This material relates to Playwrights Against Apartheid, a campaign led by the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1963 that was part of a wider cultural boycott. It was initiated by the South African writer and activist Freda Troup (also known as Freda Levson), who wrote to British and American writers and playwrights, encouraging them to withdraw rights to have their works performed in racially segregated theatres in South Africa.
Troup’s letter was sent with a statement written by Dennis Brutus, a South African activist, poet and educator who was classified as ‘coloured’ under apartheid rule. The statement reads:
The essence of apartheid is to develop two worlds: one white and one, considerably inferior, all black. The nett result of separate shows for blacks is to achieve precisely this: far from breaking down barriers, separate nights serve to consolidate them to make apartheid ‘work’!
Troup gathered 48 signatures for the petition, which was released on 25 June 1963 and presented the following day in a press release at the House of Commons. Those who signed the declaration included Samuel Beckett, Shelagh Delaney, Daphne du Maurier, Arthur Miller, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, J B Priestley, Iris Murdoch and Tennessee Williams.
Some correspondents expressed doubts over whether a cultural boycott was an effective tool. Yet Brutus and Troup, among many others, believed that radical actions were necessary, and that international involvement could place pressure on the government and white public.
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot and apartheid
Shown here is the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s handwritten reply to Troup: ‘I am in entire agreement with your views and prepared to refuse performance except before non-segregated audiences’ (f. 9r).
After the boycott, Waiting for Godot was first performed again in South Africa at the racially integrated, politically conscious Market Theatre, Johannesburg, in 1976. The production was directed by Benjy Francis and starred an all-black cast. In this context Waiting for Godot became inescapably political. For those living under segregation, the play’s portrayal of waiting, of cruelty and oppression, resonated strongly – but Godot’s power also came from its fundamental message of humanity and resilience.
Francis wrote that Godot ‘provided a powerful metaphor of our struggle which allowed me to get past the censor and speak to my people’ (avoiding the censor’s suspicion because it is famously viewed as a play where nothing happens). Francis continued:
The tree was central to my staging; when it started to sprout leaves in act two, that sent a powerful message to oppressed people – it suggested new life and resolution, an image of hope against all desolation.
 Benjy Francis, quoted by David Smith, Imogen Carter and Ally Carnwath, ‘In Godot we trust’, The Guardian (8 March 2009), <https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/mar/08/samuel-beckett-waiting-for-godot> [accessed October 2016].
- Full title:
- Anti–Apartheid Movement. Correspondence and papers of Freda Troup (Mrs Leon Levson) writer and anti–apartheid activist (b. 1911, d. 2004), relating to an Anti–Apartheid Movement campaign to encourage writers and playwrights to withdraw rights to have their works performed in segregated theatres in South Africa; 1958–1963, n.d.
- Paris, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, London
- Manuscript / Typescript / Letter / Ephemera / Petition
- Freda Troup, Dennis Brutus, Samuel Beckett
- Usage terms
Freda Troup: © Estate of Freda Levson (aka Troup). Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.
Dennis Brutus: © Family of Dennis Vincent Brutus. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.
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.
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- British Library
- Add MS 80776
- Article by:
- Chris Power
- Capturing and creating the modern, 20th-century theatre, European influence
Chris Power explores how Waiting for Godot resists straightforward interpretation, producing audiences as uncertain as its characters.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- 20th-century theatre, Capturing and creating the modern, European influence, Power and conflict
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.
- Article by:
- William McEvoy
- Capturing and creating the modern, European influence, 20th-century theatre
The main character in Happy Days is a middle-aged woman inexplicably buried in a mound, first to her waist and then to her neck. William McEvoy discusses how Beckett uses this character and her predicament to explore a recurring interest in his work: the failings of bodies and language.
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