John Turturro is fussing with his hat. But there’s nothing trivial about his consternation: he’s preparing to play Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Classic Stage Company, and anyone familiar with the play knows the Laurel and Hardyinspired bowlers are no mere laughing matter. The critic Hugh Kenner observed that they “are removed for thinking but replaced for speaking.” What, exactly, is an actor supposed to do with that? To show one without doing the other? For a play whose final line is “Yes, let’s go,” followed by the stage direction “They do not move,” Turturro’s hat paralysis seems appropriate.
Something would be amiss if an actor wasn’t exasperated about measuring up to Beckett’s demands. Hume Cronyn surely spoke for many actors when, in 1972, he fired off a letter to the author while rehearsing the relentless Not I: “We know what you don’t want us to say. What DO you want us to say?” For Turturro— last seen on a New York stage in CSC’s 1991 Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui— part of knowing what to say and how to say it means following his instincts. “I’ve read the play many, many times, but I’ve never seen an entire performance of it, and I’m glad,” he says, relieved to have ducked the influence of past Gogos like Bert Lahr and Zero Mostel, or the previous interpretation by his director, Andrei Belgrader. In 1983 Belgrader directed a production of Godot at ART while Turturro was his student at the Yale School of Drama. (Tony Shalhoub played Pozzo in that production and is playing Vladimir in this one.) Turturro couldn’t get out of New Haven to see it; for that he sounds superstitiously grateful.
“I don’t know how seeing Godot could help me,” he says. “It could actually hurt me, because it gives you something in your ear.”
Still, for a play that includes Vladimir’s repeated assertion that there’s “nothing to be done,” what, exactly, is there for an actor to do? Turturro must, like Estragon himself, take the initiative to make something out of nothing. “It’s a very simple play in some ways,” he says, slipping into a minimalist Beckettian monologue. “That’s what makes it so hard. I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. I do know that you’ve got to find the right balance between the physicality and the musicality. We have moments every day. We have a long way to go. But the more time with it, the better. I did all stage for most of my career. Theater is all about the acting, film is about a lot of other things. You’re using your instrument, and that’s where you use it fullest, because it’s just you and the words, and that’s it.”
Despite the differences of media, it’s easy to see from his film work how Turturro would have an affinity for Beckett. Whether he’s hysterically begging and manipulating Gabriel Byrne in the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, or skittishly courting and dodging the murderous John Goodman in the Coens’ Barton Fink, Turturro has often been seen frolicking with the abyss. It seems natural, then, to put him in a play where, as the questioning, serendipitous Gogo, he must constantly find new ways to make a game out of the bleakest circumstances. (“What about hanging ourselves?” Gogo suggests.) Still in Beckett mode, Turturro is not sure about any continuity between his work in Godot and in film, tersely asserting, “Each thing I do is a separate thing. It’s good to do things that are hard to do.”
Beckett could have been speaking for his actors when he had Hamm announce in Endgame: “This is slow work.” Putting Waiting for Godot onstage is slow work, too, but one of the reasons it’s remained more popular than Endgame has been the sense of play signified by those bowlers. The presence of Turturro’s nine-year-old son Amadeo (as the boy who enters at the end of each act) has helped Turturro maintain the whimsy. “My son likes the play. He thinks it’s very funny. Kids get the play more than adults. When they hear Pozzo say, ‘I am Pozzo! Does that name mean nothing to you?’ they understand what that means. To them, the games are deadly serious.”
In the mode of the mischievous Gogo, Turturro begins to wonder if dead seriousness is just a game, if Beckett was really such a downer as Deidre Bair’s and James Knowlson’s biographies suggest. Despite the playwright’s psychosomatic illnesses, characteristic misanthropy, and nihilistic aesthetic, Turturro sees hope in a man who invested so much in his slow work. In the spirit of Waiting for Godot‘s absurd vision, Turturro attempts to convince me that Beckett was actually a happy guy. “When I read how Beckett spent a year preparing notebooks to write this single play, to me, that’s a person who likes life.”