Susan Sontag | Interview by Susan Sontag with Erika Munk

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Susan Sontag.
This section contains 3,462 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Susan Sontag with Erika Munk

Interview by Susan Sontag with Erika Munk

SOURCE: "Only the Possible: An Interview with Susan Sontag," in Theater, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1993, pp. 31-6.

In the following interview, Sontag discusses her production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo.

[Munk]: What did you hope to achieve, coming here?

[Sontag]: My original motivation was to work with professionals living here and produce for this audience. Had I made a film this would not have been possible. I could have used local people for lighting, etc., but the final work would be for an international audience—Sarajevans would get to see it if I gave them a print, but it wouldn't be for them, as it couldn't be by them. I don't know what they know: that's why the choice of theater seemed obvious. I can't just be here as a visitor or as an onlooker, I'm not gathering information to write an essay or a book. So I had the idea of theater—for want of a better word, an ethical idea. And then once I had decided to work in the theater, it was obvious to me that this was the play to do.

Did it ever occur to you that you'd be the only notable intellectual from the West to come to Sarajevo?

Yes. It was already obvious to me as a fact. What amazed me was that nobody else was coming and that it didn't occur to anybody else. So I hoped as a side effect—it certainly wasn't a principle intention—my coming here to work would make it clear that this was possible.

Possible, or desirable?

It's only the possible that I can show. Many people in the outside world asked, how do you get there?, because it isn't very real what or how serious a siege is, or what the bureaucratic routes are to enter the city. I could get journalist credentials, any writer can get journalist credentials. So I would say, get a press card. And they looked at me with astonishment. It's not a problem to get here.

The real failure is of imagination, abetted by ignorance of history. When people are astonished that there's theater in Sarajevo, I remind them that there was theater in Berlin, in 1945, under a much worse bombardment. People are so ill-informed. One person will say he's going to send me something express mail to Sarajevo, as if there's mail service, and another will ask whether I see a lot of bodies in the street, as if no one rescued the injured or took the dead away for burial.

Why did you decide to do just the first act of Godot, and to have three Gogos and Didis?

It's an absolutely unorthodox but, I think, valid reading because of the play's unique construction. The second act is formally—though not substantively—identical with the first act. Vladimir and Estragon are there, Pozzo and Lucky arrive, Pozzo and Lucky leave, Vladimir and Estragon are alone again, the messenger comes with the same message, and they are alone again. This is repeated. There are two endings, two departures, so they are tremendously deflated. Since it's the only play in world literature that's constructed this way, it's the only play you could do this with. I would not take the last two acts off Hamlet and say that by doing the first three I'd done Hamlet. But I think there is an argument to be made that you can do the whole of Waiting for Godot by doing only the words of the first act. You can—what's the right image?—you can pump it up, you can expand it, you can vary it so that you have a total experience.

I don't consider this a truncated production, I consider it first of all a production conceived for Sarajevo. You have to remember that I began the production process five weeks ago [July 1993], with the build-up of hope for another intervention, and that was going on for three of the five weeks we rehearsed. It seemed to me that it was more passionate, and crueler in a way, to have only the text of the first act but to expand it, so that you have three pairs of Vladimirs and Estragons. They do three variations on the theme of the couple, formally in terms of gender identity and gender behavior, and emotionally because they are very, very different, so I'm putting much more into the first act.

I wouldn't be surprised, you know—I have no evidence for this—if Beckett originally conceived the play as one act. I wouldn't be surprised to find that he started out thinking this was going to be only one day, and somewhere toward the end of writing the first act he thought, oh, I'll have the second day or the day after. The second act is, of course, much darker than the first. I regretted sacrificing Vladimir's speech at the end of the second act, and I thought of putting Iso back up on stage to give it—"the air is full of our cries"—but I thought, I really have done it, I've done it by tripling the Vladimirs/Estragons.

The staging also does something interesting to the play, with Pozzo and Lucky never moving down from the upper level although the Vladimirs and Estragons come on and off. Pozzo and Lucky, though they're only played by one actor each, become something like Lear and the Fool or a 70-year-old Clytemnestra and her, you know, apprentice character, and the Vladimirs and Estragons become at moments a Chorus, in the Greek sense, because except at the beginning and the end, da capo, they don't all say the same lines, the text is simply passed from one group to another. There was a lot of thought, as you can imagine, given to which segments of the text went to which couple and where to break, where to cut.

How did you decide what to give to whom?

I had an enlarged copy of the Grove Press edition, and I wrote the Bosnian above each line so I could learn what they were saying in relation to the English and vice versa. I also had a Bosnian script, and wrote the English above it. I watched them for a couple of days and I went chronologically. You could see my script, but even that wouldn't really tell you much. It was a musical thing, completely intuitive, depending on my sense of the balance. Though I tended to move serially from one couple to another, the moment in which I shifted was the one I sensed gave energy. It was like a piano score. At the very beginning and end, when each couple said the dialogue, I began with pair one, then two, then three, and ended in the reverse order, three-two-one.

