"I have been brooding in my bath for the last hour and have come to the conclusion that the success of Waiting for Godot means the end of the theatre as we know it." Robert Morley, the famous character actor, made this prophecy in 1955. His generation—middle-aged—mostly endorsed his gloom. My generation of twentysomethings was glad.
The process began exactly 50 years ago, on January 5 1953, when Godot was given its first performance in a 75-seat theatre in Paris. France was where you went for radical theatre in those days. Whether it was the surrealistic images of Eugene Ionesco, the classical splendours of Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, or the political philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, Paris continually outshone London.
And then came Samuel Beckett, soon to be recognized as the master innovator of them all. But he did not appear so at first—in fact, it took Godot several years to conquer. I heard of the play when it opened in Paris. But I am ashamed to say I did not see it. I had no idea that it would shortly dominate my life.
Godot returned theatre to its metaphorical roots. It challenged and defeated a century of literal naturalism where a room was only considered a room if it was presented in full detail, with the fourth wall removed. Godot provided an empty stage, a tree and two figures who waited and survived. You imagined the rest. The stage was an image of life passing—in hope, despair, companionship and loneliness. To our times, the images on the cinema screen are real, though they are only made of flickering light. Since Godot, the stage is the place of fantasy. Film is simile, lifelike; theatre is metaphor, about life itself.
In 1955, two years after the Paris premiere, I was 24 years old and a very lucky young man. I had been given a theatre—the Arts, in Great Newport Street, London—and charged to provide it with a play every four weeks. The resources were minimal and the money was not good (£7 per week and luncheon vouchers), but the opportunity to direct new plays (I began with The Lesson, the first Ionesco in Britain) and classics on a shoestring seemed too good to be true.
Then Godot came. In the early summer, when I was directing Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, I found a script waiting. Donald Albery, a leading West End impresario, informed me that he could persuade no actor to be in Godot and no director to direct it. It was still running in the small theatre in Paris. Beckett had now translated it and Albery wondered if I would like to do the English-language world premiere. I ransacked my memory. The name was faintly familiar. There were novels, I knew, and I seemed to remember a connection with James Joyce.
I read the play and decided to do it. I won't claim that I saw it as a turning point in 20th-century drama: that came later. And it certainly took a month of intensive rehearsal for me to realise that the play was a masterpiece. But from the very beginning, I thought it was blindingly original, turning the undramatic (waiting, doubt, perpetual uncertainty) into tense action. It was exquisitely constructed, with an almost musical command of form and thematic material. And it was very funny. It took the cross-talk tradition of music hall and made it into poetry.
With Mourning Becomes Electra safely launched, I set off for a high-minded holiday in Spain. I took the 12 volumes of Proust with me. I was completing volume nine when a telegram arrived: Mourning Becomes Electra was failing in the summer heat. Godot must begin at once. I returned and went straight into rehearsal. I have never finished Proust.
Rehearsals were, I suspect, more enjoyable for me than for the actors. I had found it very difficult to cast the play: actors were bewildered by it. Who were these people? Where did they come from? Where were they going? Were they clowns or symbols? Or just tramps?
I soon felt secure in Beckett's rhythms. This was real dramatic poetry, not applied but organic. And I wondered less and less about what the play meant as day followed day. It clearly meant what it said. Two men were waiting for Godot. Who was Godot? That would depend on the audience and their beliefs—or lack of them.
By the time we opened, I was confident that we had something special. The first night therefore came as something of a shock. There were cheers, but there were also what are known as counter-cheers. On the line, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It's awful", a very English voice said loudly: "Hear! hear!"
The critics next morning were not reassuring. Bafflement and derision were everywhere. "The language is flat and feeble," said Philip Hope-Wallace in the Guardian. "An evening of funny obscurity," was the Telegraph's verdict. "Mr Samuel Beckett (an Irishman who used to be Joyce's secretary and who writes in French, a combination which should make anybody smell a rat) has produced a really remarkable piece of twaddle." So said the critic and columnist Bernard Levin.
