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NEW YORK FOLKLORE NEWSLETTER Summer 1998
NYFS Newsletter 1998-vol19-no3-1
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Spring/Summer 1999 Newsletter

Waiting for Go Dot
Steve Zeitlin

My daughter’s assignment was a simple one. She and two friends had to choose a scene from a play to perform for their language arts class. First they tried a scene from Peter Pan, then the witches scene from Macbeth. But nothing seemed right to this feisty group of 12-year-olds. Without telling me, they set out for the library. When they saw it was closed, they wandered a few blocks away to a used bookstore. Together, they managed to scrounge up a dollar in change. They asked the bookstore owner what plays were available at that price. "What did you get?" I asked when they returned. "Waiting for Go Dot," my daughter answered. A used paperback version.

"Waiting for Godot?" I threw a fit. The performance was due the next day! Since it was too late to even read the book, they went with another play. But a few days later my daughter did pore over Waiting for Godot. She was interested in it, she told me, because the cover said that it was a "tragic comedy." She thought that sounded "cool." When she finished, she declared it her favorite play.

A few days later, I reread the play, recalling lines I’d long ago forgotten—the absurd conversations: Vladimir: "We met yesterday. Do you not remember?" Pozzo [answering]: "I don’t remember having met anyone yesterday. But tomorrow I won’t remember having met anyone today. So don’t count on me to enlighten you." Or Pozzo saying, we "give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more." My daughter thought Vladimir and Estragon were hilarious. She especially liked the way they said, "let's go," at the end of each act, then stayed in the same place. She seemed to relate to Beckett’s famous bums a bit like an old capodimonte ceramic of two vagabonds on a park bench that my brother and I saw in a shop window when we were her age and tried to convince my parents to buy.

In college I’d studied Godot as part of what was then the new Theatre of the Absurd. At the time, it epitomized the appalling absurdity of life that my whole generation seemed to grasp at the same existential moment. Reading the play 25 years later, it meant something different. Now the meaninglessness of the cosmos is simply a given. Instead, the play spoke to me about the meaning hidden in relationships—like those, now decades old, I share with my brothers and my wife. Half the time we’re saying things to one another we’ve said a million times before. Yet, as one person put it, we’ve "refined our communication into a work of art."

That’s the wonderful thing about art—the way it becomes a part of our folklore, part of what Barbara Myerhoff called our "equipment for living." We think of it as existing separately from us, but we make it meaningful when we watch or read and when we share it. We add layers of meaning as we personalize it, and it becomes part of family stories and traditions. Layers of meaning are transposed onto our lives as metaphors, rendering our own lives more artful. It is sometimes convenient to divide art into "high" or classical arts; popular arts, disseminated through mass production and mass media; and folk arts, aptly defined by Dan Ben Amos as "artistic communication in small groups." But all art is experienced at the folk level. Opera is experienced as a culture of opera goers; not many people go to the opera or the movies alone. Movies and sit coms are fodder for family stories and expressions.

In John Suter’s family, for instance, the "get it, got it, good" lines from Danny Kay’s film, The Court Jester, reverberate through his family’s folklore. In our family, Rob Reiner’s delightful movie, The Princess Bride, figures heavily in our folklore. In one scene, the hero is carried all but dead to "Miracle Max" in hopes of miraculously reviving him. "It just so happens," observes Max, "that your friend here is only mostly dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. All dead there’s usually only one thing you can do . . . go through his pockets and look for loose change." In one week in our family, I used those lines in a commentary about the threats to the National Endowment for the Arts, my son Ben used them in a school skit, and my daughter Eliza to describe a dead or dying bug. Folklorists have a great deal to contribute to understanding how popular and the so-called "high" arts are used in families and relationships as tools for building culture at the most intimate levels.

In college, I was affected by Vladimir and Estragon trying to find a piece of rope long enough to hang themselves. Now, the relationship between them seems a bit like the worn coat Vladimir uses to cover Estragon. The art that most affects me these days, I seem to stumble on unexpectedly. And no matter how many people are in a theater, it’s always personal. How it strikes depends on where I am at a particular point in time. This time around, Godot reminded me of my aging relatives. In one family story, my cousin Marc Wallace was mixing drinks when he called out to my uncle in the living room, "Do we have any vodka?" His father answered, "Did you say latkes?" At which point, his mother in the kitchen called out, "You want matzos?" "Vodka? Latkes? Matzos?" became a full-fledged family expression in the Wallace family. They’d make Samuel Beckett proud.



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Photo of Steve Zeitlin
Steve Zeitlin. Photograph courtesy of City Lore
Steve Zeitlin is director of City Lore and a commentator for the radio show "Artbeat," heard on National Public Radio. His column is a regular feature of the newsletter.



That’s the wonderful thing about art—the way it becomes a part of our folklore, part of what Barbara Myerhoff called our “equipment for living.” We think of it as existing separately from us, but we make it meaningful when we watch or read and when we share it.



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