My interest in Samuel Beckett goes back to the 60s. I was in my mid 20s and living in London. On the spur of the moment I went to see 'Endgame' at the Tower Theatre in Islington. It was the first Beckett play I had ever seen. The theatre archives show that is was staged in September 1961. The Tower is a small theatre with limited seating. As I remember you sat hard up against the performance space – almost within touching distance of the actors. Perfect for Beckett! I have never forgotten the evening or the play. For those of who haven't seen it a brief resume:
'Endgame' has four characters; Hamm, Clov, Nagg and Nell. The action all takes place in one small room with two high windows. Outside all is dead. Hamm cannot walk, is blind and sits immobilised throughout the play. Clov, his servant, has sight but is lame, can't sit down and is embittered and resentful. To the back of this bare setting are two large bins. These reveal Nagg and Nell: Hamm's parents. It is a bleak unsparing piece of theatre lasting an hour or so. I could make no sense of it yet somehow it cut to the quick. I remember at the end of the performance the actor who played Hamm had tears streaming through the greasepaint. I knew how he felt.
This memory came to mind after watching 'Waiting for Godot' at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh in 2015. Here again were the same powerful images, obscure plot and elusive poetic language. Like 'Endgame', it will be with me a long time and I have been thinking about it on and off ever since.
I should say that I was much more prepared for 'Waiting for Godot' than 'Endgame'. In the intervening years I had read a biography and knew a good deal more about Beckett's life, struggles and art. I had read several of his novels and I knew about his much talked of play.
But the performance at the Lyceum was the first time I had seen the play live. So my visit to the Lyceum was keenly anticipated. It is worth mentioning that the play was chosen especially to mark the 50th anniversary of the Lyceum Theatre Company. To add to the prestige of the production, two of Scotland's greatest actors – Bill Paterson and Brian Cox – took the leading roles. It was a mark of respect from them and a mark of respect to the play itself. It has been a long journey from derision and dismissal to acceptance and the mainstream.
As I said earlier, there will not be many who have not
heard of Beckett and 'Waiting for Godot'. But I wonder how many actually know what it's about? For those who don't, I will try to summarise. The play opens with two bedraggled friends, tramps possibly, meeting on a deserted country road. Centre stage is a mound of earth and bare tree. It is apparent that they have met at this exact spot the day before. It is evening. The tramps are Estragon and Vladimir, and they are there to meet Godot. Why is not explained, except that they expect some kind of redemption from him.
The setting for Act 2 is the same, except it is next day and the bare tree has acquired a hopeful leaf or two. Nothing changes in the course of the play and nothing essentially is resolved. Act 1 ends when Godot sends a message that he is not coming; Act 2 and the play ends the same way. While waiting, Estragon and Vladimir converse, complain, commiserate and consider suicide. They also do music hall turns with songs, jokes, backchat, pratfalls, hat-swapping and falling trousers. They eat, fart, urinate, fall asleep, discuss the Bible, Jesus, the crucifixion, the state of their feet, and much else beside. In both acts they are joined by Lucky and Pozzo. Lucky is a beast of burden and is treated abominably by Pozzo, who goes blind in the second act.
Also cast is a boy messenger who arrives towards the end of each act to announce that Godot will not be coming. When he arrives towards the end of second act, Estragon and Vladimir agree there is nothing for it but to return the next day and resume their vigil. At this point, there is long silence while they stare at the audience; the lights go out and the play ends. It is stunning theatre.
So who was Samuel Beckett and how did he come to write this extraordinary work? Samuel Beckett was born in Foxrock, near Dublin in 1906. He was the second son of reasonably well off Anglo Irish Protestant parents. He was privately educated and graduated with distinction in romance languages from Trinity College, Dublin in 1927. He was then appointed reader in English at Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris in 1928. James Joyce was in Paris at the time writing 'Finnegan's Wake' and Beckett, another Dubliner, became an important friend and supporter. He fell in love with Paris and settled there permanently in 1937.