It looked as if the play would have to close at the end of the week, but I begged the theatre owner to wait for the Sunday notices. Perhaps Godot would come, though frankly it didn't seem very likely.
Happily, he did—in the person of Harold Hobson, the critic of the Sunday Times. He found himself on the theatrical road to Damascus. He went on to write about the play for the next seven Sundays. Kenneth Tynan was also enthusiastic, although (unlike Hobson) it took him some weeks to recognise the size of the Beckett revolution. He wrote that the play "forced me to re-examine the rules which had hitherto governed the drama; and having done so, to pronounce them not elastic enough". That did for a beginning.
To my amazement, Godotmania gripped London. It was discussed, praised, analysed and abused; cartoons were drawn about it, Panorama discussed it, Malcolm Muggeridge derided it. It was seen as an allegory of the cold war. Metaphor had repossessed the theatre. And the way had been made straight for Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Edward Bond and subsequent generations.
It is often thought that 1956 and the first night of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was the reinvention of British theatre. It is certainly true that Osborne changed a generation. So out went the slim volumes of verse and the imitations of Lucky Jim, and the Royal Court revolution was under way. All this was wonderful, but faintly parochial, which Godot certainly was not. Look Back in Anger was a play formed by the naturalism of the 1930s and the cosy craft beloved of the old repertory theatres. It now looks dated because it uses the convention of the well-made play. I think also that my generation heard more political revolution in it than was actually there, largely because we needed to.
By contrast, Waiting for Godot hasn't dated at all. It remains a poetic masterpiece transcending all barriers and all nationalities. It is the start of modern drama. It gave the theatre back its potency and its poetry. And it no longer seems obscure. In 1997, I directed Godot again at the Old Vic. My 16-year-old daughter was baffled by the programme material detailing the play's controversial history. "What on earth is there to understand?" she said. "It's perfectly clear what it is about. You only have to listen." How stupid it seems now that, 50 years ago, people denied that this play was a play. But I suppose new tunes are always by definition unfamiliar and disturbing. From that August evening in London, the play went everywhere. It is no exaggeration to say that it went round the world, and its success continues.
At the end of 1955, the Evening Standard drama awards were held for the first time. Because I had directed it, I was a non-voting member of the judging panel when Godot was considered. Feelings ran high and the opposition, led by the conductor Malcolm Sargent, threatened to resign in high public dudgeon if Godot was awarded the prize for best play. An English compromise was worked out that changed the title and thus the nature of the award. It also happily ensured the future of the Evening Standard awards. Godot was crowned most controversial play of the year. It is a prize that has never been given since.
The Guardian, 4 January 2003
. . . We gathered to read the play for the first time in my house just above Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, after which two of the older, more experienced people dropped out of the cast. They simply refused to be in it. They had always been suspicious of my experimental tendencies . . . but with Godot they though I was crazier than usual. When they read through the play they simply didn’t know what was going on, which didn’t seem to be much, and much of that they didn’t like. And these were quite intelligent people. There was a lot of scepticiscm about the play . . . even when we replaced the actors and started rehearsals. When we finally decided to present the play [some members] were wary of doing it as a full-scale production at our theatre downtown, so we compromised and played it, at first, only on Thursday nights. Suddenly, unpredictably, it became a kind of cult phenomenon. There was something in the air, it received a lot of attention, the audiences grew, and we multiplied the number of performances.
Lois Oppenheim Directing Beckett
"I don’t want any film of Godot," Beckett wrote to the actor Jack MacGowran on 13 December 1967. "As it stands it is simply not cinema material. And adaptation would destroy it. Please forgive me . . . and don’t think of me as a purist bastard".
