Two excellent play revivals currently playing on Broadway, Waiting for Godot and Mary Stuart, do not, on the surface, seem to have much in common beyond great reviews and strong casts. But these two productions actually explore similar themes of spiritual searching and estrangement in interesting and complementary ways.
Waiting for Godot was written by Samuel Beckett in 1949 and is seen here in a new production by Roundabout Theatre Company, directed by Anthony Page. Mary Stuart, written in 1800 by Friedrich Schiller and newly translated here by Peter Oswald, is seen in a production that originated in London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2005, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Waiting for Godot, one of the most famous plays of the 20th century, has often been read as a metaphor for existential hopelessness or political allegory. Mary Stuart, on the other hand, is a fictional retelling of the final days of the life of Mary Queen of Scots, imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth I, before being beheaded on Elizabeth’s orders.
While tales from different centuries, told in very different ways, both plays are ultimately about the human condition, about people caught in situations where they feel the inexorability of fate pressing in on them. Or is it destiny? Is it faith or fatalism that causes the characters to respond as they do when they are compelled forward? Where do they look for aid?
Many have seen Waiting for Godot as a surrender to meaninglessness. This production, in contrast, accentuates the relationship of Estragon and Vladimir, in strong performances by Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin, as a sign of hope in their potentially fruitless endeavor. The men are beaten and worn down by their circumstances, but their relationship is portrayed very sweetly. There is a clear sense of their shared history and the way in which they have encouraged each other to endure and persevere, to return yet again to wait for Godot. Even though much of the relationship seems built on repetition and forgetfulness, Irwin and Lane portray their bonds as real and deeply felt. Irwin, in particular, gives a movingly subtle performance that calibrates the continued repetitions of the script into character-revealing insights. Every time he utters “waiting for Godot” in response to Estragon’s repeated queries as to what they are doing, there is a different tone or pace to his reply. Even his walk shifts and morphs as he strides around the stage, suggesting a continual process of learning to wait in ultimate expectation; his waiting is, in fact, a journey. Lane’s impressive comic timing was not as subtly used as Irwin’s, but the two still combine for a performance that retains both the comedy and the pathos, while somehow suggesting a reason to hope. The deteriorating condition and relationship of Pozzo, in a blustering performance by John Goodman, and Lucky, intensely portrayed by John Glover, only serve to distinguish Estragon and Vladimir’s companionship.
In contrast to Godot, Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I are caught in a web with clearly delineated religious and political traps. While they share much in common, as queens who have reigned independently of kings and are related by blood, several important decisions have propelled them, as the play begins, to a place where in order for one to survive, the other must die. While much of the play’s action revolves around political intrigue and the machinations of those who have sworn loyalty to one queen or the other, the compelling development of the play is the two women struggling to see and understand their fate and decide how they will submit to it. Both of them have religious loyalties that they have manipulated for political ends in the past, but when forced into their duel to the death, they both reach out for real spiritual sustenance and guidance in making their decisions. Like Estragon and Vladimir, they also both have companions they rely on for encouragement, direction and reminders of their history. In the play’s end, Elizabeth has won the historical and political victory, but seems to have abdicated moral responsibility, even as her trusted companions are exposed as being motivated only for their own ends. Mary, on the other hand, while not innocent of political manipulation, goes to her death spiritually cleansed, dignified and with the witness of loyal retainers who have sacrificed their lives for her. Both women have sought to claim the personal and spiritual high ground, but in the end it is not clear who gains the ultimate power.
Janet McTeer’s passionate performance of Mary emphasizes her conviction and charismatic power. Harriet Walter portrays Elizabeth’s conflict with brittle determination and tragic flashes of longing and need. There are also strong performances from John Benjamin Hickey as a foppish Earl of Leicester and Nicholas Woodeson as a Cheney-esque Lord Burleigh. In an interesting directorial choice, all of the men in the production wear modern suits and ties, while the women wear period dresses. This serves to accentuate the color and drama of the women at the center of the story, surrounded by somewhat faceless and interchangeable political allies or enemies who are often driven by their own self-serving ends more than true loyalty or friendship.
These two successful, popular and critically acclaimed productions serve as ample evidence of the current relevance of their queries about human destiny and the weight of personal choices. While the plays discuss these questions differently, both productions are haunted by the human need for a source of meaning outside of oneself that gives shape to one’s actions and choices. Whether fictional or historic, we recognize in these characters our own strengths and weaknesses and, above all, our own longings.