Nov 14, 2013

Putting the "God" in Godot

How much does it matter how you say “Godot”? With Beckett, no detail is too small. As I’ve noted in this space before, the excellent 2000 Matrix Theatre production starring David Dukes and Gregory Itzin (alternating in the role of Vladimir) is the one from which I learned that Beckett intended all the show’s names to be trochees: DI-di, GO-go, POT-zo, LUCK-y, and, at the crown, GOD-oh. Ever since, the comic whine of the line, “We’re waiting for Godot” has the right bounce for me only when it’s WAIT-ing for GOD-ot (that’s definitely the delivery that sticks with me from Bill Irwin’s great, exasperated turn in the fine 2009 Broadway production).

Still, this Marx Bros.-style pronunciation doesn’t sit well in many American ears, because for some reason we read the word as if it were analogous to “Bordeaux,” so we tend to say, “guh-DOH,” or really, the Homer Simpson-esque “g’DOH.” There’s enough confusion on this point that it regularly inspires Times features on the subject--this from the 2009 revival, in which director Anthony Page sets us straight, and now this, from Dave Itzkoff, about the current revival starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, likewise helmed by a Brit, Sean Mathias, who insists on the correct pronunciation. Itzkoff effectively throws up his hands and says everyone’s right, concluding that since we don’t have a recording of Beckett saying the name, all bets are off, and that perhaps the answer is the so-called “French way” advocated by Georges Borchardt, the agent who reps the Beckett estate, “with equal emphasis on both syllables” (more on that in a second). But in the same paper in 1988, Mel Gussow recounted that in conversation with the author, “he pronounces [it] with the accent on the first syllable.” And on YouTube, a Beckett-directed rendition from the San Quentin drama workshop is not ambiguous about the pronunciation (it’s right here at 8:54). 

On Twitter, Gregory Mosher had this response to Itzkoff’s piece:
Well, all right, so what about this “French way”? I’ve listened as best I can to the French production below (featuring, incidentally, Roman Polanski as Lucky), and I’ll admit that it sounds a bit like they’re accenting both syllables. But there’s no question that they’re hitting the first, not eliding it, and most importantly, they’re definitely not shying from the open “o,” the “aw” vowel sound, of the first syllable, which in English sounds uncomfortably close to “god.” At bottom, this discomfort might explain our aversion to this pronunciation--what John Lahr tells Itzkoff is too obvious a reference to the Almighty. It’s a devilish linguistic puzzle, really, that runs to the heart of the play’s conception; Beckett wrote it in French, in which language the deity is of course “dieu,” but he attached the masculine diminutive “ot” (a la “Franchot,” which, come to think of it, is pronounced FRAN-show) not to “dieu” but to “god.” So there is understandably an issue when the play is done in English, in which “god” is an actual word, and a non-trivial one. A little indirection might seem appropriate, no?

Still, whether you stress the first syllable or stress both, it seems clear--as noted from the Beckett-directed video above--that the playwright wanted the sound of “god” to be heard in the word, both in French and in English (yes, even despite the huge difference in meaning!), and that to say “guh-DOH,” to make the vowel sound an “uh” rather than an “ah,” is wrong.

A tempest in a tea-po, you say? Not really. As Greg Itzin told my Backstage colleague, Scott Proudfit, at the time, “Beckett was also a poet, and the starting point with all good literature is the words. The rhythm tells you something; the rhythm delivers something to the audience and to you." Lest that sound high-faluting, perhaps the best case for the trochee is illustrated by this excerpt, from the English script, in which the riffs on Pozzo’s name, and its confusion with Godot, make more comic sense if all the names have the same accents:

POZZO: Be careful! He's wicked. (Vladimir and Estragon turn towards Pozzo.) With strangers.

ESTRAGON: (undertone). Is that him?


ESTRAGON: (trying to remember the name). Er . . .



POZZO: I present myself: Pozzo.

VLADIMIR: (to Estragon). Not at all!

ESTRAGON: He said Godot.

VLADIMIR: Not at all!

ESTRAGON: (timidly, to Pozzo). You're not Mr. Godot, Sir?

POZZO: (terrifying voice). I am Pozzo! (Silence.) Pozzo! (Silence.) Does that name mean nothing to you? (Silence.) I say does that name mean nothing to you?

Vladimir and Estragon look at each other questioningly.

ESTRAGON: (pretending to search). Bozzo . . . Bozzo...

VLADIMIR: (ditto). Pozzo...Pozzo…


ESTRAGON: Ah! Pozzo...let me see...Pozzo...

VLADIMIR: Is it Pozzo or Bozzo?

ESTRAGON:'m afraid don't seem to…Pozzo advances threateningly.

VLADIMIR: (conciliating). I once knew a family called Gozzo. The mother had the clap.

This exchange is worth hearing in the original French, below (starts at around 17:35):
Update: Some comments from a Facebook posting of the above:

David Barbour Although, in the biography I'm reading, Beckett is quoted as saying the opposite, because he was afraid that the stress on the first syllable would make people think he was referring to God. I have a feeling he changed his mind on this more than once.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Interesting. (What bio is that?) Yeah, the meaning is obviously hugely different between French and English, so the equivocation is understandable. But it's not as if he didn't have a chance to correct it in the productions he actually directed, which all said GOD-oh, as far as I can find. I was most interested to discover, though, that our imagined perception that "g-DOH" sounds somehow "more French" is obviously wrong, because even the French say it "GOD-oh" (or, if you insist, GOD-OH, which really doesn't make any rhythmic sense).
David Barbour It's Damned to Fame, by James Knowlson, which is the authorized bio. I think he says that Beckett pronounced it equal stress on the syllables. In the book, Beckett emerges as both exacting and rather passive-aggressive. For example, he always insisted that All That Fall shouldn't be staged in a theatre. Then he would go ahead an authorize productions. Then he announced that they didn't work. He did the same thing with a BBC broadcast of Godot.....

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