Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 February 2010
It is not surprising that fourteen hundred convicts of San Quentin penitentiary responded enthusiastically to a performance of Beckett's play (in 1957) – completely strange yet meaningful to them. They could draw on their own experience of waiting, the empty kind of waiting where ‘nothing to think about’ is a permanent threat, and every happening offers both a promise and a disillusioning repetition of the daily round. They also had fewer preconceptions about what constitutes a well-plotted play than did the literary and theatre-going public of the time.
We are not in the situation of the prisoners of San Quentin; and the risk, in our time and especially for the new reader, is a secondhand or learned response to a ‘great modern classic’ (an examination set book), over-burdened with often far-fetched commentary. The best starting point for critical discussion is still the immediate experience of the play, guided by searching questions concerning both the text and its context. The stage is almost empty, stripped, as hardly ever since Shakespeare, to present only the bare boards and one tree, which can suggest almost anything from the tree of life to all that is left of ‘Nature in a deserted and desolate landscape. The stage is the stage, it is also a road. (It could be a round stage suggesting the circus, but the stage directions do not ask for that.) The opening sequence defines the situation of Vladimir and Estragon clearly enough for a play that is to use ‘uncertainty’ as an element of composition.