The playwright had, however, already allowed Alan Schneider to bring the work to television in 1961 in a version based on the director’s original Miami production. The 16mm black-and-white film features Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith. . . . The play is also available on record on which Bert Lahr and E G Marshall recreate their original Broadway rôles. Mike Nichols’s much publicised staging of the play in New York at Lincoln Center in 1988, starring Robin Williams as Gogo, Steve Martin as Didi, F Murray Abraham as Pozzo and a memorable Bill Irwin as Lucky, has been schedules for video presentation.
In 1957, the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop staged Herbert Blau’s production there before an audience of fourteen hundred male convicts. Godot was chosen largely because there were no women in the cast.
. . . In Blau’s audience was an impressionable young prisoner named Rick Cluchey, who later founded the San Quentin Drama Workshop. Working with the approval of the playwright, Cluchey’s company has mounted a number of Beckett plays, including Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape. . . . Under the auspices of the Beckett Directs Beckett programs, funded by NEH, [Cluchey’s production of Godot, based on Beckett’s direction of the play in Berlin] is available in video . . . [and] features Cluchey in the rôle of Pozzo, with Bud Thorpe as Vladimir, Lawrence Held as Estragon and Alan Mandell as Lucky.
Beckett Directs Beckett has also produced a French version of the play on film. Directed by Walter Asmus and also based on Beckett’s Berlin mise-en-scène, the lively French cast includes Rufus as Didi, Jean-François Balmer as Gogo, Jean-Pierre Jorris as Pozzo and Roman Polansky as Lucky.
June Schlueter and Enoch Brater Approaches to Teaching Beckett's Waiting for Godot
[During] his first meeting with one of the officers at San Quentin. "What is the name of the play you are doing?" the officer wanted to know.
"The name of the play is Waiting for Godot."
"Waiting for what?"
Perplexed, the officer turned to two big guards standing nearby. "Do I know him?" he inquired of them. And turning back toward Jönson: "Is Godot coming? IS he in the play?"
"No, he’s not coming."
"Then who in the hell are you waiting for? Should everybody wait here?"
[While directing the play in a Swedish prison] few of the one hundred or so inmates at the Swedish facility were from Sweden, he explained, which means that the members of the cast of Beckett’s play, reading in English, were from China, Spain, Honduras, Portugal and Russia. Vladimir’s line—"But at this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not"—came immediately to mind.
. . . "I sat there for about twelve months listening to these men talk to each other. It was very hard work for them, because it really opened them up. Hundreds and hundreds of different things happened every day! Strange, heavy, very heavy reactions! And they cried. One of the inmates said, ‘Do you know what is happening here? You are giving me my life. This play is my diary. What Vladimir is thinking about and talking about, screaming about and crying and laughing about is me.’ For him, the play was a kind of primal scream."
On one occasion he inquired about "the sound" of his play in the prison environment. He wanted to know what "the silence" of the play was like behind prison walls. Jönson describes the sound of the play as Spoon Jackson reciting, as Pozzo—"They give birth astride of a grave . . . "—in front of an audience that included his mother, whom he had not been permitted to see for many years.
The sound and silence of the play had additional meaning for Jackson: for several years he had protected himself against the reality of his life in the cell by not speaking a word. He wrote poetry but spoke to no one. When the play was in its early stages of casting and Jönson was unable to find a satisfactory Pozzo, he noticed "a big black guy standing in the door watching me very carefully like the Indian in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest." He was told he couldn’t use Spoon Jackson because the man never spoke. Jönson was determined.
"I started to read Pozzo very loudly because I wanted to see his reaction. He started to listen. He stayed the whole day. When the day was over he disappeared. The next morning he was there again. Then he disappeared once more. The following morning he stood a little closer. By the end of that week he was coming in with a chair. He took his chair and put it back to back with mine. When I got to the place where I read, ‘They gave birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more,’ he stood up, removed the chair with his feet, and stood in front of me face to face. He finished his cigarette, took of his dark glasses, gave me his hand, and said, ‘My name is Spoon Jackson. Are you coming back here? Can you come back and give me the part of Pozzo and help me to express myself?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and then after a long silence he said, ‘Can I trust you?’ I told him I wanted him as Pozzo, and he said, ‘Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow.’"
