Beckett’s German Godot1

Ruby Cohn

Of all Beckett’s plays, he has been least involved in performances of his bestknown work, Waiting for Godot; until 1975, that is, when he directed it at West Berlin’s Schiller Theater. In 1952 he was a passive spectator at rehearsals of Roger Blin’s original French production. He was not consulted by Peter Hall nor Herbert Berghorf for the first London and New York productions. However, he did correspond with Alan Schneider and Alan Simpson about the first American and first Irish productions. Not until 1965 was he again present at rehearsals of Godot, when his friend Deryk Mendel directed the play at West Berlin’s Schiller Theater.

When Beckett finally came to direct his own production in 1975, he viewed the text with the hard eye of an experienced man of the theatre. Though Beckett is often consulted on English and French versions of his plays, it is mainly in German that he has assumed full directorial responsibility: Endgame in 1967; Krapp’s last tape in 1969; Happy days in 1971; Waiting for Godot in 1975; and Footfalls and That time in 1976. Beckett’s German is fluent, but Elmar Tophoven has been his translator, from the time he first undertook Godot on his own student initiative. Since the German text is not by Beckett, he views it from a desirable distance.

Beckett has approached his several German productions in the same way: 1. meticulous examination of Tophoven’s translation, with correction toward the original French or English; 2. intense visualization of the play in space—what Beckett calls ‘trying to see’; 3. commitment of the re-viewed German text (with stage directions) to memory; 4. composition of a director’s notebook to which he does not refer during actual rehearsal; 5. transmission of staging ideas to his designer friend, Matias. Only when these steps are completed does Beckett arrive in West Berlin, where the plays have been cast. At his first meeting with the actors, Beckett never speaks about the play but plunges right into it. Though he arrives in Berlin with the production complete in his mind’s eye, he asks and sometimes accepts actors’ suggestions during the course of rehearsals.

Beckett knew that Godot would be his hardest directorial task, but even he did not foresee how hard. It is the only one of his plays to be performed on the large stage of the Schiller Theater rather than the small Werkstatt, and he was delighted to find that his Berlin studio was approximately the same width, so that he could physicalize actions when the theatre was not available to him. And far from Berlin, the five preparatory steps took longer for Godot than for any other play.

Beckett’s main changes in the text were cuts. He pared away much of Pozzo’s Act 1 business with pipe and whip, as well as his conversation about Lucky’s burdens, dancing, and rebellion. The puzzling ‘knook’ disappears, as well as the music-hall joke about the weak and sound lungs. In Act 2, when all four characters lie on the ground, Didi and Gogo lose a few lines, and when they prop Pozzo up, they no longer discuss evening and friendship. In contrast, Beckett made one remarkable addition to the dialogue. When Didi in Act 2 asks the Boy whether Mr Godot’s beard is fair or black, the German question becomes: ‘Blonde or . . . he hesitates black . . . he hesitates or red?’ Thus Mr Godot is pointedly related to Gogo’s smutty story about the Englishman in the brothel, juxtaposing—as so often in Godot—the physical and metaphysical, the vulgar and ethereal.2

Other than this addition and the several deletions, Beckett further revised Tophoven’s text. He rewrote the name-calling sequence for humour and euphony. He inserted squeal-like ihn ihms in the dialogue about giving Lucky his hat in order to think. When Didi goes offstage to urinate, Gogo directs him to the actual toilet at the Schiller Theater. Several of Tophoven’s variant phrases become exact repetitions in Beckett’s text, notably in insisting on machen rather than tun. These German verbs are roughly equivalent to their English cognates make and do, but German can often say machen where English cannot say make. Thus the English tragicomedy opens: ‘Nothing to be done,’ but the German is ‘Nichts zu machen.’

Textual changes were easier than ‘trying to see.’ While on summer vacation, Beckett spent long hours at the beach imagining Godot in the theatre of his mind, dissatisfied with scene after scene. He thinks that his difficulty was due to lack of theatre experience at the time of writing (1948). ‘Messy,’ and ‘Not well thought out,’ he has said of this play that is considered a model of form and meditation. Beckett’s director’s notebook sets his task: ‘Der Konfusion eine Gestalt geben.’

