--S. E. Gontarski
Waiting for Godot has been a plural, bicultural, international work from its inception. The play was written in French in 1948 as En attendant Godot, between the novels Malone meurt (1948, Malone Dies, 1956) and L'Innommable (1950, The Unnamable, 1958), by an Irishman imbued with the biculturalism of his native Ireland and the internationalism of his adopted France. For critics like Eoin O'Brien, however, the French play is "unmistakedly Irish" in mannerisms, speech, and landscape. In the midst of his tirade, for example, the slave called Lucky refers to the women's version of the Irish game of hurling, "camogie," among "the practice of sports." His overlord, Pozzo, evidently buys his pipes from the fine Dublin pipe shop of O'Connell and Grafton Streets, Kapp and Peterson, Ltd. And Vladimir and Estragon let slip some overt Hibernicisms like "ballocksed" and "run amuck," according to O'Brien. But such language may finally be as Anglo as Hibernian. And the territory that Vladimir and Estragon (hardly Irish monikers) seem to have recently traversed is "Le Vaucluse" ("the Mâcon country" in English), even as Estragon insists that he has always and only lived "dans la Merdecluse" (orin "the Cackon country," in Beckett's translation). Lucky's "quaquaquaqua" punctuates his tirade in both languages with another echo of Gallic scatology, "caca." The complementary couple dreams of wandering through the Pyrenees, moreover. Before they became so disreputable, they might have jumped, "Hand in hand from the top of the Eiffel Tower." In their current state they would be denied entrance. The bond between the couple was strengthened when during a "vendange," the grape harvest, Estragon threw himself into the Rhône River, and Vladimir fished him out. Vladimir seems unable to recall the name of the farmer from whom they bartered wine for work, but he is identified specifically in the French text as the vintner Bonnelly, from whom Beckett himself bartered for potatoes and wine during the writer's war-time exile in the village of Rousillon, or Rousillon d'Apt, the less famous of the Rousillons in the département Vaucluse. (The family winery still in operates, producing a serviceable if undistinguished Côtes du Ventoux: "A Bonnelly Propriétaire-récoltant— Bâtiments neufs—Roussillon Vaucluse.") Viewed in its full multiplicity, the "unmistakedly Irish" play becomes at least as unmistakedly French, its Gallic references as prominent as its Hibernian. The publication of a bilingual edition of Samuel Beckett's most celebrated play thus underscores this cultural and linguistic plurality and is a cause for celebration. One might in fact justly wonder why it has been so long coming.
Beckett claimed on 25 June 1953 that his translation for Grove Press "had been rushed" and noted again on 1 September 1953 that "It was done in great haste to facilitate the negotiations of [producer] Mr. Oram and I do not myself regard it as very satisfactory." After the French production had closed at the end of October, Beckett improved his English text, asking his publisher, Barney Rosset on the 14th of December 1953 to delay publication in favor of a better text: "Could you possibly postpone setting the galleys until 1st week in January, by which time you will have received the definitive text. I have made a fair number of changes, particularly in Lucky's tirade." Throughout the revisions French and English versions retained subtle differences, finally, beginning with their titles. The French title might well have been rendered as While Waiting for Godot, but Beckett omitted the adverb from the English. (The adverb may have resonated more fully in the French capital where a popular brand of chewing gum sold in Métro vending machines adopted the apparently simple slogan, "En attendant . . .") The French adverb accents the burden of time in the title more directly than the English text, which, on the other hand, is given a specific subtitle, "tragicomedy in 2 acts," missing from the French. On the whole the English-language text tends more toward the indefinite, loss of memory, like the vintner's name in Roussillon, grown more pronounced. Vladimir's "He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think" is decidedly less assured than "Samedi soir et suivants." On the other hand, the French text does not include Vladimir's evocation of Proverbs 13:12, "Hope deferred maketh the something sick," which gives the English text extra poignancy. Estragon's "Les gens sont des cons" lacks the Darwinian implications of "people are bloody ignorant apes." In English Estragon calls Lucky's dance "The Scapegoat's Agony," which gives the text a curious echo of Leviticus 16:7-10, intensifying the play's religious anguish, the scapegoat released to wander "into the wilderness."
