Minoru Betsuyaku wanted to be a painter, but his father died when he was 7, leaving him as the oldest of five sons. Everyone around him said that he would never be able to support his family as an artist, so he entered Tokyo’s Waseda University, resolved instead to become a newspaper journalist.
When he was swept up into the drama world there, his relatives remarked that at least painters could make some money — but theater people just ate up everything a family owned. As the now 69-year-old Betsuyaku quotes, “once a man starts working in theater or being a beggar, they can never stop.” Still he persevered, ultimately becoming a Japanese pioneer of absurdist playwriting.
Betsuyaku’s latest project is a production of “Godot Came,” a work that takes Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece, “Waiting for Godot,” to a new, post-absurdist level. In Beckett’s play — which was written by the Nobel Prize-winning Irishman in French in 1952 and not translated into English till 1954 — two characters, Estragon and Vladimir, wait in a wasteland for the mysterious Godot, whose significance is never explained and who never appears. “Waiting for Godot” was immediately received as — and remains to this day — the height of the theater of the absurd. In an interview with The Japan Times about his new production, Betsuyaku discusses his own understanding of Godot.
What was the theater scene in Japan like when you were a student in the 1960s?
There were two major theater circles at Waseda, and there were hundreds of students in each group, as theater was such a big movement then. We normally did two big productions a year, and the rest of the time we were always having meetings and debates. But we were also heavily involved in political demonstrations. Those involved in theater there at that time were all student activists as well. Mainly we did social realist plays, such as Gerhart Hauptmann’s “Die Weber (A Weaver).” Even though we were an amateur students’ company, we attracted a lot of attention and had a big influence on society.
What did you think when you first read Beckett?
Japan was almost 10 years behind the Western absurdist drama movement, so we first experienced it in the ’60s. Modern “realistic” drama was starting to feel too patterned, and I felt that human beings were basically mysterious and that daily life is so absurd we don’t know what to expect next. In Beckett’s plays, there is no conflict between good and bad, just indefinite people in nonsense situations. That’s all. I felt that this absurdist approach was fresh and fertile.
Why did you have Godot arrive?
With it being Beckett’s centenary last year, there have been lots of stagings of “Waiting for Godot,” but the tendency has been for it to become more serious, when it is primarily a comedy. Beckett wanted Buster Keaton (the American silent-movie comedian) to play Estragon, but unfortunately it did not happen. I wanted to bring it back to comedy.
In “Waiting for Godot,” it is fundamental that Godot will never appear. In today’s Japan, people only rarely have a chance to experience something in reality, but they get a huge amount of information from different sources, so they may understand things intellectually without having any actual experience of them. Therefore, I thought that if Godot came today, people would not be able to meet him or experience the drama of the meeting. People nowadays understand the meaning of waiting for Godot but not the experience of meeting him.
How have you changed the original?
There is a view that “Waiting for Godot” is a about Beckett’s wartime espionage activities in France. If I read it that way, Pozzo and Lucky (supporting roles) could be killers chasing spies, so I hinted at that. Also, I can see Estragon as someone with a mother-complex, so I mentioned her, and in contrast I gave a son to Vladimir. This extra detailed background had been in my imagination when I read the original in the ’60s. I have tried to give a more earthy meaning to roles that have become deified.
Some might criticize you for revising a classic.
Plays should be altered to suit the situation or place or community, and I encourage people to modify mine and sometimes ask people to do them in their local dialect. Theater is about handing down tradition and converting it to fit its current context. This is becoming more difficult due to the gap between generations. It is sometimes said that an American bakery will aim to become a nationwide chain, whereas a French one aims to ensure the bakery is in good condition for the grandchildren to carry on. Generally, even in the arts, people now tend to go the American bakery’s way for economic reasons, but I think that theater at least should stick with the French bakery’s method of transmission.
What themes do you want to address next?
Family relationships have collapsed in Japan today, so in this country there is now a big reform of fundamental human relationships going on, and I need to trace this phenomenon as a scriptwriter.
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