutes or decades. Fittingly, it is the man with the timepiece who explodes with impatience when time (as it were) catches up with him. In act two, desperate to prolong the entertainment, Vladimir asks Pozzo to make Lucky sing. Pozzo replies that Lucky is “Dumb. He can’t even groan.”
Vladimir: Dumb! Since when?
Pozzo: (Suddenly furious) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.
Shawn, with his tall frame and deep voice, was brilliant as Pozzo. He was Gatsby-like in his coolness, but I think even he felt the pressure of the play. If nothing else, it was innate in the characters: Vladimir at one point says to himself, “I can’t go on!” a sentiment Estragon echoes a few moments later. Trying to absorb the ever-growing mountain of lines and directions, Shawn must have felt the same. We all did. In what was his last chance for high school theatre fame, though, he went on and on, mastering everything, even the whip.
Great as he was, the star of the show, for me, was Krista as Estragon. Her feet fit the battered boots of this dreamy, narcoleptic character like Cinderella’s in the glass slipper.
Ah, those boots! “There’s man all over for you,” says Vladimir, after Estragon finally manages to remove his footwear, “blaming on his boots the faults of his feet”; and while Gogo keeps his head down and struggles with his boots, Didi lifts his eyes to the heavens and fiddles with his hat. The two men depend on each other in spite or perhaps because of their polarised points of focus.
To help develop the necessary chemistry, Tripp showed us videos of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Amidst the bleakness of Beckett’s country road, there are unmistakable traces of these cinematic pioneers. Krista, with her foal-like frame, brought their slapstick to life. Whether it was grunting, chewing a carrot, running to retrieve a carrot or gesturing like ‘a spectator encouraging a pugilist‘, she was what Beckett intended Estragon to be – funny.
“Is one supposed to laugh at Beckett?” our history teacher asked as he left the theatre on opening night. But of course! The duo’s final, pathetic moments, for all the apparent gravitas, are played out with Estragon’s trousers around his ankles and the usual mismatch of words (“Yes, let’s go”) and actions (‘They do not move‘). Life is a joke. Often absurd and not always funny, but a joke of meagre rations, protracted goodbyes and frail cord. “That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.”