June, 1997: Peter Hall returns to again direct Waiting for Godot, 42 years after he launched both the play and himself on parallel careers. From left to right, Hall, Ben Kingsley (Estragon), Denis Quilley (Pozzo), Greg Hicks (Lucky), and Alan Howard (Vladimir)
The Coming of Godot
In 1955, I was twenty-four years old and a very lucky young man. Eighteen months out of university, I had been given a theatre (The Arts, in Great Newport Street) and asked 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 started off with The Lesson, the first Ionesco in Britain) and classics on a shoe-string seemed too good to be true.
That year, I had another bit of luck. Waiting for Godot landed on my desk. In early summer, when I was busy directing O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, I found a script waiting for me one morning. Donald Albery, a leading West End impresario, wrote that he could get no actor to be in Samuel Beckett's play, and no director would stage it. As I probably knew, it was running in a small theatre in Paris; he wondered if I would like to do the English world premi6re. I had heard of the play -just - but I hadn't seen it. I had also faintly heard of Samuel Beckett - at that time, only a few people knew his work; there were apparently novels and a connection with James Joyce.
I read the play and responded warmly. 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 I did think it blindingly original, turning the undramatic (waiting and doubt and uncertainty) into tense action. It was exquisitely constructed and very funny. It took the cross-talk tradition of the music hall (celebrated by Laurel and Hardy and still powerful in Morecombe and Wise) and made it poetry. Above all, it had great metaphorical strength: it made the theatre a place that provoked the imagination again. I decided to do it.
With Mourning Becomes Electra safely launched, I set off for a high-minded holiday in Spain. I took the twelve volumes of Proust with me. I was completing Volume Nine, when a telegram arrived: Mourning Becomes Electra was failing in the mid-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 anxious actors. I soon felt secure in Beckett's beautiful rhythms. 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...
Paul Daneman and Peter Woodthorpe began to enjoy the cross talk; and Timothy Bateson grew quietly proud of his virtuosity as Lucky. Peter Bull as Pozzo, (who later made a career out of sending up the production) was more flustered and amusing.
In his book, I Know the Face But... he described the rehearsals as "the most gruelling that I have ever experienced in all my puff." He was burdened with a great many props and not much belief.
By the time we opened, I was confident that we had something special; the first night therefore came as a shock. There were, as they say, cheers and counter cheers. On the line "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It's awful:' a loud and very English voice said "Hear! Hear!" I had just been signed up by a powerful talent agency, the Music Corporation of America. Backstage after the performance, my brand new agent met me, his face puce with rage. He pointed out that my career was just taking off. I had hopes of a West End play, even a play on Broadway, "And then:' he observed tersely "you go and do a thing like this." From that moment I knew we would have to part.
The critics the next morning were of the same opinion as my agent. Bafflement and derision were everywhere. "The language is flat and feeble," Philip Hope-Wallace wrote in The Guardian. "An evening of funny obscurity," said The Telegraph. The owner of The Arts Theatre, Campbell Williams, warned me that the play would have to close on Saturday. I begged him to wait for the Sunday notices. Perhaps Godot would come - though it frankly didn't seem very likely.
Happily, he did - and in the person of Harold Hobson, the critic of The Sunday Times. He found himself (in a marvelously perceptive review) on the road to Damascus. 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."
To my amazement, Godot mania gripped London. It was discussed, praised, analysed and abused; cartoons were drawn about it, Panorama discussed it, Malcolm Muggeridge derided it and the great character actor Pobert Morley wrote to Peter Bull, "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."
It was. It freed the theatre from detailed naturalism. Metaphor once again filled the stage. And the way had been made straight for Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Edward Bond and several generations to follow.
It is often thought that 1956 and the first night of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was the re-invention of British theatre. Suddenly all young writers saw that they could write for the theatre, and write about now. 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 nonetheless faintly parochial, which Godot wasn't. Look Back in Anger now looks a very dated play; it uses the theatre in a very conventional way. What is more, I think my generation heard more revolution in it than was 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.
Samuel Beckett didn't see my production until it was an established success, although he wrote wise and cordial letters to me during rehearsals. He never liked going to the theatre with the audiences and preferred the peace and precision of rehearsal to the burly burly of performance.
He was very complimentary about what I had done, although I think he was uneasy about its compassion. Would he have liked it harsher? Perhaps he thought it sentimental; perhaps it was. He was, though, particularly fond of Peter Woodthorpe. Beckett became a friend and I had the pleasure of working with him on several other productions. The gaunt Nobel Prize Winner always revealed a dancing wit over a glass of Guinness.
What was my production like? Well, I know it had too much scenery; everything did then. The tree was too complicated and VIadimir and Estragon spent most of the evening sitting on an oil drum: it was all too naturalistic. I also blush when I remember that the play was introduced by a fragment of music (Bartok, no less) as the lights went down. But I was journeying in a new country and finding my way.
I am sure that the actors revealed the play's heart, because it spoke clearly thereafter to a world audience. From that August evening in London, the play went everywhere.
At the end of the year, the Evening Standard Drama Awards were held for the first time. I was a non-voting member of the panel when Godot was considered as The Best New Play. Feelings ran high and the opposition, led by Sir Malcolm Sargent, threatened to resign if Godot won. An English compromise was worked out by changing the title of the award. Godot became The Most Controversial Play of the Year. It is a prize that has never been given since. The play completely changed my life. It earned me the first substantial money that I had ever had. It brought me an offer to direct at Stratford-on-Avon, and subsequently the chance to create the Royal Shakespeare Company. Because of it, Leslie Caron asked for me as her director when she did Gigi in London. We worked together, fell in love and married.
One morning the phone rang and a gentle voice from the South announced improbably that it belonged to Tennessee Williams. He had seen Godot and wished to meet me. He gave me the rights to direct his plays in London.
Other writers were impressed. A young actor by the name of Harold Pinter sent me a play called The Birthday Party ... Godot was my beginning.
What is the play like now - forty three years on? Trying to direct it again, I am once more astounded by its precision. It has the clarity and simplicity of the greatest art - the second act of Figaro or the whole of A Midsummer Nights Dream. It knows exactly what it is doing and how to accomplish it.
Beckett never stopped tinkering with the play, so we now have the benefit of all his later thoughts - tiny cuts and additions made for various productions. There is nothing remaining that is unclear, nothing pretentious, nothing finally baffling. If our production has any obscurities in it, it is our fault, not the text's. How stupid many people must have been forty-two years ago when they denied this new music, but I suppose it has always taken time to recognise original tunes...Is the new production at all like the old? I have no idea, but I am pretty sure it isn't.
I cannot remember the details of what I did forty-three years ago and if I could I would not want to repeat them. I hope I am better now, and in any case a new audience and different times must mean new work. I am sure it is strategically dangerous to re-visit old successes - particularly when they were as extraordinary as the coming of Godot. But the privilege of re-living this great play with great actors is always worth the risk.