I once got into a very unpleasant conversation about theater. There was a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays going on. However, the play itself was not performed. Instead, snippets of dialogue and speeches were occasionally read out amid a collage of dance and mime. It is important to note that this was NOT a modern dress production. An alien from outer space would have had no idea what the plot of the play was whereas they would have gained that from a modern dress production. Afterwards, I ran into a woman who had some minor involvement with the performance. She asked me what I thought and I said I did not like it. I would have preferred to see the play. She rolled her eyes and said “Oh, you just want the actors in tights.” I responded that while I would have had no problem with that, it wasn’t what I meant. I simply felt there was eternal value in the play, its themes, its language, and its characterizations. It would have been more powerful, I tried to explain, to see a director and cast attempt an interpretation of those things. What I had seen did not tackle any of those, at least not in a way that would mean much to a majority of audiences. She rolled her eyes again, smiled condescendingly and said something like “Yeah, well this is different.” I’m not sure but she may have also said said something along the lines of “This is more relevant.” Eventually, she used the word “conservative” or some approximate term. After that, I became exceedingly rude and our conversation ended.
Another time, a friend approvingly told me about a classically trained singer who had given up classical music for another genre. Referring to the (originally German) form of classical song known as lieder, this friend declared it dull and irrelevant to modern life. When I ventured that I thought some of it was pretty great, my friend responded “Why would anyone want to sing about orchards in Italy?” This was many years ago. I already knew a great deal of lieder at the time. I’ve come to know a great deal more since. I’ve heard lieder about love, loss, fear, death, deformity, adultery, loss of innocence, sexual obsession, jealousy, music, God, war, and loneliness. While I always stay alert, I’ve never found a piece of lieder, not even by an Italian composer, about an orchard in Italy. At this point, I’d settle for any orchard.
What do these anecdotes have to do with this play, one I think is one of the last century’s greatest dramatic masterpieces? Perhaps a bit more than one would first assume. It seems to me sometimes that we live in an era when the very concept of structure is considered suspicious in aesthetic circles. An entire movement of literary theorists devote themselves to the idea that art means nothing without the spectator. While there is certainly a (fairly obvious) truth to this, they have extracted from this notions about the meaninglessness of authors or anything they might have done. The net impact of this opinion on the gargantuan majority of this planet’s population can be reckoned at 0%. These ideas have, however, been fairly influential on the theater world. Improvisation and deconstruction have far more clout these days than the interpretation of “book plays.” To clarify, I want to say that I have seen several fantastic cast-written plays and works of improvisational theater. However, I hold firm to my belief that such works, while meaningful in certain ways, will not last. They, almost by design, are of the moment. The true masterpieces of theater must be plays written by authors. If these were just friendly differences of opinion, I’d feel no need to be polemical. Sadly, many people, especially in academia, attack the written play. The structured nature of these works, in their detractors’ eyes, makes them incapable of meaning anything unless they are chopped up and enlivened by performers who consider their function no different from that of the dramatist. A friend who studied theater in college once mournfully told me that, on my own, I had read (and knew of) far more plays than he had been taught about. Because of these views, I’ve almost gotten used to being called a conservative. However, I still defy those who would label me as such. Waiting for Godot is part of my case.
Nothing about Beckett’s play could be called, in any traditional sense of the word, conservative. Even today, the play’s storytelling technique and approach to stagecraft are radical. When I tell students about it, they often laugh and refuse to believe that such a play could exist. Waiting for Godot was ignored or attacked by the theatrical establishment when first produced. Recently, a major Broadway production felt obliged to create elaborate scenery for the play. Beckett specifies nothing more than a road and a tree. A critic speculated that audiences would have felt short-changed without some gussying up. Considering the state of Broadway today, it’s hard to imagine any other reason.
Despite this radicalism, Waiting for Godot is, in my view, a work that has a great deal more in common with the dramatic masterpieces of old than with any current notions of a “relevant” theater created entirely in performance. Its characters and the story can be handled differently by different directors and actors. One time when I saw the play, I sat transfixed with my mouth hanging open. At a different production, I laughed constantly till the end when tears streamed down my cheeks. Most importantly however, Waiting for Godot has an author-crafted text that stays in place after every performance. An audience member, moved and inspired, need never lose it. It remains the possession, not of the lucky few who experienced it, but of everyone in the world.
Maybe that explains the relevance of my first anecdote. What of the second, however? Would it surprise you that Beckett was an admirer of the seventeenth century French dramatist Jean Racine? It sure shocked me when I found out not long ago. Still, it makes sense after thinking about it a little. While Waiting for Godot does not have a conventional plot, I always feel on the edge of my seat reading or watching it. Beckett certainly jettisoned the trappings of theater but he kept the dramatic essence. That inner core was as present in the great plays of the past as it was in Beckett’s work. Beckett understood that and, while he did indeed make a fresh start in numerous important ways, he continued to learn from tradition when it was useful. He found what was of eternal value and wasn’t put off by the fact that it was old or seemed different. In art, tradition is only dangerous if it becomes rigid dogma. Tradition should be respected, learned from, sometimes smashed, and sometimes reassembled. To insist on tradition because it is old is lazy. Just as lazy however, is assuming that a work of art has no relevance simply because it was written long ago. People change shockingly little and denying the value of art created in the past denies a part of our common humanity.
In the nineteenth century, there was a form of theater called the well-made play. It was carefully crafted, wonderfully entertaining, popular, and often totally vapid. Realists and other dramatic reformers correctly revolted against it, demanding a theater of ideas and true emotions. However, an unfortunate by-product of this reaction (one still with us today) is a distrust of theatrical instinct and cleverness. It really doesn’t add up. Did Shakespeare know nothing about filling a theater? Was Moliere an amateur in entertainment? Waiting for Godot is incredibly profound, disturbing, and moving. It is also an entertaining play to perform, watch, and read. Without the later three, everything else would be lost. I’ve spent a lot of time in this review complaining about things I don’t like. In my defense, I meant it all as a salute to Waiting for Godot which I love very much. So three cheers for a great play! Not just great, but surprisingly well-made!