To the Theatre Royal, Bath, last night, to see Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, directed by Sir Peter Hall.
For several summers past, Sir Peter Hall has brought a company of actors to Bath, where they have performed a number of plays in repertory. Last year, for instance, I noted Shaw's Man and Superman. This year the plays are Private Lives (Coward), Much Ado (himself), Waiting for Godot, and Shaw's You Never Can Tell (not yet seen).
Last night's performance was particularly interesting in a number of ways. It is now fifty years since Peter Hall first directed the play in its English-language world premiere. He has written an account of how that premiere came about in the programme notes.
To understand what an extraordinary event Godot was in the London theatre of the 1950s, you need to have some feel for what English society was like at the time. And if you weren't around then -- or even if you were -- you could do worse than read my post of 13 June, in which I describe the atmosphere.
Suffice it to say here that in the 1950s the English were, as I put it, 'tight-arsed and morally restrictive to a degree which young people today would find hard to believe. It seems as if, having fought so hard to preserve what we had, in two world wars, we had lost all awareness that change might sometimes be for the better.'
In the theatre of 1955, the fashion was still for traditional well-made plays, usually in three acts, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. There was, of course, a censor (the Lord Chamberlain, no less), who eliminated any hint of smut, overt (or even imaginary) references to sex, comments on religion, references to the Royal family, et cetera. Theatre, in short, was bland, polite, respectable, and dull.
In 1955 Peter Hall was 24 years old, and, as he puts it, a very lucky young man. After a career in undergraduate theatre at Cambridge, he had been put in charge of the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street, London, and was told to produce a play every four weeks. He used this opportunity to do a number of new and adventurous productions.
One day, Donald Albery, a leading impresario of the time, offered him Waiting for Godot. It had been running in Paris for a couple of years, where it was a hit with the avant-garde, and Beckett (who had originally written it in French) had now translated it into English. But Albery could find no English actor willing to appear in it, or a director willing to risk his professional life by directing it.
Hall liked the play, but he too found it difficult to cast, and the reviews were not encouraging. Even the great Bernard Levin described it as 'a remarkable piece of twaddle.' The production nearly closed at the end of its first week, but the drama critic of the Sunday Times, Harold Hobson, saved its life. He not only wrote a warm and perceptive review, but went on writing about it for the next seven Sundays.
Godot mania soon gripped London. It was the Rubik cube or the Sudoku of its day. It caught on: cartoonists depicted it, commentators wrote about it, and television pundits discussed it.
Godot was, of course, and still is, a bit of a puzzler. The set is a bleak space in the 'open air', with the bare bones of a tree and a rock to sit on; nothing else. In this landscape two tramps talk about nothing very much as they pass the time while they wait for Godot to appear. After a while they are joined by two other strange characters, who also talk about nothing very much. It is a two-act play, as one critic said, in which nothing happens: twice.
Godot puzzled, and it offended. Lady Dorothy Howitt wrote to the Lord Chamberlain requesting that the play be banned. She described it as 'offensive against all sense of British decency.' But it was also, of course, very funny. Only recently an elderly professor of biology told me how amazed he was by that original production.
Peter Hall has directed the play only once (I believe) between 1955 and 2005, and that was seven years ago, at the Old Vic. So this anniversary production is something special. Last night was the very first performance, and was technically a preview; the press won't be invited in for another week.
As you would expect, the Peter Hall Company perform to a very high standard, but the first-act curtain was messed up by the lighting director, and there will doubtless be a few more tweaks before Hall is satisfied. In my opinion there are a good few laughs to be got out of it yet -- a few opportunities missed.
I first saw the play in the late 1950s, in Cambridge, where the audience was young, sharp, and alert. Last night's audience was, as is always the case in Bath, middle-aged at best, and perhaps slightly sleepy. Despite that, the play got a warm reception. If nothing else, the audience seemed to understand that this was a historic occasion.
If you see the play for the first time this year, you may well wonder what all the fuss was about. But it is hard to underestimate its impact. The success of Godot altered everything. As Hall points out, the way was opened for Harold Pinter, Joe Orton, Edward Bond, and subsequent generations. A decade on, the impact was clearly felt in such productions as Monty Python's Flying Circus; and today Spamalot plays on Broadway.
By the way, here is a little conundrum for you. In the post-war era, Cambridge University has produced countless theatrical stars, including directors (e.g. Peter Hall, Jonathan Miller, Nicholas Hytner), actors (Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, Emma Thompson), and producers, lighting men, et cetera. How is it that the drama department of the University has achieved such distinguished output?
Answer: there is no drama department at Cambridge. If you do theatre at Cambridge you do it as an extracurricular activity, on top of your formal degree studies.
Do you think, perhaps, that there could be a lesson here for all those universities offering MFA degrees?