Saturday 5 January marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most important plays of the 20th century, Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’.
As the global centre for Beckett research and home to the world’s largest Beckett archive, the University of Reading is playing a leading role in furthering our understanding of the influence of the great Irish playwright.
Professor Anna McMullan from the University’s Department of Film, Theatre and Television is leading the research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Here she discusses the legacy of the play and it’s impact on modern theatre.
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot changed the rules of twentieth century theatre. Written in French, En Attendant Godot premiered in Paris, France, at the small Théâtre de Babylone on 5 January 1953, 60 years ago.
Now one of the best known plays of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, En Attendant Godot at first shocked and confused audiences – they had never seen anything quite like it. One French critic (Gabriel Marcel in Les Nouvelles Littéraires on 15 January 1953) recommended the play, but warned that it did not resemble any kind of existing theatre. Sir Peter Hall, who directed the English language premiere of Waiting for Godot at the Arts Theatre, London, in 1955, argued that: “Beckett has changed … the way we act, the way we write and the way we direct in the theatre”.
Godot highlights what French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet called ‘being there’. It has little plot beyond the fact of waiting for Godot, and little on stage to distract the two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir (or the audience) from their waiting. It therefore confronts us with the basic facts of embodied human existence: pain, hunger and sleep, yet conjures lively comedy from the tramps’ apparent improvisations in order to pass the time. It also emphasises interdependence in an unpredictable and unequal world which may offer relief or cruelty. Pozzo’s enslavement of Lucky has become a powerful image of oppression yet dependence: Godot has spoken to cultures in conflict and communities under stress across the globe, from Cape Town, South Africa in 1980, to Haifa, Israel, in 1984, Sarajevo during the siege in 1993, and post-hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2007.
The legacy of Godot continues to influence theatre across the world but what role has it, and Beckett himself, played in shaping modern theatre practice in the UK and Ireland? We know that Beckett influenced playwrights from Edward Albee to Harold Pinter and the African American writer Suzan-Lori Park, but what about the impact of Beckett’s theatre on the many directors, designers, performers, companies and venues that staged his work the length and breadth of these islands?
Much is known about Sir Peter Hall’s productions of Godot across the decades, and the Gate Theatre Dublin’s Festival of 19 Beckett plays first launched in 1991, but we want to discover if there were other productions of Beckett that left an indelible mark on those who worked on them and those who saw them. When was Beckett first performed in the Irish National Theatre, the Abbey or the Lyric Theatre Belfast and what and how were those productions received? Did ways of directing Beckett change over the decades?
The project will see Reading, with project partners the University of Chester and the Victoria and Albert Museum, create a database and research materials relating to all professional productions of Beckett’s theatre throughout the UK and Ireland. This will be a pilot for a national performance database holding information about UK past and future performances of Beckett in the UK and Ireland. Once completed, the database will be an important online tool for Beckett researchers worldwide.
Academics and researchers at the University of Reading are continuing to explore the impact of Beckett on twenty first century literature, philosophy, culture and media, visual and performing arts. Indeed 2013 marks another anniversary: the Beckett International Foundation was launched 25 years ago in 1988, in order to further the study and appreciation of the work of Samuel Beckett.
60 years on from the first performance ‘Godot’s influence remains undiminished yet we won’t have to wait long before we uncover more about this seminal play.
The University of Reading’s Beckett Collection is the world’s largest collection of resources relating to Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). It is home to over 600 items of original Beckett material, including manuscript drafts, annotated copies and corrected copies, nearly 500 editions of Beckett’s work in more than 20 languages and stage files relating to over 680 productions of Beckett plays.
A conference will be held 4-7 April 2013 in celebration of both the anniversaries and will be accompanied by a series of workshops and public
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