Waiting for Godot


What I think I saw at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

  •  A West End success – the cost of the tickets and drinks, the location, the quality of the seating, the programme, the ushers
  • The stars and the star system and their presence on stage – Ian McClellan, Patrick Steward, Ronald Pickup, Simon Callow – the quality of the artistic crew
  • The credentials of Beckett’s classic – from outrage to acceptance – the sense of Beckett’s incorporation into the canon of English drama – like Shakespeare and a few others
  • The ‘trifecta’ effect of being here at the right time and the right moment in the evolution of the history of this play.

 Intersecting contexts

  • Generation of the first drama teachers like Ken Robinson – disciples of Dorothy Heathcote & Brian Way
  • My understanding of theatre history of teaching in a subject in which there existed 92% unemployment persistently
  • Observing the shift in focus from ‘drama’, ‘the arts’ and now to ‘creativity’ – Maxine Greene, Project Zero, Ken Robinson and Creative Partnerships
  • Baby boomer history – 1st generation Italian-Australian who carries stories of deprivation, hunger, being dispossessed from one’s homeland, the constant threat and many real experiences of physical risk and danger, the experience of physical and psychological violence, adjustment to being thrown together with other cultures with no ‘welcome’
  • My experience of viewing Godot in the Octagon Theatre in 1984 of a production directed by Beckett himself and performed by the San Quentin group & coming to terms with the many debates around theatrical forms
  • Naturalism vs anti-nationalismPolitical vs ‘beyond’ Marxism – beyond political drama
  • Political vs ‘beyond’ Marxism – beyond political drama
  • The incorporation of older styles into contemporary theatre – the Asian influence, the on-going power of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan, the Italians and Commedia

The dramatic effect of telling the truth

  •  The importance of ‘consciousness raising’ and political theatre  – discourses on naturalism / Brecht and others
  •  The importance of modernism and postmodernism and their critique on art and representation
  •  The personal nature of truth telling persisting – Antigone’s dilemma  – so Ursula Le Guin can advise young writers of ‘telling the truth’ regardless of the physical, emotional and financial consequences.
  •  Truth is the ultimate ideal and those who aspire to telling it are necessarily idealistic or mad or both.
  •  For instance, Antonin Artaud’s treatise of the theatre as ‘holy’ – in an historical sense it was always the case – it was just ‘how it was’ – the altar in the Greek amphitheatre, the sacred ceremonies of indigenous people now studied by many scholars look at ‘performance theory’.
  •  But equally true is the history of the industrialisation of theatre making which gave rise to a ‘professional’ theatre industry and the way that industry incorporated aesthetics and other ‘hard to define’ qualities of human existence into its theatrical experiences. For examples a sense of common experience – communion and communitas
  • A sense of redemption and atonement through catharsis
  • A sense of subverting the dominant paradigm through comic business, irony,
  • The X factor element of being a ‘star’
  • These are just some of the more spiritual / psychological realms of cultural states of being and doing which make tolerable otherwise intolerable contradictions and paradoxes in the ‘system’.

Waiting for Godot, Theatre Royal Haymarket 2009

My experience of viewing Godot at the Haymarket, performed by four iconically important actors of our time, left me wondering what I had hoped to gain from viewing the play. You see I have always prided myself as retaining a ‘niave’ perspective, despite the hundreds of plays I have viewed and the thousands of words I have written on theatre. Everytime I walk into a theatre I’m excited by the prospect of being ‘taken’ somewhere I never imagined being, revisiting ideas, concepts and feelings in ways that I might not normally have done so.

The production chose to minimise the pain – all kinds of pain: physical pain;  psychological torture of living in ‘cycles of time’ – a day, year, the boom/ bust capitalist economy, peace and war, famine/ plenty;   the foolishness of setting a course in time based on a particular technique, philosophy; the acknowledgement of the size of man-made disasters illustrated through two world wars and one global economic depression

Choosing to highlight the clever patter and the choreographed movements of the tap dancers and the physical tricks of vaudevillians – a sense of what we now think was vaudeville and not it actually may have been; energy for energy’s sake;    art for art’s sake;   no hint of irony and resonance with the ‘real’ context; for instance, the audience laughed at the moments the actors referred to the audience as ‘bog’ etc but the actors did not refer to the audience as ‘charnel house’

I looked at ‘stars’ and not at Beckett’s characters:  they were not hungry – no consequence to the deprivation – they were going off stage to ‘rest’;   I didn’t believe their physical pain – believed McKellan more than Stewart – Pickup’s muscles didn’t seem to ache – none of the characters seem to be ‘in danger;     No holding tension – no holding silence;   No nonsense – it all made sense so the play I viewed seemed to be about:

Two old men – Estragon and Vladimer ada Gogo and Didi – with Gogo boarding on Alzihmiers and his cheerful and caring friend Didi trying to cheer him up at a time when they are down on their luck. They come across the somewhat cruel spectacle of a slave and master who give them a lesson (lehrstucke) on ‘things are not what they seem’ that is slaves just might like being slaves and slave-owners just might carry the unbearable burden of keeping the slave alive for his purposes.