Every two days I'd give the three couples more divisions, I didn't know up to the end who said what, because I was feeling their capacities and their emotional impact, imagining myself as spectator. I didn't come to the first rehearsal and say, on page three, the seventh line down, this goes to the two women, and then on page five, the fourth line from the top it goes to the other woman—I did it day by day, out of the rehearsal process. But it wasn't just done in relation to the actors, it was done in relation to the meaning of the text. There are certain things only men can say, most obvious being "oh an erection" and jumping up on the stage. But most of the other time it was those characters as they developed in relation to the text.

We worked up to Pozzo and Lucky—that's something like the first 20-25 minutes of the play—in the first two weeks, while I spent a few hours in the morning with Atko on Lucky's speech. I told him, in every version I'd seen of the play—I've only seen it in English, French, and German—I didn't understand the speech, I didn't hear the speech, it's said like nonsense, I want you to say it as if it makes perfect sense. I divided it into five parts, and I subdivided the parts and we talked about everything from stones to apotheia. And I said you must say this with great sincerity, not too fast, and we worked and we worked and worked on that speech. That was quite separate.

When the Vladimirs and Estragons watch Lucky dancing, they are his audience, but we are their audience….

And they turn their backs to us, exactly! Then it's divided into an A part, with Pozzo alone giving, as only Ines can do it, her signs of distress, the six being very attentive and silent, and a B part where they join in but at a lower vocal register—there was a tendency for a while in rehearsals for them to start outshouting each other though she always outshouts them—then there's this C, where they become silent again but she's going up, up, up, and then D, where they start to express their discomfort and distress and knock Lucky over, and Velibor crawls between his legs so that he can fall on Velibor's back. That actor weighs only 50 kilos and he has a hard time with the suitcase, which is empty but heavy.

And how did he manage his extraordinary dance?

Iso is trained in ballet and I tried for a long time to work out a ballet thing that started with him doing the five positions, then doing some elementary steps, and ending with—he was going to do 32 feuilletées like the Black Swan and Ines would count them and the others would start counting them, the way the audience always does at Swan Lake. But it didn't work. The stage is just a makeshift platform rather badly constructed without an absolutely flat floor. I've spent a lot of time with dancers, so I'm sympathetic to dancers' anxieties, and he could have really injured himself. I thought of bringing him down to the lower level of the stage but that didn't accord with the visual conception, so all that remains is those few turns at the end.

What was the actors' part in the interpretation? There were so many little things immediate to this situation—the Marlboros out of the hat, etc.—where did they come from?

It was absolutely a traditional rehearsal process, we read the script through about seven times around a table, discussed my idea of what the words meant and the intention of the play. All were very silent except Ines, and read their lines in an absolute monotone the way actors usually do because they don't want to give you anything, they want you to pull it out of them. But Ines was acting up a storm from day one—she's the grand dame of Sarajevo theater, a real star here, I picked her for those qualities. I didn't worry that she'd be over the top because Pozzo is over the top.

Occasionally the actors had little bits of business to suggest. Milijana, the junior of the two-women pair, teaches physical movement at the Academy and one day I saw her in the corner doing a headstand, and I thought, oh I have to put that in. Simply in their behavior they were suggesting things to me all the time. The only real idea that came from an actor was that Vladimir Number One would be a pickpocket, and I thought it was brilliant. What is Pozzo's distress? It's always about losing objects. And these objects do disappear one by one. He suggested it—fabulous! Then he developed it. Ends up taking a pair of pink underpants from Nada's pocket. Was there enough light to catch this the first time you saw it?

Yes. You had the solar lamps, for the opening.

Did you have trouble today?

No, but I already knew it was there.

We needed more candles. We expected to have electric light today and weren't fully prepared. The light failed on the tree on the left immediately. Anyway, you can do that sort of thing only if you have multiple Vladimirs and Estragons, with one set I wouldn't have done it but with three Vladimirs, why couldn't one of them be a pickpocket?

In a conventionally cast production, it would have been hopelessly over-topical.


Literal, local readings tend to take over in this situation. Do you think that's good thing?

I think people like to see a play which reflects their situation. For example, I could have had a child play the messenger, but I knew I wanted to use an adult because I wanted the others to be able to express rage. You can't be aggressive or manhandle a small child, so you end up with quite another meaning when this messenger is a sturdy handsome young man in shorts. I wanted to get their anger at him, people are so angry here.

This is not like any other staging of Beckett—I didn't want to do it in a Beckett style, whatever a Beckett style would be. I wanted to treat it as a passionate play, in which the actors would say their lines passionately. First of all that's what they're good at, this is the Eastern European style, and second it seems to me appropriate, there's no reason to do this play in any sense minimalistically, it would absolutely be wrong for here.

I saw Beckett's staging of Godot in Berlin, and read the notes that he took and the diary of his assistant. I was actually quite shocked by his production. To my surprise—I knew he thought this but I didn't realize as a director he would do it—its sources in silent film comedy dominated the reading of the characters. There were all sorts of Charlie-Chaplin-like routines, and it was clearly rooted in silent film comedy acts and characterizations, Laurel and Hardy, Keaton and Chaplin—archetypes—it was very funny, it was very fast, as if someone had taken literally Chekhov's declaration that Three Sisters was a comedy. I found it in short much too amusing.

