by Minji Kim
"Any time, anywhere in the world, someone is playing Waiting for Godot," said Harvard’s professor of the practice of theater in the English department, Robert Scanlan, after we watched a dress rehearsal together. "And it’s so great it’s being played here."
Waiting for Godot is the best known play by Samuel Beckett, who was a personal friend of Scanlan's, and it is, indeed, ubiquitously performed. But the wait for Godot has only just ended for the Harvard undergraduate community. Although Beckett's Endgame was controversially performed at American Repertory Theater 1985, garnering much media attention because of changes the Beckett Estate rejected, this is the first time the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club is performing Waiting for Godot. The famous piece, with a few minor tweaks that have been approved by Scanlan and that remain faithful to Beckett's intent, will be at the Loeb Ex, through Saturday, April 16.
The popularity and fame of Beckett’s plays have necessitated regulation of its many productions. All performances of Beckett’s plays are monitored by the Beckett Estate, ensuring that each rendition remains true to original meaning and form. Huge deviations from the accepted guidelines prompt the Beckett Estate to request that the playwright's name be removed from the program. Luckily for Harvard, Scanlan, a member of the "Beckett police" himself, resides conveniently on campus and wholeheartedly approved of the HRDC performance.
In order to put on a Beckett play, one needs to contractually promise not to "depart wildly" from the original piece, a request that Scanlan deems reasonable and even necessary for all plays, especially so for Godot.
"Beckett is so severely perfect that tampering with it would damage so much more than it would to any other play," said Scanlan. "[Doing so] would change the meaning of the play. It would be like "playing Beethoven’s Ninth on kazoos."
The set for Godot is sparse, appropriately so for the subject and thematic matter, and seems to be open to liberal interpretations of the setting. However, details such as the option of having a collar or not on a shirt, the length of the "runway" that serves as the desolate road, and the manner in which a piece of carrot is chewed, all serve as crucial components of a successful performance.
While each detail must be perfectly executed, the play’s ambiguity and openness to interpretation comprise and preserve its essence. Every single element in the play, Scanlan said, is "a semiotic tool." The key, however, is to tie the details and the props to a specific cultural reference, individual or location.
"It is a self-revealing, not a self-explaining play," noted Scanlan. "Godot occurs in an abstract space. Usually with failed productions, they pinpoint it to a specific locale, making the play naively hyper-realistic."
The austerity of the play makes for a directorially flexible piece. As the least visually detailed of Beckett’s plays, Godot examines the meaning of human existence through two characters, Estragon and Vladimir, who simply wait in a desolate landscape. Set in an abstract space consisting only of a tree and a road, yet very apparently pertaining to a real event, Godot can be seen as a war play, borne out of the shock and destruction of the German occupation of France of World War II.
The desperation and fear that gripped France is well encapsulated in Pozzo’s entry into the scene in the first half of Act II. Estragon and Vladimir, cautiously joyous that perhaps Pozzo is the long-awaited Godot, question their newcomer, who regards them with suspicion in return ("You took me for Godot…. You were waiting for him?").
"This tension of not knowing who they’re even waiting for—Is it a double agent? Have they been found out?— is the existential element," remarked Scanlan. "And such sense of tension is not recoverable except by imagined sympathy."
Along with this sense of paranoia comes the utter despair of the waiting that forms the crux of the drama. When the play was first performed in 1953, it had "an electrifying effect," said Scanlan. The overwhelming sense of meaninglessness still lingered and resonated with the French people, who wondered if they could ever return to normal life again.
"It’s hard to kid yourself that nothing matters, yet everything mattered so much. It’s the paradox of restarting a normal life," Scanlan said.
Godot most poignantly captures the idea that all humanity is headed toward the same inevitable end, as well as the futility of the time preceding it. After Pozzo’s departure in Act I, Vladimir points out that the bizarre encounter at least passed the time. Estragon, responds, "It would have passed in any case." This statement aptly captures the depressed ambivalence of the age, a sentiment explored in Arthur Kleinman’s What Really Matters, which Scanlan had brought with him to the rehearsal.
"The consciousness can become trapped, but momentarily so," described Scanlan. "We are all waiting. The moment we realize [that we are waiting]—we’re all just killing time. We’re just going to wait and find ways to delay the consciousness of waiting. The more exciting you can make life, the more you can delay the consciousness of waiting."
Beckett perfectly captures this immediate sense of the apprehensive wait—the nebulous space of post-war shock, the wait for the universal end. Godot candidly dissects the nature of the human condition with as much acuteness as sensitivity and empathy. It is no wonder that Scanlan remembers his friendship with Beckett with both affection and deep reverence.
"First it was Sophocles, then Dante, Shakespeare, maybe Goethe, and then Beckett," said Scanlan. "You only get one of these every 200 years or so."
Harvard Arts Beat readers, you would do well to get on the waitlist (the free tickets are already sold out) for this show. You’ll have to wait a bit to see Godot, but the wait will be worth it.