Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern tackle ‘Waiting for Godot’
On the awesomeness scale, the pairing of Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is off the charts, a fantasy face-off in a league with George Washington versus Abe Lincoln or giant octopus versus giant squid — even though “Godot” is not the most action-packed of the existential classics.
Mandell and McGovern are two of the most experienced and widely admired interpreters of Beckett’s work, and beginning Wednesday at the Mark Taper Forum, they will perform together for the first time.
So indelibly does Estragon and Vladimir’s mysterious vigil under their lone tree sum up the human condition that “Godot” (1953) has permeated our cultural consciousness almost to the point of cliché. Without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say that even people who have never seen or read it probably won’t check the program to see who’s playing Godot.
Yet major productions of this caliber — Michael Arabian directs; the cast also includes James Cromwell and Hugo Armstrong — are rare.
In February, after their first week of rehearsals, Mandell and McGovern spent their day off Monday dispatching publicity obligations at Mandell’s Brentwood house. They began with a photo shoot, during which they murmured lines from “Godot” to each other, then sat down for a joint interview.
At 84, Mandell is slight, a little fragile, with pale-blue eyes and a musical voice. One of his favorite quips, he said, is “It was easier when I was 80.” His house is stunning in a Midcentury Modern style, its wall of windows pouring light over brilliantly colored arrangements of furniture and works of art that look both difficult to dust and impeccably dusted.
Maybe because he was at home, Mandell was dressed casually, in jeans and a black jacket and a black NASA baseball cap. He offered green tea in earthenware mugs and a platter of scones with jam.
McGovern, 64, is Irish, born and raised in the Dublin suburb of Ballsbridge, close to Foxrock, where Beckett grew up. He also has blue eyes and a swift, wary but ultimately forgiving glance. The rapidity of his speech suggests a restless, not to say impatient, intelligence. Maybe because he wasn’t at home, he was the more dressed up, in an oatmeal-colored sweater and slacks.
I’d planned to ask how they decided which of them would play Estragon (nicknamed “Gogo” in the text) and who would be Vladimir (“Didi”). But by the time we settled down over the scones, the answer seemed obvious: Mandell was the sweet and earthy Gogo, McGovern the heady, searching Didi. I asked anyway.
McGovern, who has played Estragon once and Vladimir twice, looked taken aback. “Well, I always saw myself more as a Vladimir....” He turned, stricken, to Mandell. “Alan, I hope you didn’t want to play Vladimir? Did you?”
“I didn’t care which part I played!” Mandell soothed him.
As Arabian said a few days later, “Alan and Barry just connected immediately. They’re almost like one person. And that’s the relationship in the play too. Vladimir and Estragon are like two parts of one entity.”
Mandell and McGovern had met before signing on to this project but only in passing. Some of those meetings were vague in their memories (“That time in the Hague...”); others were better fixed, such as the period in 2006 when they were performing in different theaters at the Kennedy Center, Mandell in “Twelve Angry Men” and McGovern in the Gate Theatre’s “Waiting for Godot.”
“We’d meet in the corridor,” said McGovern.
Also, Mandell confessed, “My play ended earlier, so I would sneak up afterward to catch Barry’s second act.”
They had plenty else to bond over as, inevitably in their parallel careers, they have seen the same productions, acquired the same rare editions of books and made common acquaintances — for example, Beckett, who died in 1989.
Mandell, one of a sharply shrinking group of Beckett’s living collaborators, performed in the legendary productions of “Endgame” (as Nagg) and “Godot” (as Lucky) directed by the playwright in 1967 and 1975. He has a photograph of himself with Beckett during a rehearsal for “Endgame,” their heads close together over the script. “I’m explaining the play to him,” he said drolly.
Poor Arabian; talk about your anxiety of influence! Yes, Arabian is a prolific, award-winning and highly respected director, and he has done Beckett before (“Krapp’s Last Tape” at the Music Center in 1989), but even so, it must be intimidating to direct an actor who’s been directed by Beckett. How was he handling the pressure?
