Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


(Updated with a postscript, 12:30 AM)

A few weeks ago when the estimable ACD was baiting theater buffs by suggesting that the exceedingly meticulous writer Samuel Beckett blew it by writing “Waiting for Godot” as a play rather than the allegedly more promising medium of film, I thought of a college prank that didn’t come off. Now ACD and Alex Ross are arguing over whether it should be OK for classical music audiences to applaud between movements of a multi-movement piece. I had a funny experience last May, when I really really wanted to applaud between movements during a chamber music concert. Protestant Northern Western Euro-male me ended up enjoying the repression of my instincts, since it built up to the orgasmic applause at the end, but on the whole I agree with Alex that a little loosening of the classical audience’s tie, a little bit of letting the hair down, wouldn’t be bad for the music. ACD, unsurprisingly, disagrees. The discussion is germane to the earlier one -- how the audience affects a performance; and that, as I said, reminds me of a story.

It was 1985 or so, in Ann Arbor, and I was sitting with a bunch of my theater comrades, with whom I had founded what became the now 20-year-old director-less institution Theater Oobleck. (And for some bracing, witty, political, modernist-post-modernist-pre-modernist, erudite manifesto-ism, check this out, which I had never read before now.) We were watching a magnificently, mind-bogglingly dreadful production of “Waiting for Godot,” produced for lots and lots of money by the university’s theater department. Alex and ACD have both inveighed against opera directors running ramshod over the original text; I can’t say I disagree, and they would have hated this.

Godot is famous for its sparse set. Beckett’s entire description of the set, from the stage directions, and I quote: “A country road. A tree.” The head of the theater department, who directed the show, managed to spend $5,000 on this set -- considerably more money 20 years ago than now. How, how could he do that? you ask. By setting the play at a highly stylized garbage dump and building a raked stage, and by mechanizing the tree so that it grows its leaves hydrolically. Really stupid, a real waste of resources -- the growing of the leaves happens between act one and act two; the mechanical growing had no theatrical moment -- [exasperated sigh].

The actors and director had no idea that Beckett was drawing on vaudeville in the script, and that when it's done right it's funny. (Bert Lahr starred as Estragon in the original American production.) These guys, reportedly professional actors flown in from New York, were playing it for soap opera angst. As Bob Dylan once said, I stand in awe and I shake my face.

Ross Lipman, the biggest Beckett fan among my friends, saved the evening from being a total waste when he whispered in someone’s ear, and that person passed it on, “If anyone goes up as Godot, I’ll pay their bail.” So the rest of the show stayed interesting as we waited for someone to do something, and thought about doing it ourselves. We didn’t.

That night, Ross, Jeff Dorchen, and I went back to the house Jeff and I shared with other people and wrote a monologue for Godot. We picked an opportune spot in the 2nd Act for his entrance. I don’t remember much of what we wrote -- a couple paragraphs, which included things like, “Hello? I’m Godot! What’s going on here? You look terrible! Let’s get going, let’s get going, I know you’ve been waiting a long time, and I’m terribly sorry to have kept you waiting, but I wanted to let you know that change is possible.” Exit.

We bought tickets and went again the next night. Jeff, by far the most commanding actor of the three of us, and who at the time had a bountiful beard, was going to play Godot as Commander McBragg. Ross was going to block his way up the aisle after the speech, and I was going to be in the back and “create a diversion.” On the cue for Godot's entrance Jeff abruptly stood up and, with a concentrated glow about him, silently walked out of the theater. Of course I can’t blame Jeff for changing his mind.

The story has a footnote: The night Jeff was going to play Godot, we had seen a very smart and charismatic and often quite mean theater professor we knew, in the audience glowering. A student of his with whom he was having an extra-marital affair was cheating on him with one of the actors, and he knew it, and he was freaking. Before the show Professor Rowlandson had sent a note backstage to the guy: “Mark, there will be a surprise for you in the audience tonight.” I was friends with Brenda, the student -- she told me about it months later, and when we put it together that our prank would have totally implicated the professor, with whom she had by now broken up, we had a big laugh.

(I’ve changed the names of the adulterers.)

P.S., a couple hours later. I've always liked this story, but now it feels ashy. How cocky, how smug, to condemn the poor actors and the idiotic director; conversely, how ineffectual, to lay the plan and not carry it out -- and I can't blame anybody else for that; I could have gone up as easily. I don't regret saying the director and the actors had no clue, and in a way it lends credence to ACD's point in the old debate on film v. theater -- that by publishing his script, the playwright leaves his work vulnerable to being completely misrepresented by fools. (Same is true of musical scores.) Truth be told, I still feel cocky and smug about it: that particular production of Godot really would have been improved if Godot had shown up.

The artist works to connect with people. We call these people "the audience." It's a complicated relationship.

A few weeks ago when the estimable ACD was baiting theater buffs by suggesting that the exceedingly meticulous writer Samuel Beckett blew it by writing “Waiting for Godot” as a play rather than the allegedly more promising medium of film....---------------------

The estimable ACD neither suggested nor implied any such thing.

Gotta get your facts straight, son.

OK, Daddy-O, here's your original quote: "A film of, say, Beckett's Godot (i.e., made as a film, not a filmed record of the stage play) is potentially, inherently and in itself, capable of producing a more convincing aesthetic product in terms of the play itself than the play presented live on stage (not the case in a recording of a piece of music versus a live performance of that same piece), and that capability has nothing whatsoever to do with 'the Collective Other' which is a function of audience response alone, that same response experienced with film just as with live theater."

You're saying Beckett could have made a more convincing work of art if he'd filmed Godot rather than staged it. Since he was in the business of making convincing works of art, it sounds to me that you think he blew it.
That quoted graf of mine has *nothing* to do with Beckett himself. Beckett's text as written is a given; a fait accompli. I was merely making the distinction between a filmed stage play version of that text (bad), and a filmed version of that same text adapted specifically for film by a film director (good).

Get it now?

BTW, forgot to mention that I thought your and your buddies' idea of having Godot himself make an appearance in that, um, creative staging of the play was spot-on. His entrance line, in keeping with the terse character of the dialogue in this play, would be: "Hello. Godot here. Sorry to keep you waiting so long. Would have made it sooner, but lost my way in this garbage dump."

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