Although I have listed Beckett’s third and fourth steps sequentially, they actually overlap, and most especially for Godot. It is the only play for which Beckett needed two notebooks, the second an expansion of the first. And it was the hardest play to commit to memory—with stage directions—because all five characters are differently mobile. Of necessity then, of Beckettian necessity, memorizing the play depended on details in the notebooks. But they contain no trace of Beckett’s fifth step—transmission of design ideas to Matias.

For Beckett as for Artaud, stage space is empty, and much of his Godot material reflects his characters’ valiant efforts to move through it. That valour is evident in stylized standing up, sitting down, walking about, and especially falling—as indicated in the text. But amplifying the text are Beckett’s many diagrams showing the movements of his characters. This is not only traditional blocking but also concern with who faces where at every moment of time, with each actor’s movement-by-movement victory over stillness, with the counterpoint of word and gesture, with visual echoes, symmetries and oppositions. In Godot Beckett’s characters manoeuvre through stage space to help pass time. For it is of course with time that Beckett’s classic is obsessed the time of waiting. Beckett points this up by a half dozen waiting tableaux absolute stillness—in each of the two acts.

Dramatically, each act of Godot falls into three parts: before Pozzo-Lucky, with Pozzo-Lucky, after Pozzo-Lucky (a structure that Beckett was to emphasize in the novel How it is). For Berlin rehearsals, however, Beckett divided Act 1 into six scenes, Act 2 into five. In each act the Didi-Gogo couple play through two scenes before the master-slave couple arrive, and the friends play one poignant scene after they depart. Pozzo and Lucky play through three scenes in Act 1, two in Act 2; their onstage presence lasts about twice as long in the first act. But the time of waiting conspires to make Act 2 seem as long as Act 1. (Actual playing time was seventy minutes for Act 1, fifty-five for Act 2.)

The seed of Godot is St Luke’s account of the crucifixion, as summarized by St Augustine: ‘Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.’ The two thieves are Didi and Gogo; the two thieves are Pozzo and Lucky; the two thieves are Godot’s goatherd and his offstage shepherd brother. And Beckett shaped the play to reflect that fearful symmetry—in text and performance. There are two acts, one repeating the other. There are two couples, one contrasting with the other. Within the acts, within the couples, symmetries and oppositions recur.

Either act yields the following plot summary: two friends meet by a tree at twilight to wait for Godot. A burdened slave and his master arrive, remain a while, and then leave. When the friends are alone again, a boy messenger arrives to inform them that Godot will come not today but tomorrow. The moon rises as the boy departs. Though the friends decide to leave, they have not left when the curtain falls. Each act thus divides into the friends alone, the friends confronted by the master-slave couple, and the friends alone once again.

Repetition is less frequent in Godot than in later Beckett plays, and this is evident in the notebook. Usually, Beckett fragments the stage time of waiting into doublets and triplets. He also notes that the tragicomedy contains twenty-one requests for help: ‘14 ignored, 4 answered, 1 attempted, 1 not known, 1 on condition et j’en passé.’ Because such sustained repetitions are relatively rare, the repetition of waiting is all the more pronounced—in many phrases and in twelve waiting tableaux.

In notebook and performance, as opposed to the printed text, each act begins and ends in absolute stillness—a wait with both friends facing front. In performance, the textual repetitions blend into the gestural repetitions that are newly introduced or newly emphasized by Beckett. At the beginning of Act 1 and at the end of Act 2 the friends look in synchrony at the tree, ask what kind it is, speculate on its serving them as gallows. At the beginning of both acts, Didi wishes to embrace Gogo but is spurned. In both acts Pozzo holds a rope around Lucky’s neck. In both acts Lucky falls to the ground, and in both acts he wounds Gogo. Though Gogo feels pity for Lucky in Act 1, and fury in Act 2, the pain in his leg causes him to leap identically in each act. In each act, too, the two friends support a disabled man—Lucky in Act 1 and Pozzo in Act 2, either tableau recalling the many paintings of a crucified Christ between two thieves. In both acts, while Didi questions the Boy, Gogo falls asleep in a foetal position. In both acts the Boy backs off in time to the moons rise. In Act 1 the two friends look together at the moon (like the couple in the painting by Kaspar David Friedrich), but in Act 2 they do not notice it. However, we see its cold light as they freeze into fixity. At the end of Act 1 they face us from a grey stone; at the end of Act 2 they stand under the sparely leaved tree. Waiting.

