The Challenge of Godot in Yiddish: Talking to Actor Richard Saudek

By Amy Handelsman

The New Yiddish Rep’s Waiting for Godot—in Yiddish with English supertitles—runs through January 27th at the the Theater at the 14th Street Y. Tickets available here. Current LABA fellow Richard Saudek appears as Lucky. 

Saudek’s brilliant clown show boop beep appears Februrary 6th through 17th, also at the Theater of the 14th Street Y. Tickets for beep boop available here.

In Samuel Beckett’s revolutionary play, Waiting for Godot, we see two sad sacks in bowler hats and suspendered pants: Estragon (nicknamed Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi). Gogo sits on a stone, and Didi stands by a tree, as they wait for the appearance of someone named Godot.

A young boy appears at nightfall, saying Mr. Godot won’t make it today but will surely come tomorrow. And so Vladimir and Estragon wait and wait, discussing all manner of things (including whether or not to hang themselves), their boredom interrupted by two less prominent but equally critical characters, Pozzo and Lucky, master and slave.

Lucky appears first, bent over with a shambling walk, his long hair obscuring his face, and holding two suitcases and a stool. A rope is tied around his neck, leading Pozzo, the abusive ringmaster who whips him, barking orders and calling him Pig. Just as Didi and Gogo seem locked eternally together, so do Pozzo and Lucky; it feels that they’ve been and will be together forever in Beckett’s bleak and timeless (in both senses of the word) landscape of existential torment and ennui.

Beckett, who emigrated from his native Ireland to live in Paris, wrote the play in French, later in English. Godot has been performed in countless venues and languages through the world. At the 14 St Y Theater, Roni Muszkatblit directs Waiting for Godot in Yiddish (with supertitles), a language remarkably suited for the resigned kvetching of the play. Godot features native speakers David Mandelbaum as Gogo, Eli Rosen as Didi, and Gera Sandler as Pozzo. Richard Saudek, a non-Yiddish speaking actor, clown, and 2018-19 LABA fellow, rounds out the quartet as Lucky.

I spoke to Saudek about inhabiting his role, how physicality combines with the verbiage of a nonsensical monologue, how the play lands in Yiddish, and what it means for audiences today.

Here is our conversation, edited for clarity and length:

Q. How did it come about that [Director] Ronit Muszkatblit asked you to do the role of Lucky?

A. Originally, another guy was doing it and dropped out. She saw me in [my production of] beepboop and thought of me and the physicality.

Q. What was the rehearsal process like to find your stance and walk before you do your big monologue?

A. The huge hurdle was that I’d have to do the monologue in Yiddish and I don’t know Yiddish. From the beginning, Ronit wanted to work on the monologue in English so that I didn’t have that big hurdle and to find the beats to work with the character.

We’d focus on one piece at a time and most of the physicality came with working alongside Pozzo and the others and following along with my script and reacting.

Q. What’s going on with your character before your long speech?

A. The one big tension is my relationship Pozzo. I am enslaved and abused by him. I need him and I am dependent on him. There are also the props. The suitcases are helpful weights to make a pendulum of myself, a kind of metronome feeling.

Q. Why does Pozzo want to get rid of Lucky?

A. It’s an empty threat. They are perpetually on their way to the point of selling Lucky.

Q. But they need each other.

A. When we next see Pozzo, he’s blind, so his co-dependency on Lucky is heightened. He does believe he will sell him, that’s their destination, and Lucky believes that, too.

Q. How are you reacting to the other two actors on stage?

A. Any interaction I am have with [Didi and Gogo], I think of as a wounded guard dog. It’s okay if Pozzo he says I am driving him mad, but if anyone else says it, I bristle.

Q. How did you come to wear that long wig that totally obscures your face?

A. The wig changed everything. Since you saw it, Ronit gave me a note to bring my head up and out, to connect with the audience more so my eyes can convey sympathy and empathy. It’s completely different.

Q. Have you done backstory work on your character? We don’t know much about who Lucky is or where he came from in the text.

A. There’s stuff in the play, but not explicit or detailed. What I was going off on in my mind is that even though there’s a past [between Lucky and Pozzo], their relationship has gone on forever and will go on forever. It will only change by degrees.

I do believe that Lucky was a cultured, articulate, expressive, talented, artistic man, representative of cultural distinction, good at various finer things in life.

Q. What happened to him?

A. That’s a good question. [pause]

I don’t know; whatever happened to everybody in this world and made it such. Everyone seems affected. When the world became like that, Lucky was rendered only useful to carry luggage. And, when he tries to think, all thoughts are shattered on the ground.

