“You Do That Endgame Thing Tomorrow”
[1975: In my third year at the University of Florida I got a call from a student’s father, the Warden of Florida State Prison, our maximum security prison in Starke, where all the “lifers” go, home of the infamous “Old Smokie,” the electric chair whose current often sets on fire the flesh and hair of its victim. My student had told her father about a production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with which I was associated. The Warden offered to pay us state rehabilitation money to bring the show to the prison. Having performed before “straight audiences” and at that time knowing nothing of its history—the Actor’s Workshop, twenty years before, had staged Godot at San Quentin—we were in for a surprise, one that would alter my own notion of the theatre and the relationship between actor and audience.]
The Warden encouraged the audience to clap but no applause was forthcoming. Gogo took the stage in deadly silence, sat on the rock, and began trying to take off his boots. That same silence greeted Didi five seconds later when he entered on, “Nothing to be done.”
Didi’s crossing line to Gogo’s cry of despair was “I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me–.” Didi never finished the sentence.
Suddenly, an inmate leaped to his feet and cried out, “What the hell do you mean by ‘put it from me’?”
We were dumbfounded. This had never happened before. Of course, actors are conscious of their audience and the parabolic curve of awareness uniting house and stage. But audiences don’t speak to you in character. The inmate was still standing there, hands on hips, awaiting an answer.
“Ignore him,” Gogo said with his eyes.
But the inmate wouldn’t be denied. “I said, what the hell do you mean by ‘put it from me’?
“You better answer him,” Gogo whispered.
Crossing downstage, Didi approached the inmate. “Well . . . I can’t bear the idea that I’m caught in life, that I’m so powerless.”
“I just don’t want to believe it’s true–that I’m a nobody, that I don’t count.”
“You’ve spent a whole life doing that?”
“OK, I know this guy! Now, you can get back in the play.”
A shocked Didi thanked him, crossed to center-stage and continued. “All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t tried everything yet. And I resume the struggle. So there you are again!”
“Am I?” Gogo’s line led to a second outburst, from a different inmate. “Doesn’t he know whether he’s here or not?”
This time, it was our Gogo who had to break character, cross downstage, and confront a barrage of questions.
This is how it went for the first act. Every few lines, an inmate would challenge us with a question, a comment, demanding we explain a character’s motive or chat about a bit of dialogue.
“What the hell do you mean by that?”
“Now, wait, why are you treating him that way?”
“Hold it! You two guys can’t be serious. Come down here–I want to talk!”
Lucky generally got little sympathy, yet the audience had a special fondness for Pozzo, the authority figure. Gogo was put down for being too stupid and compliant, Didi as an “egg-head.” In their dialogue with the actors, the inmates focused on how characters were feeling, what their emotions were with each beat in the dialogue, how a remark affected someone else. For the actors, trying to stay in character, trying to preserve the illusion of the playwright’s stark, minimalist world that we had managed to preserve for numerous performances until this night, the interruptions from the house were maddening. Lucky’s three-page speech, where he miraculously regains his voice and delivers an oration on everything from sports to death, was interrupted fifteen times.
“‘God quaquaquaqua with white beard’? You taking His name in vain or something?”
“‘Strides of alimentation and defecation’–you’re making poetry out of shit, right? That’s fantastic!”
“You know something those ass-holes behind you don’t?”
Normally taking forty minutes, act one ran almost eighty with all the questions and interruptions. At intermission we were alive with speculations about what was happening.
“They’re not being rude, you know. It’s not rudeness–it’s as if–”
“As if they want to get into the play.”
“Yeah, that’s it, as if they’re seeing themselves onstage in our characters.”
“At first I thought they’re wrecking the show, but, you know, it’s sort of exhilarating.”
“Like they’re acting along with us, getting into the dialogue–like, actors in the house.”
“Hell, nobody probably ever told them audiences are supposed to be quiet.”
“I bet none of ‘em’s ever seen a play before.”
