Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Waiting for Godot

This weekend, Simon and I went down to the Lower Ninth Ward to see a wholly unique staging of Samuel Beckett's play, "Waiting for Godot," and I'm trying now to process the experience, which was--in a word--cathartic. (I like how Susan Sontag puts it in her piece reflecting on her 1993 staging of the play in Sarajevo: "In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art."--Yes: what she said.)

I think I can recall reading the play (maybe in high school?). I recall its being boring, and wondering, Dear God, why we were being made to read such a thing!?
In it, nothing happens. Two men simply wait "for Godot." Who Godot is, or why they are waiting for him, you--and they--aren't exactly sure. You just know that you are waiting.
It's that wait that fuels the play's tension, and, like waiting, the tension you (and the characters) feel is fueled at times by promise, at times by fear, at times by frustration, exuberance, anger, dread.
You aren't even sure if what you're waiting for is, well, worth waiting for.
Still, waiting is what you do because waiting is, it seems, all there is to do.

That feeling of an interminable wait with only a very ambiguous promise at its end (if a promise, at all) is a lot like what it feels to live in New Orleans right now.

And so, when we went to see "Waiting for Godot" in a performance staged outdoors--at a street corner in an utterly devastated area of the Lower Ninth Ward--we felt as though the play were uniquely ours, in spite of its being written in France in the late 1940s.

I found the play so moving, in fact, that I cried my way through most of Vladimir's second-act soliloquy. As the fall evening breeze sent waves through the knee-high grasses that blanketed the scenery, as the ships blinked and groaned on the Industrial Canal that was the backdrop, as the sky overhead enveloped and mocked us, I cried and cried and cried. Frankly, it was a little embarrassing. But when the spirit moves you, right? You got to move.


Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!
(Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? (Estragon says nothing.) It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is
clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—

We are waiting, and yet we don't know what the wait will bring, or even if it will bring any

We'd heard that there was a big turnout for the play, so we arrived at 6:00, only to discover that the line was already two blocks long. No matter.

We waited.

For two hours.

Gumbo was served (and now my question is why, Dear GAWD, always the GUMBO?) Cans of Deeps Woods OFF were distributed to protect our delicate skin from the vast swarms of evening mosquitoes come in from Bayou Bienvenue. The Rebirth Brass Band played. I drank wine from a screwtop bottle in a plastic cup, and waited.

Finally, we were seated. In front of me, Isaiah something-or-other (Dr. Burke from Gray's anatomy). He had with him beautiful women, and the whole lot of them got up too many times to pee. Hollywood.

But in spite of the play's being of super-high quality (with Equity actors, a Classical Theatre of Harlem director, and Paul Chan--another high-tech New Yorker--at the helm), it felt as though it were meant for, and bred in our city. It was, quite literally, The Most Moving Theatre Experience I Have Ever Had. I mean, I felt as though I were witnessing something wholly unique--something really special. It felt like ART and HISTORY, all in caps. Oh, Dear God, it was moving...

(David Cuthbert of the Times Picayune wrote an excellent review of the play that gets it right.)

This coming weekend, the play will again be staged, this time in Gentilly. I'm not sure how it can possibly match the intensity fueled by the backdrop of the Lower Ninth Ward (the levee and its infamous breach lurking in the background, both literally and heavily in our memories), but I look froward to seeing the play again. If I knew people who had the kind of money that would allow them to hop on a plane to come down for the performance, I would say DO IT. But I don't.

So I will tell you about that staging, too.

I'm taking my students to see it on Friday. Lordy, I hope they get it. I hope they don't think, as I once did, Dear God, why this play? I hope they can see how Paul Chan and Creative Time has made this play just exactly ours.

I plan to share with them his artist's statement, which I hope, hope, hope they can appreciate (even if they don't entirely get the play). It's clear that New Orleans moved artist Paul Chan, and I am incredibly grateful to him for envisioning the project and bringing it to New Orleans.
Here's an excerpt of Paul Chan's artist statement:

"What surprised me about seeing the city for the first time was that, from seeing what was
right in front of me, I still couldn't put together a complete picture of New Orleans. I
expected comparative contrasts but not wholesale contradictions. Some neighborhoods,
like the one around Tulane, seemed virtually untouched by Katrina. But in the Lower
Ninth Ward and parts of Gentilly, the barren landscape brooded in silence. The streets
were empty. There was still debris in lots where houses once stood. I didn’t hear a single

"I have seen landscapes scarred by disasters of all sorts. In Baghdad, I saw kids playing
soccer barefoot on a wide boulevard and around the concrete rubble that came from US
troops shelling the buildings near the Tigris River. I thought I saw the same kids playing
in the ghost town known as downtown Detroit on a side street during an enormous labor
demonstration in 1999—with shoes but no shirts. Life wants to live, even if it’s on
broken concrete."

"New Orleans was different. The streets were still, as if time had been swept away along
with the houses. Friends said the city now looks like the backdrop for a bleak science
fiction movie. Waiting for a ride to pick me up after visiting with some Common Ground
volunteers who were gutting houses in the Lower Ninth, I realized it didn’t look like a
movie set, but the stage for a play I have seen many times. It was unmistakable. The
empty road. The bare tree leaning precariously to one side with just enough leaves to
make it respectable. The silence. What’s more, there was a terrible symmetry between the
reality of New Orleans post-Katrina and the essence of this play, which expresses in stark
eloquence the cruel and funny things people do while they wait: for help, for food, for
hope. It was uncanny. Standing there at the intersection of North Prieur and Reynes, I
suddenly found myself in the middle of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot."

“'If you want to do this, you got to spend the dime, and you got to spend the time,'
someone said to me. The idea of staging Godot in New Orleans, of using the natural
collaborative process of producing a play with the necessary give and take of working on
the streets in order to reimagine how art—as the form freedom takes without the use of
force—can become the opening to enter and engage the myriad dimensions of life lived
in the midst of ruin, without succumbing to the easy graces of reducing it to either
knowledge or illustration of that life, began to take shape in a way that became
unpredictable, which is to say, new. It is fashionable today (still?) to claim that there is
nothing new beyond our horizon of art, that everything worth doing has been done. But
this seems to me an altogether specious claim, for it ignores the vast undiscovered
country of things that ought to be undone. In these great times, the terror of action and
inaction shapes the burden of history. Perhaps the task of art today is to remake this
burden anew by suspending the seemingly inexorable order of things (which gives the
burden its weight) for the potential of a clearing to take place, so that we can see and feel
what is in fact worthless, and what is in truth worth renewing.

Waiting for Godot has been staged on Broadway (in 1956), at a prison (San Quentin), and
in the middle of a war (during the Siege of Sarajevo, directed by Susan Sontag). It is a
simple story, told in two acts, about two tramps (we have other names for them today)
waiting for someone named Godot, who never comes. In New Orleans in 2007, Godot is
legion and it is not difficult to recognize the city through the play. Here, the burden of the
new is to realize the play through the city.

Paul Chan
June 2007
New York City"

So, my friends, if you have money to get here to see it, DO!!!!

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