The Coming of Godot
There can be few contemporary classic plays that deserve to have whole books devoted to them. Even better, this biography and diary of Waiting for Godot is not an academic treatise but a thoroughly entertaining piece of writing.
Jonathan Croall's starting point was an invitation to attend rehearsals of Sir Peter Hall's fourth Godot, originally seen at the Theatre Royal in Bath during 2005 and then finally allowed to run at the New Ambassadors in 2006.
He spent an awful lot of time watching the production develop and was able to talk with all four actors, as well as the behind-the-scenes team. This enabled him to build a picture of the stresses and strains of creating any play on stage and, more particularly, Samuel Beckett's notoriously difficult work.
By the end, one begins to appreciate what the four actors, and especially Richard Dormer who plays Lucky, have been willing to put themselves through both physically and mentally for their art. In passing, we also find out about others who have fared even worse, such as Julian Glover who seems to have dreaded every stage appearance that he made in an earlier Hall Godot.
The chapters on this new Godot are interleaved with those relating "A Short History of a Masterpiece". In these, Croall looks at early reactions to a play that took years to see the light of day and then but for Hobson and Tynan in the Sunday papers, may have disappeared without trace, at least in the UK.
It seems amazing today that audience members would happily barrack during performances and live to tell the tale.
Waiting for Godot made far more enemies than friends in the early days and it seems that, give or take a few intellectuals, the very young Hall among them, nobody realised that this masterpiece wasn't a load of meaningless tripe.
As the book develops, we read about its increasing appreciation as society changed and word got around that this was something special.
Croall also provides a selective history of productions around the world, showing that the play would take on a completely different meaning in say Apartheid South Africa or China from that in Beckett's home country of Ireland.
Initially, it is not obvious why two different subjects get alternating chapters but a logic emerges as in both cases, confusion gradually develops into clarity and understanding and they meet at the end.
The Coming of Godot is valuable as both a casebook on a very special production and a work of theatre history. It is also a very good read.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher