A night watch of clowns, tramps and fools presides over rehearsals of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Peering out from the collage of Keatons, Chaplins, and others hung along an expanse of black curtain is the playwright himself.
Senior theater and English major Tommy Kriegsmann '97, directing the play for his senior honors project, needs this fictive gallery for more than inspiration: it approximates the final, crucial element in the theatrical landscape he is striving to construct.
Beckett's masterpiece has confounded and intrigued audiences, actors, and academics since its first staging in 1953. While Kriegsmann and his honors advisor, Professor of Theater Roger Copeland, unequivocally agree that Godot's meaning is not at all indeterminate, Kriegsmann acknowledges that, for him, the play's meaning will not be fully realized until it is performed before an audience.
For Copeland, who has seen nearly 40 productions of the play, few Godot mysteries remain. One challenge he faces as a mentor is striking a balance between leaving his pupil to fend for himself and overpowering his pupil's vision with his own experience.
"One of the options that the mentoring process provides," he continues, is "the right to fail, to make your own mistakes. . . . It really is, in a way, like that great Beckett quote: 'To be an artist is to fail.'"
How can Copeland, who concedes that the play's "multiple significances" make it "easy to get led down the interpretive garden path," advise one for whom the journey must be the destination? He can identify "certain donnČes" that are ineluctable, he says. "There are physical facts about this play that you tamper with at your peril; there is a country road, a tree. It is evening."
In other words, there is landscape. And that landscape, stark as it is, comprises the characters' essential reality. Vladimir, Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky are held hostage to an existence that is largely theatrical.
Kriegsmann says he prepared for his directorial task by studying "the thousands upon thousands of volumes of what Beckett called 'academic madness,' only to find on day one of rehearsal that they had no place there."
With one exception: Gertrude Stein. Her "notion of landscape" says Kriegsmann, helped him see how the "presence and the composition of a piece, its placement in the audience's imagination-which is to say form and time-creates an event."
Form and time, form and content, are the abstractions that drive Kriegsmann. He chose Godot precisely because in it "form and content are inseparable, giving birth to each other constantly."
After the final, beautifully wrought performance, did Kriegsmann find the meaning he was waiting for? What did he learn that he didn't get from "academic madness" or weeks of rehearsal?
What he had hoped for happened: the audience became part of the landscape. "Everything-the musicality, the timing, the characters-achieved the unification that Beckett speaks of," he said. "The play became a pathway to unification between landscape and audience." He recalled "the single moment" when the "audience knew where they were and what they were seeing"-a country road, a tree, evening. The evening's drama collapsed into a Zen-like awareness of entrapment, and the audience, like the characters, was caught in Beckett's reality.
Then, as if in ironic reference to Pozzo's line in act 2: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more," Kriegsmann gave his stage crew the all-clear: "Strike the set," he said, snapping his fingers. "It never happened."
-by Marci Janas '91