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Reviewed by:
  • Waiting for Godot
  • Michael Y. Bennett
Waiting for Godot. By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Anthony Page. Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, New York City. 11 April 2009.

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has had two labels firmly placed upon it: absurd and existential. But this particular production of the play raised two key questions: How can existentialism be so funny? How can seeming despair leave one in such a good mood? Anthony Page’s Waiting for Godot made every attempt to obliterate the existential and absurd overtones normally associated with the play. In other words, in this production, the play was neither an existential cry from the abyss nor a meditation on despair, any hint of which was removed by peels of laughter. Philosophy was no consolation; consolation took the form of diversion, especially with friends. Page removed the tragic from the tragicomedy through casting, staging, and by emphasizing Estragon’s joyful pronouncements over Vladimir’s forlorn comments. The comic components not only undermined the existential and absurd elements often read into this play, but also changed the dynamics between Estragon and Vladimir: Vladimir was not the wise philosopher who guided the two; instead, it was Estragon’s joy and fun-loving nature that kept them going.

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Roundabout Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot. (Photo: Joan Marcus.)

The casting of three prominent comedians—Nathan Lane, John Goodman, and Bill Irwin—pushed Page’s production in the direction of comedy. Nathan Lane played Nathan Lane reading Estragon; in other words, as is typical of much of Lane’s work, he acted Estragon as a lovable, loud buffoon, whose physical gestures and movement were demonstrative and sure. John Goodman portrayed Pozzo as a bigger-than-life, bloated robber baron; with a quasi-British accent, Goodman’s voice pierced the stage with a self-amused grandiloquence. Bill Irwin’s Vladimir was stuttering and uncertain. His philosophical utterances were meek and unsure, his accompanying gestures and movements equally hesitant. John Glover played Lucky as a skeleton of a man, wheezing and stumbling about the stage, except when he came to life in his grand monologue.

The effect of these interpretations was to change the dynamics of the characters. Whereas scholars commonly read Estragon as semi-dependent on the wiser, philosophical Vladimir, Estragon’s joy of life and folly seemed to comfort Vladimir, whose voice shook, when philosophy failed to provide him with unshakable answers. Physical humor and slapstick comedy triumphed in the end for both Vladimir and Estragon, as the audience’s hysterical laughter punctuated the performance. Furthermore, Pozzo’s booming voice was echoed in Estragon’s loud outbursts, which seemed to situate Estragon as master to Vladimir, a mirror of Pozzo’s master–slave relationship with Lucky.

The crucial line in this production was not “nothing to be done,” as this line was often mumbled and understated, but Lucky’s repeated, energetically delivered, “and I resume.” The greatest moments of joy and audience laughter were a ruckus dance (“how time flies when one is having fun”) and the normally tongue-in-cheek, but this time [End Page 110] joyfully serious, “that passed the time” after Pozzo and Lucky left. The opportunistic line, “a diversion comes along, let it not go to waste,” apparently exemplified the performance’s thematic thrust. Do not miss an opportunity to laugh, Page seemed to say—and the audience did not.

The staging offered the final key interpretation. The stage directions read, “A country road. A tree.” In this production, however, the country road ran through a bowl-shaped mountainous pass. Surrounded by rocks, Estragon and Vladimir could not get lost in an endless expanse. Their friendship felt like a fortress, a impression highlighted in the last moments when the mood turned somber and, bathed in a spotlight, Estragon and Vladimir stood side by side, motionless. Then Estragon, the stronger of the two, reached out to Vladimir and held his hand for comfort. But we laughed not at the characters. The audience did not experience schadenfreude; rather we laughed at the lovable interaction of complicated relationships. Think of Lucy and Desi, Abbot and Costello, and the Odd Couple, among...


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