The Site Specific Stagings of Waiting for Godot

“A Country Road. A Tree. Evening.” And, of course, waiting – the most powerful force in the conceptual realization of scenic designs for Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot of 1949. These three seemingly simple directions are forever tempered by a massive sense of inconclusiveness, and whether designers aim for the philosophically abstract or the poignantly desolate, the outcome is the same – emptiness and waiting. It is this very force, the implied stage direction, that allows Beckett’s non-specific instructions to take form in site specific interpretation.

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In 1970, Josef Svoboda took Beckett’s instructions to an extreme – that is, filling in the details of the outer limits of the space, the walls themselves, which the playwright leaves out of his description. The auditorium is incorporated into the design, with extensions mimicking the walls of the theatre, placed on a slant, so that the boxed seats continue into the actors’ space.1 The theatre itself is the setting, so that it becomes impossible to separate this staging from the viewer’s perception of theatrical space and the implied action of “watching.” The dark, empty boxes give one the impression of some unseen viewer. Moreover, it is a self-reflective approach, in which the very acknowledgment of the actual setting seems to heighten the absurdity of the performance, characterized by an actual reflection. A giant mirror functions as a back wall. It is the most truthful element of the design, as it not only brings attention to the very real human observers, but also accentuates the artificiality of scenic design. The tree is reflected as a mere prop, with its framework and struts clearly on view.

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This duality perhaps highlights the double nature of the play itself, both absurdly nonsensical and intellectually relevant. The actors too, become part of the design, as the audience is almost watching two performances at once. This doubling is relevant to the text, as the characters are presented in pairs: Vladimir and Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky, and finally the boy, who appears as separate characters in Act I and Act II. The only character that does not have a partner is Godot, and he is entirely absent.

This production, though unique to the theatrical setting, fits within the greater context of Svoboda’s work – he employed similar design elements in Today the Sun Still Sets on Atlantida in 1956, extending the proscenium arch in order to make the stage appear doubled.2 His work also fits into the larger context of theatre history, while simultaneously departing from tradition. Like Wagner, he attempts to create a total work of art, yet includes the audience in the collaborative effort by incorporating their reflected images into the scenery. Like Craig, he rejects the impulse to recreate observable reality, but he does not believe in removing the actor from the equation. Rather, the actor serves as a foil to an otherwise ethereal environment.

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Later productions of Waiting for Godot also emphasized the sites in which they took place. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was demolished – Samuel Becket died only a month after in December. That same year, director Frank Brendt opened a production of Godot in Dusseldorf, where he set the action in front of a graffitied wall surrounding a paved court. In contrast to the “emphatic artifice”3 of Svoboda’s set, Brendt used an actual tree, cut at its base and fastened tightly to the tiled ground, which stuck out as though in spite of a seemingly impenetrable surface. Lighting was provided by the lampposts already in place prior to the staging, and the overhead beam cast deep shadows of branches onto the pavement. The addition of a car tire acted to emphasize the abject lack of civilization in Waiting for Godot, and perhaps served as a commentary on both East and West Germany’s financial dependence on their automobile industries.

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The reference to the Berlin Wall would not have been lost on any viewer at this point in European history. The large civic wall must have had the intended effect of invoking the rising political and cultural tensions in the months leading to the reunification of East and West Berlin. Unlike the ethereal interpretation of Svoboda, the very substantial restriction of movement implicit in the looming wall is further emphasized by the very last moment of the play, when Vladimir and Estragon agree to finally leave, only to stay exactly where they are.4 To be bound by one’s surroundings, both physically and psychologically – progress literally blocked by walls – could only be fully appreciated by those living in the presence of these very real barriers.

Alfred Jarry and Robert Edmond Jones serve as some of the inspirational forces of this production. Jarry’s insistence upon an outdoor, accessible theatre is the precursor to the site specific, pared down, and anti-illusionistic space created by Brendt. At the same time, Jones’ immovable fixtures, such as the Tower of London found in his production of Richard III, are echoed in the permanent, imposing structure of the wall. It too, would have become a character onto itself by the end of the play.

