Description

Waiting for Godot’s British premiere was staged in 1955 in a production directed by Peter Hall at London’s Arts Theatre. This was a private theatre, which meant that plays could avoid interference from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which acted as official censor for all public performances until 1968.

Samuel Beckett faced the Lord Chamberlain later that year, however, when the play transferred to a public run at the Criterion Theatre. This report and correspondence relate to the staging of this production. Much to Beckett’s frustration, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office demanded cuts and changes to various ‘objectionable’ passages in his script.

What elements of Waiting for Godot were censored by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office?

In this report (ff. 126r–28r), the Assistant Examiner, Sir Vincent Troubridge, begins by dismissing the artistic merits of the play. He is confounded by it, writing, ‘I have had much experience of “advanced”, “expressionist”, and similar imaginative kinds of plays, but I find this one extremely baffling’. He continues, ‘I can describe the simple happenings on the stage … but I can only offer the merest glimmer of a suggestion of what the author intends it all to mean.’

Although Troubridge recommended the play for licence, the Lord Chamberlain signed off cuts and changes to 12 passages. Many of the cuts relate to bodily or sexual language and gestures – for example ‘piss’, ‘arse’, ‘his hand pressed to his pubis’, the falling of Estragon’s trousers – as well as religious allusions (‘I don’t like Estragon comparing himself to Christ’).

In response, an exasperated Beckett remarked:

His incriminations are so preposterous that I’m afraid the whole thing is off. …The things I had expected and which I was half prepared to amend (reluctantly), but also passages that are vital to the play … are impossible either to alter or suppress.[1]

What did audiences make of Waiting for Godot?

While the play is now regarded as a masterpiece, how did theatregoers of the 1950s respond to it?

The correspondence kept on file by the Lord Chamberlain offers us some insights. Digitised here is a write-up from Examiner C W Heriot, who went to see the play following a letter of complaint from Lady Howitt, who was appalled by the ‘lavatory references’ (f. 8r) and wanted it banned. In their response (f. 6r), the Lord Chamberlain’s Office declares that the play is ‘unpleasant enough’, but concedes that it is not an ‘immoral play’ but rather concerns a ‘[matter] of taste’.

Heriot, meanwhile, recounts that he ‘endured two hours of angry boredom’ for ‘a piece quite without drama and with very little meaning’. Like others, Heriot had no idea of the significance that the play would come to hold, recommending that the Lord Chamberlain ‘allow public opinion quietly to disperse this ugly little jet of marsh-gas’. He reports audience members who ‘fled, never to return’ and, not without bias, sums up that ‘The general feeling seemed, like mine, to be one of acute boredom’. In patronising terms, Heriot writes that the only people who ‘applauded pointedly’ were ‘a sprinkling of young persons in slacks and Marlon Brando pullovers with (according to sex) horsetails or fringes’.

Godot’s early reception in Britain has become the stuff of legend, however, and it is easy to oversimplify it by dwelling on the outrage. Certainly, some audience members heckled the actors, showed signs of boredom, and left at half time. The play was a radical departure for British theatre, and many reviews were negative. Yet not everyone was bored or outraged. Critics Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan championed the play in the Sunday Times and The Observer. While it was rejected for the ‘Best New Play’ category in the Evening Standard Drama Awards, it was endorsed by the newly created ‘Most Controversial Play of the Year’ award. And there was evidently large public appetite to see the play – as well as commercial opportunity – as it toured Britain in 1956 before being revived in 1957 and 1958 at three different playhouses.

[1] Samuel Beckett to Barney Rosset, quoted in James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1997), p. 412.

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