In keeping with previous seasons' explorations of art's power to illuminate our interior and communal lives, this year's White Light Festival, which runs October 16 through November 18, presents a variety of commentaries on the human condition. Perhaps none is timelier than Samuel Beckett's tragicomic masterpiece Waiting for Godot, presented in all its absurdist glory in a production by Ireland's Druid theater company. With a generous 14 performances (November 2–13) at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, this "exceptional and miraculous" reimagining (Irish Times) forms a darkly comedic center to the festival, revealing—and reveling in—the humor that exists alongside the fundamental human question posed by the play: What is it to be born, to die, to wait?
Directed by Druid cofounder and artistic director Garry Hynes (who, in 1998, became the first woman to win a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for The Beauty Queen of Leenane) and starring Garrett Lombard (Lucky), Aaron Monaghan (Estragon), Rory Nolan (Pozzo), and Marty Rea (Vladimir)—with a dramatically stark set, costume, lighting, and sound design—this critically acclaimed production has enchanted existing Beckett fans and created new ones throughout Ireland and across the Atlantic. Following successful runs at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. in April and at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in May, the 14 performances during the White Light Festival mark the conclusion of the production's ten-month tour.
Since its 1953 premiere in Paris as En attendant Godot (Beckett's own English-language version premiered in London in 1955), Waiting for Godot has been presented dozens of times, including several notable occasions in New York City: in 1988 Lincoln Center Theater presented it at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Steve Martin (Vladimir), Robin Williams (Estragon), F. Murray Abraham (Pozzo), and Bill Irwin (Lucky). More recently, in 2013, Ian McKellen (Estragon) and Patrick Stewart (Vladimir) appeared on Broadway in a production directed by Sean Mathias, with Shuler Hensley as Pozzo and Billy Crudup as Lucky. The Druid production, says Lincoln Center's Ehrenkranz Artistic Director, Jane Moss, "represents a rare opportunity for American audiences to experience an all-Irish staging of this play." And, as she observes, the work is "rooted in vaudeville, and Beckett himself viewed it in a comic way. Comedy was his response to despair."
Indeed, it is a rare treat for American audiences to see the playwright's signature piece presented in the same accent—literally and figuratively—as his own. They will note, as one small example, that the Irish pronunciation of "Godot" puts the emphasis on the first syllable: GOD-oh. While Beckett himself is on record as saying, "If by Godot I meant God I would have said God, and not Godot," one could be forgiven for hearing a sort of cosmic rhyme in the name he chose for the mysterious awaited figure.
Speaking of interpretation, each audience member will have his or her own. One of the joys of Godot is that it resists easy answers, allowing everyone to find their own meaning depending not only on their particular lens, but also on their particular stage in life. The Godot you wait for impatiently in high school is not the same Godot you anticipate warily as an adult. One can spy a thousand facets in what is, in reality, a very simple shape. In fact, Beckett himself mused: "Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can't make out."
Following Vladimir and Estragon as they stumble and fumble through a desolate wasteland and in their bizarre encounters with Pozzo and Lucky and the Boy—whose brief appearances in each of the play's two acts add a tragic uncertainty to Vladimir's already shaky grip on reality—we may even suspect that we are the play's title character. We search for meaning within Vladimir and Estragon's search for meaning. We are horrified by Pozzo's brutality and then shocked by his sudden blindness. We are full of pity for Lucky's helplessness, and yet a sneaking curiosity nags at us: Who's worse off, one who questions everything, or one who questions nothing? One who is painfully aware, or one who is blissfully clueless? As we exit the theater, perhaps we see too clearly the everyday world—and its attendant cruelty, absurdity, inanity—and long to have a bowler smashed down on our heads to shield our eyes. And yet we find moments of laughter, as Beckett clearly did. We laugh at the accidental slapstick of it all. We laugh because we must, or at least because we might as well. After all, the only thing that we know for certain, and the thing that Vladimir and Estragon keep coming back to, is the inevitable and universal finale. "One day we are born, one day we shall die," Pozzo says. "Is that not enough for you?"
Eileen Willis is Editorial Director for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Waiting for Godot is made possible in part by Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater.
Waiting for Godot is also made possible in part by endowment support from the American Express Cultural Preservation Fund.
The White Light Festival 2018 is made possible by The Shubert Foundation, The Katzenberger Foundation, Inc., Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater, The Joelson Foundation, The Harkness Foundation for Dance, Great Performers Circle, Chairman's Council, and Friends of Lincoln Center.
For tickets and information, visit WhiteLightFestival.org.