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By contrast, a general lack of imposing structures characterized the intersection of North Roman and Forstall Streets in New Orleans, where Paul Chan set his production of Godot in 2007, following in the theatrical tradition of site specific performances like that at San Quentin Prison and Susan Sontag’s staging at Sarajevo.5 Though the names of the roads are surely coincidental, they act as an unintended metaphor for the conditions surrounding the destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – Roman invoking toppled empires, and Forstall seeming like a play on the verb “forestall,” implying unrealized preventative measures. This connection would go unnoticed if it were not for the greater implied contexts of the Ninth Ward and New Orleans. These implied contexts were at the heart of the collaborative efforts surrounding this production, which not only resulted in a staging, but also in community education initiatives, fundraising, and public programs.6 Promotion for the show also took on a performative treatment, with numerous signs placed carefully throughout the city that read only “A Country Road. A Tree. Evening.”7

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In a way, Chan’s production is the most honest of the three, using found materials and an environment that follows Beckett’s directions exactly. Of the three scenic elements, the country road is the most frequently ignored in stagings of Godot. Yet here, the country road becomes the most important feature, perhaps more so than the infamous tree. As the actors appear and disappear down this pathway into complete darkness, one is given the impression of a sort of eternal space, to which neither the audience, nor the characters, can anticipate an end. Moreover, those familiar with the site before Katrina would remember that this very intersection typically maintained a steady flow of traffic.8 After the destruction, many of the survivors moved out of the area, with scant numbers remaining. The production emphasizes this stark contrast between the vibrant past, the desolate present, and the uncertain future exemplified by Forstall and North Roman.

In contrast to the Svoboda and Brendt productions, and to the stage directions themselves, the actors at the close of the Lower Ninth Ward production move on after they agree to leave. However, it is in the direction of the destroyed levee that they wander9 – a metaphoric lack of movement rather than a physical one.

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Robert Green, a native of the Lower Ninth Ward who was living in a FEMA trailer when Chan began his work there, felt a particular resonance with Beckett’s play: “Everybody knows about waiting – whether you’re waiting for FEMA to call you…whether you’re waiting for [the] Red Cross to give you an appointment that’s three months down the line – everybody knows about waiting.”10 To the communities devastated after Hurricane Katrina, the site of Chan’s staging was not an abstract rendering, but rather an honest, still entirely absurd reality. As Didi and Gogo wait for the next day to arrive, so too does the Ninth Ward await a better tomorrow.

Each of these three productions, though entirely different in setting, intended audience, and actualized goals, puts a premium on place – the place established by Beckett, and the place established by context, emphasized through the act of waiting. As future stagings look to meet the challenges of limited scenographic direction, it is important to remember that this work provides audiences with an opportunity to consider cultural environment, and that the reception of Waiting for Godot in some sense depends on our ability to recognize Beckett’s work in terms of its accessibility, ingenuity, and power to enable provocative visions of thought, society, and the human condition. It is “A Country Road. A Tree. Evening” and everything else.


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Images (in order of appearance):

1 and 2) Josef Svoboda's set for Waiting for Godot (Salzburg, August 1970).
3 and 4) Director Frank Brendt's set for Waiting for Godot (Dusseldorf, 1989).
5) Paul Chan, sign promoting staging of Waiting for Godot (New Orleans, 2007)
6) Paul Chan, flyer promoting staging of Waiting for Godot (New Orleans, 2007)
7) Paul Chan's set for Waiting for Godot (Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2007)

Bibliography

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts. New York: Grove, 1982.
Bradby, David. Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2001.
Brown, Ethan. "The Lower Ninth Ward Meets Samuel Beckett." Thegaurdian.co.uk. 12 Nov. 2007.
Burian, Jarka. The Scenography of Josef Svoboda. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1971.
Chan, Paul. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: a Field Guide. New York: Creative Time, 2010.
Cotter, Holland. "A Broken City. A Tree. Evening. The Vast Nothingness Evoked by 'Waiting for Godot' Plays a Large Part in a Project by the Artist and Activist Paul Chan." New York Times 2 Dec. 2007: A1-A2.
Paul Chan's Waiting for Godot in New Orleans: A Play in Two Acts, a Project in Three Parts. Dir. Matt Wolf. Creativetime, 2007.
Svoboda, Josef, and Jarka Burian. The Secret of Theatrical Space. New York: Applause Theatre, 1993.