IT HAS BEEN 25 years since Alan Schneider brought "Waiting for Godot" to American by way of the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. But it is one of those memories that linger.
"It was like bringing 'Gisele' to Roseland," says Schneider. "We got clobbered by everybody. Ninety percent of the audiences walked out."
What they walked out on wasn't like anything else that went by the name "theater" in the winter of 1956. If didn't take place anywhere ("A country road. A tree. Evening.") and is two main characters hadn't come from anywhere and weren't going anywhere. Even their names were in doubt. The program listed them as Vladimir and Estragon, but they called each other Gogo and Didi. The man they were supposed to be waiting for, Godot, never arrived. And all this novelty had yet to be validated by the literary and dramatic establishments. Samuel Beckett was known vaguely as an Irish writer (mostly of fiction) who had been James Joyce's secretary and lived in Paris.
So "Godot" was easy to deride, and the company couldn't help being affected by the decision. "There was kind of an attempted mass suicide," Schneider recalls, and Bert Lahr, who played Estragon, " was very depressed." Lahr had had his doubts to begin with. Now they were being fed by letters from loyal fans, asking (as paraphrased by Schneider):
"How can you, Bert lahr, who has charmed the youth of America as the Cowardly Lion, dare to appear in this communistic and atheistic play." (Brooks Atkinson later felt obliged to say that Beckett, while telling "some melancholy truths about the hopeless destiny of the human race," had nevertheless "not abandoned Christian standards.")
The producers had planned to take "Godot" to Washington's National Theatre next. It would have opened here 25 years ago last month, "but they kind of got cold feet" and decided to go directly to New York, according to Schneider. Then they had to confront the personality clash between Lahr and co-star Tom Ewell, who played Vladimir. "Bert wouldn't do it with Tommy and Tommy wouldn't do it with Bert," recalls Schneider, who took Ewell's side in the matter. "The situation was simple," he says. "Bert Lahr, who was great in it, kept wanting to be the top banana. Bert tried to make the play into a vehicle for Estragon and I wouldn't take that." t
The producers sided with Lahr, which meant finding him a new director, Herbert Berghof, and a new costar, E. G. Marshall. So when "Godot" opened on Broadway in the spring of 1956, Schneider had nothing to do with it. He assumed, naturally, that this would be the end of his association with Samuel Beckett. He assumed wrong. Beckett sent Schneider his next play, "Endgame," along with every subsequent play up to and including the latest "Rockabye," which Schneider will direct in Buffalo this spring.
"Rockabye" is "about a woman remembering her mother," says Schneider. "It's about the role of memory in general. It's beautifully written and it's very, very poetic." Why Buffalo? The State University of New York commissioned the play, and "It's Mr. Beckett's 75th birthday," says Schneider. "I'd do it in a coal mine."
Before he directs the play, he will make the ritual pilgrimage to Paris to consult the author. And before that, he will stop off in Washington this week to inspect his sixth staging of "Godot" -- a touring production that opens at the Kennedy Center Tuesday under the auspices of the Acting Company (the group run by Schneider is artistic partnership with John Houseman and Michael Kahn).
Schneider's association with Washington goes back even further than his association with Beckett. Now 63 and based at the University of California in San Diego, he came here in 1941 to join the theater faculty at Catholic University. One of his CU students, Edward Mangum, co-founded Arena Stage with Zelda Fichandler in 1950. Schneider and Fichandler have been assoicated, sometimes temperamentally, ever since. Both are the children of Russian immigrant parents, and Schneider has directed more Arena shows -- including "A View From the Bridge" (1956), "The Caucasian "chalk Circle" (1961), "Moonchildren" (1971), "Our Town" (1973), "The Madness of God" (1974) and "Loose Ends" (1979) -- than anyone but Fichandler herself.
"Our relations have always been that of a married couple," he says.
His first Broadway directing job was an adaptation of Maxim Gorki's "The Lower Depths" in 1948. Since then, his Broadway credits have included "Anastasia," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "A Texas Trilogy." Elsewhere -- off-Broadway, in regional theater, on college campuses -- he has directed the plays of Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, Bertolt Brecht and Michael Weller -- in addition to the entire Beckett cannon.
"I have an insatiable curiousity about life," he says when asked about the unusual range of playwrights with whom he has been involved.
The first time Schneider saw "Gadot" was in its first Paris production, in 1953, at the soon-to-be demolished Theatre de Babylone, under the direction of Roger Blin. Schneider understood only a little French (this was before Beckett had translated the original into English), but says he "knew there was something there." He even tried to track down the author to arrange for an American production, giving up only when he heard the play was to be done in London with Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness.
In the end, Richardson and Guinness turned it down, and "Godot" was produced with unknown English actors under the direction of Peter Hall. Meanwhile, American producer Michael Myerberg optioned the play, and he consulted playwright Thornton Wilder about a director. Wilder recommended Schneider, who had just directed a revival of "The Skin Of Our Teeth" with Mary Martin and Helen Hayes.
Then came the first of Schneider's Paris pilgrimages, and after he met Beckett, they continued on to London to discuss the play in between visits to the Peter Hall production. "We saw it several nights in a row with him telling me they were doing it all wrong," says Schneider.
His desire to do Beckett's plays right -- the way Beckett wanted them done -- clearly contributed to the durability of their alliance. Beckett never came to see "Godot" on Broadway, but he believed Schneider assumes in retrospect).
Schneier has directed all of Beckett's plays on stage and three of them on TV (including "Godot" with Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith in 1961). In 1964, he directed Beckett's "Film" with Buster Keaton -- and successfully lured the author to the U.S. for the opening, an unprecedented and unrepeated journey. He also has staged "Godot" and other Beckett works on college campuses with amateur casts. "Some of the best productions of 'Godot' I've ever seen have been in high schools," he insists, adding that he has seen about 40 productions of the play -- "and I'm just beginning to discover it.
"I think there are three playwrights in the world -- Shakespeare, Chekhov and Beckett," says Schneider. "And as for 'Godot,' it happens to be my favorite play practically of all time."