. . . He continued. "When Beckett saw [in photographs] these guys talking to each other with the scripts of his play, when he saw the set, he was sitting very quietly, and I saw his face, how it changed, how he was listening." After asking Jönson about his reasons for undertaking the prison production, Beckett offered his only comment: "I saw the roots of my play."
"After the last performance at San Quentin I went back into the gym [where the production was staged]. . . . And I saw from the bleacher on the carpet, the dead tree, and the stone with one red rose lying there dead. You can see on the video the audience standing up after the performance and screaming with the guys onstage. And you see one of the mothers running up onstage and hugging her son after so many years."
"They were never allowed family visits?"
"Very few. The visiting room had to be free, and sometimes the families didn’t have the money to go to San Francisco."
"How could you stand that?"
"Sometimes I couldn’t. Beckett saw that on video and reacted very strongly. I remember opening night at San Quentin when, at the end of the play Twin and Happy [the actors playing Vladimir and Estragon] were standing before that tree. Happy asks Twin, ‘ Why don’t we hang ourselves ?’ And Twin replies, ‘With what?’ Happy says, ‘You haven’t got a piece of rope?’ He is standing there asking his best friend if they should hang themselves. [The inmates are childhood friends from Watts, the Los Angeles ghetto.] I told them to talk to each other as though they were standing on the street in Watts. Then Happy says to his best friend, ‘ And if he comes ?’ What he is saying is, ‘What shall we do if the Department of Corrections opens the gates and we’re saved?’ So he faces the director of the Department of Corrections, and he smiles and says, ‘Then we are saved.’ That was my present to Sam Beckett. I gave him that. The production was for him and for us and the audience. And then I walked up onstage and gave each of the actors one red rose.
"After the performance, I was cleaning up, and the guards came and put the men up against the wall and made them strip. I saw these guys standing there totally naked, and it was a shock. I started to scream, ‘What are you doing?’
"I saw this squad come with plastic gloves and start looking all over their bodies for drugs. And on top of each of the men’s clothes was the red rose. Spoon was standing there, and when the guy came up behind him he said, ‘You have my body, but not my soul.’"
Lois Oppenheim Directing Beckett
Recounting his experiences of presenting Godot for an audience of inmates at Florida State Prison:
Knowing nothing of the stultifying theatre etiquette that often characterises Broadway, the inmates, on every other line it seemed, rose from their seats and shouted out comments or questions to the actors, who were desperately trying to stay in character: "why did you speak that way to him?" "Hey, what the hell do you mean by that remark?" "You two, come down here [downstage]—I’ve got a few things to say to you!"
At first, these interruptions were frustrating; while always aware of the audience on the periphery, the actors were now being asked—forced—to speak directly to them, during the performance! Soon, however, our frustration turned to exhilaration: here was an audience, these men waiting, who demanded to part of the production, who took what we said so seriously that they could not remain silent. We were actually performing two plays, the one scripted by Beckett and a complementary one, this extension of the text fashioned by our unique audience. These inmates were Brecht’s alert spectator taken to the extreme. They were fully visible in the same light that illuminated our makeshift stage, and their presence and interjections demystified the theatrical experience. By the second act the audience was collaborating with us, both in performing and in thinking about the performance. As a result of these now-productive interruptions, our Godot took three rather than two hours to stage.
At the end, as we were striking the set and packing our equipment, the warden, furious that our lengthy production had fouled up his bed check, grabbed the microphone and ordered the men to line up for the return to their cells. Suddenly, though, the inmates broke ranks and started racing toward the stage. I was terrified. But my fears were born of ignorance: the inmates simply wanted to talk with us about the play, specifically about the identity of Godot, this absent character whose own author once said that if he knew who Godot was, he would have said so in the play. After some hasty negotiations with the warden, we did just that, with each member of the cast and crew handling hundreds of eager "students" who, having commented on specific aspects during the performance, now identified Godot with some aspect of their own prison life. The discussion was informed and eloquent beyond anything I had ever known in the classroom.
