Date: 05/07/2020
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Waiting in vain

I caught the first part of “Start the Week” on Radio 4 this morning. The guests were Sir Peter Hall (founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company), Simon Callow (actor), Neil Biswas (screenwriter) and Ruth Scurr (biographer), and the subject was “Waiting for Godot”.


A “gang of four” is a common format for a radio discussion programme. Usually there will be some disagreement and lively debate. I waited eagerly, and in vain, for somebody to say something critical. But on the subject of “Waiting for Godot”, and Beckett generally, the panel was of one mind. Sir Peter Hall’s view, expressed a couple of years ago in a Guardian article, prevailed:

It is often thought that 1956 and the first night of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was the reinvention of British theatre. It is certainly true that Osborne changed a generation. So out went the slim volumes of verse and the imitations of Lucky Jim, and the Royal Court revolution was under way. All this was wonderful, but faintly parochial, which Godot certainly was not. Look Back in Anger was a play formed by the naturalism of the 1930s and the cosy craft beloved of the old repertory theatres. It now looks dated because it uses the convention of the well-made play. I think also that my generation heard more political revolution in it than was actually there, largely because we needed to.

By contrast, Waiting for Godot hasn't dated at all. It remains a poetic masterpiece transcending all barriers and all nationalities. It is the start of modern drama. It gave the theatre back its potency and its poetry.

Perhaps Sir Peter is right about “Look Back in Anger”. Most plays date, and only a few stand the test of time. But does it follow that a conventional play, one with a plot and credible characters, or a play rooted in time and place, cannot also stand the test of time? Chekhov’s plays are very much of their time and place, sometimes claustrophobically so, but they are also timeless. "Waiting for Godot", on the other hand “transcends barriers and nationalities” merely because there is no plot and the characters could be anybody.

We Beckett haters are swimming against the tide, of course. But will the tide ever recede? It’s possible. Who, these days, thinks Brecht is anything other than a king-sized yawn?

No dissenting views were expressed by the panel, but Sir Peter did quote Bernard Levin’s comment in his review of the original production of Godot. I will leave the last word to him, after which I will shut up about Beckett:

Mr Samuel Beckett (an Irishman who used to be Joyce's secretary and who writes in French, a combination which should make anybody smell a rat) has produced a really remarkable piece of twaddle.