Review: Godot, the authorized version

(Schiller Theater Company at the Royal Court Theatre)

Martin Esslin

Should playwrights direct their own work? On the whole, I have always thought, the answer is no. They tend to be too close to what they have written, too enamoured with their own words to cut or modify them and take too much for granted, simply because they know what they wanted to say and therefore fail to realize what the audience won’t be able to understand.

But there are exceptions: Brecht, whose mode of writing demanded a style wholly alien from the established theatrical conventions, was one. Samuel Beckett is another—but for different reasons. The Schiller Theater production of Warten auf Godot which came to the Royal Court in April 1976 and which Samuel Beckett directed makes that very clear.

Beckett is a writer whose basic philosophy is uncompromisingly stark and stern, contemptuous of any easy consolations or illusions about the ultimate verities of human existence; but he is also, essentially, a humorist, aware of the funny side of that situation. Moreover, he is a supreme stylist able to infuse his writing, even about the most mundane matters, with the glow of exquisite poetry. But philosophical depth combined with fine writing to most directors in the theatre spells solemnity, seriousness, gloom, ritualistic incantation. (Chekhov is another playwright who exemplifies this situation: he too wrote comedy about deeply serious subjects!)

Hence most productions of Waiting for Godot or Endgame tend to be bathed in allegorical gloom and tragic pathos. Where directors are afraid to use broad comic effects, where they clearly feel that slapstick would amount to blasphemy, the author himself is the only authority to demonstrate the virtue of a light and irreverent touch. And this is what Beckett has brilliantly done in this case.

Beckett’s production of Warten auf Godot greatly stresses his deep indebtedness to popular entertainment, above all the silent cinema, the circus and the music hall. The four main characters are, clearly, not only archetypal human couples bonded together in the double bind of ‘nec tecum nec sine te,’ they are also two double acts of screen, music hall or cirrus clowns. That, instead of the bowlers prescribed by Beckett himself, they wear the conical felt hats of circus clowns, makes that clear, and even more so that each couple shares two suits by having one of them wear the trousers of one and the coat of the other and vice versa. The Vladimir of Stefan Wigger is tall, lanky and crosslegged, the Estragon of Horst Bollmann small, fat and childlike. There are undertones here of an inverted Laurel and Hardy, with a tall thin Stan and a compressed little fat Ollie, but there is a hint also of Abbott and Costello; to me, who remembers them from my childhood, however, they most strongly recalled a pair of silent film comedians from Denmark who were called by a variety of names in different countries: in France I believe they went under the flag of Pat et Patachon; Pat, like Wigger was tall and melancholy, Patachon like Bollmann fat, jovial and given to hysterics. It would be interesting to know whether Beckett remembers them too.

Klaus Herm’s Lucky has the white face of a cloven like Grock and Carl Raddatz as Pozzo clearly comes from a long line of Keystone Kops bullies, charging through the landscape raining blows on the victims they invariably run after in hot pursuit.

It is a world of broad slapstick comedy: each character has his highly stylized mode of movement, circumscribed by the convention he has created for his own comic personality—and I, for one, find this a brilliant image for the concept of existential choice facing all of us. The same is true of the dialogue. In the recurring, refrain-like exchanges about waiting for Godot, for example, the characters make it quite clear that they are merely going through a well-known, long-established routine, rattling off the lines simply because they are there. This high degree of stylization enables the director to control the pace of his production far more efficiently than if he were bound by the exigencies of a more naturalistic convention with its implied need for psychologically motivated changes of pace and rhythm. Were we are confronted with a series of ‘turns,’ each with its own peculiar and artificial set speed and shape. When it is over there is a pause until the next one is set in motion.

I have in the past, from purely theoretical premisses, argued that the Absurdist Theatre, although starting from quite different assumptions from those which Brecht postulated from a Marxist point of view, ultimately also arrives at a genuine Verfremdungseffekt. Here Beckett’s direction of Warten auf Godot brilliantly demonstrates that assumption in practice. And if Brecht regarded Charlie Chaplin as the perfect embodiment of verfremdet acting, Beckett’s production emerges as wholly Chaplinesque in concept.

The convention of popular comedy does not in the least preclude emotion, high pathos or philosophical profundity. On the contrary: it is, after all, a commonplace, that the clown is a basically tragic figure. The contrast between the ridiculousness of his behaviour and the wretchedness of his situation enhances and emphasizes the tragic undertones. Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Grock, the Marx Brothers abundantly exemplify that proposition. Beckett clearly chose the convention of clowning and slapstick for this play because it enabled him to say what he wanted to say about the human predicament more efficiently than any other stage convention. Only a clown putting another clown to sleep with a lullaby can express the tenderness of human affection, divorced from any erotic or selfish undertones, in its full purity. In a naturalistic convention such a scene would be either embarrassingly erotic or simply incredible, here the grotesque, mournful beanpole of a clown rocking the childlike fat one conveys the essence of human affection on a plane that transcends all sordid personal and material concerns. And the same is true of the pain that pervades the play: because it is uttered by stylized, archetypal figures (who are not allegories, symbols or poetic metaphors, but earthy, rude creations of popular myth and therefore more than real) it can never be mistaken for the expression of the mere personal misfortunes of particular individuals.

It is against the backdrop of these general considerations that Beckett’s production of the play must be seen. It is, in its detail, admirably clear. It is also immensely entertaining. The set, designed by Matias, is spare, but there is a stone to sit on in the left foreground: the moon rising fast across the sky as night falls has the right childlike circus character. The lighting by Josef Hewel is precise and gives the characters an admirable plasticity.

All this has the perfection of sovereign craftsmanship. Here, I think, is the key to Beckett’s success as director of his own plays. He is a great poet and a profound thinker, but he is also a supreme technician and loves the mastery over the material universe which true craftsmanship gives; anyone who has worked with him in radio knows that. No wonder that he has also proved himself a supreme craftsman on the stage.