What to say about my weekend with my daughter Dee in New York City? It was packed with so many good things that it’s hard to narrow it down for a blog post. First and foremost, we both agreed that the time we spent together was too short, and we both wished we could have had a few more days. Now, there is nothing that warms a mother’s heart more than hearing her adult child say, “Mom, I wish you could stay longer.”
Second was the play Waiting for Godot with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. It was an absolute thrill seeing these two fine actors on stage together. They brought spark and energy to what, for all its popularity, is a difficult play. There is no straight narrative, where the characters move from one point to another. Instead, there is symbolism, dread, futility, and loneliness as the the two tramps, Estragon (McKellen) and Vladimir (Stewart) stay exactly where they are, waiting for someone who is never going to come. One has lost his memory, the other has prostate problems, and so it goes. To liven things up, there is the brutal master Pozzo (Shuler Hensley) and his downtrodden slave, ironically named Lucky (Billy Crudup).
Somehow, though, Samuel Becket was able to endow Estragon and Vladimir with enough warmth, sympathy, and earthiness to balance the symbolism and the absurdest elements of the play. In addition, Waiting for Godot also addresses poverty, old age, and decay.
Waiting for Godot is a masterpiece, and the existential dread it depicts is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s when Becket wrote the play. For many, many people, God is no longer the center of existence. Instead, it is puny little mankind and our puny little selves, neither of which gives much larger meaning to life. To compound this, at least in wealthy nations, most of us have reached a level of comfort where we don’t have to spend every minute of our lives providing food, clothing, and shelter for ourselves. For the most part, we don’t have to worry about our children dying before their fifth birthdays. On the face of it, these things seem like a blessing, and in many ways they are. But how do people make meaningful lives now that survival, like God, is no longer the main point? (Again, I want to stress this the case for those of us who live in wealthy countries.) How do we avoid living in perpetual dread of the nothingness? Sixty years after Becket wrote Waiting for Godot, we are still grappling with these questions, and I hope to return to those questions in a future post.
I expected both Mckellen and Stewart to be very good, and I was not surprised by McKellen’s natural, shambling Estragon or Stewart’s ringing, intelligent Vladimir. What did surprise me was how Billy Crudup, as a drooling, haggard Lucky, and Shuler Hensley, as the cruel, commanding Pozzo, were as impressive as McKellen and Stewart. It can’t be easy to be on stage with two such famous actors, but when Crudup and Hensley played their parts, all attention was focused on them. Dee quite rightly noted that this was also a sign of what good actors McKellen and Stewart are. They know how to stay in the background when it comes time for them to do so.
For this post, I had planned to write a paragraph or two about Godot and then write about what else we did in New York, but Becket and his play took over. Tomorrow, I’ll write more about what we ate and what else we saw.