Waiting for Godot turns 66: how the play changed theatre forever
Avant-garde, dense, difficult, funny and mystifying – Beckett’s most famous work has intrigued, baffled and entertained millions of theatre goers since its first performance in 1953
It may be a play “in which nothing happens, twice” but Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has intrigued, baffled and entertained millions of theatre goers since it was first performed in Paris on January 5 in 1953. It turns 66 this week.
En attendant Godot – Beckett wrote it in French originally – opened at a small auditorium of Theatre de Babylone for a run of 300 shows before being translated and performed in English two years later in London.
Parisian audiences – used to being challenged on a night at the theatre – loved the curious, existential tale of two bickering tramps waiting for the mysterious Godot who never arrives. English-speaking audiences took longer to warm up, with CW Heriot, an examiner for the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship office, saying he endured “two hours of angry boredom” watching it.
Godot went on to be performed all over the world in dozens of languages. Avant-garde, dense, difficult, funny and mystifying – Beckett’s most famous work changed theatre forever and played no small part in the Irishman winning the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature.
My first time waiting for Godot was at an amateur production in Ireland where the audience was clearly unsettled by the cast’s Lucky. Silent almost the whole time he is on stage, his eventual discordant, shrieking soliloquy shredded the nerves of those used to more easy-going plays.
Fast forward to 2010 and I waited on Godot again in London’s Haymarket Theatre. From the cheap seats at the back I noticed the audience was full of children accompanied by their parents. Baffled as to why a difficult play about existential angst would attract so many teenagers, the penny dropped when Ian McKellen AKA Gandalf from Lord of the Rings came on as Estragon.
“Nothing to be done,” McKellen’s tramp intoned, sitting on the ground and pulling at his boot – as opposed to saying “nothing doing” which Beckett always insisted was a misinterpretation.
Unsurprisingly, the kids were hardly blown away and after the intermission, there were plenty of empty seats closer to the stage.
Godot – and Beckett himself for that matter – occupy a halfway house somewhere between being highbrow culture and household name. In 1991, alternative comedians Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson performed as Vladimir and Estragon at the Queens Theatre in London’s West End.
Better known for the anarchic lunacy of 80s BBC comedy The Young Ones, the pair later said Godot – a tale of two men going nowhere fast in a bleak and meaningless landscape – inspired their award-winning show Bottom, which followed the failures West London losers Richie Richard and Eddie Hitler.
Godot’s creator did not suffer the fate of his mentor in Paris, James Joyce whose novel Ulysses was banned in the UK until 1936 and was forbidden to be imported into his native Ireland. Instead, Beckett has developed something of a cult following which leaks out into popular culture.
There is the story of when Beckett lived in the French town of Ussy-sur-Marne in the 1950s and gave local children lifts to school – including a young Andre Rene Roussimoff, who later found fame as wrestler and actor Andre the Giant. When asked what the Irish writer and French schoolboy talked about during these trips, Andre told one interviewer: “Mostly cricket.”
Imitation Becketts have cropped up again and again in popular culture. One Irish comedian, the late Sean Hughes, had “Beckett” leave droning, downbeat messages on his answerphone in his breakthrough 90s sitcom Sean’s Show. And one YouTube admirer spliced images of a dapper 60s Beckett walking around in Europe to the sounds of a TV detective-show theme. “Beckett” the detective ‘starred’ alongside Andre the Giant with Jean-Paul Satre as “Walleye Molloy” and Jean Cocteau as “Huggy Bear”.
Beckett’s dry wit – apparent in Godot – can be seen in some of his pointed, mostly apocryphal, ripostes. As a junior teacher at the expensive Campbell College in Belfast, he was once dressed down by a superior, who informed him that his pupils were “the cream of Ireland”. “Yes,” Beckett is believed to have replied, “rich and thick”.
And once, when asked by a French journalist if he was English, Beckett drily answered: “Au contraire”.
He had some regrets and although he refrained from correcting other people’s interpretations of the play, he lamented calling the titular character “Godot” because of the confusion with “God” it created for many in the English-speaking world (the French for God is “Dieu”).
Despite its challenges, Godot remains a draw for ambitious thespians, amateur and professional. In 2012 Robert Liddington, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Dramatic Society, told The National that his group switched from farces and whodunnits to stage Beckett’s “interesting” and “challenging” play on a beach.
My favourite version remains this Irish production from 2001 starring Barry McGovern, Johnny Murphy, Alan Stanford and Stephen Brennan. It captures the humour and absurdity in Beckett’s bleak vision. Is Godot really that difficult to understand? Au contraire…
Updated: January 6, 2019 12:39 PM