When war broke out, Beckett was in Dublin visiting his mother. He left immediately for Paris preferring 'France in war to Ireland at peace'. He became involved in the resistance and narrowly escaped capture when his group was betrayed. Escaping Paris in a hurry, he headed for Roussillon, a village in unoccupied Vichy. His companion, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, went with him. Suzanne was also wanted by the Gestapo for her resistance work. In Roussillon he survived doing farm work and odd jobs. It was not long before he became involved in the local Maquis and served until the Liberation.
Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre with gold star for his war services to France. Beckett rarely discussed his resistance activities, dismissing it as 'boy scout stuff'. A gross understatement, as many of his Paris resistance group who were captured were tortured, sent to concentration camps or summarily executed.
France liberated, Beckett returned to his small flat in Paris. Money was tight and he struggled to keep afloat. He tried to pick up his writing career again but it was not going well. Few understood or appreciated his work and he struggled to get published. As a distraction from novels he decided to write a play. Beckett took three months to write 'Waiting for Godot', completing it in January 1949.
As with his novels, the familiar pattern of incomprehension and rejection followed. Godot was turned down many times and Beckett, in despair, gave up on it. Suzanne did not. She always had great faith in the work and tirelessly persisted, eventually persuading a friend, actor manager Roger Blin, to read it. He was interested and agreed to put it on. Money to do it was a problem as was finding a theatre. The money issue was partially solved by the public purse providing a small subsidy. And the Theatre de Babylone in central Paris unexpectedly became available.
The first performance of 'Waiting for Godot' took place on 4 January 1953. It didn't go down well and there were walk-outs and derision. Reviews were mixed and lukewarm with one significant exception. Jean Anouilh, an established, successful playwright, loved by the French public, called it 'a masterpiece'. The review caused a stir; Paris argued; tickets sold! Beckett and Godot never looked back.
The same thing happened two years later in London. The director was the 24-year-old Peter Hall, just starting out on his brilliant career. It was staged at the small Arts Theatre Club in central London mainly to keep the Lord Chamberlin at bay. Here it followed the same pattern with walk-outs, catcalls and derision. Some leading London critics were savage but Harold Hobson, the respected and highly regarded theatre critic of the Sunday Times, liked it very much and urged people to see it.
So did Kenneth Tynan at the Observer, who said that after Godot, theatre would never be the same. He was right. Shortly after these reviews, it transferred to the much larger Criterion Theatre in the heart of the London's West End, where it ran for eight months. Since these early days Godot has rarely been out of production and fills theatres worldwide – including Edinburgh.
In the many years since these first early performances speculation and debate about the play have never stopped. There are probably more books, articles and PHDs written about Godot than any other play of the 20th century. There is a Beckett Society, a webpage and social media profile. Edinburgh University is the hub of much of this academic industry with its 'Journal of Beckett Studies' published now for over 40 years.
Beckett may be partially responsible for all the speculation, discussion and debate. He was notoriously opaque about what Godot meant. A shy undemonstrative man, he would politely but firmly turn aside inquiries, saying that the play was as much a mystery to him as it was to everyone else. There is no reason to disbelieve him.
It seems to me that all this close textual deconstruction passes most people by. Audiences enjoy the comedy and humour of the piece. That, and the core message of hope and endurance in times of trouble and catastrophe. The late Susan Sontag intuitively understood this when she staged Godot in ruined, besieged Sarajevo. Despite mortal danger from shelling and sniper fire, it played to packed houses throughout the run. It was put on in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city. It has been done twice with Beckett's approval in the notorious high security San Quentin prison.
Beckett would not allow Godot to be to put on to segregated audiences in Apartheid South Africa. He did however give his blessing in 1976 to a black cast doing it in the wholly integrated Market Theatre in Johannesburg. Director and actor Benjy Francis said this:
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 the desolation. Every night, the show received standing ovations. Its impact was monumental: 'Waiting for Godot' provided a powerful metaphor of our struggle which allowed me to get it past the censor and speak to my people.
It is telling that in all these intolerable situations, Godot is the play of choice. Somehow, Beckett's words and the alchemy of theatre give succour, support and encouragement to endure and go on. Was this Beckett's intention all along? There is no way of knowing but I strongly suspect so.
Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. The citation says that the prize was awarded 'for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation'.
He died peacefully in Paris on 22 December 1989. In the strictest privacy he was laid to rest Montparnasse cemetery, next to wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, on the day after Christmas.