Readers of this blog know of my boundless admiration for the artistry of both Ian McKellen (born 1939) and Patrick Stewart (born 1940), two of the finest actors of their generation. So, it was with some qualms that I learned that these two great knights of the theater were coming to Broadway in a double act, but not in, say Othello or Becket … or even in The Sunshine Boys or The Odd Couple … but in two modernist plays, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
We found No Man’s Land to be intriguing, despite our deep and abiding trouble with this maddeningly oblique and mannered play. So how do McKellen and Stewart fare with what is consider the classic absurdist comedy?
In Waiting for Godot, two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot. Aside from the fact that both men have seen better days, we know nothing of them. Indeed, we know nothing of Godot, or of where the two men are, and why they are waiting. Or even what Godot means to them. In fact, it almost seems as if Pinter provided a wealth of information in No Man’s Land provided compared to what we are told by Beckett in Godot.
This, of course, has led to endless interpretations of what the play “means” since its first premiere in Paris in 1953. Is it mediation on religion? On politics? Is it Freudian? Jungian? Christian? Existential? Ethical? Are they gay men, or is this a comment on deeply homo-social friendships? Or is it simply surrealism run amuck?
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) was not going to be any help in pointing out the meaning. He famously told Sir Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters. He remained remarkably closed-mouthed about what it all meant until the very end. Indeed, in his introduction to the play, Beckett writes: I don't know who Godot is. I don't even know (above all don't know) if he exists. And I don't know if they believe in him or not – those two who are waiting for him. The other two who pass by towards the end of each of the two acts, that must be to break up the monotony. All I knew I showed. It's not much, but it's enough for me, by a wide margin. I'll even say that I would have been satisfied with less. As for wanting to find in all that a broader, loftier meaning to carry away from the performance, along with the program and the Eskimo pie, I cannot see the point of it. But it must be possible ... Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, their time and their space, I was able to know them a little, but far from the need to understand. Maybe they owe you explanations. Let them supply it. Without me. They and I are through with each other
We here at The Jade Sphinx protest that I cannot see the point of it is not exactly an artistic credo of any great worth. Indeed, it abdicates the artist’s foremost responsibility – to represent life and give it meaning. But, if we want to see two great actors in a once-in-a-lifetime chance, we take it as it comes, to quote Pinter.
One other constant in most productions is that both Vladimir and Estragon wear bowler hats, and I cannot help but thinking while watching Stewart and McKellen last night that I was watching some weird synthesis of Laurel and Hardy and the worst excesses of Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953). There is an underlying sweetness and innocence in both Vladimir and Estragon that is extremely reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, and if ‘the boys’ were somehow cast in Strange Interlude, the result would be Godot. It is also a sweetness that is sadly lacking in the mostly mean and rather vicious No Man’s Land. Both McKellen and Stewart have a remarkable warmth about them that infuses Godot with a humanism that is absent in the text. I wish they had a better vehicle to show their innermost hearts. The tenderness they shower on one another, the simple acts of affection, the acceptance of human frailties: these, more than anything else in the play, leave a profound impression.
As with No Man’s Land, McKellen somehow scores the showier part, here playing Estragon. (Bert Lahr in the original Broadway production – and if the contrast between McKellen and Lahr does not illustrate how malleable these characters are, nothing does.) McKellen is a marvel: he is completely submerged in the character and layers of old man makeup. His performance is wonderfully physical, and his mutterings and asides are great comic business. It is also a fearlessly naked performance: McKellen is unafraid of being frail, dirty and vague. It is a masterful bit of underplaying.
Stewart, as Vladimir, has the lion’s share of the dialog and he is wonderful. He manages to achieve a lilt to his usual stentorian voice – and if I’m not mistaken, he consciously or subconsciously is modeling much of his performance on Stan Laurel (1890-1965). This makes a great deal of sense, and seldom has Stewart played to sweeter effect. It is Vladimir who is moved throughout the play by compassion, empathy or outrage; he is also ribaldly funny. I never expected to see Stewart sing or dance – both of which he does here – nor have I ever expected to see him master low comedy slapstick. It seems this protean actor’s range is limitless, his energy galvanic and his touch both deft and profound.
The sour note of the evening was Shuler Hensley (born 1967) as the barbarous Pozzo. Hensley’s playing was broad enough to embarrass a church-basement performance of the play. Fortunately, Billy Crudup (born 1965) as the ironically named Lucky, shines once again. Both Pozzo and Lucky were components Beckett threw in to provide some kind of action in the play; however, the action is so brutal and callus as to throw off the emotional tenor of the play … whatever that is.
I think a more interesting approach to both plays would have been for these two great actors to switch roles on alternate performances. How wonderful it would’ve been to see each man’s interpretation of each role – and where they differed. Gielgud and Oliver did it in the 1930s, switching Mercutio and Romeo, so it’s not impossible – perhaps someday.
For readers able to see only one of the plays, certainly Godot is the one to catch. It has the greater warmth, is more open to interpretation, and both actors are more evenly matched. More importantly, they actually play off one another, whereas in No Man’s Land, they might as well have been in separate rooms (or plays).
Godot also left me strangely … moved. As a play, I cannot respect it, nor can I defend it. I certainly can’t explain it. But these two sad ragamuffins caring for one another in an indifferent universe cannot help but deliver a level of pathos.
Returning again to Laurel and Hardy, a critic once wrote that the world wasn’t their oyster, but that they were the pearl inside of it. So, too, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot.