Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and not John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, was the greatest mid-century influence on British theatreby David Nathan / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
With Peter Hall’s return after 42 years to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot the time has come to rewrite stage history and displace John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger as the most significant mid-century influence on the British theatre. There is a strong case to be made that Waiting for Godot, which opened at the Arts Theatre in August 1955, has had a deeper and more lasting effect than Look Back in Anger, which opened at the Royal Court in May 1956.
Hall is right in describing Look Back as a period piece while Godot is a masterpiece. Like Look Back, the initial reaction of audience and critics to Godot was hostile. “The first night was very stormy,” Peter Hall told his actors on the first day of rehearsals for his Old Vic production, which opens on 27th June. “There were audible yawns from certain sections of the audience, hisses and mutters, although it was clear that half the audience were very struck by it. At the end there were what is known as cheers and counter-cheers. The morning notices were frightful, absolutely dreadful. Philip Hope-Wallace in the Guardian said: ‘This is the sort of rubbish we used to see in small cellars in Berlin in the 1920s.'”
But Hope-Wallace also said it was good to find that plays once dubbed incomprehensible and pretentious could still get a staging; while Arthur Cookman, the then anonymous critic of the Times, wrote of “its flow of unexpected, absorbing happenings.” Nevertheless, the play would have closed after four performances had not Hall begged the management to keep it alive until the Sunday papers came out. History hands the credit for saving it to Harold Hobson of the Sunday Times, with Ken Tynan of the Observer flanking him in support. Eight months later it was Tynan who galloped to the rescue of Look Back.
Godot was transferred from the tiny Arts Theatre to the Criterion where it ran for eight months, while Look Back never reached the West End. There was a film, with Richard Burton, but I doubt if, even with that, its audience ever came near the numbers who have seen Godot in its many productions all over the world.
Hall admits that Look Back had a significant short-term effect because young people suddenly thought that they, too, could write about their lives for the theatre. But Godot has had a much greater longterm influence. Certainly, Harold Pinter would not have become the writer he is if Beckett had not pioneered a number of things, not least the pause.
Look Back, says Stephen Daldry, director of the Royal Court, was as much part of a social and political movement as an artistic one, “the great joy of the British theatre being that it is more connected to the zeitgeist than the European theatre which is more interested in discovering great poets and masterpieces.”
But this is to assign to Osborne a radical, even revolutionary agenda which is simply not there. Indeed, ten years after Osborne’s success, I interviewed him and wrote that, far from being a rebel, he looked back, more in nostalgia than anger, to a mythical Edwardian age of elegance and order. (He was wearing sideburns at the time which reinforced that impression.) He so much approved of the notion that he sent me a note saying that he thought the interview had turned out “quite pleasingly.” And, remembering that I had not reviewed A Patriot for Me (1965) too kindly, he sent me a copy of the play annotated with his regards.
Where Daldry and Hall meet at the crossroads, as it were, is that Hall, too, believes in Beckett, the poet, his clean, sparse rhythms blowing away the theatrical affectations of Christopher Fry and TS Eliot in what was then thought to be a poetic resurgence in the English-language theatre. To Hall, the miracle of Godot is Beckett’s ability to say something lyrical and beautiful without being pretentious, without being “pretty.” Quoting FR Leavis, his mentor at Cambridge, he draws attention to Beckett’s organic poetry-poetry that is not stuck on like a sequin but integral to the characters who never say anything they do not want to say. Beckett, the poet, was followed by Harold Pinter and a whole host of other writers, few of whom have either seen or read Look Back in Anger.
Writing in the New Statesman, David Hare recently said he thought it unlikely that any play in our lifetime would have the effect of Look Back in Anger, although he added that at the end of his life Osborne, in despair, had told him that he believed it would have made no difference if he had never lived. No one could say that about Beckett. Sooner or later, there will come a time when Godot will be performed as regularly as, say, King Lear, while Look Back, which Osborne himself once described as a “formal rather old-fashioned play” is a half-forgotten footnote. Waiting for Godot
London: Old Vic opening 27th June