This repetitive symmetry of incident has an odd parallel in oppositional symmetry of person. The Pozzo-Lucky couple is an interlude in the wait of the Didi-Gogo couple, who are almost omnipresent. Beckett wanted to relate the members of each pair through their costumes. As in most productions since the original, Didi and Gogo wear the derby and tuxedo of music-hall comedians, but in Act 1 Beckett’s Didi wears black coat and striped trousers, whereas Gogo wears striped coat and black trousers; the reverse is true in Act 2. Moreover, Didi’s coat is too small for him, Gogo’s trousers too long; each wears the others garment. The tan-brown check of Pozzo’s trousers is repeated in Lucky’s vest, and Lucky’s grey trousers match Pozzo’s vest—invariant in the two acts. The two couples are separated visually, but all four characters are linked through their derbies and worn out clothes. This is striking in Pozzo’s case, for his boasts and grand manner take on absurdity in the shade of his shabby costume. In contrast, Godot’s Boy is luminous in light shirt and trousers, and he shows no fear.

The main symmetry of the play rests on Didi and Gogo, played in Berlin by tall thin Stefan Wigger and short plump Horst Bollman, though ten years earlier (in Deryk Mendel’s production) their roles were reversed. They sit together on the stone or stand together by the tree, squat stone resembling Gogo and spare tree Didi. They embrace at the beginning of each act, and they consider parting at the end. They make identical gestures with hat and shoe, respectively. They walk in step as they talk about Godot or seek escape from Gogo’s nightmare. They both register approval of Pozzo’s recitation about the fall of night. They fall to the ground in similar stylized ways, and they rise in perfect synchrony. Their verbal canters are like ping-pong, and their large motions are a series of synchronized meetings and separations. In the Act 2 verse sequences, both speak with quiet articulation, Didi in synonyms and Gogo in subtly insistent refrains. Toward the end of Act 2 each of them protests that he can’t go on. At the very end of each act they speak the same couplet, reversing who speaks which line.

Pozzo and Lucky present more surface difference, but both are attached to possessions, across which they exchange looks of compulsive intensity—what Beckett’s notebook calls a ‘Hypno look.’ Each of them elicits Gogo’s ‘He’s doing it on purpose.’ They fall to the ground in the same slow three beats—right knee, left hand and knee, right hand.

Beckett paired objects as well as people. In the text the horizontal country road is countered by the vertical tree. On Beckett’s stage the road was raked, mottled, and resilient, and the tree so frail as to recall Pascal’s thinking reed. In Act 2 each of its three drooping branches sprouts a six-inch green leaf, which tall Stefan Wigger touches unbelievingly. Rather than a road, the stone balanced the tree, as Didi makes explicit: ‘this tree . . . this stone.’ The stone becomes a home for Gogo, who returns to it several times. Though Didi too sits on it, he does so only with Gogo, and he is never fully on it, since the stone is not long enough to support them both. Tree and stone, inadequate as they are, are the only stable props in the word of Godot.

Of the movable props, hats and shoes are pre-eminent. Early in the play Gogo’s shoe business is repeated by Didi’s hat business. But as the play progresses, hat and shoes attain their own individuality. Lucky’s hat is a necessity before he can think, but Gogo’s shoes do not facilitate locomotion. Hats and shoes become painful encumbrances. By the end of Act 1 Gogo has removed his shoes; onstage at the beginning of Act 2, they are our best evidence that we are at the same spot—evidence that Gogo refuses to admit. When Gogo-Bollman tries the shoes on, he walks with a rolling spring. And when Didi and Gogo engage in the hat exchange (borrowed from the Marx brothers), his small head disappears into the large hats of Didi or Lucky, whereas Didi can wear Lucky’s hat comfortably.

