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.

From the Archives: Cyril Cusack in Krapp’s Last Tape, The Abbey Theatre, June 1960

The great Irish actor Cyril Cusack (1910-1993), who was well known internationally and highly accomplished on both the stage and the screen, performed in a double bill of Krapp’s Last Tape with Shaw’s Arms and the Man at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1960 (Note that Abbey productions were at this time still being presented at the Queen’s theatre following the fire of 1951). Cusack, an actor whose career spanned almost the breadth of the 20th century, first performed on the stage at the age of 7, and seems to have had a deep interest in Beckett’s work, particularly so in the 1950s and 60s. A few years prior to this production of Krapp’s Last Tape, he had written to Beckett looking for permission to do a bilingual version of Waiting for Godot. In May 1955, Beckett wrote to him giving his permission for this planned bi-lingual adaptation of the play at the Abbey Theatre. Cusack’s vision had the play set in Connemara, with Vladimir and Estragon speaking Irish to each other and English to Pozzo and Lucky ‘as is the familiar pattern in Gaeltacht areas’. Cusack recounts much later that Donald Albery’s resistance to Godot being produced in Dublin in English made him, in temper, suggest this measure. Beckett gives him the necessary contact details for the rights from Editions de Minuit but seems somewhat bemused by the request writing, ‘By all means do it in Gaelic in Dublin if you think it worth while. Why parts in English?’[1] This particular production, with all its postcolonial resonances, never materialised; Cusack went on to play Krapp at the Abbey and later made a recording of readings of Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable (Caedmon Records, 1963).

A programme for Cusack’s production of Krapp’s Last Tape is held at the Dublin City Library and Archive and no doubt some new material will come to light through the Abbey Theatre’s digitisation project at NUI, Galway. Reviews for this production suggest some disappointment, with Krapp’s Last Tape in particular. Yet this was down perhaps to the strength of the production which preceded it. One reviewer had the opinion that, coming after the ‘tour de force’ of Arms and the Man (with Maureen Cusack and directed by Godfrey Quigley), Krapp’s Last Tape was something of a disappointment: ‘Mr Cusack laboured the early earthiness and the grotesque, bewildering the audience, leaving them uncertain how to take the poetry, and tempting them perhaps to seek an easy refuge in his virtuosity.’[2] Yet, negative comments aside, this doubly-billed production clearly had appeal; after playing in Belfast at the Empire Theatre and in Dublin, it went on to represent Ireland at several European festivals of drama. During what was a month-long tour of Europe, Cusack’s performances won him the individual award for best actor the International Festival in Paris.[3]

cusack Cyril Cusack (1910-1993)





[1] See Fehsenfeld et al (eds), The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 533-4

[2]Arms and the Man & Krapp’s Last Tape’, Irish Times, 21 June 1960

[3] ‘Best Actor Award for Cyril Cusack,’ Irish Times, 14 July 1960, p. 1.