Playing in the space seemed limited to a circle in the centre and while their were references to particular objects – the tree – and ditches off stage – the production might have well been enacted in an void

–        there did not seem to be a ‘visceral’ connection between the characters and their setting yet even at a basic level this must have been the space in which they needed to eat, sleep, defecate and urinate

–        the location seem to hold no threat to them – they seemed past caring and indeed seemed jolly most of the time and only ‘annoyed’ that they couldn’t go anywhere because of their ‘waiting for Godot’


Playing with time not playing in time

–        the production slips into metatheatre as the actors play with

  • their roles
  • their patter & dialogue
  • their actions – potentially heroic and anti-heroic  – suicide and keeping going

–        In a post-Brechtian theatrical world we know its an effect – the acto must first show that they believe they are in the moment as ‘if for the first time’

–        They must assume that they are in the moment of the play and not alongside it – it is only the political will of surrending the rational part of oneself to the forces that would subdue one’s will – make one less human and more animal

–        This is the great legacy of liveral democratic European philosophies in which Brecht and other ‘left-wing’ politically inspired persons found their source of inspiration


What was Beckett’s poltics?


His politics seem less polemic and arguably more ‘realistic’ and less ‘idealistic’ in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the irrational actions of the previous 50 years of European history – the concentration camps, the destruction of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and any number of other acts of genocide enacted during that time


The accusations of the relativism of postmodernism and the chaos of existentialist as opposed to humanist philosophies doesn’t seem to apply


He seems to contradict the modernist TS Eliot’s view that mankind cannot stand too much reality and thus by implication needs fiction, entertainment as a necessary fiction


He seems to acknowledge that mankind continues to show on-going need for salvation and redemption despite evidence to the contrary that Godot seeming will never arrive and that we are alone on the planet


He seems to demonstrate that historical effects of ideas and actions in time have an ongoing legacy and are more poignant because they hop across time inexplicably, surprisingly and seeming non-causally linked

–        what are we to make of the whole of German history from the Nazi years?

–        What are we to make of the whole of other histories from particular events – the killing of neighbours by neighbours in Bosnia, Rwanda etc

–        What are we to make of betrayal of family and children such as in Godot’s beating of the child or the sexual abuse of the women in cellars etc


We, like the characters of Godot, are IN time not standing beside or above it. Metatheatre is essentially a fictional stage that must be consciously achieved by unnatural selection

–        rationality has material prequisities – Marlow’s hierarchy of needs – Lord of the Flies, Mad Max etc

–        the Australian writer who is glad not to be born the guard who guarded his hut in the concentration camp  – this is a position which I saw as emerging from Lucky and Pozzo but the emphasis on the stage business with no sense of ‘real’ pain by Pickup didn’t hold the tension.


Waiting for Godot, Octagon Theatre University of Western Australia 1984


Beckett’s authority and his choice to work with the San Quentin group – what was it about prisoners and what they brought to the play?


Beckett as director – what was his intention? Why did he choose to say and who this play? Why anti-naturalist? Why absurd? Expressionist? Poetic? Why that setting? Those characters? That action?


What I experienced that night – the name calling from the stage? My interaction with other audience members around me? The experience of waiting and moving in the memory of devastation – there were people still talking about living amongst the ruins


The expectation – fashion of feeling ‘hopeless’ – my own reactions to academic ways of viewing despair and pointlessness, hunger and death – the poetics of resonating words of embodied language


I didn’t plan to compare my viewing of Samuel Beckett’s own production with the San Quentin group, which I saw in the Octagon Theatre at the University of Western Australia in the early 1980s, with the one before me on Saturday (Matinee 20/6). But I found myself do so more and more as the production went on: why did Didi so quickly and swiftly forget about the pain in his genitals? Why was he so cheerful all the time? Why did Estragon and Vladimer seem so lacking in


It remains one of the most visceral experiences in the theatre that I have experience.  I don’t believe I have ever felt pain so palpable as I did that evening: I wanted to scream but all I could do was ‘gawk’ at the stage images; I wanted to escape but all I could do was witness the futility of lives being depicted. Yes, as I heard the attempts of creating ‘patter’ and watched the effort needed to move painfully – feet, genitals, v


Waiting for Godot, Wordplayers Theatre In Education 1986/7


–        performing Godot as part of TIE programme

–        teaching ‘theatre of the absurd’ – finding a way of telling the story of why the concept was named – what was recognised by Martin Esslin in The Theatre of the Absurd

–        Absurd was not a description by playwrights of their plays rather they seemed to talk about a sense of truth  – of telling the truth

–        It was this for me which had rung true – telling how life lacked coherence, symmetry, rationality, the disjunction of cause and effect – at least in an simply way

–        The rich kinds found our expose ‘interesting’ and the poor kids recited the words of the scenes we enacted with us – the resonance of the words  – not like a ‘sing along’ but an involuntary action  – an affirmation muttered in prayer like an act of faith…they felt the words as experience of powerlessness


What did Godot 2009 leave with me?