From the prisoners’ perspectives, the play was a conversation between actor-characters and audience; the line separating offstage from onstage was blurred, even nonexistent.
Sidney Homan Waiting for Godot: Inmates as Student and—Then—Teachers from June Schlueter and Enoch Brater Approaches to Teaching Beckett's Waiting for Godot
My first experience of Beckett in performance "down under" was not as director, but as critic. The New Zealand Herald asked me to review a production of Godot at the Central Theatre, Auckland, in 1973, soon after my arrival there.
It was a competent production, but I had to take great exception to director Raymond Hawthorne’s whimsical decision to make the Boy appear in white satin, holding a parasol aloft and doing a balancing act along a wall. I pointed out in my review that the director had not thought about the implications of this. In the first place many spectators asked, puzzled, on the way out, "Why did Beckett have that boy prancing about?" So, I jumped up and down, physically and critically, saying, "This was not Beckett’s idea at all. . . . " Since very few New Zealanders at that time had previously seen the play, the seriousness of this idiosyncrasy was far greater than it would have been in London, Paris or New York. Second, by making the Boy a fantastic, unreal, dreamlike figure, Hawthorne had operated a closure on the nature of Godot and his entourage (making them unambiguously fantastic and oneiric) that was never Beckett’s intention. In a pioneering situation directors have a particular duty to avoid such self-indulgent betrayals of the text.
A couple of years later, overcoming the reluctance I had long felt, I accepted a pressing invitation to direct Godot myself at the new Maidment Theatre in Auckland. This reluctance stemmed party from my reverence for the play and from my feeling I couldn’t possibly do it justice and partly from the regrettable fact of life that the cast I regarded as ideal at that time (Peter O’Toole, Nicol Williamson, Jack MacGowran and Paul Curran) never seemed available to be directed by me—especially Jack MacGowran, rest his soul. Furthermore, I was keen to correct some wrong impressions Aucklanders had about Beckett—about the Boy, and about the widely held belief that Godot audiences had to sit stolidly, respectfully, in glum silence as though listening to a Methodist sermon. In the program I put a note saying "If you find something amusing, please feel free to laugh."
The most memorable response to my production came from the critic for the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation radio, Robert Goodman, who was still stuck in an ideologically committed drama groove of yore. "Beckett," he asserted on behalf of us all, "has nothing to say to us."
Colin Duckworth Directing Beckett "Down Under" from Robert Scanlan Performing Voices: Notes from Stagings of Beckett's Work
In the production I directed at the Haifa Municipal Theatre in November 1984 we placed the tramps in the Here and Now. We tried to disassociate the play from the textbook isms, in the belief that this would add another dimension to the play’s boundless potential. I wanted to make the audience identify emotionally with the characters and become involved with their fate. All the previous Israeli productions of Waiting for Godot had provided their audiences with a primarily aesthetic and intellectual experience, with a stress on the play’s stylised elements.
The idea of staging Waiting for Godot with this new approach evolved as a result of a conversation between me, Omry Nitzan, then the artistic director of the Haifa Municipal Theatre, and Noam Semel, the theatre’s general manager. These two had set up the Arabic stage with the idea of mounting plays in Arabic for Arab audiences in Haifa. . . . I decided in my production to transform Beckett’s two tramps into two Palestinian labourers waiting for a Godot to deliver them from their misery. I had no doubt that by portraying Vladimir and Estragon in the Israeli political reality of the period I would only deepen the audience’s identification with the characters.
