This being the 20th-anniversary year of Samuel Beckett’s death, and with the Roundabout Theatre about to open the latest all-star production of his Waiting for Godot (on 30 April), I thought a little advanced discussion might be interesting and perhaps useful. The production, directed at Studio 54 by Anthony Page, will begin previews Friday, 3 April, and star Nathan Lane as Gogo, Bill Irwin as Didi, John Goodman as Pozzo, John Glover as Lucky, and Matthew Schechter as the messenger (boy). I have been interested in Godot, possibly the most famous absurdist play in the repertoire, since I first saw it in college, my university’s theater director, the late Lee Kahn, having been a pretty avid envelope-pusher. (This having been the mid-‘60s, the play was still relatively new.) Decades later, when I was in grad school (for the second time), I did a course project that involved a lot of historical research, dramatic interpretation, and theatrical analysis of the play. Here’s some of what I learned from my contemplation of Waiting for Godot, starting with some history of the play’s productions.
En attendant Godot was composed between 1947 and 1949 when Beckett was experiencing the first of two sustained creative bursts. The French version, whose title actually means “while waiting for Godot,” was published in 1952 and opened in Paris on 5 January 1953, for a run of more than 300 performances. The English version was published in New York in 1954, played at the Arts Theatre in London the following year, and had its American première at Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami on 3 January 1956. Bert Lahr, star of the Florida presentation, played Gogo again when the show moved to New York on 19 April, with E. G. Marshall as Didi, Kurt Kasznar as Pozzo, and Alvin Epstein as Lucky--all of whom repeated their roles for the Columbia Masterworks recording produced the same year. The play ran only 60 performances at the John Golden Theatre, but since then has been performed in twenty tongues--in such scattered parts of the world as Japan, Sweden, Yugoslavia, and Israel--and in all types of theaters: on campuses, in summer stock, in “little theaters,” and in prisons.
But almost every opening night of Godot has been marked by extreme reactions. The Paris production was hailed by many critics as a major dramatic breakthrough. No less a literary figure than Jean Anouilh declared in Arts-Spectacle on 27 January 1953:
Godot is a masterpiece that will cause despair for men in general and playwrights in particular. I think the opening night at the Théâtre de Babylone is as important as the opening of Pirandello in Paris in 1923 . . . .
En attendant Godot was first performed in the small auditorium of the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris after a workshop presentation, broadcast on French radio, in February 1952. It was directed by Roger Blin, a respected French director in the years after World War II, who also played Pozzo. Typical of the enthusiastic response--and most prophetic of all--was the opinion of Sylvain Zegel, who wrote in La Libération:
Theater-lovers rarely have the pleasure of discovering a new author worthy of the name; an author who can give his dialogue true poetic force, who can animate his characters so vividly that the audience identifies with them; who, having meditated, does not amuse himself with mere word juggling; who deserves comparison with the greatest . . . . In my opinion Samuel Beckett’s first play Waiting for Godot, at the Théâtre de Babylone, will be spoken of for a long time.
English-speaking audiences, which had not seen as much avant-garde drama as had the Parisians, reacted with mixed feelings. (The British première was heavily expurgated, as censorship in England was strict. Not until the end of 1964 did an unabridged version of the script get a British staging.) Peter Bull, who played Pozzo in the original British production directed by a young Peter Hall in 1955, witnessed a daunting occurrence. In his memoirs, I Know the Face, But . . ., he wrote:
I have a habit of comforting myself on first nights by trying to think of appalling experiences during the war, when terror struck from all sides, but the windiness felt on the Italian beachheads . . . was nothing to compare with one’s panic on that evening of August 3, 1955 . . . . Waves of hostility came whirling over the footlights, and the mass exodus . . . started quite soon after the curtain had risen. The audible groans were also fairly disconcerting.
Harold Hobson concluded his review in the London Times by saying: “Go and see Waiting for Godot. At the worst you will discover a curiosity, a four-leaved clover, a black tulip; at the best something that will surely lodge in a corner of your mind for as long as you live.” In The Observer, Kenneth Tynan, Hobson’s fellow doyen of London criticism, asserted, “It is vividly new, and hence I declare myself, as the Spanish would say, Godotista.” But the American critic Marya Mannes wrote acidly in New York’s The Reporter about the same London production:
The play concerns two tramps who inform each other and the audience at the outset that they smell. It takes place in what appears to be the town dump, with a blasted tree rising out of a welter of rusting junk including plumbing parts. They talk gibberish to each other and to two ‘symbolic’ maniacs for several hours, their dialogue punctuated every few minutes by such remarks as ‘What are we waiting for?’ ‘Nothing is happening,’ and ‘Let’s hang ourselves.’ The last was a good suggestion, unhappily discarded.
And surveying the London theater in 1957 for The Sewanee Review, Bonamy Dobreé said flatly about Godot:
. . . it is time to affirm that anything that can be called art must ultimately be in praise of life, or must at least promote acceptance of life, thus indicating some values.
