“Nothing to be done,” Estragon says, struggling with his boot as he sits on a rock in a barren waste. Two and a half hours later, not much has changed. “Let’s go,” he says to his friend Vladimir. They do not move, except to clasp hands, grasping for each other in an empty world.
The emptiness of that world and its comic potential loom large in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and the Roundabout Theatre Company’s new production at Studio 54—already extended a week to run through July 12—marks the first time Broadway has seen the play in over fifty years. Since that time, Godot has become a classic, loved and hated for its sparse portrayal of postmodern man.
The plot, well, isn’t much of a plot. Two vagrants with bad memories and shabby clothes try to piece together their comprehension of the world around them. In this production that world is a small desert clearing surrounded by rock, all gray with dust, with a tall dead tree and a few rocks in the middle. In stumble Pozzo, a caricature of bloviating privilege, and his slobbering slave Lucky. They stumble on after a brief diversion. At the end of a long, unproductive day Vladimir and Estragon say “Let’s go” and stay seated. The curtain falls.
The second act is much the same, with a few exceptions. The tree in the center has green leaves on one limb. These signs of new life, however, offer no substantial hope. Pozzo is now blind, led by Lucky on a shorter rope, and much more helpless. Vladimir no longer walks gingerly with pain or rushes offstage to relieve himself. But he and Estragon are more desperate, for Godot has failed to come yet again.
Beckett called the play a tragicomedy, and Anthony Page directs it like a conductor with a symphony: now bringing the audience to laughter, now driving home the gaping emptiness that hangs, inescapable, in the air. Page and his actors are the cream of the crop—all have one Tony to their credit, except for Nathan Lane, who has two, and John Goodman, who has an Emmy—and they do not disappoint.
Lane has a well-deserved reputation as a master of physical comedy. As Estragon, he is the more unstable and demanding of the duo. When not having an emotional outburst, Estragon can be found coaxing an unwilling boot onto his foot, munching on a carrot, or trying to sleep, sucking his thumb as he leans against Vladimir. When Estragon tries to use Pozzo’s worn-out whip, all the other actors must run for cover as he hurtles about, arms flailing, the whip flying to and fro.
Bill Irwin’s Vladimir, however, is more staid. Tall and lanky, he walks in Act I with an almost Western swagger—brought on not by bravado, but a painful prostate. Vladimir is calmer than his companion, an amateur philosopher who tries to think through his predicament even as his memory fails him. Much of the time Vladimir seems to serve as the foil for Estragon, which may be more of a function of Nathan Lane’s ability to steal a scene than Beckett’s script. But the same mixture of tragedy and comedy is there, and though a more subtle actor, Irwin is no less effective.
Into Vladimir and Estragon’s friendship barge Lucky and Pozzo. As Lucky, John Glover pants vigorously like a frantic, worn-out animal, saliva dripping from his mouth in long threads. His gaunt face and long white hair make him spectral and hideous. He comes and goes at his master’s whim, laboring over bags and a chair with wheezing breath. Pozzo has him entertain their newfound friends with dancing, then thinking. The thinking—a delightful parody of modern academic prose—gives Glover the only lines he has, which Glover describes as “speaking aphasia”:
Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell and suffers like the divine Miranda with those who for reasons unknown but time will tell are plunged in torment plunged in fire whose fire flames if that continues and who can doubt it will fire the firmament that is to say blast heaven to hell so blue still and calm so calm with a calm which even though intermittent is better than nothing but not so fast and considering what is more that as a result of the labors left unfinished crowned by the Acacacacademy of Anthropopopometry of . . .
For five minutes.
Lucky’s limp tyrant of a master, Pozzo, is played by John Goodman, the perfect picture of puffed-up pride as he towers over his fellow actors in girth and height. But Pozzo’s is a weak pride, and he constantly questions himself and requires reassurance. In Act II the insecure, tweedy aristocrat is blind. On entering, Goodman stumbles and falls and spends most of his time lying facedown and intermittently flopping up and down like a beached whale.
“He’s all humanity,” Estragon remarks as he watches the sorry sight. And that, of course, is Beckett’s point. We stumble into life not knowing whence or why we have come, and we try to pass the time—by seeing theater, for instance—or look for meaning in our being here: anything to stave off the gnawing meaninglessness that surrounds us. You can laugh or cry in response, as the characters in Godot do, but the emptiness remains.
That may sound a bit dramatic, but it gets at the heart of what many in our time feel. Nathan Lane himself, when interviewed about Godot said that when he was younger he loved the poetry, humor, and strangeness of the play. Now that he is older, “it just seems like life . . . these are the conversations I have every day: ‘What do we do now?’”
Wait for Godot, Vladimir always replies. But who is Godot? He is an old man with a white beard, he seems arbitrary in a cruel way—maltreating a child for no reason, promising to come and never appearing—and his name is pronounced “GOD-oh.” But Beckett always denied that Godot was a stand-in for God and never revealed who he might be. Nevertheless, the barren landscape of the play is Christ-haunted, abounding in biblical allusions—the two thieves, Cain and Abel, and Christ himself, to name a few.
Hence Godot is the perfect picture of postmodernism: men without meaning in a world without a story, a world laced with the shards of Christianity. Lane, Irwin, Goodman, and Glover are master comedians and master tragedians. And in the end, after the comedy has passed and Vladimir and Estragon sit alone under a bright moon, it is the tragedy that wins out, the tragedy of banality, of struggling to pass the time—and losing. Nothing to be done.
Nathaniel Peters is assistant editor of First Things.