Waiting for Godot in New Orleans
On Tuesday, I went to the first and only screening of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, a film cobbled together from footage of the play that took place a little over a year ago in New Orleans. The screening happened at Light Industry (Ed Halter’s excellent venue for avant-garde film, set in the industrial forest of Sunset Park) and because of the notoriously venomous attitude of the Beckett estate, for now, the film is never to be shown again.
But here’s some back story on the play itself: last summer, Creative Time, a New York-based art collective, got together with the Classical Theater of Harlem, and under the leadership of the elfin and brilliant Paul Chan, spent several months mounting an adaptation of Waiting for Godot staged in the devastated streets of the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly. The play was originally meant to run for three days, but after hundreds of people turned out (some driving from places as far as Texas) they added an extra night.
In his introduction, Paul Chan emphasized that the film was in fact never meant to be a film. Aside from flaws in the footage (certain scenes are deleted, the cameraman lingers on actors with amateurish devotion), seeing the play on screen simply misses the point. What was missing, Chan said, was the eerie sense of sitting in the Lower Ninth, getting bitten by mosquitoes, and watching the audience watch the play. While Chan originally came up with the idea because the landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans reminded him of “every production of Waiting for Godot I had ever seen,” the difference was that this time the audience was in on the joke. They knew what it meant to wait, and they knew that Godot wasn’t coming.
This is precisely what is so haunting about the play. The director had no need to figure out how to transmit the tragicomic dimensions of Godot, for they already came through so vividly in the landscape. One only had to call attention to it. Because the play was set in the streets, there’s a Brechtian quality of intimacy to it — the camera occasionally scans over the audience, bats fly across the screen, and at one point, a car even pulls onto the street before sheepishly reversing and driving away — all of which lend the performance a palpability that pulls Beckett out of the clouds and makes him real, and relevant, in New Orleans.
“You need more than a play,” Chan noted, “but that doesn’t mean a play can’t exist.”