Less marked than hat and shoes are Beckett’s food pairs. In Act 1 turnip and carrot have the same phallic form, and in German the same noun designation—weisse Rübe and gelbe Rübe. In Act 2 the black radish (called ‘unpink’ in the notebook) is small and round, like the absent pink radish. In Act 1 Pozzo eats a chicken leg, and Gogo gnaws at the bone, but each man belches with pleasure and exclaims: ‘Ah! That’s better.’

Though Godot is not nearly so echoic as Endgame, word doublets nevertheless cement the symmetries of structure, character, and object. Early in Act 1 Didi repeats Gogo’s: ‘Hurts! He wants to know if it hurts!’ All four characters repeat certain words for emphasis, Gogo’s irritable ‘Not now, not now.’ Most of Pozzo’s commands are spoken twice, even when the text does not designate this. Lucky’s monologue names researchers in pairs—Puncher and Wattman, Testew and Cunard, Fartov and Belcher, Steinweg and Peterman. At the Act 1 departure of Pozzo and Lucky, courtesies are uttered in swift, flat doublets ‘And thank you. Thank you. Not at all. Yes yes. No no. Yes yes. No no.’ In Act 2, when the four characters are on the ground, Gogo and Didi sing two-note calls: ‘Pozzo Pozzo . . . Abel! Abel! Zu mir! Zu mir! . . . Kain! Kain! Zu mir! Zu mir!’ Both members of both couples form symmetries and are formed by symmetries.

The doublet is Beckett’s main scenic rhythm in Godot, but he also orchestrates triplets. Thus, the play is divided into two acts, but each act is seen in three lights—twilight, darker twilight after the departure of Pozzo and Lucky, moonlight after the departure of the Boy. Stationary throughout is the three-branched tree.

Doublets play against triplets in a dance of hats and shoes. Worn on top and bottom of the human body, they present certain symmetry. But when Didi and Gogo seek a foreign body in hat and shoes respectively, they amplify their business in three stages: 1. after removal, they look into hat or shoe and shake it; 2. after removal, they look into hat or shoe, feel around in it, tap it, shake it, and look again; 3. after removal, they look into hat or shoe, feel around in it, blow into it, tap it, shake it, and look again. At the end of Act 1 two splayed boots (Gogo’s) and a hat (Lucky’s) are front and centre. In Act 2 Didi and Gogo juggle three hats, two large and one small (Gogo’s).

Beckett usually chooses triplets for motion across the wide stage what the notebook calls approach by stages. Gogo undermines Didi’s faith in their appointment in three insidious stages, Didi awakens Gogo in three panicky stages, Gogo makes up to Didi in three conciliatory stages, Didi and Gogo approach Lucky in three curious stages, Pozzo and Lucky fall to the ground in three stylized beats, Act 1 farewells are uttered in three rhythmic groups, the Boy arrives at centre stage in three movements, Didi addresses the Boy in three phrase-groups of rising anguish. Each of these triplets exploits several areas on the raked grey stage.

Mathematical and even mechanical as this may sound, the triplets are sufficiently spaced to achieve subtle effects. In contrast, one triplet calls blatant attention to itself—Lucky’s echolalia. Rushed through as nonsense in most productions, this monologue becomes a miracle of intelligibility as spoken by Klaus Herm on Beckett’s instructions. The first item stressed in rehearsals, it was divided in three by Beckett—an apathetic divinity, dwindling man, indifferent nature. Lucky begins slowly with the protasis of divine indifference; he quickens the tempo for the first counter-argument—and considering what is more—about man dwindling; always articulate, he speeds up to the second counter-argument—and considering, what is more much more grave—declaring the earth an abode of stones. Finally, he arrives at the frenzied coda, in which the word ‘head’ sounds eight times—literally run amuck. The whole monologue takes six minutes, and Herm delivers it with earnest conviction while silent triplet motions show the growing distress of his onstage audience. Pozzo first puts his fingers in his ears, then his coat over his head, then the stool over his coat, as he sinks to his knees. Beckett has been criticized for allowing Didi and Gogo to leave the stage, but when they do so (twice each, but not simultaneously), it is as though they stretch an invisible elastic that snaps them back, before they finally knock Lucky down with stylized punches.

