A dead man’s voice can travel a long way. In 1988, Samuel Beckett sued a Dutch theatre company for casting women in his existential drama Waiting for Godot. When Beckett died a year later, responsibility for his estate was passed down to his nephew Edward, who has since continued to throttle any production that sways from his uncle’s precise instructions.
More than three decades and multiple court cases after Beckett’s death, the gender rule still stands. With a new show asking who art belongs to, a group of female and non-binary performers are once again challenging the Beckett estate’s rigidity.
“The more we read about the history, the more we realised we’d just get a big fat no,” said Jack Wakely, a non-binary member of the clown theatre company Silent Faces, who wanted to perform Godot. The copyright for a play runs out 70 years after the playwright’s death, meaning women and non-binary performers legally have to wait until the end of 2059 to be able to play Vladimir and Estragon. With an increasingly fluid understanding of gender today, the Beckett estate’s restrictions seem ever more archaic. “The irony of waiting for Waiting for Godot is not lost on me,” said Wakely drily.
“One of the responsibilities of any estate is they must remain frozen in time,” said Lisa Dwan, the Top Boy actor best known for her rendition of Beckett’s Not I. “It’s not as if they can go back and check with the author.” Beckett’s behaviour was changeable, and he’d often alter his work. “But [the estate] don’t have that privilege. They can only respect his final word.”
Like Dwan, many believe Beckett’s exactness is part of his genius, with his stage directions akin to a musical score. Others argue there should be more room for interpretation.
“In order to make theatre live and breathe,” said the director Deborah Warner, “it has to be newly made for not every year or every second, but certainly every generation.”
Warner’s 1994 production of Beckett’s Footfalls with Fiona Shaw, in which they altered the stage directions and switched two lines, led to Warner being banned from Beckett for life by his estate. The Guardian critic Michael Billington wrote that Warner’s transgression was “a bit like doodling on a Rembrandt.” The production’s European run was pulled.
“We made the piece speak, I thought, remarkably,” says Warner now. “It was speaking a slightly different language, but nonetheless Sam’s.” At the time, Edward Beckett defended his action. “We’re not trying to produce cloned productions, but we insist they play the play as Sam wrote it,” he said. Warner sees now that she was dealing with a grieving estate. “It wasn’t so long after Sam’s death. [Edward] believes firmly he is doing what Sam wanted.”
How far is the restriction on a performer’s gender simply an extension of this fidelity to the author’s wishes? When Samuel Beckett was asked why the female Dutch company could not perform the show, he replied pithily: “Women don’t have prostates.” In the play, Vladimir repeatedly goes offstage to urinate, which is put down to a prostate problem. But the prostate itself is never actually addressed in the script, and, as Wakely notes, “there are plenty of reasons why you could have an urgent need to wee.”
For Wakely, these flimsy reasons are not good enough. “I think it’s fundamentally about this idea that the only person who can be an everyman character has to be a man. That if you put somebody else in that role, the play becomes about the fact that they’re not a man, as opposed to the fact that it’s about existence.”
Fed up with waiting for Godot, Wakely’s company’s rage and disappointment has fed into a new show, Godot is a Woman, which tackles the gender restrictions around Beckett’s work. If Beckett had lived longer, Wakely asked, “would he still believe that only a man could play that role?”
Warner said she would be first in line to ask Beckett for permission to do the play outside of his estate’s rules. She had wanted to do a female Godot with Maggie Smith and Fiona Shaw, but Smith’s reaction made her think twice. “I slipped it in over her birthday dinner and she didn’t stop laughing.”
Changing the rules is not something Dwan believes the estate can or should do. “Maybe [Beckett] was wrong,” she said. “But if they contradict him beyond the grave, where do they draw the line?”
Warner is more clear. “This will in time go,” she said, whether the catalyst is society’s changing attitude towards gender, a mountain of court cases, or simply the estate changing hands. Wakely, too, is hopeful. “I have to believe that people can have their minds changed.”
Change does appear to win out eventually. The estate previously banned televised productions of Beckett’s work, but they lifted it for Channel 4 in 2002. While supposedly barred, Warner went on to direct Shaw in Happy Days at the National in 2007, and Leah Schmidt, the literary agent who declared the director barred, is now her agent.
“The estate is not as fierce as it once was,” Warner said. “The moment there is a big production cast with women, it will be opened up forever.” As Vladimir tells Estragon: “Tomorrow everything will be better.”
Godot is a Woman is on at the Pleasance Theatre, London, 11-15 November