Fully revised, Waiting for Godot was finally published by Grove Press in April of 1954, in advance of any English-language production. Beckett continued making revisions to his translation for three separate, almost simultaneous productions, however: one in London, which opened at the Arts Theatre Club on 3 August 1955; one in Dublin, which opened at the Pike Theatre on 28 October 1955; and one in America, which opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami Beach, Florida, on 3 January 1956, in preparation for its New York debut. By the Broadway opening at the John Golden Theater on 19 April 1956, two years after the play's publication by Grove Press, three decidedly different English-language texts were performed. The British production was a special case, since the play was censored for its West End debut to comply with the Lord Chamberlain's objections. The first Faber and Faber text of 1956 was this bowdlerized, what Beckett called mutilated, version. Faber's note to its first edition announced: "When Waiting for Godot was transferred from the Arts Theatre to the Criterion Theatre, a small number of textual deletions were made to satisfy the requirements of the Lord Chamberlain. The text printed here is that used in the Criterion production." In fact hundreds of variants existed between the Grove Press Godot of 1954 and Faber's 1956 edition. Faber went on to "correct" its Godot in 1965, in an edition they called the "complete and unexpurgated text . . . authorized by Mr. Beckett as definitive," which differed from the American text. To mark his eightieth birthday Faber and Faber collected all of Beckett's plays into a single, celebratory volume, Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works, in which the venerable house of Fabers inexplicably reprinted the bowdlerized text of 1956, at least in its initial, hardbound release. Moreover, in March of 1975 Beckett directed the play himself for the first time and in the process produced a substantially altered, trimmer acting text. Those changes are detailed in The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, Volume I: Waiting for Godot. Beckett also made independent revisions for the Pike Theatre production of 1955 that have never appeared in any publication of the play, even that final acting version published in The Theatrical Notebooks.
Over the years Grove Press had silently revised its text, correcting most instances of "well" for "we'll," for instance, so that by the 1970 uniform edition in 16 volumes, The Collected Works of Samuel Beckett, with which Beckett was delighted, most of the typos had been corrected. For the publication of this centenary bilingual edition of Beckett's most famous play, Grove Press has not only reunited the long separated fraternal twins, the English and French editions of Godot, but has brought British and American texts closer to harmony. Minor differences remain. In the discussion of the Eiffel Tower, for instance, Vladimir notes, "We were more respectable in those days." The Faber edition has the couple more "presentable." And in the discussion of Vladimir's urinary difficulties, the Faber edition has the characters responding "angrily" two fewer times. And Vladimir "peers" into his hat one time fewer in the British text, Beckett revising the fourth "peers" to a "looks." But such differences as remain, mostly stylistic, are further testimony to the play's plurality not only between French and English but among English versions as well, the Grove text remaining closer to the spirit of Beckett's original translation.
Ackerley, C. J. and S. E. Gontarski. The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett: A Reader's Guide to His Works, Life, and Thought. New York: Grove Press, 2004.
Dukes, Gerry. "Beckett's Synge-song: The Revised Godot Revisited." Journal of Beckett Studies 4.2 (spring 1995): 103-12.
Knowlson, James and Dougald McMillan, eds. Waiting for Godot New York: Grove Press, 1995. Volume I of The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett. Four vols.1992-1999.
O'Brien, Eoin. The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett's Ireland. Dublin: The Black Cat Press, 1986.
Zeifman, Hersh. "The Alterable Whey of Words: The Texts of Waiting for Godot." Educational Theatre Journal (1977): 77-84. Rpt. in Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Ed. Ruby Cohn. London: Macmillan, 1987, 86-95.