Here’s Late Voice Theater Critic Jerry Tallmer Doing a Proto-Takedown of the Times


Lately, it’s fashionable to eviscerate the establishment’s status quo (see: The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, what Keith Olbermann used to do), either on television or in blog-post form, and then after that decimation, there comes another blog post recapping it, thus continuing the cycle.

Well, consider this annihilation recap blog post 57 years late: Below is Village Voice co-founder and theater critic Jerry Tallmer dismantling a review of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the New York Times.

The production at the Barrymore Theatre on 47th Street west of Broadway, was an encore to the prior year’s blockbuster New York premiere that starred Bert Lahr. It was helmed by the same producer, Michael Myerberg, and touted in the Voice (and, presumably, elsewhere) as “Negro Godot“: Under the direction of Herbert Berghof (who’d also directed the original), all the cast members were black, from Earle Hyman as Vladimir and Mantan Moreland as Estragon to Rex Ingram (Pozzo) and Geoffrey Holder (Lucky).

Tallmer, who left the Voice for the New York Post in 1962, created the Obie Awards in 1956. He died Sunday in Manhattan, just a few weeks shy of his 94th birthday. Read more about Tallmer’s impact on the downtown arts scene and the Voice in Michael Feingold’s obituary.

“Godot II” had already been handed over to the embalmers the night before I sat down to start this, but since then a half a day has somehow gone into other affairs, with the copy paper sitting idle in the typewriter, and now I see over my coffee that Mr. Myerberg has pumped at least a second week into the show. This is good for all concerned, except perhaps for Mr. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, dean of American drama critics, to whom I feel I must tonight pay my respects if I do not wish to blow my brains out, for many incredible present reasons but especially these:

Although the current version of “Godot” seems lively through the first act, it seems tedious in the second. Since no one knows what Samuel Beckett’s rigadoon means, one should not say that the new version misinterprets the theme. Obviously, a play has to be understood before the actors can be suspected of having muddled it…
“Waiting for Godot” cannot be laughed off. In some elusive fashion it is concerned with the suffering of mankind. It is more of a dirge than a vaudeville turn. Salvation is not going to come, in Mr. Beckett’s version.

There are seven sentences in the foregoing, only six of them in total error. That is batting .143, which for Mr. Atkinson I suppose is passing fair. Let us consider them in the given order.

1. First act, second act. It is the second act that is the better, purer, tauter, more exciting in the current version, Geoffrey Holder’s magnificent Act I outburst aside. It is the better, tauter, etc. because in it the actors, principally Earle Hyman, elucidate and articulate Beckett’s basically simple main purpose (see 2-a, below) as they have never publicly been elucidated in this country before. The first act depends more on Mantan Moreland than on Hyman, and Moreland is even less than Bert Lahr the perfect Estragon. Therefore, the first act is the most “tedious” if you are maniacally inclined to apply that word to either of them.

2-a. Meaningless rigadoon. We have now had “Godot” available to us for some seven months, if not more, and I think it is just about time we all stopped going around saying: What is it about? What does it all mean? Like all great writers, Beckett deals in essentially simple truths and like his mentor James Joyce, he took pains to key and counter key every “obscurity” with about a dozen nearby glaring clues. When I hear a little boy say that his master has a long white beard, not a black one, and then hear Vladimir gasp Christ have mercy on us!, I do not think I have to have it spelled out in words of any fewer syllables than those. “Godot” is primarily and fiercely about the existence of God, known to Samuel Beckett as Jesus Christ Our Lord. It is also about the hopless-hopeful condition of man. It is also about all the big fundamental dualities…male and female, animal and human, freedom and servitude, body and soul. And I suppose it may even peripherally be about homosexuality and so forth, if only because everything in this universe, and in art, is related to everything else.

2-b. “One should not say that the new version misinterprets the theme.” The new version, though it makes the main lines clearer, is actually as great a distortion as before. When “Godot” is finally staged here as one great slow throbbing mortal pulse, we shall for the first time see Beckett’s text at least partially justified in action. (I do not mean that the humor must be deleted. It must remain and intensify.) Also I am afraid I now find even more to disapprove of in Herbert Berghof’s direction, or rather in his second-time-round innovations: intermittent heavenly choral music, for instance, or the way Lucky’s tirade is both blurred into total gibberish — for the words in it are very important — and “dramatically” broken up with little punctuating moans and utterances from the sidelines.

3. “A play has to be understood before actors can be suspected of having muddled it.” See 2-a, above; besides which, I have lately come to doubt seriously whether an actor’s proficiency on an particular occasion is necessarily a direct function of his understanding of the material. Bert Lahr was perhaps a better Estragon than Moreland precisely because he did so fully understand the play. In addition to bringing superior natural endowment to the role, Lahr, with his deep elementary understanding of things like shoes and carrots and kicks in the shins, becomes a perfect embodiment of The Creatures Caught — to that extent, just what was needed. Moreland, a quick, shrewd, fidgety, whimsical comedian, is always one jump too far ahead of the drama. And just to show that I can work both sides of the street as well as the next one, I think Rex Ingram’s Pozzo is inferior to Kurt Kasznar’s for want of full understanding of the immensity of Pozzo’s ego.

4. “‘Waiting for Godot’ cannot be laughed off.” This is true.

5. Its elusiveness. See 2-a, above. I refuse from this time forward to acknowledge the elusiveness as such.

6. More a dirge than a vaudeville turn. “Godot” is dirge and vaudeville turn — more exactly, burlesque routine — in equal and inseparable proportions. It is also whatever is the opposite of a dirge (see 7, just below).

7. “Salvation is not going to come, in Mr. Beckett’s opinion.” Unless I myself am as bereft as Lucky and as blind as Pozzo, what Mr. Beckett is agonizingly telling us, above all things else, is that salvation is going to come — someday. If not, the universe lacks any meaning whatsoever. That is why “Godot” is a play for the ages. I urge you to see it and keep it, as a playing piece, alive.

Tallmer had previewed the play for the Voice two weeks earlier. That feature, as well as the pages containing the disemboweling above, are available in pdf format below.

Village Voice Jerry Tallmer on Waiting for Godot