Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038
After nearly a half-century, Beckett's Waiting for Godot remains one of the most important, respected, and powerful plays in the history of world theatre. Given its radically innovative style and great degree of difficulty, it is no surprise that audiences and critics have generally reacted to it in extremes—either of love or hate, admiration or disgust. Its original director, Roger Blin, recalled in an article in Theater that the reaction to the first production in January, 1953, in a small Paris theatre was "a sensation actually: wild applause broke out from some in the audience, others sat in baffled silence, fisticuffs were exchanged by pros and cons; most critics demolished play and production but a handful wrote prophetically."
Among those who wrote prophetically was the play's first reviewer, a relatively unknown critic named Sylvain Zegel, who proclaimed in a review in Liberation that the production was "an event which will be spoken of for a long time, and will be remembered years later." With amazing prescience, Zegel simply asserted that this first-time playwright "deserves comparison with the greatest." A more famous French critic at the time, Jacques Lemarchand, added an awareness of the play's dark humor, observing in Figaro Litteraire that Waiting for Godot "is also a funny play— sometimes very funny. The second night I was there the laughter was natural and unforced." He added that this humor "in no way diminished" the play's profound emotional intensity. Internationally acclaimed playwright Jean Anouilh (On-wee) was also one of Waiting for Godot's early commentators and in Arts Spectacles simply proclaimed it "a masterpiece." As James Knowlson summarized it in his Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, the play's "success was assured when it became controversial." The critical and popular enthusiasm, though not universal, was widespread, and the production ran for four hundred performances before moving to a larger theatre in Paris.
This process whereby ambivalence to the play ultimately evolved into popular and critical success was repeated when the play moved to London in August of 1955 for its first production using Beckett's English translation. Opening in a small "fringe" theatre (London's version of Off Broadway), "the play created an instant furore," according to Alan Simpson, writing in 1962, and quoted in Ruby Cohn's 1987 compilation, Waiting for Godot: A Casebook. Simpson added that "[a]lmost without exception, the popular press dismissed it as obscure nonsense and pretentious rubbish. However, it was enthusiastically championed by Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan'' (two of the most influential drama critics in London) and the play once again became controversial and thereby successful, eventually moving to a West End theatre (London's Broadway) and a long run. In February of 1956 an unsigned review in the London Times Literary Supplement by distinguished author G.S. Fraser asserted that the play was clearly a Christian morality play. This essay led to weeks of spirited exchange in the Times with some critics countering that the play was anti-Christian, others that it was Existentialist, and others that it was something else altogether. Characteristically, Beckett was mystified by the controversy, saying, according to Knowlson, "why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can't make out."
The first American production of the play, on the other hand, was quite uncomplicated; it was an unmitigated disaster. In January of 1956, director Alan Schneider opened what was to be a three-week preview run of the play in Coral Gables, Florida, near Miami, with popular comic actors and personalities Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell in the lead roles. As Schneider recounted (as quoted in Ruby Cohn's 1967 compilation, Casebook on Waiting for Godot), the production was a "spectacular flop. The opening night audience in Miami, at best not too sophisticated or attuned to this type of material and at worst totally misled by advertising billing the play as 'the laugh sensation of two continents,' walked out in droves. And the so-called reviewers not only could not make heads or tails of the play but accused us of pulling some sort of hoax on them." The production did not even finish the three-week preview run, but months later the production did move to Broadway, with a new director and cast (retaining only Bert Lahr as Estragon). In New York, producer Michael Myerberg took a new tack on pre-production publicity, this time asking in his advertisements for an audience of "seventy thousand intellectuals." This time the production was a success, though still drawing divided opinions from critics and audience. The show ran for over 100 performances and sold almost 3,000 copies of the play in the theatre lobby.
There have been so many important productions of Waiting for Godot in our century that it is difficult to even list, much less summarize, them. An all-black production of the play on Broadway ran for only five performances late in 1956, with Earle Hyman as Lucky. There was a West Berlin production early in 1975 that Beckett himself directed. In a production in 1976 in Cape Town, South Africa, Waiting for Godot seemed to suggest waiting for the end of apartheid. In 1984 there was a San Quentin Drama Workshop production involving Rick Cluchey, former inmate of San Quentin and audience member of the famous 1957 San Quentin production of the play. In 1988 Beckett went to court in an attempt to stop an all-female Dutch production, believing as he did that the characters in Waiting for Godot were distinctively male (Beckett and his lawyers lost in court). Also in 1988 there was a production at Lincoln Center in New York City, in which Estragon and Vladimir were played by well-known contemporary comedians Robin Williams and Steve Martin.
According to Martin Esslin in his The Theatre of the Absurd, Waiting for Godot had been seen by over a million people within five years after its first production in Paris and by the late 1960s had been translated into more than twenty languages and performed all over the world. Audiences coming to it without an awareness of its nature or history are perhaps still baffled by it, but the play can no longer be dismissed as it was by Daily News contributor John Chapman, one of its first New York critics, who, as quoted by the New Republic's Eric Bentley, called Waiting for Godot "merely a stunt."
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