Q. The monologue is so disjointed. How does an actor do that monologue, particularly in another language?

A. It’s very hard. You use parts of your brain you never use. To do it in a language you don’t speak, you learn it phonetically. It’s just hard, it’s a lot of time and repetition. You go back to the meaning of words and then you start to string intention into all of it.

You start from just sounds and learning the sounds and the order of the sounds. When you read it in your native tongue, you respond to the meaning; but after repeating the words, they lose their meaning. Your brain starts to make connections later on, even if it’s in a different language; the sounds pieced together make structural sense.

Q. Like music?

A. Yes, like music.

Q. How long does the monologue last?

A. About six or seven minutes.

Q. Do you run your lines beforehand or are you in the moment and trust that the words are in you?

A. I run it before, and yeah, it hopefully becomes in you. But it’s very difficult, doing it in a language I don’t know. It’s hard for me to unlearn habits from the beginning, like intonations.

Q. As a character, do you register what’s going on with Didi and Gogo?

A. Not broadly. It’s more moment to moment, small things here and there. It depends on which stage of sleep Lucky is in. I am minimally reactive when there’s a [verbal] tennis match. I think I relish their relationship and different qualities and how each of them speaks. There really is musicality in the language. You surf it, you ride it around. It should be kind of buoyant and it should be lightly paced.

Q. How do you think it lands in Yiddish vs. English or French? It seems so right in Yiddish.

A. I feel the same way. There’s a kind of keening quality to speaking Yiddish and it sounds like you’re wailing into a void.

It could be a cultural connection with history. I think both sounds and our connections, where it is and where we’ve been and how it’s petered out. It works with the contexts and connections of with the show. David [Mandelbaum] says it has a similar feel to an Irish brogue. They both lend themselves to existential kvetching.

Q. Could you speak about the cultural and historical connections to the Yiddish language?

A. It has a lot to do with tapping into that by way of sound. The language, the way it feels in your mouth and the way it sounds. Those are the ways you tap into—oppression or cultural dying-outed-ness. That’s where physical stuff comes in. You switch that switch that’s coming from someone. Neither my family nor my family history has [experienced] it.

Q. What’s your family’s origins?

A. I just found out my grandfather’s grandmother was the first Jew in Milwaukee. Other than that, I was raised atheist, not Jewish. I converted to Judaism five or six years ago.

Q. How did you come to convert?

A. It was six long years to coming around to the decision to do it [before I got married]. But in the end it was simple: I wasn’t losing anything, but gaining something.

Q. Can you talk a little about the derivation of the dance you do before the monologue?

A. I didn’t think much about it. It came from the stance. It’s changed a bit into the run, it’s more “caught in a net,” à la Martha Graham, a pushing-away kind of look. Like the idea of being a cretinous, bent-over character with some life in outermost extremities—the heels, feet, wrists, and hands.

Q. In the second act, Lucky spends a long time prone on the stage. What’s it like to be laid out like that?

A. It’s very relaxing. It’s lovely. A few moments when I move, it’s planned out, but I am dead to the world, listening and zoned out. It’s nice.

Q. Do you think Lucky is a Fool character, like Shakespeare’s Fools?

A. In that he has wisdom not easily expressed? He doesn’t come to express it. He drives the three characters crazy when he’s talking. There’s an unleashed power, but it’s in spite of Lucky and he’s not able to convey the higher truth. It’s inarticulate.

Q. What does he say in that monologue?

A. He talks about public works of Puncher and Wattman. The unfinished works of two distinct academies that are made up of double-entendres, crudely named (at least in French), with made-up words and repeats “for reasons unknown, but time will tell.” It borders on not making sense. He repeats “qua, qua, qua, qua,” as if this or as if that. It sounds crazy. He says acccccademy, apathia, athambia, aphasia, Latinate sounds. He brings up other people that sound like they might be real, important people, but they‘re not. He goes into the physical, sports: tennis, football, running cycling, swimming, flying floating, riding, gliding, skating, a lot of tennis. He lists things. He recites findings. He says these things cannot be argued with; they are certain. “This is established beyond all doubt,” but then he contradicts himself. There a long bit about earth, air, stones, water. It’s crazy. It’s the kinds of thing that make you go crazy because it’s close to making sense. It’s easy to read into what it might mean, close to making sense, but he doesn’t make the connections. Just because it doesn’t make sense, though, doesn’t mean there isn’t a logic.

Q. How would you describe Waiting for Godot to someone who is not familiar with the play?

A. I would frame it as the most important play of the 20th century. It puts into play those feelings of existentialism and questions about our purpose in a bleak landscape more than any show. We know art like that and are probably more prepared to see the show these days as a society [than when it was first produced in 1953].

Q. And yet it’s very humorous.

A. At the end of the day, it’s very influenced by vaudeville and clown. These are the things you’re laughing about—your bleak existence.