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Brooks Atkinson, reviewing “Godot” for The New York Times in 1956, paraphrased Churchill describing Russia in saying that the play is “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” Does rendering it into Yiddish make it less enigmatic? And if so, is that a good thing?
According to Mandelbaum, the troupe originally wanted to present the characters as Holocaust survivors in the immediate aftermath of World War II. It’s an understandable inclination, especially since Beckett, who was a member of the French Resistance, wrote the play in 1948 and ’49, and his work expresses the existential anguish of the time.
Fortunately, however, the Beckett estate nixed the idea. Despite the postwar resonance, the power of the play lies in the maddening interplay between specific references to the world we know and a nowhere quality that puts it in a kind of purgatory beyond time and space. Moving the action to a more concrete historical setting would have vitiated that hanging-in-thin-air torment, even if the historical moment was itself the hanging-in-thin-air torment of a displaced persons camp.
Even without any overt indication, Yiddish brings out this aspect of the play. Indeed, when Vladimir asks, “Where are all these corpses from?” and exclaims: “A charnel house! A charnel house!” or when both Vladimir and Estragon speak of the noise of dead voices, and how the dead “talk about their lives,” it’s impossible to think of anything else. If this makes the play more concrete, it is not by adding anything extra, but by revealing the inference contained in Beckett’s words themselves.
After the performance, a friend asked me, “So, does Yiddish theater have a future?” Trying to make a joke, I said something about having to “wait and see.” But the truth is, if the future of Yiddish theater means more shows like this one, that’s a tremendously good thing. While much Yiddish theater today — or, more frequently, Yiddish theater in English translation — focuses on mining the existing Yiddish canon, New Yiddish Rep has done something much more audacious. With “Waiting for Godot,” it has shown not what the Yiddish language has contributed to theater in the past, but what it is still able to contribute today. And that is well worth waiting for.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter, @EzraG