Terry Teachout: Teach In!

Terry Teachout is a knockout.

He writes a lively blog (About Last Night), recently authored a well-received biography of Louis Armstrong, and contributes regular theater reviews to the Wall Street Journal.

And on Friday there was this:

The Cowardly Lion Waits for Godot

How a baggy-pants comedian did justice to a stage masterpiece


Bert Lahr, who died in 1967, is best remembered for having played the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 film version of “The Wizard of Oz.” That’s not a bad way to crash posterity, but in his day Mr. Lahr was better known as Broadway’s most beloved low comedian, a scene-stealing burlesque clown who cavorted to convulsively funny effect through such musicals as Cole Porter’s “DuBarry Was a Lady” and Harold Arlen’s “Life Begins at 8:40.” So it was quite a surprise when the producer of the first Broadway production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” soon to be hailed as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, proudly announced in the spring of 1956 that Mr. Lahr would be the star of his show. What on earth, people asked, had possessed the Cowardly Lion to commit himself to so patently misguided a venture?

The answer came on the morning after “Godot” opened. Every critic who covered the show heaped praise on Mr. Lahr, and the most perceptive ones saw that his performance was profoundly true to the spirit of the play. Though Mr. Lahr was no kind of intellectual, he had instinctively understood what Mr. Beckett was up to. “I know it’s supposed to be tragic, but there are lots of gags,” he told his agent after reading the script. So there are, for “Godot” is a Laurel-and-Hardyesque farce about the meaninglessness of life. Even those critics who, like Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, found it hard to stomach the play’s dark vision were staggered by the crazed beauty of Mr. Lahr’s acting: “His long experience as a bawling mountebank has equipped Mr. Lahr to represent eloquently the tragic comedy of one of the lost souls of the earth.”

The production lasted a short 10 weeks. But . . .

Goddard Lieberson, who produced original-cast albums for Columbia Records, had the brilliant idea to record a complete performance of the play. The existence of the resulting album, which has been out of print for the past quarter century, is no secret, but its longstanding unavailability has caused it to be overlooked by most people who write about “Godot.” Even John Lahr, the comedian’s younger son, fails to mention it in “Notes on a Cowardly Lion,” the uniquely perceptive biography of his father that he wrote in 1969.

It is, therefore, stop-press news for anybody who loves great theater that the 1956 recording of “Godot” is available once again, not as a CD but as an MP3-only sound file that you can download from Amazon for $3.56, or from iTunes for $5.99. (You can find it on either site by searching for “Bert Lahr.”) Culturally speaking, I’d call that the deal of the decade.

Culturally speaking, I’d call Terry Teachout a dean of the decade.

Tell me I’m wrong after you read this passage (sorry to quote so much, but can’t help myself):

Speaking as a working drama critic, I must confess that listening to Mr. Lahr’s “Godot” is a humbling experience, because it reminds you of how excruciatingly hard it is to describe in words what actors do onstage. In “Notes on a Cowardly Lion,” John Lahr quotes from his father’s favorite review of the show, which was written by Kenneth Tynan, the great English drama critic: “‘I’m going,’ says Mr. Lahr. ‘We can’t go,’ snaps his partner. ‘Why not?’ pleads Mr. Lahr. ‘We’re waiting for Godot,’ comes the reply. Whereat Mr. Lahr raises one finger with an ‘Ah!’ of comprehension which betokens its exact opposite, a totality of blankest ignorance.”

That happens to be one of my all-time favorite descriptive passages from a theater review, one that I like to cite in the classroom when showing students how to convey in words the essence of an art form that is only partly verbal. But to actually hear Lahr exhaling the preposterously ecstatic “Aaaaaaaaah!” that was preserved for all time on the 1956 recording of “Godot” is…well, it is to weep. Not even Mr. Tynan, gifted though he was, came within a country mile of suggesting Mr. Lahr’s idiot bliss. How miraculous, then, that we can now know just what it sounded like 54 years later! If anything justifies the existence of the phonograph, this is it.

As I said: Teach In!

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