The decision to ascribe apolitical meaning to Waiting for Godot had a special significance against the background of the Israeli scene at that time. Nearly all the construction workers in Israel were Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza. Each day, in the early morning hours, they left their homes, travelling in convoys to the cities of Israel. There they sat and waited for contractors and foremen to hire them. This created an absurd situation, in which the country, including the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, was being built almost exclusively by Palestinians under the rule of Israeli occupation.
A few years later, when the Intifada, the popular uprising in the territories, erupted, on more than one occasion all the construction in Israel drew to a halt when the Palestinian workers, under orders by the local leadership, failed to turn up to work. . . . The Israeli occupation of the territories was already in its seventeenth year, and there was no sign of any impending change. The Israeli government showed itself to be helpless as the draw between the right- and left-wing blocs in the Knesset stymied any initiative for change in the political situation. All sides seemed to be waiting for a Godot to arrive and extricate them from the deadlock in which they found themselves. On the economic scene, in which both peoples depended on each other and needed each other, there was also enormous tension in the face of the Palestinians’ frustration and bitterness under the seemingly endless occupation.
. . . when relations between the Palestinians and Israelis were at their lowest point, in November 1984, the play Waiting for Godot was mounted with a local political slant, immediately arousing virulent reactions from the right-wing camp. One of the criticisms levelled against us was that we had marred an important work by a renowned playwright and turned it into a propaganda tool for the PLO and the leftist camp. . . . Most of the production’s severest critics never even saw it, but only read about it in the press and rushed to vilify it. Those who did see the play and were favourably impressed by it noted that it was not simply a flat, pasteboard piece of political theatre but, rather, that the political interpretation underscored Beckett’s existential message.
The bilingual translation was part of our conception of bringing together the Israeli and the Palestinian on the same stage, confronting each other also through the medium of the two languages, both of which are so emotionally charged and arouse countless associations. We decided that [Anton] Shammas [the translator] would translate the scenes between Estragon and Vladimir into Arabic, while the scenes with Pozzo and Lucky would be partially in Hebrew and partially in Arabic. In translating the dialogue between Vladimir and Estragon, the translator tried to create certain disparities between them. Gogo would represent the Arab villager speaking a more common language, while Did was a city dweller. The difference lay not only in the words but in the way they pronounced them. The third Arabic-sparking character in the play was Lucky—an elderly man, of the old generation, his speech in literary Arabic, in contrast to the younger men, who spoke vernacular Arabic (there are significant differences between spoken and literary Arabic). The fourth character is the messenger, whom Beckett calls simply Boy. We chose to portray him as a young boy from a refugee camp who spoke very simple Arabic.
Pozzo represented the Israeli and naturally spoke Hebrew, except for a few curses and orders to Lucky in Arabic. (Israelis generally do not know Arabic other than some curses or orders, some of which have found their way into Hebrew slang.) Thus, Gogo and Didi speak Hebrew to Pozzo and Arabic to each other.
From the very first reading we already sensed something compelling about the Arabic-Hebrew dialogue between Beckett’s characters. The first performances were put on before an audience of Arab students from Haifa, who responded vigorously to every word uttered, as if Beckett had written the play in this version especially for them. When the play was performed before a Hebrew-speaking audience, it was interesting to follow the facial expressions of the spectators and at the end of the play to hear the associations and reactions Beckett’s dialogue in Arabic had awakened in them. Israeli audiences generally react with a sense of confusion and uneasiness at hearing Arabic and experiencing the feelings that language arouses.
Since for Beckett every prop onstage has a special significance, we were very careful in selecting the elements that made up the setting. Instead of the tree under which the two tramps wait, we chose to place an iron scaffolding emerging from a concrete pole, with concrete construction blocks scattered around it. Charlie Leon’s stage design looked like a building site. The stage apron was designed like a ship’s prow jutting into the audience, thus creating an intimate contact between the actors and the spectators surrounding them.
