Quitting acting ranks among the best decisions I have ever made. This point was forcefully driven home by watching Sir Ian McKellen, one of the most decorated and celebrated men to ever tread the boards, gnawing on a chicken bone that had been dropped on the stage at the Cort Theatre in the latest popular production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Here was a 74-year-old man, a knight, for god’s sake, eating food off the floor. For laughs. For a living! How much dignity is there in a job that calls for you to shed all dignity? Somehow, quite a lot.
McKellen and his co-star, 73-year-old Patrick Stewart, are not the men I picture when I read Beckett’s play. For whatever reason, I see Estragon and Vladimir as young or middle-aged drones, with something of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about them, suspended in that gray purgatory between nameless birth and anonymous death. To position them closer to the end, as any staging with older men does, is to further bleaken an already dark, stark, elemental work. In 1955, Beckett himself mocked the need to impose a particular reading on his masterpiece, saying, “Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out.” But whether they like it or not, the people framing his infamous lines are forced to make practical choices.
Take, for example, Shuler Hensley and Billy Cudrup, who played the supporting parts of Pozzo and Lucky. The characters are, quite evidently, a cruel slave-owner and broken slave, and, perhaps because Hensley is a native of Georgia, the subjugation is of a Deep Southern, antebellum flavor. Though with a text that’s so stripped-down, you don’t exactly need a villain out of Django Unchained to get your point across: the language, the setting, and the hopelessness of the lead performers communicate the wasteland—all that’s left is to break up the monotony, as Beckett remarked. Will stereotypes get the job done? Maybe, with the right audience.
Cudrup has just one long speech, a modernist show-stopper, where he has to walk the line between intelligible rambling and highbrow bullshit, all the while suggesting that human intelligence is basically a parlor trick. That would be difficult enough were he not also tasked with idly dancing around at the end of a noose and carrying two suitcases (or lying comatose) for the entirety of his periods onstage. To Beckett, the actor truly was a prop, and his need for complex or allegorical motivation a baffling problem of vanity. People lack the integrity of words.
Lately, with the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the most admired character actor of his age, we’ve begun to ask once more how much we expect from dramatic performers, and how much they ought to be admired—or pitied—for their sacrifice. I don’t think we ought to worship them for their artistry, per se, but we might respect and acknowledge how thankless the most prestigious gigs in the business really are, whether it’s an underfunded indie film or a brutal Broadway run. Having only ever done student musicals and amateur improv, I can tell you that I wouldn’t want to be the one up there in the spotlight. Would you?