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Craven: Godot after the flood

09/21/09 5:55PM By Jay Craven
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(HOST) Commentator, filmmaker, and Marlboro professor Jay Craven is looking forward to a new touring production of one of the world's most acclaimed but enigmatic plays.

(CRAVEN) Voted by 800 theater leaders as the 20th Century's most significant English language play, Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" presents two tramps on the side of the road who remember they're supposed to wait under a tree for a man named Godot. They don't remember Godot very well and probably wouldn't recognize him if they saw him.  But they think he was going to give them an answer to a question that they don't know.

Beckett animates this bleak absurdity with broadly funny characters, comic patter, and vaudevillian bits.  Indeed, his Vladimir and Estragon remind me of Laurel and Hardy, bumbling with their boots and silly bowlers, with Vladimir insisting that he do the thinking, even though he's frequently wrong.

Irish theater critic Vivian Mercier famously wrote that in "Waiting for Godot," "nothing happens - twice."   That may be, but every time I've spent an evening waiting with Beckett's existential clowns, I find new themes and insights prompted by my own circumstances and the play's open-endedness.

American writer Susan Sontag staged "Godot" under mortar fire in war-torn Sarajevo, drawing so much attention to that city's plight, that many believe it helped end the war.

Beckett didn't say much about his work - ever - but he admitted to being inspired by an early 50's production directed by an inmate in a German jail.  The inmate wrote, "You will be surprised to be receiving a letter about your play from a prison, where so many thieves, forgers, crazy men, and killers spend this life waiting... and waiting... and waiting.  Waiting for what?  Godot?  Perhaps."

The Classical Theater of Harlem produced a vigorous and acclaimed 2006 production of the play in New York and they're touring it now, to Middlebury College on September 21st and 22nd and to Dartmouth's Hopkins Center on September 29th and October 1st.

This new production was inspired by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina where the waiting could have been for what?  Godot?  Or FEMA?  Or help that never comes?

The Harlem company's New York production was set on a flimsy rooftop of a sunken house that the actors reached on a raft through the illusion of deep water.  The production touring locally has been brought back to dry land, modeled after the company's outdoor staging at a New Orleans crossroads that brought immediacy to a play that has been sometimes perceived as remote. We feel the characters' agony of waiting, as well as the irrepressibility of their humanity, humor, and imagination.

Forever pressed to explain his play, Beckett did allow this: "I don't know who Godot is," he said.  "I don't even know if he exists. And I don't know if they believe in him or not - those two who are waiting for him. All I knew I showed. It's not much, but it's enough for me, by a wide margin."

The cryptic playwright's tramps are still waiting.  And inviting us into the theater to contemplate the thousand possibilities and dilemmas prompted by their all-too-human predicament.
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