From the Archives: Peter O’Toole in Waiting for Godot

Born in 1932 in Connemara (or so he claimed), O’Toole passed away in December 2013 at the age of 81. Much has been written about his career of late: he was as notorious for his drinking as much as for his career decisions – his choice, for instance, to take parts in less than top quality films at the point in his career when he was gaining respect for his Shakespearian roles on the stage. This actor lived a life marked by a refusal to accept the mainstream, a reputation for being difficult and demanding, and for enjoying the odd tipple.

Later claiming Waiting for Godot to be his favourite play, it was during the early days of his career that O’Toole played Vladimir (Bristol Old Vic, 1957). Patrick Stewart, who has recently played the part to international acclaim, speaks of O’Toole’s performance as inspirational for him as a then budding drama student.[1] O’Toole played the role again at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1969 – the first time the play was performed at this theatre. The story which was doing the rounds prior to this production was how O’Toole had been turned down by the Abbey company in the early days of his career due to the fact that he didn’t have enough Irish. Though, as Desmond Rushe of the Irish Independent wrote, when asked about this, Ernest Blythe denied this ever happened.[2] It is unclear from the news record whether or not the story is apocryphal, although it is mentioned by several reviewers.

The production was well-received, although some reviewers wondered somewhat cynically, who was the greater draw: O’Toole or Beckett. [3] The Irish Times commends the skilled variety style performances of both Donal McCann and Peter O’Toole, and how the latter refrains from showing his star quality virtuosity. The set (Norah McGuinness) together with Leslie Scott’s lighting conveyed ‘all the desolation of Beckett’s wasteland’.[4]

Beckett tried to prevent this production happening, but succeeded only in limiting it to one month and preventing it from becoming a repertory piece.[5] James Knowlson suggests various reasons for this antipathy, from his feelings about Ireland, a personal dislike of O’Toole and a never-forgotten grudge against Alan Simpson for changing the opening lines of the play in 1955. While the Irish reviewers were positive, if cynical, about the casting of a star actor, Beckett reports to Con Levanthal with some satisfaction Mary Manning-Howe’s view of the production as ‘appalling’ and ‘O’Toole-ridden beyond redemption’.[6]

Peter O’Toole, Donal McCann and Danny Figgis went on to play the same roles in a 1971 production of the play, directed by Frederick Monnoyer, at the Nottingham Playhouse.

 


[2] ‘An Abbey Waiting for Beckett.’ The Irish Independent, 6 November, 1969. University of Reading Archives, Stage Files, MS 1792, f687.

[3] ‘A Great Year for Actors.’ The Irish Independent, 4 January 1970.  University of Reading Archives, Stage Files, MS 1792, f973.

[4] ‘Memorable “Godot” at the Abbey.’ The Irish Times, 2nd December, 1969.

[5] William Hutchings, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: A Reference Guide (USA: Praeger, 2005), p. 87.

[6] Damned to Fame, pp. 566-7.

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