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'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett

The enduring absurdist drama has a long entanglement with censors and prison life.

by David Leveaux
10 November 2014, 10:00am

​"To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it before it is too late!" – Vladimir: Waiting for Godot

When, earlier this year, British minister for Justice Chris Grayling ​sought to prevent books being sent to prisoners, he covered his tracks by arguing that it was to stop drugs or weapons being smuggled in with them. But the significance of one of the world's oldest democracies apparently getting into the book-banning business seemed to be lost on him. In fact, the idea was so incandescently stupid that I briefly considered the possibility that there had been a similar, if unannounced, ban on sending books to politicians.

Of course, the stupidity was entirely mine.

If instinctive liberalism has one arterial flaw, it is its optimism. And in this case, I was entirely wrong to imagine that anyone fortunate enough to have the education and opportunities of a politician like Grayling would naturally arrive, by force of gravity alone, in orbit around the great planet Common Sense.

For instance: we know you can burn books, or ban them. Better still, and for the sake of convenience, you can ban and burn their authors. But history teaches that their words will out nonetheless. And if those words are useful they will even endure. This is not a recent discovery. But it's a truth that needs to be repeatedly re-learned.

It's an old trick of politicians to pretend to be anti-intellectual, as if that is a guarantee that they have their finger on the pulse of "real" people. It's bullshit of course, and a cynical play to the gallery of demagoguery. But it has consequences.

Five days after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 I received a call from Bertolt Brecht's daughter Barbara to tell me that the graves of her parents in the Jewish cemetery on Friedrichstrasse, in the former East Berlin, had been defaced with spray-paint that read "Jewish Intellectual Pigs". She told me it was like 1930 all over again.

Artists and intellectuals are regularly maligned as somehow separated from real life. So when it comes to revolution they are often among the first to be dispensed with.

But the underlying contradiction in the official view of artists as inherently away with the fairies is instantly exposed when you consider the books that governments (or institutions acting in their name) feel it necessary to ban. And in that list, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, first performed in French in 1953, holds a peculiarly consistent position.

I say "peculiarly" because, on the face of it, Waiting for Godot is one of the most iconically incomprehensible plays of the modern era.

Wikipedia tags it as an "absurdist" drama, which is literati code for "don't expect to be as entertained by this as you might be by Diehard. But it's art." It's a play that your average theatre critic professes to admire in the way a hiker admires a bear while considering how best to retreat from it.

It is, in other words, apparently the supreme example of a literature that might have been the province of a few dedicated esoterics operating in the stratosphere of philosophical speculation; with a limited art house audience to match.

And yet Waiting for Godot not only endures profoundly in the public imagination, it has earned the improbable accolade of being banned in – among other places – the former East German Republic and the United States' detention facility at Guantánamo Bay.

In 1984, Samuel Beckett came to London to direct a production of the play at Riverside Studios. I was then a young director assigned to the task of looking after anything he needed in or around rehearsal, which wasn't much: a half of Guinness at lunch time, and some help managing the newfangled push button phones that were replacing the old rotary dial ones in the offices.

These new phones were a source of wry bewilderment to him, and on one occasion provided for a startling moment of Beckettian comedy while he was trying to make a call to Paris. He finally gave up on the fancy buttons in sheer incomprehension, and tossed the entire plastic contraption off my desk and into the bin.

In return, I had the great fortune to sit around and watch him direct in that distinctive and discreetly influential style that depended less on him saying anything than it did on the actors being aware to their nerve endings that he didn't miss a thing. Moreover, and here was the clue, there was nothing abstract about his advice to the actor. Not a word about metaphors or meanings or themes, only the gently firm injunction to "look up there" or to be clear on a word or a phrase.

But one of the reasons there was so little need for discussion about the play – apart from Sam's temperamental aversion to discussing his plays anyway – was the very special nature of the acting company he was directing and the remarkable bond they had with Beckett.

This was The San Quentin Drama Workshop, headed up by actor and writer Rick Cluchey.

Rick's first exposure to the play in 1957 was actually through hearsay. He was serving a life sentence in San Quentin State prison for armed robbery, and was being held in a secure unit on the night a touring company came to the prison to perform Waiting for Godot. The effect of the play on those who did see it was evidently electrifying enough for a cellmate to describe the entire thing to Rick and spark what would become a lifelong commitment not only to the theatre but to the work of Samuel Beckett.

As a result of that performance, and the ground-breaking work that followed at San Quentin involving prisoners creating and performing theatre, by the time Rick was paroled in 1966 the foundations for the San Quentin Drama Workshop had been established. And Rick had developed a close relationship with Beckett himself.

Now, in 1984, in the wide spaces of Riverside Studio One, the forlornly purposeless purpose of those two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for something that may never come, and the monstrous Pozzo driving on the tortured, defeated, de-humanized creature so perfectly named Lucky seemed, through the lens of these former convict collaborators, to be a natural revelation. Even the illuminated fire escape sign that was ever present at the rear of the space seemed to acquire an unforced wit – there is of course no escape from this landscape for the two inhabitants of the play that famously ends thus:

VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?

ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.

