May 14, 2014

“Vartan af Godot””: A Yiddish production of “Godot” goes to Ireland


Edmund S. Valtman's caricature of Beckett. Image via Wikipedia.

Edmund S. Valtman’s caricature of Beckett. Image via Wikipedia.

This is the third year of “Happy Days,” the annual Beckett festival in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, and this year the festival has a new addition: the first-ever Yiddish production of “Waiting for Godot,” produced by the New Yiddish Repertory, directed by Moshe Yassur, and translated by Shane Baker, who also plays Vladimir.

It’s slightly surprising that there hasn’t been a Yiddish “Godot” before now, as there are so many affinities that might have brought the language and the play together: the physical comedy of “Godot,” which has its echoes in the great Yiddish comic theater tradition, the themes of waiting and exile, the circumstances of the play’s composition — “Godot” was written by Beckett between October 1948 and January 49, just a few short years on from the end of the war, during which Beckett joined the French Resistance and had to live in hiding for two years.

It lends itself easily to an interpretation that brings in the Holocaust, though this is one of the many interpretations of the play that Beckett resisted. And continues to: according to a review of the production by Ezra Glinter in the Forward, though the New Yiddish Rep “originally wanted to present the characters as Holocaust survivors in the immediate aftermath of World War II… the Beckett estate nixed the idea.”

Which of course is right. The translation is enough to unlock the affinities. And more than enough: Baker, in translating, has drawn on Yiddish’s resources to recreate “Godot” in a way that I think Beckett, who translated the play from French to English himself, would have appreciated, given the original’s attention to cadence and register. So Estragon speaks a rough Warsaw Yiddish, whereas Vladimir employs a more refined Lithuanian Yiddish. And if translations are often spoken about as a kind of performance, a translated play goes through a second or third level of performing, via directors and actors. In Yassur’s production, for instance, rhythms particular to Jewish culture and religion are incorporated:

Estragon, trying to figure out what day of the week it is (and when Godot might or might not arrive), employs the singsong tune traditionally used to work out a knotty bit of reasoning in the Gemara.

Most spectacular is when Lucky is instructed to “think” and embarks on a rapid-fire nonsense disquisition, delivered here with a grandiose Yom Kippur melody.

The New Yiddish Repertory production will open at “Happy Days”  on July 31st, kicking off ten days of Beckett-mania. (And if you can’t get to Ireland, there’s always the “Happy Days” Twitter feed, which recently tweeted — I kid you not — “Whoop whoop we are over 1K followers…thank you #Beckett fans #Beckettfest #Enniskillen ❤”)

Here’s a taste:


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.