Going to see Joseph Chaikin’s production of Waiting for Godot at Seven Stages in Atlanta, I found myself wondering what effect the director’s own “divine aphasia” would have on the “fundamental sounds” of this cornerstone of contemporary theatre. Chaikin has long had a love hate relationship with Beckett’s work. While he’s been repeatedly drawn to it as actor and director, he has usually found himself enervated after the work, and at times questioned the morality of producing nihilistic texts in a society where hope is already a rare commodity. “One walks out with a little less,” he once said about the audience’s experience of Endgame.Order now
The Seven Stages Godot (which traveled to The Hague as part of the International Samuel Beckett Festival in April) is a “traditional” one. The usual suspects are there: the tree, the mound, a boy, two pairs of men in bowlers trapped in the performance of endless clown acts. Chaikin has always been concerned with Beckett’s musicality, and has stuck closely, although not blindly, to the author’s score. The result is the most accessible Godot I have seen, one that, like Beckett’s own directorial work, sacrifices neither humor nor nihilism at the other’s expense.
At the heart of this production is Del Hamilton’s Didi. Hamilton, Seven Stages’ artistic director, makes Didi into an agnostic Holy Fool, whether he is daintily hopping over Lucky’s rope or deciding that “Tell him that you saw me” is a sufficient report to Godot. This Didi is obviously aware that the fix is on when the Boy returns at the end of the second act. As the lights fade, and “They do not move,” Hamilton casts his eyes heavenward, a gesture that both pleads for deliverance and reveals the endurance of a contemporary Prometheus. Didi is the true protagonist of this Godot, carrying the burden of memory through Beckett’s wasteland. Next to him, Don Finney’s Gogo is a live-action cartoon, blissfully forgetful of all that’s come before, although the gesture that marks his response to “We’re waiting for Godot” (right forefinger in the air, with a smile to the audience) seems increasingly less confident.
This is a production of Godot extremely aware of the audience. Chaikin has always stressed the vaudeville aspects of Beckett and the mutual awareness between actor and audience: The characters in his Godot inhabit a liminal space between “performer” and “character.” Is it Didi or Del Hamilton who implores the audience “Will this night never end?” After Lucky’s (Rick Rogers) surprisingly lovely dance – no “hard stool” this – is greeted with applause, is it Didi, Gogo and Pozzo glaring at the audience until the applause stops, or Hamilton, Finney and John Purcell?
While this sort of thing could descend into mugging, it doesn’t, because the actors in Godot, especially Hamilton and Rogers, maintain contact with that “sense of astonishment” Chaikin calls for in his book The Presence of the Actor. As a result, Waiting for Godot possesses the wise innocence that has characterized Chaikin’s best work through his career.
This wise innocence is the production’s great strength. Beckett’s form has lost much of its original novelty after 40 years. The urge to break down our sense of familiarity with Beckett lies behind many “conceptual” productions. Compared with MTV, Holly Hughes or Nicholson Baker, Godot seems almost conventionally narrative. Chaikin takes the opposite tack. He revitalizes our experience of Godot by acknowledging the familiarity. His Gogo and Didi inhabit the world we consciously live in, whether our personal Godot is God, love, a sane society or merely faith in politics (writing this, the headline “Waiting for Perot” on the national edition of the Washington Post is a reminder how much Beckett permeates our collective self-image).
This is not a “perfect” production – some of the turns lack a definite end, as if the characters have just stopped, rather than been abandoned by their own thoughts, and Finney and Purcell occasionally push too hard – but it is one capable of giving “power and energy and faith,” as Athol Fugard wrote of Beckett. Or, to paraphrase Chaikin, one walks out of Waiting for Godot with a little more.