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‘Your Godot was our Godot’: Beckett’s global journeys

Waiting for Godot has been performed in many languages and in many contexts: in prisons, in apartheid South Africa, in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and during the Siege of Sarajevo. Andrew Dickson examines the ways in which Samuel Beckett's play has resonated in different communities and political climates.

On 10 February 1956, a long, anonymous essay appeared in the Times Literary Supplement about a play that had been staged in London the previous August, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.[1] Although it had been presented at a tiny fringe theatre, the production had generated an astonishing amount of controversy. The majority of the reviewers had been hostile, even dismissive – most notoriously the hugely respected critic Bernard Levin, who branded it ‘a remarkable piece of twaddle’. Some, such as the Observer’s forward-thinking Kenneth Tynan, had defended it.[2]

Production photographs of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1953 premiere at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris)

Production photographs of Waiting for Godot, 1953

Lucien Raimbourg (Vladimir), Roger Blin (Pozzo) and Pierre Latour (Estragon) star in the 1953 Paris premiere of En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot).

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But the TLS argued that everyone had missed the point about Waiting for Godot: quite obviously, the play was a ‘modern morality play’, and like the morality plays of the medieval period that were its model, it was heavily Christian in its symbolism. The tramps Vladimir and Estragon represented the fallen state of mankind, Godot was God, while the bare tree that appears alongside them was (variously) the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis and the Cross on which Christ was hanged.

Far from silencing the debate, the essay merely initiated another round, with the TLS deluged by letters from academics and self-appointed experts. One critic argued it was an existentialist piece straight out of Sartre. The following week, another weighed in, declaring that Godot embodied – surely – Beckett’s own rage at his Irish religious upbringing. Other correspondents rushed to correct the assumption that the playwright was Catholic. Beckett himself wasn’t much help: asked the year before by Alan Schneider, who went on to direct Godot in the United States, what it was really about, he said, ‘If I knew, I would have said so in the play’.[3]

What Beckett was perhaps getting at is that hesitating to say what Godot is really about, or where it’s really going, is entirely the point. Hesitation is hinted at in the endless present participle of its title (‘Waiting’), and it is unavoidable in a carefully repeated piece of business that occurs on stage:

ESTRAGON: Well, shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Yes, let’s go.
[They do not move.][4]

A discourse on the nature of being? A droll vaudevillian gag? Both, and perhaps neither. The subtle indefinition that frustrated Godot’s first audiences is, six decades on, understood as an index of its greatness. The setting precisely laid out by the stage directions – a ‘country road’, a tree, evening, two waiting men – isn’t anything other than what it is. But then nothing is quite as it seems.

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, 1954 American edition

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, 1954 American edition

‘A country road. A tree. / Evening.’: Stage directions from Act 1 of Waiting for Godot.

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Two Men Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich

Two Men Contemplating the Moon by Caspar Friedrich

Two Men Contemplating the Moon – a 19th century oil painting by German Romantic artist, Caspar David Friedrich – is one of the visual inspirations for Godot, first evoked by the play’s iconic opening scene setting.

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Usage terms Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden/Bridgeman Images

Even the text is not nearly as stable as is sometimes assumed. Although the bilingual Beckett originally composed the play in French as En attendant Godot, he later translated it into English, adjusting as he went, and hundreds of subtle differences – some almost too subtle to notice – remain. Further alterations were introduced at the request of the British theatre censor when the play was first staged in London, and though they were later overturned, the American version of the play and the British Faber edition in The Complete Dramatic Works (1986) retain them. Elmar Tophoven’s German translation, created in 1953 soon after the first French version, is different again; Beckett’s own version altered when he rehearsed the play in another German translation in 1975. Even now, it is almost impossible to say exactly which text of Godot is the ‘correct’ one, or even which language it should be in. It is even harder to confirm which one the author – a sly master of riddles, puns and double meanings – really preferred.[5]

Censored script of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Typescript of Waiting for Godot, with the Lord Chamberlain Office's deletions

The Lord Chamberlain, the British censor, required 12 passages to be cut from Waiting for Godot before its public performance. Here, the censor’s pink line marks a passage where Vladimir buttons his fly after Estragon has pointed it out to him.

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Notebook for Samuel Beckett's Schiller production of Warten auf Godot (Waiting for Godot)

Notebook for Samuel Beckett's Schiller production of Warten auf Godot (Waiting for Godot)

When directing the play in Berlin in 1975, Beckett introduced changes and cuts to the text.

