May 11, 2009

Juggling Hats

Which critic do we most want to read on Godot? The son of Estragon's American originator, natch. Lahr fils:
I remember running the lines with my father. (I was fourteen then and often dragooned into this tense task.) I also recall the curious contradiction between his colossal insecurity about the meaning of the words that he struggled to learn and his adamant conviction of the emotional truth of the comedy contained in those perplexing words. If Dad was mystified by the play’s idiom, he understood all too well its psychological terrain: waiting, anguish, bewilderment. In Florida, he was at war with the audience, with Tom Ewell, who played Vladimir, and, most of all, with the director, Alan Schneider, whose name was forever banned from our dinner-table conversation. I also remember the thrill of the re-staged Broadway production later that year (directed by Herbert Berghoff, with E. G. Marshall as Vladimir, Kurt Kasznar as Pozzo, and Alvin Epstein as Lucky), and Dad’s profound satisfaction at his succès d’estime in New York. That fabled Broadway début, which lasted only ten weeks, was the highlight of my father’s half century on the American stage.

Ten years later, when I was teaching “Waiting for Godot” at Hunter College night school, I smuggled Dad into class and asked him to give us his interpretation of Estragon. A quizzical, almost irritated look came over his face, his eyes darted around the room, his nostrils flared. “Belly,” he said finally, touching his stomach.

For the record, Lahr likes Anthony Page's production, though he gives Nathan Lane's Estragon a few judicious knocks. No one could accuse Lahr of objectivity in this case, but his elegant review--which, among other things, makes the link and debts owed between Beckett and vaudeville-trained comics as plain as the nose on the Great Schnozzle's face--is a case study in the value of a carefully cultivated and circumspect critical subjectivity, the sort of thing Lahr memorably stumped for here. If he sounded defensive then, he need not have been. This review proves that his experience was not wasted on him, nor did it spoil him for the criticism of the art, and the artists, that formed him.

1 comment:

RLewis said...

Thanks for bringing this one up. Last night, I had my X read me the entire Lahr piece while I put away costumes and props from a recent show. His writing had us enjoying the play even more than when we saw it.

It reminded me that there is a difference between reviews and criticism. Lahr writes some terrific theatre criticism here. It's something that I think a theaterlover would enjoy reading even if they never saw the play.