–        questions about acting technique – why did the actors do this and not that – for instance, why did Patrick Stewart have sore genitals one moment when he’s pissing and then can come on stage apparently pain free and can sit cross-legged on the stone seat

–        questions on how ‘stars’ have such a powerful status – beyond and above their own art from – the cult of personality firmly defining them – for instance, when I watched Cate Blanchett play Hedda Gabler in 2004 it took about 2 mins for me to ‘forget’ the star and view the Hedda she created by playing her as the most unsympathetic Hedda imaginable. It was only when the gun went off at the end of the play and Hedda suicides that I acknowledged the power of Blanchett’s performance and her unrelenting pursuit of Hedda’s desperate life

–        I rarely stopped thinking of the four actors as anything but their personalities  – I felt that Ian McClellan achieved this for most of the first act but that Patrick Stewart only achieved it in the moment in the 2nd act when he confronts the boy and almost begs to be acknowledged as a person and for his experience to be validated; I felt that Ronald Pickup was ‘not present’ except when he delivered Lucky’s speech which moved me – it was as if Pickup just didn’t have the subtly of body movements to show the role and I felt that Simon Callow just over acted for the first act and only hit the enigma of his role in the second act through being literally blind – what of his blindness in the first act?

–        The case of not believing them because I didn’t believe that any of them were waiting for anything – that is, they didn’t show what it means to miss your moment to something creative, productive and somehow ennobling – what it means to even believe in such a prospect in the face of the overwhelming evidence that so many people have failed to attain a meaningful life – an integrated experience of being human

–        The four are ‘exceptions’ – they are part of the 8% in work and the 1% of actors in highly successful projects and that is undoubtedly well deserved – the evidence is everywhere to be seen

–        But I believe that Beckett caught them napping – showed up the extraordinary connection between ‘real life’ and ‘the stage’ for actors that they can never take for granted

Who am I to say this?

An unknown theatre historian come to London to re-think my own place in teaching, researching and creating theatre.


I was so excited at seeing the production  – the £47 I spent on the tickets is the most I’ve ever spent on tickets because I read the critics and seeing the general reactions I concluded that it must be a monumental interpretation of a most challenging play


I so wanted to see how they dealt with the central problem which the play seems to present for actors and that is to not act – to do nothing but wait


I wanted to see what these fine artists did with that central problem of that it means to put on someone else’s experience  – to realise what it is to be both yourself and yet not yourself


Maybe I got it wrong – may be Godot isn’t about waiting but how we can’t wait – we jump about from one experience to another – hell is paved by good intentions – we call up this and that  – we cobble words together  – they say most of Pinter’s dialogues was verbatim  – drawn from actually conversations he heard at dinner parties and bus stops


So what was I expecting? Beckett’s insights not about talking but listening not about showing but observing  – the auditorium / the theatre – the listening place and the seeing place


The courage of waiting – waiting for a long time  – for an unreasonable long time for virtues to be realised and sins to be redeemed – what is so terrible about giving birth astride a grave? There I so much terror in that image – why not deny it and keep as jolly as Patrick Stewart’s Didi?


Well there are so many good reasons to do so, not the least the enormous challenge of finding meaning in both living the life you believe is given to you and confronting the knowledge that even if you find ‘the meaning’ you’ll die anyway.  Then there’s the moment of death itself.


Our miniscule lives in the face of overwhelming and uncontrollable forces – hardly the way to a Box Office success, hardly the way the play could achieve popularity – hardly the way it gained its effect in the past – if Beckett’s own productions are anything to go by.


In the relative longer distance in time between ourselves in 2009 and the experiences of total calamity brought about in European history between 1914 and 1945 we are confident enough to seemingly redeem Beckett’s less entertaining version of a play with a more upbeat one – we can lighten up and laugh off our nihilistic tendencies with a light soft shoe shuffle. After all, ‘the troubles’ are all in the Middle East and Africa and Asia and all we need to do is better protect ourselves against those terrorist who would like to make violence on a global scale.


Furthermore, we have a hard enough problem keeping up our considerable advantage in world affairs  – it’s tough getting our heads around our part in global warming or monetary and financial failures or spreading democracy when only such a short time ago we had unprecedented economic growth even while we promised to look at the systemic nature of children living in poverty and other inequalities in our own back yard.


And why do we need to have any agency ourselves – our performance culture dominated by stars and interesting stories of overcoming the odds is enough for us…

we have stars we have chosen for that so we can live vicariously through them and experience their great success at answering the big questions…their success IS our success ….that’s the truth, isn’t it?