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© Beckett International Foundation, University of Reading

‘An affront to the serious theatregoer’

In order to protect the integrity of the plays, the Beckett estate has refused permission to productions it deems to be too remote from the author’s vision. However, despite this, Waiting for Godot has proved itself remarkably adaptable to any variety of contexts. Perhaps perversely, it is those very restrictions that have increased its adaptability: by directors being forced to work with abstract symbols such as the road and the tree instead of redesigning the scenario to suit themselves, audiences have the freedom to interpret that setting in their own terms. For, though it might seem timeless, like all great plays Godot is anything but. As Ronan McDonald has written: ‘If Waiting for Godot has an appeal or meaning that endures, it is not because it speaks directly to an ahistorical human condition, but rather because it can come alive in various contexts and historical moments … This is one of the fundamental ironies’.

One common thread, however, is the way the play has come alive in places where making any kind of theatre at all seems impossible. The story of Godot’s American premiere has become infamous: Schneider tried the production out in Miami in January 1956, ill-advisedly advertising it as the ‘laugh hit of two continents’, and most ticket-buyers walked out (by the curtain call, only Tennessee Williams and a handful of others were left).[6]

But others felt a deep connection. When the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop performed the play in San Quentin Prison (one of the grimmest jails in California) in November 1957, it found its audience.[7] The company used the prison gallows as their stage and were watched by 1,400 inmates. Initially many were confused, but the drama gradually won them over. Speaking many years later to the Observer, inmate Rick Cluchey recalled his cellmate commenting, ‘everyone was puzzled until one guy came in with a rope around his neck and another guy whipping him and guess what his name was? Lucky!’[8]

Cluchey, sentenced to life without parole for armed robbery, had himself not been permitted to attend, but was nonetheless inspired to stage it again five years later, playing Vladimir and using a boxing ring for a stage. ‘Waiting for Godot resonates with the incarcerated’, he wrote, ‘because it depicts a vacant landscape and characters imprisoned within themselves, but with great humour’. Cluchey would later direct other Beckett plays, and he and the playwright would become good friends.[9]

Manuscript annotations by Samuel Beckett in a copy of Waiting for Godot for a production by the San Quentin Drama Workshop

Manuscript annotations by Samuel Beckett in a copy of Waiting for Godot

In 1984 the San Quentin Drama Workshop produced Waiting for Godot for the Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia. Rick Cluchey starred as Pozzo, and Beckett supervised the production for ten days during rehearsals in London.

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© Beckett International Foundation, University of Reading

This was not even the first performance in a jail setting: as early as 1954, Beckett was moved to receive a note from a man identifying himself only as ‘Un Prisonnier’ informing him that an unauthorised translation had been performed at Lüttringhausen Prison near Düsseldorf. ‘Your Godot was our Godot,’ the prisoner wrote.[10] Many others have followed, in penitentiary systems as varied as Florida and Sweden.

During the apartheid era in South Africa, a country riven with violent tensions between the disenfranchised black majority and the whites who controlled the state, Godot seemed an obvious reference point, but Beckett – who in 1963 had signed up to the ‘cultural boycott’ – had to be persuaded to let the play be staged. Eventually, the director Benjy Francis succeeded in 1976 with an all-black cast at Johannesburg’s newly opened, racially integrated Market Theatre, which became known as South Africa’s ‘theatre of the struggle’. Performed less than a month after the Soweto Uprising, which led to nationwide protests that left nearly 600 dead, this Godot was a tumultuous experience, but one not lacking in hope: at the beginning of Act 2, Francis instructed his designer to make the all-important tree sprout green leaves.[11]

Playwrights Against Apartheid, with letters from Dennis Brutus and Samuel Beckett

Playwrights Against Apartheid, with letters from Dennis Brutus and Samuel Beckett

Handwritten letter from Samuel Beckett (13 May 1963), in response to the Playwrights Against Apartheid campaign organised by Freda Troup: ‘I am in entire agreement with your views and prepared to refuse performance except before non-segregated audiences’.

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Samuel Beckett: © The Estate of Samuel Beckett. The above selected images reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Samuel Beckett c/o Rosica Colin Limited, London.

Four years later, a mixed production directed by the visiting British playwright Donald Howarth in Cape Town, with the black actor-activists John Kani and Winston Ntshona in the lead, was even more pointed, with subtle localisations of the text including the introduction of a Xhosa lullaby. As well as successfully fuelling controversy in South Africa itself – one white letter-writer fulminated that for black actors to play Vladimir and Estragon opposite white actors as Lucky and Pozzo was ‘an affront to the serious theatregoer and an unforgivable bastardisation of one of the great plays of this century’ – the production became internationally famous after it transferred to London and New York.[12] Over a decade before apartheid finally came to an end, the poignancy of its themes – waiting, optimism against the odds, the fragility of hope, creativity in desperate circumstances – were impossible to ignore.