However painful the wait for Godot—theatricalized by the twelve tableaux of absolute stillness—Beckett endowed it with rhythm. For the most part he did so in his mind’s eye, committing details to his notebooks before arrival in Berlin. More than for his other productions, however, actual rehearsal brought changes, which he later recorded in red ink in the enlarged notebook. Physicalization caused Beckett to reorder the sequence in which Gogo takes Pozzo’s handkerchief and is kicked by Lucky. The growth of Didi’s despair after each interview with the Boy is traced in red ink, step by step. The opening dialogue and gestures of Act 2 are listed in nine red steps. Red ink notes the introduction of musical variety: Didi was to sing the dog tune four times, but Beckett substituted three other melodies: 1. Didi sings Gogo to sleep with ‘Schlaf mein Prinzchen’; 2. the friends hum Chopin’s Trauermarsch as they walk off Gogo’s nightmare; 3. after spiritedly calling each other names, they dance lightly to the Merry Widow Waltz. A new sequence for an Act 2 Wait is barred in red as ‘Unrealizable.’ Amazing, nevertheless, is how much was realized in actual performance.

Notebook immanence is not performance, and finally the actors alone perform. The Mutt-and-Jeff height difference of Wigger and Bollman was a comic asset, but it made for difficulties in synchronizing gestures. Didi-Wigger paced in long, rather than ‘short, stiff strides’ specified by the scenic directions, and he also held his hands stiffly, particularly at times of stress. (When the performance travelled, this stiffness developed into paralysis.) Gogo-Bollman developed a lovable waddle unmentioned in the text, and his childlike ‘Hör auf’ or ‘Meine Füsse’ aroused protective instincts in the spectators. An inventive actor, Bollman made a pendulum of Lucky’s basket, and he presented his begging hat to Pozzo with a soft-shoe approach. Two days before the dress rehearsal, he substituted French ‘C’est la vie’ for ‘So ist das Leben.’ At the dress rehearsal Lucky was still seeking the right note for the eight times repeated ‘Kopf’ of dementia. And Pozzo was trying to subdue the whip that served him in versatile fashion.

Inevitably, technical difficulties arose toward the end of rehearsals. The three degrees of light required painstaking and painful adjustments. The moon rose so jerkily that Beckett called it a hiccupping moon. The costumes did not look sufficiently worn, and the actors were reluctant to dirty their skin. Lucky’s wig made him look like Cleopatra, and one could hardly see Pozzo’s spit-curl on an otherwise bald pate. The three leaves of the tree would not face front, and they were almost invisible in profile. Gogo’s rope-belt did not tear when tugged at, and his trousers did not fall cleanly. Inevitably, however, technical difficulties are solved or smoothed over.

At the dress rehearsal, in a half-full theatre, Beckett sat front row centre, as he often sat at other rehearsals—ready to jump to the stage, to outline a cleaner gesture, articulate a more precise phrase, refocus a relationship. This once, however, he sat still, watching concentratedly through his tinted glasses. Occasionally, his left hand would move as though conducting; less often, his right hand scribbled on a small scrap of paper. At the end of each act, he was surrounded by well-wishers, and he responded with his usual courtesy and unusual equanimity. He was relieved when the theatre emptied, and he went to the dressing rooms to give the actors their last notes for the première he would not attend. But for weeks afterwards, in the streets of Paris, the German phrases of Godot echoed in his mind’s ear.


1 This article appeared in somewhat different form in French in Travail théâtral, été 1975, as ‘Godot par Beckett à Berlin,’ pp. 124-8.

2 An Englishman, having drunk a little more than usual, goes to a brothel. The bawd asks him if he wants a fair one, a dark one, or a red-haired one. The Englishman replies that he wants a boy. Shocked, the bawd threatens to call a policeman, whereupon the Englishman pleads: ‘O no, they’re too gritty.’