A Secret Godot
What I thought I was, was a young playwright, but that’s another story. While I was in that mode, however, a lot of interesting things happened. This is one. My life was a wee schizophrenic. Half of my year was in America working as a disaster loss adjuster dancing across rooftops in half-destroyed cities. The other half was living in Paris, writing plays. It was the Sixties. The old crowd of famous people were getting pretty old, but my nights in La Coupole still might get me a table next to Picasso or my coffee at Les Deux Magots into a conversation with Sartre. Things were still democratic. Social divisions were along lines of interest not how much money one had. I’ve had dinner with a poet on one side of me who didn’t know which bridge he’d sleep under that night. On my other side was a man who had several chateaux. It was, in fact, in the famous artists’ watering-dining hole, La Coupole, that I met a young man who was one of the budding Parisian prodigies. He would walk in and everyone would comment, “Oh, there’s Philippe!” He had become famous at 18 by producing a very successful play, a Tennessee Williams if my memory serves me well. When we met I think he was a ripe 21. We struck it off. He was younger than I, but we were both still in our twenties and played fairly serious tennis. In fact, I met the marvelous lady who was my long time partner on his parents’ tennis court. Philippe was also interested in my plays and, incongruously, we two specialists of the avant garde theater both loved sports cars. So why not strike it off. However, he had a secret project. Samuel Beckett had two favorite Irish actors who had already worked with him, Patrick Magee, aka McGee, for whom Beckett wrote Krapp’s Last Tape and Jack McGowran who had played Lucky in Waiting For Godot at the Royal Court Theatre in London, but the two Irishmen had never acted together. Philippe Staib’s idea was to get the two actors to do Godot in Paris in English. Beckett, who lived in Paris was all for it. The two actors had agreed and, I believe with evil aforethought, he had hired a talented, but temperamental, young English director. So we had an Irish playwright, two Irish actors, and an Englishman. This was when the IRA was still blowing things up in their war with the English. Philippe rented the small, but excellent theatre, the Studio des Champs Elysees. The actors and director arrived and in Beckett’s presence rehearsals began. I, of course, was there for every minute of it. The director, whose name I forget, was young, making a name for himself in London, and he had both a strong idea of how he wanted things done and a full-blown ego. Sam Becket often disagreed with him as did the actors. After a week or so, he said to Beckett “If you don’t like the way I see your play then you bloody well can do it yourself!’ and stormed out en route back to England. Despite my friendship with Philippe I never dared raise the idea that he had deliberately foreseen this, but I have always been convinced he did. It was a catastrophe. Philippe had a significant investment made, both financially and professionally. So he tried to get Beckett to, in fact, direct his own play, a thing Sam had never done. He kept saying no, no, but there were emotional ties, Irish ties, and theatrical ties running in all directions. Finally he said yes and it all started over. The rehearsals would end in the late evening when Philippe and Beckett and I would head for La Coupole or go to the marvelous English pub restaurant Le Falstaff on the rue Montparnasse and talk about the day’s progress or theatre in general. Beckett, so known for his scarcity of words was constantly a bit anxious about the directing experience, but excited by it and by the Magee and McGowran team so the words flowed generously in the restaurant. The play was scheduled for a limited run, because back then there were few French who spoke English and the English or Americans in Paris were a rarity and Godot was still considered an incomprehensible bit of avant gardism, but the theater was filled. Because an English language play was such a rare occasion I’m not even certain if it was reviewed beyond the International Herald Tribune. I do know that when the French equivalent of the New York Times did a full page piece about Beckett for his 100th anniversary the Beckett production was not in his credit list. So this has been a well kept secret for a bit over 50 years. I don’t know if Philippe got his coffers replenished, but one Jack Siler had the kind of intense, two-months-long, artistic experience that’s a once in a lifetime.