Although Vladimir and Estragon’s props and movements are carefully choreographed in Beckett’s text, nowhere is their visual appearance specified, meaning that race has added a potent extra dimension to many productions. It is hard to imagine a more eloquent setting than New Orleans in December 2007, still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina two years earlier. Staged by the Classical Theatre of Harlem in the open air, this Godot began outside a storm-ruined house in the mixed neighbourhood of Gentilly before migrating to the much poorer and predominantly African American Lower Ninth Ward, where flood waters caused lasting devastation, compounded by the agonisingly slow response of federal agencies. As a New York Times journalist put it, in this context ‘Beckett’s words sounded less like an existentialist cri de cœur than like a terse topographic description’.[13] Wendell Pierce, who played Vladimir, wrote:

After Katrina, many survivors were asking ‘Should I give up?’ and Waiting for Godot offered the answer, ‘We must go on.’ I remember [a] pertinent line from the play:‘at this place, at this moment, all mankind is us’ … The audience’s reaction was stunned silence – it was like a prayer recited on hallowed ground.

Photographs of the New Orleans production of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, 2007

Photographs of the New Orleans production of Waiting for Godot

Kyle Manzay as Estragon and Wendell Pierce as Vladimir in the New Orleans open-air production of Waiting for Godot, 2007.

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Even where divisions are more broadly political, the play has seemed almost eerily topical, as witnessed by the playwright’s own long-awaited production in West Berlin in 1975, a city that became symbolic of the hostile surreality of the cold war. Despite Beckett’s misgivings (lacking confidence as a director, he worried to a friend that the play was ‘a mess’), the staging was restrained and almost painterly, achieving its effects with the minimum of means, and the play was received enthusiastically. Tellingly, Beckett wrote the first drafts of another ‘waiting’ play, Footfalls, in afternoons after rehearsals.[14]

These versions pale alongside one of the play’s most remarkable stagings, which took place during the Siege of Sarajevo in 1993, directed by writer Susan Sontag. Sontag’s son David Rieff had been reporting on the siege as a journalist and had put her in touch with local producer Haris Pasovic, who suggested that Godot might have much to say in a city that had waited for over two years for deliverance from the Bosnian-Serb forces which encircled it. Sontag scrounged props and recruited a local cast that mixed Croats and Serbs, notably casting three separate sets of Vladimirs and Estragons – one all-female, one all-male and one mixed – in an attempt to suggest the universality of the play’s struggle.[15]

People walked for miles to reach the theatre, which was frequently rocked by shell bombardment. Even so, audiences often sat in complete silence when the nameless Boy messenger uttered one of Godot’s most famous lines, translated into Serbo-Croat: ‘Mr Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow’. Beckett’s scenario seemed agonisingly accurate: the waiting game looked as though it would never end.

Footnotes:

[1] ‘Review of Waiting for Godot’, Times Literary Supplement, 10 February 1956. During this period, nearly all TLS reviews were anonymous; the author of the piece was later identified as the Scottish poet and critic G S Fraser.

[2] A number of significant early reviews – including the TLS essay – are reprinted in L. Graver and R Federman, Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage (New York: Routledge, 1979).

[3] Cited in Lawrence Graver, Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot [Landmarks of World Literature series], (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 17.

[4] In Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber, 1986), p. 52.

[5] A useful survey of the textual variants is in Hersh Zeifman, ‘The Unalterable Whey of Words: The Texts of Waiting for Godot’, Educational Theatre Journal 29 (1977), pp. 77–84.

[6] See William Hutchings, Samuel Beckett’s 'Waiting for Godot’: A Reference Guide (Westport, CN: Praeger, 2005), pp. 84–85.

[7] See James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), pp. 611–14.

[8] David Smith and others, ‘In Godot We Trust’, The Observer, 8 March 2009 [https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/mar/08/samuel-beckett-waiting-for-godot].

[9] See Knowlson, Damned, p. 612.

[10] See Knowlson, Damned, p. 409.

[11] See Smith, ‘In Godot We Trust’, and Anne Fuchs, Playing the Market: The Market Theatre, Johannesburg (Johannesburg, 1990), p. 163.

[12] The letter is reprinted in Fuchs, Playing the Market, p. 164.

[13] Holland Cotter, ‘A Broken City. A Tree. Evening’, The New York Times, 2 December 2007 [http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/arts/design/02cott.html].

[14] Descriptions of rehearsals are in Knowlson, Damned, p. 606–617.

[15] Sontag’s own account of the production is in ‘Godot comes to Sarajevo’, The New York Review of Books, 21 October 1993 [http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1993/10/21/godot-comes-to-sarajevo/]. Other details are recorded in John F Burns’s ‘To Sarajevo, Writer Brings Good Will and Godot’, The New York Times, 19 August 1993 [http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/19/world/to-sarajevo-writer-brings-good-will-and-godot.html].

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is andrewjdickson.com.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.