Dobreé thus epitomized the widely-accepted view of the time that Beckett’s work, because of its “nihilism,” could not “be called art.”
In Miami, a large segment of the audience left in disgust before the curtain rose for act two. As director Alan Schneider put it in the Chelsea Review two years after the production closed:
Doing Godot in Miami was, as Bert Lahr [the original Gogo] himself said, like doing Giselle in Roseland. Even though Bert and Tommy [Ewell, who played Didi in Miami] each contributed brilliantly comic and extremely touching performances, . . . it was--in the words of the trade--a spectacular flop. The opening night audience in Miami, at best not too sophisticated or attuned to this type of material and at worst totally misled by advertising billing the play as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” walked out in droves. And the so-called reviewers not only could not make heads or tails of the play but accused us of pulling some sort of hoax on them.
The New York production of 1956 garnered a mixture of critical response. In the Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr wrote, “. . . Mr. Lahr has . . . been in touch with what goes on in the minds and hearts of the folk out front. I wish that Mr. Beckett were as intimately in touch with the texture of things.” In the New Republic, Eric Bentley dubbed Godot “like all modern plays . . . undramatic but highly theatrical.” He declared that “what has brought the play before audiences in so many countries--aside from snobberies and phony publicity--is its theatricality.” (Eleven years later, Bentley revised his estimation upwards.) On the other hand, for The New Yorker, Kenneth Tynan, already on record in London as praising the play, described the audience reaction: “And when the curtain fell, the house stood up to cheer a man [Bert Lahr] who had never before appeared in a legitimate play . . . . Without him, the Broadway production . . . would be admirable; with him, it is transfigured.” And the dean of New York critics, Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, calling the play “a mystery wrapped in an enigma,” wrote:
Although “Waiting for Godot” is a “puzzlement,” as the King of Siam would express it, Mr. Beckett is no charlatan. He has strong feelings about the denigration of mankind, and he has given vent to them copiously. “Waiting for Godot” is all feeling. Perhaps that is why it is puzzling and convincing at the same time. Theatregoers can rail at it, but they cannot ignore it. For Mr. Beckett is a valid writer.
At San Quentin Prison, on 19 November 1957, the inmates gathered in the converted gallows room responded as never before to a theatrical piece. The anonymous reviewer for the San Quentin News described this scene:
The trio of muscle-men, biceps overflowing . . . parked all 642 lbs. on the aisle and waited for the girls and funny stuff. When this didn’t appear they audibly fumed and audibly decided to wait until the house lights dimmed before escaping. They made one error. They listened and looked two minutes too long--and stayed. Left at the end. All shook . . . .
This presentation marked a link in the chain of productions of Beckett’s plays in prisons, something in which the writer took special interest. A few years earlier, a prisoner in Lüttringhausen Prison in Germany had staged a translation he had made from the original French edition. After the 1953 performances, the prisoner wrote Beckett:
You will be surprised to be receiving a letter about your play Waiting for Godot, from a prison where so many thieves, forgers, toughs, homos, crazy men and killers spend this bitch of a life waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting. Waiting for what? Godot? Perhaps.
The Irish première at the Pike Theatre in Beckett’s native Dublin, directed by Alan Simpson, was on 28 October 1955. The BBC having aired the play on radio in 1960, NET (the precursor to PBS) broadcast a TV version in 1961 directed by Alan Schneider from his Miami production script. The stars of the telecast, also shown in the U.K., were Zero Mostel as Gogo and Burgess Meredith as Didi with Kasznar and Epstein repeating their stage roles. Becket pronounced himself displeased with the television staging, principally because of the confinement of the small screen.
In more recent years, the play, still controversial, has continued to be produced all over the world. In 1984, Israeli director Ilan Ronen and the Haifa Municipal Theatre presented a bi-lingual production of Godot in Hebrew and Arabic (with Arab actors as Didi and Gogo and Jewish actors as Lucky and Pozzo). Mike Nichols directed a much-publicized staging of the play in New York at Lincoln Center in 1988; it starred Robin Williams as Gogo, Steve Martin as Didi, F. Murray Abraham as Pozzo and Bill Irwin, in what I believe was his first dramatic stage role, as Lucky. In 2001, British director Michael Lindsay-Hogg made a film version--despite Beckett’s own admonition in 1967 that he did not “want any film of Godot.” “An adaptation would destroy it,” the playwright insisted. British director Sean Mathias is directing Ian McKellen as Gogo and Patrick Stewart as Didi as his first production as artistic director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company. Dubbed the X-Men Godot (because both stars appeared in that film), it is touring Britain prior to opening in London on 30 April 2009.
Just as Sylvain Zegel predicted over half a century ago, Godot is still being “spoken of.” Regardless of the direction of the response--for or against--no one seems to be able to leave it alone. It stirs something in all audiences--be it anger or praise, but it stirs. Somehow that seems appropriately Beckettian--and, as the French say, godotesque.