When actor Wayne Salomon is not donning a bowler hat and tramp's clothes -- the signature costume of Samuel Beckett's tragic clowns in Waiting for Godot, which opens this week at the St. Louis Black Repertory Company -- he's a teacher at John Burroughs School. "I teach the play," he says during a pre-rehearsal discussion with director Joneal Joplin and co-star Ron Himes. "It's amazing to find that 17-year-olds get it. One of the things I do at the very beginning of the process is, I come in and say, 'I have to go to the business office. I'll be back in 15-20 minutes.' I've already told one of my students to sit at my desk and pretend to be taking notes from a textbook. She or he writes down everything that happens in the room while I'm gone. I come back and I get the piece of paper, and I begin to read to them what they're doing. They see immediately that they're exactly like these guys. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to this conversation about your mother's travel plans and what you're going to have for lunch and who your date is on Friday night and who won the football game and are you going to the hockey game and where is Mr. Salomon and when is he going to come back and what are we waiting for and why don't we leave?"
Salomon's classroom exercise is an ideal entryway into a play in which, some argue, nothing happens or, more appropriately, considering Godot's two acts, "a play where nothing happens twice."
What does happen is that two characters, Vladimir (who is referred to as Didi and played by Salomon) and Estragon (or Gogo, played by Himes), wait. One of the marks of Beckett's genius was his ability to recognize the action within this predominant human (in)activity and to make drama of it. Some 50 years after Waiting for Godot first appeared, Beckett's "tragicomedy" is considered one of the most significant works of the 20th century. And still, 50 years later, it is apt to perplex, even enrage, audiences.
In terms of plot, there hardly is one. Two tramps meet on a country road beneath a tree in the evening to wait for someone named Godot. They pass the time as best they can. Enter Lucky, tied by a rope to his master, Pozzo. After some conversation and interaction among the foursome, Lucky and Pozzo leave. Enter a boy, who informs the two tramps that Godot will not come today. In the second act, with variations, this all happens again.
Who is Godot? Why do they wait for him? Where is this place? What is the time? These questions have entertained and maddened audiences around the world. The first American production was billed as "the laugh riot" that had swept Europe. Tom Ewell and Bert Lahr played Didi and Gogo in that production -- in Miami. Audiences left en masse.
It's easy to look back at the past rejections of now "classic" works and praise the evolution of our own sophistication, but Salomon believes that part of the timelessness of Godot is its ability to continually mystify and disturb. "I think we'll see how timely the play is when we see how many people walk out befuddled by a play that we all see as absolutely true, factual and realistic. It's mesmerizing, and yet you want to get up and go to the lobby and get a cup of coffee, but you can't take your eyes off these guys because what they do is what you do."
Says Joplin, "If the audience doesn't leave with more questions than when they came in, we haven't done our job right."
Yet there is the impulse among some directors and actors in recent years to affix answers where Beckett supplies only questions. A Joanne Akalaitis production of Beckett's Endgame at Boston's A.R.T. in the late '80s set the play in a subway with bold music and lighting effects. Beckett was so appalled at the privileges Akalaitis had taken as a director that he wrote an open letter to the Boston Globe in protest.
Since Beckett's death, a rider now comes with any production of his work, describing in detail what cannot be done. It reads, in part, "There shall be no additions, omissions, changes in the sex of the characters as specified in the text.... No music, special effects, or other supplements shall be added to the presentation of the play."
Before the Black Rep had received the stipulations of Beckett's estate, Himes had felt the temptation to add layers to the playwright's spare text. "When I had my producer hat on and talked to Jop about directing the play, we talked about putting some things on it. We got Dunsai Dai, who is from China, who designed the set. We immediately began talking about making this look like a Peking opera production. Initially we were talking about an African-American costume designer and what that would bring to the production. As we kept talking and mulling it over we wound up with ... "
"Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot!" Salomon interjects with a note of relief.
"I'm like a prude about it," he adds. "Ron was telling me those things, and I wasn't saying anything. But if I'm not wearing a bowler, I'm not going out there. If the tree don't look like a tree, I'm home."
"You've got to leave it alone is what it really boils down to," says Joplin. As a director, Joplin is concerned, first and foremost, with telling the story, and leaving the philosophical discussions to the audience. "What Beckett had to say about who Godot was -- his words were 'If I knew who it was I would have put it in the play.' I think that's exactly what you have to think of. All you need to know is there is someone -- it could be something, we don't know -- that makes these men wait for him. And in the waiting they find a reason for their lives. As Didi says, they're waiting for Godot; they're waiting for night to come; they're waiting for waiting. Who Godot is? I don't think we're concerned as much with who Godot is as how these men relate to his possibly coming.
"Beckett does not see this as any place. He does not see the people as any particular nationality. I don't think it ever has to be specified as to where you are. The void is what he's talking about. It's the fact that we do without other people. We exist in the void, and we avoid the void in our relationships with others."
Because Beckett sets his play in a nameless, empty place, even productions that strictly adhere to his stage directions acquire their own specific meanings. Productions in South Africa, for example, bring their own political and social resonances. Writer Susan Sontag directed a production of Godot in Sarajevo with local actors in the midst of the city's siege. In such settings, the realism that Salomon argues is inherent in the play becomes heightened to the point where art and life are nearly indistinguishable.
Himes perceives a particularity of meaning surfacing as a result of this being a Black Rep production. "I think Waiting for Godot is about the human condition. In terms of an African-American experience, part of that definitely has to do with waiting. We've been waiting for a long time for a lot of things in America. We're still waiting for a lot of things in terms of truth and justice and equality. The spirituality of the play and the philosophical conversation about it will certainly impact and speak directly to an African-American audience in a very simplistic way that does not call for having to put something African-American on it. Just doing it and telling the story, which is what we are working diligently at, will chart the ship in a way where people will be able to take the ride with us."
And that ride, according to Salomon, can take audience, and actors, very far: "I'm always aware, every minute, the No. 1 force in this room is Samuel Beckett, because we all embrace the script. It's nice to know that Samuel Beckett is supporting your work.
"It's the play that may most clarify your life. It's the yin and yang of existence: the clarified mind."
The Black Rep performs Waiting for Godot at the Grandel Theatre with previews at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 21-25, and then Thursday-Sunday, April 29-May 16. Call 534-3810 or 534-1111 for reservations.