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When the curtain rises on Samuel Beckett's play it reveals a stage bare of everything but a few shapes vaguely suggestive of rocks and something that resembles a tree. Soon two hobos named Estragon and Vladimir come onstage, and the audience learns that they are waiting for someone called Godot to meet them there. The pair talk for a while, and than they are joined by two other characters, a cruel slave-driver and the slave whom he leads around on the end of a rope. After some more conversation, Pozzo, the master, and Lucky, the slave leave. A boy comes to tell the hoboes that Godot won't come that night, and the curtain falls. The second act, which takes place on the following night, is just like the first, except that when Pozzo and Lucky pass by again, the slave has become dumb and the master blind.
Such are the facts of Waiting for Godot, and every-one in the audience would probably agree that they saw this much. But when it comes to deciding what it means, or even what, precisely, was said, all agreement ends. And that, Beckett has declared, is just as it should be, since the play is calculated to mean exactly what each member of the audience wants it to mean. At the risk of contradicting the author, I suggest that his statement is not quite accurate, because if the play makes no definite point, it at least embodies a point of view. While a follower of Joyce as far as style is concerned, apparently Beckett is an existentialist by belief. Whatever else he may be doing, the playwright very successfully projects the existentialist disgust with the absurdity, the pointlessness of life. In Vladimir and Estragon he presents two symbols of humanity bravely living on even though Godot--the word at least suggests God if that is not its meaning--never does arrive to relieve their misery. Some critics have felt that the play ends in discouragement and a sense of utter emptiness, but the two hoboes are noble to the extent that they can keep on hoping and waiting, and so far at least Waiting for Godot is a work of encouragement.
But is it a play, and if so, how good a play? Having raised the first question, I shall drop it with the statement that whatever the proper lable for the work may be, it is often splendidly theatrical. With a surface reminiscent of a Charlie Chaplin film, it offers long stretches which are at once amusing and profound. But there are other stretches which are quite dull. The trouble here seems to be that Beckett ventured on dangerous ground when he did away with a plot and made his characters into symbols rather than people. The mainspring of drama is conflict between very much living and three-dimensional people, even if they are confined to a stage. Beckett, however, expected to let his ideas carry most of the interest through the evening, but they are not always enough. Thus while Waiting for Godot is in large measure a success, I doubt if it will gain the stature of a modern classic--as many of its supporters believe it will.
But on one point there can be no equivocation. The acting and direction which this production displays is in every way superb, and very likely is the best work to come along this season. Each of the members of the all-Negro cast is an actor of unsurpassed stature. I am not in a position to compare Mantan Moreland with Bert Lahr, who played Estragon in the original American production, but it is difficult to imagine any performance which embodies slapstick drollery and technical subtlety to a higher degree of perfection. Earle Hyman as the more intelligent Valdimir suggests just the right amount of dignity, and Rex Ingram makes a beautifully fearsome and pathetic Pozzo. As for Lucky, the part demands a pantomimist, and in Geoffrey Holder it has found a master of this form. Herbert Berghof, who also directed the original production, molded the four performances into a superbly balanced whole, and accomplished his job with imagination and no little daring. The merits of Samuel Beckett's contribution to the evening may be debated, but the work of these five men stands far above the possibility of reproach.
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