Vladimir and Estragon wore workmen’s clothing. One wore a woolen hat and an old army coat, while the other wore a sweater and a cloth hat with its brim turned up (somewhat reminiscent of Arlecchino). Pozzo was dressed in an elegant beige suit and wore a hat that was a cross between a pith helmet and a "tembel hat" (which for years has symbolised the native-born Israeli, the "sabra"). Pozzo held a whip according to Beckett’s stage directions, and we added an attaché case, held for him by Lucky, of course. White-haired Lucky, his body frail and bent over, wore a white cap, the typical headgear of devout Muslims. There was a god collar around his neck that was connected by a long tape measure to his master’s belt. On his back Lucky carried a land surveyor’s tripod and rolled-up maps. In the second act the collar around his neck became a metal collar of the kind usually worn by seeing-eye dogs. Pozzo wore dark sunglasses.
Two Jewish actors joined the production. Ilan Toren . . . as Pozzo [and] Doron Tabori, a Jewish actor considered to be the star of the Haifa Municipal Theatre. Doron told me he’d like to join the cast as Lucky. . . . All of the critics praised Tabori’s delivery of Lucky’s moving speech, which was one of the peak moments of the play. Doron learned Lucky’s monologue in literary Arabic so well that even Arab spectators were convinced that they were watching an Arab actor. . . . The special texture of Arabic and Jewish actors working together was an added value to the play. Without our having changed one word of Beckett’s, the play lent itself beautifully to the political treatment, as if it were intrinsic to it.
Some lines in the play took on a completely new meaning, due to the topical treatment. For example, when he says, " On our hands and knees ," Didi raises his arms and crosses them behind his head as if he were in a police lineup. When Gogo asks, "We’ve lost our rights?" Didi replies, "We got rid of them." When Didi hands Gogo the famous carrot he does a stylised pantomime of a waiter carrying a tray loaded with coffee cups (in 1984 most of the waiters in Israel were Arabs), and when Gogo imitates Lucky he ends his mime with a typically Eastern obscene gesture, which adds an amusing sting to the entire sequence. As soon as Pozzo makes his appearance, he shouts, " So you were waiting for him ? . . . Here? On my land?" When Pozzo tries to understand the two miserable fellows (" . . . I might just as well have been in his shoes an he in mine. . . . To each one his due "), he sounds like a parlour liberal brandishing with self-satisfaction his smug acceptance of the fate that has made him the stronger one. When he says, " It is true the population has increased ," to our ears it sounds as if he is alluding to a very specific "population".
Several of Beckett’s stage directions seemed to have been written especially for our interpretation of the play. In the second act Pozzo-the-Israeli is blind, dragged along behind Lucky, and when Lucky falls he brings Pozzo down with him. The suggestion here seems to be that the two people are dependent on each other, for better or for worse. And indeed, later in this scene Gogo and Didi also fail in an attempt to help the other two, until there is a heap of helpless wretched creatures onstage, as Pozzo’s cries of "Help!" in Hebrew blend with the cries of the others in Arabic. Pozzo finally succeeds in getting up, with the help of the two construction workers, Didi and Gogo, who support him throughout the scene and help him find his way again.
An additional dimension is added to the characterisation of the two. Vladimir becomes the political leader crying out against the wrongs inflicted on Lucky by Pozzo ("Why doesn’t he put down his bags? It’s a scandal ! To treat a man . . . like that"). Here he is a leader of a rebellion pointing an accusing finger at the occupier-ruler. Pozzo reacts with violence, cracking his whip and shouting: " A moment ago you were calling me sir . . . . Now you’re asking me questions?" We based our characterisations of the two on the physical pain they suffer. Gogo has aches in his legs, while Didi suffers from pain in his urinary tract. Thus Didi makes his most vehement political demonstration after going out to urinate and coming back onstage writhing in pain. He kicks the stool belonging to the Israeli ruler and knocks down the suitcases the submissive Lucky has been holding onto for dear life. But as soon as his pain subsides, he rushes to put everything back in place.
