When Robin Williams & Steve Martin Starred in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (1988)

Despite the dourest demeanor in lit­er­ary his­to­ry and a series of plays and nov­els set in the bleak­est of con­di­tions, there’s no doubt that Samuel Beck­ett was fore­most a com­ic writer. Indeed, it is because of these things that he remains a sin­gu­lar­ly great com­ic writer. The deep­est laughs are found, as in that old Mel Brooks quote, in the most absurd­ly trag­ic places. In Beck­ett, how­ev­er, char­ac­ters don’t just tell jokes about the wretched exi­gen­cies of human life, they ful­ly embody all those qual­i­ties; just as the best com­ic actors do.

It’s true that some of Beckett’s char­ac­ters spend all of their time onstage immo­bi­lized, but the play­wright was also a great admir­er of phys­i­cal com­e­dy onscreen and drew lib­er­al­ly from the work of his favorite film come­di­ans. Vet­er­an vaude­ville com­ic Bert Lahr, best known as The Wiz­ard of Oz’s cow­ard­ly lion, starred in the orig­i­nal Broad­way pro­duc­tion of Wait­ing for Godot in 1956. “Beck­ett once wrote a film script for Buster Keaton,” notes the­ater crit­ic Michael Kuch­waraGodot’s cen­tral char­ac­ters, Vladimir and Estragon, evoke one of the most renowned of com­e­dy duos, many of their ges­tures “obvi­ous deriva­tions from Lau­rel and Hardy,” as film his­to­ri­an Ger­ald Mast notes.

It is fit­ting then—and might meet with the approval of Beck­ett himself—that Robin Williams and Steve Mar­tin, two of the most riv­et­ing phys­i­cal come­di­ans of the sev­en­ties and eight­ies, should step into the roles of the bum­bling, bowler-hat­ted fren­e­mies of Godot. The pro­duc­tion, which took place in Octo­ber and Novem­ber 1988 at the 299-seat Mitzi E. New­hous The­ater on Broad­way, sold out almost imme­di­ate­ly. Williams and Mar­tin weren’t its only big draw. Mike Nichols direct­ed, and the rest of the cast includ­ed F. Mur­ray Abra­ham as Poz­zo, Bill Irwin as Lucky, and Lucas Haas as the absent Godot’s mes­sen­ger boy.

Sad­ly, we only have a few clips of the per­for­mance, which you can see in the grainy video above, inter­spersed with inter­views with Mar­tin and Irwin. These too will leave you want­i­ng more. “I saw it as a com­e­dy,” says Mar­tin of his read­ing of the play. What this meant, he says, is that the laughs “must be served, almost first…. The com­e­dy of the play won’t take care of itself unless it’s deliv­ered.” Robin Williams, writes Kuch­wara, deliv­ered laughs. “His Estragon is a mani­a­cal crea­ture, verg­ing out of con­trol at times.”

Williams also veered “into some stage antics and line twist­ings that Beck­ett nev­er would have dreamed of—giving hilar­i­ous imi­ta­tions of R2D2 and John Wayne, com­plete with an impro­vised machine gun.” For his part, Mar­tin had “a tougher assign­ment play­ing the sub­dued, almost straight man Vladimir to Williams’ more flam­boy­ant Estragon.” Mar­tin has always tend­ed to sub­merge his mani­a­cal com­ic ener­gy in straighter roles. Here he seems per­haps too restrained.

For rea­sons that have noth­ing to do with the play, the trag­ic heart of these clips is see­ing Williams as Estragon. Yet in the final few min­utes, trained mime Irwin shows why his Lucky may have been the most inspired piece of cast­ing in the show. We get a taste of his per­for­mance as he recites part of Lucky’s mono­logue.  “Every ges­ture has been care­ful­ly thought out, not only for the com­e­dy, but for the pain that lies under­neath the laughs,” Kuch­wara says.

Lucky is essen­tial­ly a slave to Abraham’s dom­i­neer­ing Poz­zo, who keeps him on a leash. He gives one speech, when his mas­ter orders him to “think.” But in his ver­biage and bear­ing, he con­veys the play’s deep­est pathos, in the form of the arche­typ­al tor­tured clown, who reap­pears in Alan Moore’s joke about Pagli­ac­ci. When Beck­ett was asked why he named the char­ac­ter Lucky, he replied, with mor­dant wit, “I sup­pose he is lucky to have no more expec­ta­tions….” It is as though, Mel Brooks would say, he had fall­en into an open sew­er and died

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Wait­ing for Godot, the Acclaimed 1956 Pro­duc­tion Star­ring The Wiz­ard of Oz’s Bert Lahr

Steve Mar­tin & Robin Williams Riff on Math, Physics, Ein­stein & Picas­so in a Smart Com­e­dy Rou­tine

Steve Mar­tin Per­forms Stand-Up Com­e­dy for Dogs (1973)

Robin Williams Uses His Stand-Up Com­e­dy Genius to Deliv­er a 1983 Com­mence­ment Speech

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Pagliacci joke says:

    Pagli­ac­ci? Grimal­di, sure­ly.

  • Jon Davison says:

    The joke is apoc­ryphal, appear­ing in numer­ous auto­bi­ogra­phies of clowns across the ages claim­ing it hap­pened to them.

  • Jonathan Fields says:

    ‘Godot’ cer­tain­ly has amus­ing moments because of it’s rocky and crag­gy changes in mood and tone but it has NEVER been a com­e­dy. The most unapolo­getic aspect of the pro­duc­tion fea­tur­ing Mr Williams and Mr Mar­tin is using it’s play­er’s pop­u­lar star pow­er to achieve its mon­ey grub­bing (lit­er­aly sell­out) ends. How sad.

  • JG says:

    Beck­ett “called Schneider’s atten­tion to ‘the need for laugh­ter through­out the play.’ ”

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