[They do not move]

It may be trite to argue that the play has special meaning as a metaphor for the despair and paralysis experienced by the incarcerated – even though Godot gave notice of its intimacy with prisoners almost from the beginning, when Beckett agreed, in 1953, to a request from inmates at Wuppertal prison in Germany to let them translate and perform it there.

And anyway, the metaphor alone could surely not explain why the play attracts the beady eye of censors operating in the name of such diverse and, you might think, opposed ideologies as that of the Marxist East German Republic and the United States.

I believe the key to this question is that the play is not a metaphor at all. It is, as far as political expedience is concerned, something far more worrying: namely, life itself.

To understand that, I think it's necessary to understand the deep purpose of censorship, which at its core is actually identical to the purpose of the Berlin Wall or the facility at Guantánamo.

And that purpose, as I came to understand it, is isolation.

Following the revelation of Beckett's radically warm and funny production at Riverside Studios, I was to find myself, a couple of years later, directing his play Krapp's Last Tape in East Berlin. The production was chiefly notable for two things: it starred one of the great actors of the Berliner Ensemble, Ekkehard Schall, who was also Bertolt Brecht's son-in-law, and the play, along with the rest of Beckett's writing, had up to that point been banned in East Germany.

The fact that it was possible to do it at all owed as much to the widely held affection and esteem for Ekkehard and the Brecht family in East Berlin, as it did to the stealthily influential effect of Mikhail Gorbachev's ascendancy in Moscow.

As we rehearsed, there was no sense of making some kind of "radical" statement with the play, or of bending it towards an earnest analysis of – or metaphor for – the state of East Germany. Nothing could have been further from our minds. In fact, if I thought anything along these lines it was only to celebrate the fact that the bar of censorship had been lifted and an East German audience would have the opportunity to experience this giant of a dramatist first-hand.

I was wrong.

The day before we opened, the brilliant dramaturg who had been working alongside us with shared enthusiasm and passion for the adventure, proudly arrived with the programme for the show, which she had been preparing for weeks. And the dominant article in that programme was a lengthy essay by a Professor of Humboldt University explaining how interesting it was to compare Beckett – apparently a fine chronicler but also a product of "capitalist despair" – with the progressive energy of Brecht and other Socialist writing.

I was appalled at what I took to be a flagrant attempt to intervene between dramatist and audience – offering a wholly specious "lens" through which people were invited to view the play. It was as if an alternate world had been offered to replace the real one. I insisted on writing a counter-article, only to be told, of course, that the programme had already been printed so it was too late.

As it turned out, and largely thanks to Ekkehard, a compromise was reached whereby my piece could be typed up and "slipped" on a separate sheet into the programme. (With almost comic consequences none of us had considered, this solution turned out to be hugely to my advantage. My piece was on a loose sheet of paper in a glossy programme, which should have demoted its significance. But since a loose sheet of paper falling out of a programme is invariably the first thing people glance at, it had precisely the opposite effect – an accidental illustration of censorship's own arterial flaw: that it invariably, if unintentionally, draws more attention to the thing censored.)

That encounter with an admittedly subtle kind of censorship left a huge impression on me because I realised that it was an attempt to withhold not just some inconvenient facts, but reality itself. This is, of course, a technique of isolation, deployed for the purpose of making us dependent on the worldview of its proponents. And we can bet that its practitioners in Guantánamo today are astonishingly advanced in their understanding of it.

But, you might well ask, what is so special – or real – about a reality like the one Beckett illuminates across his barren landscapes, populated by his tortured clown-souls? Why is that reality desirable enough to be worth banning?

The answer to this lies partly in Rick Cluchey's cellmate's account of that 1957 performance of Godot. After all, he had just witnessed a play that portrayed paralysis, hopelessness, hope, cruelty, humiliation, irrational bursts of joy and rage – a stopped and futile clock of sheer fury transformed into an endless present tense of astonishing beauty. But these outrages of experience were not expressed as a special hell set aside only for the rejected or the spurned in our world. They were expressed as the general condition of humanity itself.

That prisoner in San Quentin, watching Beckett's play unfold in front of him, might have been astonished to find that he had been cast in a leading role. For a moment, he might have felt himself to be part of humanity, not separated from it.

One lunchtime at Riverside, a man with wild hair and an evangelical demeanour came through the doors and headed straight over to where Sam was sitting with his half of Guinness. The man was visibly nervous, but finally said: "Mr Beckett, I've been reading your work for 40 years." Then he stopped, at a loss. Sam eventually looked up from his Guinness and said: "You must be very tired." It was a gentle, faintly teasing, and typically reductive joke.

Beckett's miraculous ability was to reduce all description until he reached the thing described. He punctured the over-inflated tyres of false sentiment, vanity and grandiloquence. He resolutely rejected a "lovelier" version of the world than the one he found, not, I believe, because he wanted to peddle despair but because by staring unblinking into the shadowless ruins of his own lethal century, littered with the violated and dead of our species, he could detect a song where no song had seemed possible.

I don't know the explicit reason that Waiting for Godot is on the list of banned books at Guantánamo. But perhaps it's because, somewhere at the core of the play's enduring and insurgent beauty, it possesses the same quality Sam once ascribed to one of his favourite rugby players – that he was "capable of genius when the light is dying".

David Leveaux is a theatre director and five-time Tony award nominee. Header Image by Marta Parszeniew