Thursday, July 9, 2009

Waiting for Tammuz

There is no particular concept within our tradition of seeking out some sort of “perfect” gateway experience to pass through on our collective way into the three weeks leading up to Tisha Be’av, the midsummer memorial day to twice-besieged and twice-destroyed ancient Jerusalem. If there were such a concept, however, I do not think I could have gone to a better place to have it than the Roundabout Theatre on 54th Street where Joan and I were on Wednesday to see Anthony Page’s terrific revival of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

Like most of you, I’m sure, I read the play in college. I didn’t get it. In the unbearable manner of the fully self-absorbed undergraduate, I found the play pretentious and hollow, its obscurity more irritating than challenging. Having no idea what the play was about, I supposed it wasn’t about anything. And, this being long before Seinfeld, I imagined that a play without a discernable plot must be nothing more than the conceit of a desiccated playwright bereft of any “real” idea how to move his own play forward. (Samuel Beckett was, after all, forty-seven years old when Godot premiered in Paris in the year of my own birth. I’m sure my undergraduate self would have considered him elderly.) I say all this not with pride but with candor: like all too-bright undergraduates, I was an idiot dressed up like a grown-up unburdened by any insight at all into my own intellectual pomposity. Nor, needless to say, had I ever heard of Clifford Odet’s great 1935 play, Waiting for Lefty, the drama about factory workers waiting for a union organizer who never appears on which Waiting for Godot is some sort of a mystical midrash.

Godot and I have grown up together in the intervening years: born in the same year, we were both less than half as old when I was in college as we are now. Since the play itself clearly hasn’t changed—although I truly would have loved to see Bert Lahr and E.G. Marshall in the New York premiere in 1956 to compare their interpretation to this year’s cast’s—I suppose it must be me who has. Or perhaps this is just a play better seen on a stage rather than read out of a book. But, whatever, it spoke to me deeply and profoundly when we met again, both of us now well past our half-century marks, on Wednesday at the Roundabout.

The play is still not about anything. Two men, Vladimir (called Didi, played by Bill Irwin) and Estragon (called Gogo, played by Nathan Lane) are waiting for Godot. Who (or what) Godot is, no one seems to know. Whether the effete Pozzo, artfully and very convincingly played by a truly brobdingnagian John Goodman, is Godot, no one, not even he himself, seems to know for sure. Nor is it at all obvious why he keeps his slave Lucky (played by John Glover) on a leash that becomes noticeably shorter as the play progresses into the second act, or in what specific way their relationship as master and slave is intended to mirror the relationship between Didi and Gogo. But one thing is fairly clear: when the four principals interact, both separately as couples and together as a quartet of aimless, slightly shell-shocked wanderers in the barren, arid, wholly hostile landscape that itself functions as a kind of mute fifth player in the drama, they are clearly meant in some measure to represent the lot of a humanity plopped down by an unseen Creator onto a mute planet and left, if they can, to find some meaning in their existence, some purpose, some sense of mission....while knowing all along that their mission is self-imposed and self-conceived, thus possibly itself a mere function—and a slightly pathetic one, at that—of their own wish that there be some point to their existence in the first place.

To me, Godot (pronounced in this production with the accent on the first syllable to rhyme with Frodo) is God. And the four men on stage represent humanity seeking, waiting, find meaning in the quest for a God who, although said once to have been almost garrulous, has long since fallen silent. This being a Christian midrash, Pozzo is the Christ-figure regarding whose “real” identity the others can’t quite come to any firm conclusion. Nor does the fact that he controls fortune (here represented, luck not being a lady, by his sometimes eloquent, sometimes mute slave called Lucky) make him any more appealing than he might otherwise be. In a profound jab at traditional Christian belief, even Pozzo himself can’t say whether or not he is Godot. The others on stage are even more clueless. At one point, a weird little boy appears on stage to announce that Godot is coming...but not quite yet. (In that, he is almost quoting the oracle pronounced by Balaam about the future redeemer of Israel that we read in shul last week.) Of course, the boy has no further information and appears himself not really to understand the point of the message he has come to deliver. And so...the members of the bleak quartet live their lives out in the shadow of the boy prophet’s hopeful announcement, finding profundity (and even poetry) in the most banal of life’s experiences: taking off a shoe to find an elusive pebble, trying on a hat, eating a carrot, endeavoring to tell a joke one can’t quite remember, attempting to sing a song even though one can’t quite recall the melody...but also in quiet acts of kindness, of generosity, of friendship towards another even less well off.