“They’re not against us–that’s for sure.
“I thought we were gonna bomb after that warden’s intro.”
“We’re not bombing–this is the best performance we’ve ever given!”
“Well, at least the weirdest.”
“What we’re doing is giving two shows at once, the one we rehearsed and this new one–with a cast of thousands.”
“I love it!”
The second act duplicated the first, both onstage and in the house. If anything, the questions and comments flew thicker, were more intense. I would learn later that what was happening to us this night, these twin plays fashioned simultaneously by actors and inmates, was exactly what had happened to the Actor’s Workshop production at San Quentin twenty years earlier.
When we finished, the inmates leaped to their feet, applauding us wildly. Assessments of our characters intermingled with our bows.
“Hey, Gogo! Stop taking all that crap!”
“Way to go, Lucky–you kicked the shit out of him, man!”
“You guys–you oughta live here. That’d show you!”
As the Warden barked out orders for the inmates to get in line to leave, we started to pack up for the trip back to Gainesville.
“All right, you slobs. Single line! Single line for each door. Move it!” He looked angrily in our direction, clearly blaming us for fouling up the schedule. It was almost eleven; the play was supposed to have finished by nine thirty.
Suddenly, the inmates broke rank and started running in the direction of the stage. A riot? As they came thundering towards us, I panicked. Thoughts of being raped ran through my head, mixed with all those fears when the unexpected shatters everything you’ve ever known. I remember thinking: did I leave my credit cards in the car? Instinctively we huddled together.
At the center of the crowd now surging around the stage was a tall African-American inmate. He grabbed me by the shoulders.
“Look, we’ve got some ideas about who this Godot character is. You know, the guy who never shows. We want to talk with you about him!”
Who Godot is? Scholars and students, actors and directors have pondered his identity for years. Is he God? Or death? All those things we wish for that never materialize? A trick by the playwright to keep all of us waiting? A joke on “both sets of characters, onstage and in the house,” as a director once suggested to me? A deity laughing at us in our despair but who makes suicide a crime? The abyss into which we fall if we don’t wait? There’s no answer, no single identification. There is no Godot, and yet we can’t bear the thought of a vacuum, that black hole at the center of the play, its silence. So, we fill the emptiness with words, an identity–with something. Something, because we can’t live with the possibility of nothing.
We were dumbfounded when the Warden made an impromptu decision that we could have an hour’s conversation with the inmates. Soon each of us in the cast and crew had gathered with several hundred men. Everyone shouted at once, until an agreement was made to raise hands, the discussion leader’s picking the speaker as a teacher would in a classroom. Those discussions were the most eloquent I had ever had. Each man fashioned his own personal image of Godot, filling up that void with a figure who was alternately despotic or benevolent, passionate about or indifferent to our human condition, a father or a jailer, a kindly observer or a torturer flaunting us with non-being. The Warden and guards stood on the perimeter of the dining area, motionless, only their eyes disclosing that some were cynical, others confused by the groups of animated guests and their audience, discussion leaders and students with hands in the air, waiting their chance to pin an identity upon the play’s enigmatic center.
When we finished, the inmates grabbed our hands tightly as we exchanged good-byes, much to the concern of the staff who consider any such physical contact with visitors a potential danger. As a wedge of guards hustled us out through the men, I felt, we all felt incredibly sad. However unspeakable their crimes, this had been a marvelous audience, articulate beyond applause. They were an honest audience for, knowing little or nothing of theatre etiquette, they had been as direct, as believable in their role as were Beckett’s characters who continually expose the razor’s edge of their own meager lives
It was a silent drive back to Gainesville as each of us sorted out emotions, reviewing the night’s various stages–the entrance to the prison, the shake-down, awaiting the audience, the performance itself, the rush of the inmates to the stage, and, most of all, the discussions, those extraordinary discussions where these hardened, sullen men had opened up their hearts, had confronted a mystery in Godot that we can no more solve than avoid.