Arabian, with a kind laugh, said: “It was just about being prepared. I had to really come to the table with a lot of research, so that I could be very knowledgeable and very clear with my interpretation, and then they could say, ‘OK, he knows what he’s doing.’”
As for Beckett’s directing style, Mandell recalled, “I always thought of him more as a conductor than a director. He didn’t sit around talking about who was this character, what life did he have before this. It was about rhythm. It was about language. The pauses were like musical beats.”
Once, Mandell added, he asked Beckett the origin of the name “Godot.” As many have observed, it bears more than a passing similarity to “God.” Beckett himself pronounced it GOD-oh, and the Taper’s production will follow suit, breaking with the more common American pronunciation, “Guh-DOH.” But Beckett has been quoted as saying, “If by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God, and not Godot.”
“Beckett told me Godot was not an uncommon name,” said Mandell. “And Roger Blin, his first director, said Beckett told him it came from the French slang for boot, godillot or godasse.”
So are Beckett plays more challenging to perform than others?
“I’m always asked this,” McGovern said with a touch of puzzlement. “Are you, Alan? I don’t approach a Beckett play differently than any other play. Of course there are styles. If you’re doing an absolute kitchen comedy that’s very naturalistic and so on, that’s different from Ionesco and absurdism. I don’t find Beckett absurd at all, I find him very real, but it doesn’t really matter what Estragon had for breakfast. All that matters is what’s on the page.”
Both men described Beckett’s modesty and kindness — and also, somewhat surprisingly, his good looks. In many photographs, Beckett resembles an enraged eagle awakened from a nap, with ruffled feathers and a predatory expression.
“My [late] wife and I had dinner with him once in Paris,” said Mandell. “Afterward, she said, ‘He is the most devastatingly handsome man I ever met!’” He mimicked his own huffy response: “‘Oh, really! Thanks a lot.’ But he had these amazing blue eyes.”
“And enormous ears, hadn’t he?” put in McGovern, even more startlingly. “They weren’t kind of sticky-out ears, they were kind of just very big and wonderful-looking.”
McGovern, who has acted in many Beckett plays — his 400th “Godot” will take place during this run, he said — and also adapted Beckett’s novels into his one-man shows “I’ll Go On” and “Watt,” got to know the writer in the last years of his life. Like Mandell, he visited Beckett at his nursing home. Although the men were never there at the same time, their memories jibe.
Mandell said: “I was visiting Beckett, and he suggested we have a drink. I explained I really don’t drink, and he said, ‘Oh, no, it’s Bushmills, it’s very smooth.’”
“I probably brought it,” said McGovern.
“The bottle was on top of a kind of highboy,” Mandell went on. “And I said, ‘Oh, I’ll get it.’ Beckett said, ‘No, no! For Bushmills I’d crawl on my hands and knees.’”
“A good northern Irish whiskey,” said McGovern.
“So he poured these two shot glasses. Smooth? I tell you, I thought I would die. It burned all the way down. I guess if you’re used to drinking it….”
“Yeah, he was used to drinking it.”
About four weeks before Beckett died, McGovern said, “We were talking about the ‘Endgame.’ I told him, ‘You know, it’s my favorite of your plays.’ And Beckett said, ‘Mine too.’”
“And mine,” agreed Mandell.
In fact, when Arabian began talking to Mandell about doing Beckett in L.A., the idea was to do “Endgame.” But somebody else had the rights; “Godot” was Plan B.
“We’d still love to do ‘Endgame’ together,” said Mandell. “But, well, I don’t usually talk about my age, but there’s a point at which it really gets harder.”
“This is probably indelicate of me,” put in McGovern, “But when I met Jean Martin, the French actor who played Lucky in the original production of ‘Godot,’ he was quite spry and all that, but he was well into his 80s. I said, ‘I’d love to work with you sometime,’ and he said, ‘Well, you’d better hurry up!’”
They laughed uproariously, then trailed off. A melancholy silence crept over the table. The moment seemed oddly Beckettian.
“I never saw him again,” said McGovern.
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