The four men on stage are, in short, humanity itself condemned to wait for redemption, but never knowing with anything approaching certainty born of real knowledge if the wait is futile or noble, if the redeemer exists and is merely tarrying or does not exist at all other than as a projection of our collective hopes for a better future. No wonder I didn’t get the play when I was in college! What twenty-year-old could possibly buy into a play featuring a world teetering endlessly on the edge of purposelessness, absurdity, and ridiculousness? But I get it now. Believe me, I get it....and the fact that a Christian author composed a Christian midrash to encapsulate what he wished to say about the world doesn’t present me with any sort of problem at all. In what language should an author speak, after all, if not in his or her own? And my readers all know how much I enjoy reading novels in translation!

And so we come not to the resolution of Godot‘s meaning but far more prosaically to the Seventeenth of Tammuz, a fast day in the Jewish calendar so obscure that it only has its own date as a name. Widely ignored, the day is not without meaning however: it marks the day the Babylonian hordes first breached the walls of Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C.E., thus enabling them just three weeks later to destroy the city and its Temple, and to send its surviving citizens into exile. The Seventeenth of Tammuz, then, is the anniversary of the beginning of the end, the day that Jews who live their lives against the backdrop of biblical history begin to take note of the fact that there is no bottom line, that nothing is guaranteed, that even the most holy of all sites, the Temple itself, cannot protect a people that has turned its back on its own covenant with God. But embedded in the willingness of a people to commemorate a debacle on that scale is more than just a trace of hope in the future. We remember the past because we wish to allow its lessons to guide us into a better future. Indeed, we remember Jerusalem in ruins (and look past the modern, thriving city that functions as the capital of a sovereign Jewish state) not merely out of antiquarian interest, but to encourage us to imagine Jerusalem as the capital city of a redeemed world, as the site of a rebuilt Temple, of a redeemed people celebrating its covenant with the God it celebrates as go’eil yisra’eil, as the Redeemer of Israel. In other words, we contemplate the past to find hope in the future…but that, it turns out, requires more than a bit of courage.

Like Didi and Gogo in Beckett’s play, after all, we cannot be sure that we haven’t made the whole thing up. Like the little boy who shows up to announce the non-arrival of the unidentified Godot, our prophets spoke of a messiah who would come to Israel at the end of time. We want to believe. We insist that we do believe. But hidden behind all that bluster is the fear—which in its own way lives at the confluence of humility and intellectual integrity that together function as the great axis around which authentic Jewish life honestly lived always and inevitably revolves—the fear that we have made this all up to suit our own hopes and wishes, that we are not actors and actresses in a play that an unseen director is directing, but just men and women hoping against hope that our lives have meaning behind the dull tasks of everyday life we all face on a daily basis. Yet, we persevere…fasting on our fast days and noting with gravity and sadness the anniversary of Jerusalem’s destruction. (That Jerusalem was again destroyed on the same date in the first century, albeit this time by the Romans, only adds a sense of urgency to the remembering.) Like Didi and Gogo, we won’t let go, seeking meaning and grandeur in even the most banal of life’s tasks. We too tell jokes we can’t quite remember, sing songs the melodies of which are mostly lost to us. We accept all that—and like them we too are occasionally beaten up for our trouble, sometimes mercilessly—and still we continue, living on day by day in the shadow of the great hope that animates us all: the hope for redemption in God, for salvation for the world, for the arrival of the messianic moment that will end history as we know it and bring us all together into a new age of peace and security.

It’s too late for any of you to see Waiting for Godot on the day before the Seventeenth of Tammuz, but it’s not too late to see it if you scramble. (The show is closing in just a few days.) If you can get there, though, I recommend it highly…and not only to those of you who read through it once quickly on the way to some undergraduate exam on modern theater and mastered its details not because they said anything in particular to your soul, but merely because someone was going to grade you on how well you had memorized them.

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