In our production Lucky began his monologue as a low mumble while standing on a concrete block in the centre of the stage and obeying Pozzo’s commands. Pozzo sits with his back to the audience at the front edge of the stage, with the two construction workers sitting on the ground on either side of him, as they all watch Lucky’s performance. But at a certain stage we decided something was wrong, and the low mumble of the very-submissive Lucky turned into a terrible cry of pain and anger. The image I suggested to the actor was that of a "dormant" volcano that becomes "active" with the words spewing forth like boiling lava, getting all mixed up, and making a tremendous din like rocks tumbling down from the mountain peak.
Didi and Gogo, panic-stricken, try to shut Lucky’s mouth with their hats. Pozzo hides under the folding chair. Finally, he throws the chair at Lucky and yells to the other two to remove Lucky’s hat. The moment his hat is no longer on his head Lucky falls into a dead faint from exhaustion. In out version Pozzo goes wild, brutally kicking Lucky in the shin and yelling in Arabic, "Get up, you pig!" while Gogo, the Arab construction worker, begs him to leave his fellow Arab alone, whimpering in Hebrew, " You’ll kill him ." This was one of the main scenes that aroused the ire of some right-wing circles, who were unprepared to accept the fact that Beckett had written the scene just that way.
In the scene in which Godot’s messenger, the Boy-refugee, appears, Didi embraces Gogo with his right hand and with his left makes a V for victory sign, saying to the boy, " Tell him you saw us ." This is one of the few moments in which we gave political emphasis to the action of the characters. And here, too, we had quite a few arguments before we finally came to a decision.
. . . in our characterisations we were inspired by the commedia dell’arte. Silent films, especially those with Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, were another influence. In all the difficult moments, when the two Arab workers try to commit suicide, we stressed the comic elements Beckett chose to insert at these very moments. At first they weigh each to see which one is heavier and might break the bough of the tree (which in our stage design is a scaffold) when he hangs himself, leaving the other without a bough on which to commit suicide. They exchange places in front of the scaffold, each one evading the opportunity to be the first to take his own life. . . . At the end of one of the saddest moments in the play Gogo removes the rope holding up his pants, places it around his neck and tries to tie the other end to the scaffold, while the audience is convulsed by laughter as his pants fall down and he stands there in his underwear. . . . At the beginning of the second act . . . when they try on the boots . . . each time, the confused Gogo extends the wrong foot to Didi, who is trying to get the boot on his foot. Didi showers blows on Gogo until he realises his error and quickly lifts his right foot, but by accident it hits Didi in the groin. Writhing in pain, he hits Gogo again, and the whole sequence of blows is repeated. The blind Pozzo’s repeated attempts to get up only to fall again also aroused peals of laughter from the audience, as the two Arab workers gave him their hands to try to pull him up, resulting in a human chain that keeps coming apart, reminding the spectators of images from their childhood.
In the juggling exchange of hats . . . Didi and Gogo amuse themselves with Lucky’s hat and their own two hats, moving them from one head to another as if playing a game of basketball. They also imitate with nearly caricaturist exaggeration the original owner of the hat they happen to be wearing at the moment.
. . . In our production we only omitted those parts of the text that relate directly to the Christian tradition. These did not fit our interpretation and were also too far removed from the world of the Israeli spectator. We were delighted that the audiences and the critics did not view the production as merely a one-dimensional political allegory but, instead, recognised that it added a new facet to the play’s universal existential statement. I have no doubt that were it not for the actors’ amazing identification with the characters in the present conception and their superb level of acting, the play would have been such a success. Thanks to them, the idea became an unmediated tangible experience for audiences in Israel.
Ilan Ronen Waiting for Godot as Political Theatre from Robert Scanlan Performing Voices: Notes from Stagings of Beckett's Work
Program Notes Didi/Gogo Pozzo/Lucky Godot Beckett Influences/Resonances
Act I text
Act II text