Yours is the least amusing Godot I've ever seen.

Yes, this is the anti-Beckett-as-director Godot. I don't presume to judge Beckett as a director but he is someone who has only directed his own work. Clearly this is how he saw the play and he got exactly what he wanted from the German actors but it's not the way I saw Godot. I wanted to direct it for all the emotions the play inspires in me, which are very passionate.

Won't the Beckett purists be furious?

I don't know how anyone can be furious. I didn't receive a penny, I paid all my own expenses, I volunteered a month and a half of my life, the actors are working for nothing as is every person on the staff, the tickets are free, and it's Sarajevo. How can they object? This is a very extreme case of a not-for-profit production. I should think they'd be proud. I venture to say that there are more people in this besieged, mutilated city who have heard of Waiting for Godot than there are in Paris and London and New York. I'm stopped by children in the street who say to me in Bosnian, "Waiting for Godot!"—it's become a legend in this city. It's to the glory of this play that it should be played here.

Could you conceive of a similar Godot production in any other city right now?

No. Absolutely, it was done for here. I'd like to come back and do The Three Sisters, I think a lot of plays would work here.

Besides Three Sisters, what?

Trojan Women. Want more? I'm just going to depress you. Feydeau doesn't apply.

When I was in Zagreb a week ago a leading intellectual who shall remain nameless said to me, whatever possessed her to do Godot? People need to be entertained!

Only people who don't live here say that, and some of the journalists in the Holiday Inn. "Won't they find it depressing?" And I said, on the contrary, people are enthralled by something that mirrors life. If you were—it's a different art form, but let's say if you were in Theriesienstadt and you had permission to form a little ensemble and you wanted to play Beethoven quartets, would people say do a Strauss operetta? No, people want something that affirms the depth of their feelings. I didn't have any hesitation, I didn't have a thought that it would be redundant. That was suggested to me only by journalists. I'm confident that not one single person in Sarajevo feels that. I know the mood of the city.

What's so interesting about your production is that it has a political function, and a morale-building function, and a community-building function, all without being agitprop….

I've also done gender-blind casting in a country where the feminist agenda is barely visible—without ever making the point, but also without ever encountering any opposition. No one ever said, why is Pozzo played by a woman? That is absolutely innovative here. And I didn't want Pozzo to be played by a woman—I found one actor and one actor only who could play Pozzo and that actor happened to be a woman.

I read meaning beyond gender-blind casting into what you did with the three Vladimir-Estragon pairs, however. I thought, there's straight couple and two gay couples, one male and one female.

I didn't think it was necessary or interesting for the same-sex couples to be gay. I did try, however, to get the mixed couple to behave a little more like a heterosexual couple who might have been involved with each other, like a married pair. I'd tell them, you like each other, you're a married couple, you can touch each other, and the man would say, yeah, but it's an unhappy marriage. We'd have these crazy conversations, these very primitive conversations you have with actors. I'd say, yeah, but you still make love, and he'd say, we haven't made love for years, and I'd say, but you want to make love, so you can touch each other with a certain familiarity as people do who were once physically intimate. I got Irena to put her foot on his thigh, it was a struggle. But I didn't try very hard, because I don't think sexual input would add anything to the play. It's not that I'm shying away from it, it's just that basically these are bereft people who have banded together.

Why did you label the male couple Number One?

It was a kind of joke. A costume choice, and a joke. The actors used to say, I'm Estragon Number One, right? The real reason is, because they're the best.

That's why the two men are in the center?

You bet. If the mixed couple were the best actors I would have put them in the center. But I found myself, despite my original intentions, reaffirming something in Beckett's text by making the two men the main couple.

In October, after Sontag had made a return visit to Sarajevo, we spoke briefly on the phone: How did the performance look when you saw it again after being gone a month?

A big success—they're doing it four to five times a week, occasionally two performances a day. The actors are faster now and it's more energetic. In theater, the director is sent away and power goes to the actors—the opposite of film, where the actors are sent away and everything is done in the editing room.

If you do your Godot outside Sarajevo will you include the second act?

Yes. The primary reason not to do it was always that the performance would be too long. Nothing in that situation should be longer than an hour and a half, it's too much to ask. But doing the second act with only one Vladimir and one Estragon would fit the circumstances beautifully: the image of the shrunken world, Pozzo and Lucky reduced. The shape would be more narrative. I can imagine a narrower stage, the whole thing darker, just one spotlight, or one lit place in the center.

Do you think theater in Sarajevo is any use?

Don't ask the question of usefulness. I believe in right actions. Theater is what they do and I admire them for doing it, for always finding the feeling and expressing it.

Do you think the arts' community's efforts to maintain a transethnic culture have any chance of success?

Multicultural society will not survive. It is too much to ask the people of Bosnia to stick to this ideal when they are under attack by groups composed of single ethnicities, Serb or Croat. The people we like and admire won't turn into something else, they will leave and be replaced.

What did you do during your most recent visit?

I taught some classes at the Drama Academy. We also auditioned 20 17- and 18-year-olds for the entering class, ending up with five. You know, the rest of the University is shut down, but they're going on.

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