Interview with director Jasson Minadakis on WAITING FOR GODOT
Irish playwright Samuel Barclay Beckett was born outside of Dublin in April 1906 into a prosperous Protestant family. A strong athlete and student of literature and languages, he studied at Trinity College and became a lover of the films of Keaton and Chaplin before taking a post teaching English in a school in France. There, he fell in with a lively expat crowd that included fellow Irishman James Joyce, who would become a great influence on his work. He returned to Ireland briefly in the early 1930s, but, after the death of his father, he decided to make Paris and its thriving art and literary scene his home. He remained in Paris through the Occupation, working as a translator for a Resistance cell, and was forced to flee Paris in 1942 with his lover (and eventual wife) Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. He remained in the countryside of France working on a farm and on a novel until the war ended and he was able to return to Paris in 1945.
Upon his return to Paris, Beckett embarked on one of the most prolific periods of his life, deciding to write only in French to, as he put it, “cut away the excess, to strip away the color.” He completed a trilogy of novels and several short stories, many of which he translated to English himself. At that point, his enthusiasm for prose had been exhausted despite growing attention in literary and academic circles and he turned to theater. In January 1949, in less than four months, Beckett had written a play titled En attendant Godot.
Godot was first produced at Théâtre de Babylone in Paris in 1953 to decidedly mixed reviews and controversy. Many theatergoers felt the play was a hoax as they waited for the plot to appear. Disagreements on the meaning of the play led to fistfights. Critics alternately argued it was the worst play they had ever seen and the most important play of a generation. Beckett translated the play into German and English and Godot found its way around the world and into the greater cultural dialogue of the time.
Since its first production 60 years ago this January, few plays have inspired such passionate response as Godot. It is studied by scholars and students and is wonderfully devoid of definitive answers. It is a play that relies on the experience and interpretation of the individual to complete the story and succeeds when the questions inspired by the play spark conversation. In an interview just before rehearsals began, MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis engaged with dramaturg Margot Melcon in the beginnings of a conversation that we hope will continue after each performance.
Waiting for Godot is different than most drama in that you’re not allowed many of the trappings of traditional storytelling. Who are these guys, where did they come from, and what happens to them?
When people say, ‘Oh my God, nothing happens!’ Yes, that’s right. And in that, it’s just like your day. For each of us, the day-to-day ritual is almost identical and it’s the little variances that delight you over the course of the day. That’s what happens in Godot. We see the same thing—the same outline of things—happen twice. But you’re not seeing the same thing over and over again; you’re seeing the same pattern but the details are different and what’s delightful is seeing those details and recognizing that those details are never going to happen again the same way twice.
As a director, how do you find a way through that kind of storytelling?
Our day is made up of little stories and each one has a beginning, middle and end. Both acts of Godot are made up of 20-25 little stories that have beginnings, middles and ends, and you have to negotiate each one as a story, and know that they build on each other. So as a director, the acting style needs to help the audience see the repetition of beginning-middle-end, beginning-middle-end. They’re making up patterns to pass the time. It’s all about passing the time, and the marker of that time is Godot. Is he coming or is he not? Whether you think they’re waiting for this guy who’s going to give them a job or they’re waiting for their savior, it doesn’t matter. They’re waiting for someone who’s going to change their situation. Like we all are, for something.
And that’s what our days are made up of: what’s right in front of us. And yet, in the play, there is what’s immediately in front of them and there is this specter of Godot.
Yes. And you think none of the little things matter, ultimately, because of that one big thing. But that big thing never happens, so what you’re left with are all the individual little moments and are they enough? Or are they not? I hope the audience sees that they’re enough. These two guys can’t see it because they’re trapped in it. But I hope that everyone who is sitting outside of it walks out saying: 'It’s not that he didn’t show up, it’s that the two of them made it through together.' It would have been a tragedy that he didn’t come if they didn’t make it, if one of them abandoned the other, if one of them chased his partner away.
If someone were to ask you who or what is Godot, what would you say?
I try not to figure out who Godot is, other than what the characters say. Each one of them says something different: the guy Vladimir describes doesn’t sound like the guy the boy describes. They’ve both met him. Neither one of them can describe him very well, but they each describe him differently because they’re seeing him from a different perspective and for different reasons.
Who he is outside of that? If you try to bring something to the actors other than what the characters say, you begin to cloud the issue. If you try to play a symbol, it will be a disaster because you’re playing at something that needs to be brought from the observer, not something that you can force outward.
Beckett famously said when someone asked him if Godot was meant to represent God, “If by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God and not Godot.”
I think he intended Godot to be anything we think is going to fix our circumstances – something or someone outside of ourselves, whether that’s a car or a house or a job or a God. During the Second World War, Beckett was living in Paris and was part of the French Resistance. I think as he was looking at what was happening, he was thinking how Europe waited for somebody to stand up to Hitler, to stand up to Germany, and say 'no.' Waited for the Americans to stand up, the British to stand up. I think Beckett was looking around and saying, in a weird way, we’ve made gods out of all sorts of things we think will come in and make some kind of huge change. Because the idea of God is a being that can fix it or change things. I think he was horribly worried that people were missing their life and missing what it was to be alive by waiting for something.
When you see the subtitle “a tragi-comedy,” what does that mean to you?
All comedy has to have tragedy built in to work, so I think it’s kind of perfect. The play doesn’t end in tragedy. It ends in comedy. They stay together. The boy will come again tomorrow. Or Godot will come tomorrow. Someone’s going to visit them to let them know the day is over. And they make it through together. Another day has ended.
What I think is so interesting is that the play is called Waiting for Godot. It’s not called Finding Godot. In that structure, they are successful every single day; they waited for Godot.
A straight translation of En attendant Godot would be “While Waiting for Godot,” which is really accurate. It’s really about what happens while they wait.
What is most interesting to you about Godot and about Beckett’s work?
I think the thing that always strikes me about Godot is the ultimate question of the play is, for me, what is our life? What are we waiting for? Why are we here? The play keeps coming back to: it’s the people we choose to be with. I think it’s an unbelievably uplifting piece.
Beckett was in Paris right up until the Germans arrived; he stayed until the very last minute. It was such a bleak time period and so many people look at Godot as being bleak, but it’s about the way these two men complete each other. The things we take for granted on a daily basis, our friends and our family, are what really make the time worth living. Not the thing we keep waiting for or the thing we keep looking for. The people we spend time with ultimately define the span of our life. That’s what the play is for me.
So for people who are struggling to intellectually understand the play, what’s your advice on how to watch the play in order to get the most out of it?
There is nothing to figure out. They will tell you exactly who Godot is. He’s not a symbol. He is someone very specific to each one of them. The same way we’re all living for something specific. There is no mystery to it. It is very hard to live our life for the moment. We are almost always living for that goal we set for ourselves that keeps driving us forward. There’s that thing in us that makes us strive and Godot is that thing. It’s not any one thing. It’s something different for whoever it is looking forward. I think too many people try to feel like what Vladimir describes as what he’s waiting for, is what you’re waiting for. It’s not the same thing. He’s waiting for Godot. Each one of us is waiting for something and it may as well be called Godot.