July 14, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today

I had the wildest experience earlier this week driving the four hours between New York City and Boston. Thinking it would be entertaining to listen to something on the road, I mulled my choices. Most people I know enjoy books on tape, but I don't. I've only been able to get through one book read out loud, and that was Martin Short performing his autobiography, I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend, which was absolutely hilarious. I don't have the concentration necessary to sustain interest in someone reading, over the course of many hours, a novel or a work of biography to me (especially if it's one they didn't write themselves). Which is why I decided I'd listen to a play instead.

A play is a much different audio experience. Actors at microphones in a one-time-only performance, complete with sound effects, saves from the monotony of one voice. It isn't done much anymore, but back in the 1950s and 60s, dozens of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows were recorded for posterity. And if by that time, in some cases, the original casts were long gone, then new and interesting ones were brought together that made for some beautiful renditions of American classics by Williams, Miller and O'Neill like The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman and The Emperor Jones. I listened to a lot of these as a teenager by taking them out of my local library. Now I can find them on Ebay for a song.

It's also possible to locate a number of titles via Spotify, the music service I subscribe to, which is how I picked what I was going to listen to on my trip. The title I chose, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, was perhaps an odd one to listen to while driving, but it wound up being close to a perfect experience. The recording, specially done in a studio and not on a stage, stars the original Broadway actors who played for the mere 60 performances in 1956. I say "mere" because the play, as well as that production, have gone into the history books of world theatre.

Godot is a play that I've only seen once on stage in my nearly fifty years of theatregoing, and it wasn't the 2013 Broadway production which starred Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Nor was it the one with Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin in 2009, or the one with Steve Martin and Robin Williams in 1988 (it's making me ill as I type this that I missed all of them). At least the one I did see was superb. It was done in 2012 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles with the Irish actor Barry McGovern and Alan Mandell, an American with a long association to the playwright, not only as performer, but as a personal friend. 

Godot is a play I've read over and over, each time searching for new and deeper meanings in Beckett's ramblings by its leading players: two tramps dependent on each other for their very existence, down to sharing their last radish or turnip (though Estragon far prefers carrots). Waiting for someone named Godot, who they have little hope of ever seeing, they briefly encounter an evil scoundrel Pozzo and his slave Lucky, neither of whom do anything to raise their spirits or inform their purpose. Hearing this original cast exactly as it must have sounded over sixty years ago was revelatory. I can't believe it took me my entire adult life to catch up with this recording and I only wish I had the time, the energy and the brain power to even partially dissect where this play's genius lies. What I can discuss are the actors and what they brought to their roles, especially in the case of the extraordinary Bert Lahr, who created the part of Estragon.

Known primarily as a comedic actor, and beloved now and forever  as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, Lahr exhibited previously unexplored depths as an actor in Godot. He claims to have never fully understood the play, and I'm sure he was telling the truth. But If he didn't understand entirely what it was about, he perfectly understood its rhythms and its poetry in a way that transcends the already brilliant writing. I found myself gasping out loud at some of Lahr's line readings and at the almost unbearable pathos he brought to the role. 

Bert Lahr as Estragon in 1956's "Waiting for Godot" (photo by Richard Avedon).

Vladimir, the Yin to Estragon's Yang, is played by E.G. Marshall, mostly remembered as a fine dramatic actor with an impressive list of stage, film and television credits. It took me by surprise how well Marshall knew where all the jokes were, as comedy was never his forte. But he more than holds his own with Lahr, and the two of them are in perfect balance with one another. Also impressive is Kurt Kasznar as the booming (then busted) Pozzo and Alvin Epstein as Lucky, certainly the play's most difficult and elusive character. I was blown away by the musicality in Epstein's voice and in the vocal pyrotechnics he displays without giving into being showy. It's a phenomenal performance and, since here it is only being heard, it leaves so much to the imagination. There is a 1961 television version with Vladimir and Estragon played by Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel (two longtime friends of one another) that is available on DVD. I have never seen it, but I'm certainly going to do so now, especially as Kasznar and Epstein repeat their roles, and I am now curious in the extreme to see their performances.

The play is filled with existential angst and it's no wonder that it has survived and even improved over the years, considering the current state of the world. It is so bleak, and yet so comical, and isn't that (at times) the best description of where things stand today politically, ethically and morally? For an added touch of weirdness while listening to the play as I drove, I was sometimes interrupted by the disembodied female voice of my Google Maps application on my iPhone. "Trish," as I like to call her, kept cutting into the broadcast every so often imploring me to "bear right at the fork" or to "exit to the left." It felt like she was commenting on the action, or attempting to take things in a different direction altogether.

I liked that a lot

If you are interested in listening to this Godot for yourself, it's not only on Spotify, but available for immediate download on Amazon as well, where it can be purchased for $3.56. Seriously. Each of its four acts can be bought for 89 cents a piece. This could be the bargain of the century. As they used to say in advertising on late night TV (and perhaps still do): "Act now!"

If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org

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Ron Fassler

Ron Fassler is a theatre historian, drama critic and author of "Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway."