Fifty years ago tonight, the theatrical world was turned upside down. Peter Hall’s production of Sam Beckett’s Waiting for Godot premiered in London. I’ve always thought that only Ken Tynan did it justice, in his Observer review. This is what he wrote:
By all the known criteria, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a dramatic vacuum. Pity the critic who seeks a chink in its armour, for it is all chink. It has no plot, no climax, no denouement; no beginning, no middle, and no end. Unavoidably, it has a situation, and it might be accused of having suspense, since it deals with the impatience of two tramps, waiting beneath a tree for a cryptic Mr Godot to keep his appointment with them; but the situation is never developed, and a glance at the programme shows that Mr Godot is not going to arrive. Waiting for Godot frankly jettisons everything by which we recognise theatre. It arrives at the custom-house, as it were, with no luggage, no passport, and nothing to declare; yet it gets through, as might a pilgrim from Mars. It does this, I believe, by appealing to a definition of drama much more fundamental than anything in the books. A play, it asserts and proves, is basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.
Peter Hall has written a nice piece about the premiere in today’s Guardian. He compares Godot with that other iconic play, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
Look Back in Anger was a play formed by the careful naturalism of the 30s and the craft beloved by the old repertory theatres. It now looks dated and prolix because it uses the convention of the old well-made play. I think that my generation heard more political revolution in it than was actually there – largely because we desperately needed to.
By contrast, Waiting for Godot hasn’t dated at all. It remains a masterpiece transcending all barriers and all nationalities. And it could have been written today: there is nothing of the 50s about it. It is the start of modern drama and it gave the theatre back its metaphorical power.
Godot challenged and then removed 100 years of literal naturalism where a room could only be considered a room if it was presented in full detail with the fourth wall removed. Godot provided an empty stage, with a tree and two figures who waited each day and yet had to survive.