This week four of the most famous names on Broadway, including Tony award winner John Glover, will tackle the central roles of mysterious Irish playwright Samuel Beckett's darkly funny drama "Waiting for Godot." How times have changed
In the early 50s, a man who looked like a tramp appeared in the London offices of the legendary British actor Sir John Gielgud holding a black bag. From the bag he produced a script that he quietly asked Sir John to consider producing.
Then he took off, without another word, probably back to a homeless shelter, Sir John told himself.
The man was Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and the script he delivered was "Waiting for Godot," his masterpiece, now widely considered the greatest play of the 20th century.
But Sir John read it and decided it was total rubbish. Worse, he warned all of his famous actor friends not to touch it with a barge pole, and they took his advice.
Now today, Beckett's play is one of the most renowned Irish works in history.
The story itself is easy to describe. In the first act two men wait on a country road by a tree and nothing much happens. In the second act they do the same thing. Unlike in most plays, though, it’s what doesn’t happen that drives the play.
When Tony Award winning actor John Glover was asked to play the character Lucky he was terrified of the part and said no.
Throughout Beckett’s play Lucky remains silent, until suddenly he bursts forth with such a dam burst of words that the speech goes on for three pages. It’s a profoundly challenging role, and Glover was understandably nervous of it.
“I was terrified of this part,” Glover told IrishCentral.com “I never understood it. I told my agent not to get me involved. I knew about that mad three page long speech, which has no punctuation at all, and I thought, I can’t do that!”
But Glover’s agent was having none of it; you’d be a fool to pass it up, he said. Eventually he persuaded Glover to accept. And in rehearsals Glover was surprised to find himself thinking of his own father as he tackled the role.
“My father, toward the end of his life, had some kind of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and what I’m finding is that I feel like I’m playing my father now toward the end of his life. My dad just stopped making sense,” he recalls.
“He couldn’t make himself understood because his mind turned into a jumble. And I find that that’s what’s happening to the man I’m playing as Beckett wrote him.”
Glover’s father was aware of things but he couldn’t make himself understood. He tried to write his name but his signature, Glover says, looked like a brain full of cobwebs.
“It was an image that I carried with me. As I tried to tackle that speech it became a web of words about death and the body fading and the world being destroyed, which were very real possibilities at the time when Beckett wrote it, and still are.”
Glover, who is now 61, still wakes up every morning and goes for a three-mile hike, followed by oatmeal at the kitchen table, and then he starts learning lines.
“I made copies of the speech and I tried to structure it and group it in my own way. And of course it’s amazing to work with the other actors. This is the third play I’ve done with Nathan Lane (the two time Tony winner).
“He came to rehearsals with the whole text by heart. He had read everything there was to be read about his part. He’s known he would be performing this role for a long time and you’ll be amazed by how good he is. He’s dug deep.”
In Irish productions of the play, Beckett the humorist emerges far more frequently than when his work is tackled by other nations. The rhythm of the language and the howls of protest at injustice that occur throughout the show hit their mark much more often when the Irish perform it than in the reverential museum piece productions of the play that regularly get trotted out in Germany, England and America.
Glover agrees, but his production has an ace up its sleeve.
“Nathan Lane is a master comedian and he knows that so much of Beckett’s imagination was interested in vaudeville. Beckett loved Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and all those physical comedians and Nathan has accessed all that. We’ve previewed now for a week and a half and to hear the peals of laughter from the audience is delightful. John Goodman is also pitch perfect. I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised,” he says.
As for the show, Glover would prefer if audiences come to the theater knowing nothing about what they are about to see.
“I’ve spoken to students who watched it on a Saturday afternoon matinee – they rented a bus and about 40 or 50 of them showed up with their faculty,” Glover says.
“One of them said, ‘I was so surprised when I saw it. It’s really a very human, funny, funny play.’ So I think the less people know about it the more they’ll enjoy it. “The show is playing at the legendary old Studio 54 and every night I just sit on the steps offstage and listen to the play while I waiting to go on. What Beckett’s written is just a joy to listen to and to hear the audiences roar with laughter is great too; I’m just in pig heaven with it really.”
"Waiting for Godot" is playing at Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street in New York. For tickets call 212-541-8457.