SOME OF MY high-school classmates and I took a perverse delight in reading material that assigned to other classes, material available through the school but not administered, during a particular class, by our teacher. Or we’d pervert an assignment, as when (I believe it was) Bleak House was assigned, but a group of us studied Great Expectations instead.
This required more initiative than a regular assignment required, and we must have intuited that; in any event, I recall little friction with the teachers in question, who no doubt were thrilled to have students willingly participating at all.
Which is how I came across a copy of Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot.” It sat in a multiple-copy stack on a side table in one of my classrooms. My Theater Arts teacher probably mentioned it, but I don’t remember ever spending time in active study of the piece. This does not mean it wasn’t studied. I was a virtuoso at teen-aged disconnection, paying only sporadic class attention and finishing few assignments.
But “Waiting for Godot” opened unexpected vistas of understanding for me – understanding myself, my family, and my society, all through the twin lenses of comedy and despair.
Connecticut’s Manhattan suburbs were (and remain) upscale, tony places, and this school system had plenty of money behind it. This was also the late ’60s and early ’70s, when there was more room for academic experimentation.
But these same suburbs were the breeding ground of a style of comedy that gave us the likes of Peter De Vries,. George Axelrod, Max Schulman, and similar others, who offered satiric reflections of our commuter-based society, in which a development of two dozen faux Colonial houses contained two dozen families who barely knew their neighbors.
Our parents saw the transition into the nuclear age, when mutually assured destruction supplanted duck and cover, and over which loomed a trumped-up enemy to fuel the profitable Cold War.
Discovering Vladimir and Estragon patrolling their lonely tree, awaiting the arrival of an authority figure they were at a loss to describe, wrestling with their boots when they weren’t trying to understand some even odder passers-by – this was my first taste of an intelligently rendered comedy of despair. This was far more thought-provoking than, say “Dobie Gillis.”
My first tastes of black comedy came from the Ealing Studios movies “Kind Hearts and Coronets” and “The Ladykillers,” but in both of those the ultimate punch line was death. “Godot” showed me a landscape of bleakness unrelieved by so terminal a solution. For all we know, Didi and Gogo still surround that tree, still dutifully await whatever it is they’re waiting for.
It was an easy transition to Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” which I discovered shortly thereafter, probably in my junior year. We’d already tried to study “Hamlet” in an English class, a task consisting mostly of watching Tony Richardson’s film of his stage production. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” applied a great deal of Beckett-istic despair to two minor Shakespeare characters, essentially turning “Hamlet” inside-out as the title characters remain onstage for the duration of the show and the rest of the “Hamlet” cast occasionally enters and exits.
But Stoppard found more ways to view the dilemma of his two characters than were dreamt of in Beckett’s philosophy, grounding them in a more dynamic nihilism while taunting them with threats of incipient self-actualization. Where Vladimir and Estragon are aware that they’re functioning in someone else’s universe, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are taunted with the sense that they could take hold of their destiny – but don’t.
So fascinating was the undulating dialogue to me that a classmate and I worked up a short, busy scene (“We could play at questions”) and performed it for our English class to great acclaim, then took it, as guerilla theater, into other classrooms, bursting in unannounced and uninvited, running the piece, then abruptly leaving. We never heard any complaints.
Beckett and Stoppard not only opened me to the Theatre of the Absurd, with Ionesco another early favorite, but gave me something hopeful upon which to draw as I rocketed out of adolescence and over the high hurdles of trying to live on my own, coursing through jobs and marriages, swatting life’s unpleasant vagaries and welcoming its many treats.
Most importantly, these playwrights taught me to find humor in the midst of despair. I’ve weathered divorce and loved-ones’ deaths and so much of ancillary heartbreak that spending any number of decades on this earth will bring. Right now I’m sharing with you a sense of despair over the current election season. But, thanks to the lessons of Beckett and crew, however horribly it may turn out, I’m confident there will be a punchline.