Based on a review printed in the New York Times, the estate of playwright Samuel Beckett attempted to stop performances of the existential classic Waiting for Godot, at Washington D.C's Studio Theatre.
The Borchardt Literary Agency, drawing its information from the Times review, alleged that "considerable liberties" had been taken with the text, and that the production was in "flagrant violation" of the rider to the contract "which clearly states the conditions under which Mr. Beckett's plays may be produced."
The production, directed by Studio Theatre artistic director Joy Zinoman, featured two African Americans as the leads -- Didi and Gogo -- with two white actors playing Pozzo and Lucky. But race was not the only problem the Beckett estate had with the production. As described by the New York Times review, The Studio's Godot contained "the kinds of improvisations that would have driven Beckett up the wall," with moments that "embellish the text with caustic asides, resort to black slang and [where the actors] even flirt and banter with the audience." One improvisation, quoted in the Times review, had the actor playing Didi (Thomas W. Jones II) state, "What's wrong with white people?"
As a playwright, Beckett was known to be very specific about what he wanted done in the shows and felt that if directors (or actors) deviated in any way from his instructions, they would not be producing his play, but their version of his play. In one of Beckett's shorter works, Footfalls, he goes as far as choreographing the amount of steps a character takes, and where on stage to take them, to insure that future presentations of the play would be the play as he intended it.
Studio Theatre actor, Thomas W. Jones II told the Washington Post that he felt, "that racism got in the way" when dealing with the Beckett estate. The Borchardt Agency gave PBOL a "no comment" on the situation, with phone calls to Zinoman and Samuel French left unreturned.
The Borchardt Literary Agency instructed Samuel French, Inc., the licensors of the script, to issue a "cease and desist" order to The Studio, which would prohibit the theatre of continuing performances of the production. Samuel French did so, also advising The Studio that "failure to cease and desist will cause your theatre irreparable damage in licensing any other of our protected properties to your theatre."
In the end, The Studio Theatre won. Through the intervention of Beckett's nephew and heir Edward Beckett, they were able to present a production of Godot which they describe as a "mixed-race production [which] looked to the rich history of the circus, commedia del arte, black vaudeville and early film for inspiration, and the staging, in some respects, reflected the traditions of American black vaudeville."
The certainly is not the first time, a theatre company has been questioned for deviating from the text of one of Beckett's plays. In 1984, Beckett attempted, and failed at halting performances of his Endgame, at American Repertory Theatre. The production, directed by post-modernist JoAnne Akalaitis, featured a mixed-race cast and was set in a subway station. More recently, a production of Godot utilizing women in the cast was prevented before it opened in July at the Edinburgh Festival.
-- By Sean McGrath