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The Enigma of 'Godot'

From the Pit

By Caldwell Titcomb

Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, to which the Shubert Theatre is currently playing host, is the most stimulating show to hit Boston in some years. The opening of the play in Paris four years ago engendered violent controversy, which has followed it all over Europe and to the United States. The heart of the controversy lay (and still lies) in the allegedly enigmatic meaning of the play. Consequently, producer Michael Myerberg, in conjunction with his production last spring in New York, staged a weekly symposium at which those interested could discuss the play among themselves and with the people involved in the production.

Controversy again arose last week when Myerberg opened a brand new production of the show in Boston. After Friday's performance he staged a free symposium, which he later said was more successful than any of the New York ones. On the stage were assembled most of the Boston newspaper critics and several local college professors, plus the director, Herbert Berghof, and the members of the cast; and nearly 1500 people filled the house seats.

Acting as moderator, Myerberg outlined his well-known courageous philosophy that someone must put on "new works that might someday have classic stature, even though there is no chance of aiming at a mass audience" (he was the first to produce Thornton Wilder's "enigmatic" Skin of Our Teeth).

The critics then had their say. Mary X. Sullivan (Advertiser) stated, "Well, all I can say is that I got a terrible stomach ache from seeing the show." Eliot Norton (Record) commented, "I am struck by the portrayal of two lonely men clinging to one another in their loneliness. There is a wonderful quality of friendship between these two men. . . . And on a second hearing I had a feeling of unity I had missed before."

As a matter of fact, Godot observes all three of the classical unities of time, place, and action. And both acts betray a symmetrically balanced Renaissance construction, with the same sort of one-to-one correspondence between many events and passages of dialogue that we observe in Acts I and II of Wagner's Meistersinger.

Cyrus Durgin (Globe) said, "I can't say exactly what the play is about. But I can say it is not about life with aspirations and hopes, with love and fullness and meaning . . . it is blasphemy against the human spirit. . . . Furthermore, the language simply does not communicate to the listener." Several members of the audience rightly objected; for hope is one thing that is never extinguished in the play. One Harvard senior compared Pozzo's last speech with a speech in Macbeth for communicative power. Mr. Myerberg then had Rex Ingram deliver the speech again. It was obvious afterwards that Mr. Durgin was the only one present to whom the words communicated nothing.

Enter the professors. William C. Green (M.I.T.): "I just think it's a damn good long vaudeville skit." Frederick Packard (Harvard): "I don't think it's a great play. Maybe it's not even a play. But it's very good theatre. . . .It certainly is not Pollyanna-ish; and I suspect that the play's appeal to people twenty-five years old or under is due to the fact that youth has a tendency to prefer the disagreeable." Marston Balch (Tufts) said that "the play is clearly allegorical: Godot is one's goal, and everyone has his own individual Godot."

Norman Holland (M.I.T.) stated, "My reaction is not so visceral as Miss Sullivan's. Being a professor, my reaction is more cerebral. Aristotle defined drama as 'the imitation of an action,' but this play seems to be the imitation of inaction." (He was challenged, partially on the grounds that much of the action is mental and not physical.) "It is clearly a religious play, a deeply Christian play--full of symbolism; and whenever I see a symbol I flip. . . .I also feel a playwright should not spoon-feed his audience; he has every right to demand that the audience meet him half way."

Geoffrey Holder (who plays the slave, Lucky) gave a fascinating stream-of-consciousness account of his feelings from the first rehearsal through last Friday's performance. Rex Ingram explained the religious significance of Pozzo's role and his own feeling of personal identification with the character. Earle Hyman (Didi), with his usual facile articulateness, talked about his own cultural reactions (including music and art), and later said, "I wouldn't have been able to learn my lines in this play unless every one of them meant something definite to me. . . .Nevertheless, I still consider myself a Shakespeare man" (a highly acclaimed Hamlet, he will be the Othello at next summer's American Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticut). Mantan Moreland (Gogo), to get a laugh, pulled the Bert Lahr trick of quipping, "I speak my lines, but I don't know what I'm saying." But just as Lahr in private has clear ideas about the play's meaning, I am sure Mr. Moreland does, too.

Personally, I feel the solution to the "enigma" of this play, or of modern music or painting, lies mainly in one thing: familiarity. No work that gives everything it has to offer on first acquaintance can be a candidate for immortality. People are still arguing about the meaning of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet--and these both can be legitimately regarded in all sorts of ways, from a first-rate detective story on up. The same is true of Godot; familiarity yields ever-increasing insights. One sees that the four main roles represent humanity ("All mankind is us"). Beckett presents them, however, not as Romantic individualists, but as two pairs--each pair being, like the two sides of a coin, opposites but mutually inseparable (it corresponds to the dualistic concept of inyo that permeates so much of Oriental thinking). In one case: teacher and pupil, guardian and ward, rationalist and emotionalist, etc.; in the other: capitalist and laborer, upper class and lower class, exploiter and exploited, etc. Superb as was Bert Lahr's performance individually last year, the requisite mutual rapport between Gogo and Didi was lacking; and it is this complementary interrelationship that Messrs. Hyman and Moreland now capture so perfectly.

Furthermore, I am convinced that Beckett modeled his Didi largely on a specific person. Didi's name is the phonetic equivalent of "D.D.," i.e. "Doctor of Divinity." And early in the play Didi starts a discussion of the Gospels. He introduces quite a bit of philosophizing; he sings a ballad and a lullaby; and he has ministered to Gogo spiritually and materially for 50 years, and repeatedly makes medical allusions and diagnoses. Now what person fills the bill--theologian, philosopher, musician, physician, and compassionate servant of the less fortunate for half a century? Albert Schweitzer. If you think this far-fetched, I call your attention to the fact that Godot's boy messenger, on both his entrances, addresses Didi as "Mister Albert." This play has inexhaustible riches for all who will take the trouble. It is not truly enigmatic; it is simply unorthodox.

The success of last Friday's symposium, which ran till well after 1 a.m., has led Mr. Myerberg to schedule another one, open to the public without charge, beginning at 11:15 p.m. after tomorrow's performance. No-one who is interested in the theatre or in the meaning of life can well afford to remain unacquainted with this superlative production of a work that I feel confident future historians will rank very high in the canon of the world's plays.

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