BOOTLEG FILES 368: “Waiting for Godot” (1961 TV production of the Samuel Beckett play, starring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel).
LAST SEEN: On March 13 at the UCLA Festival of Preservation.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: This needs a little explaining.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A rare version of a classic work – what’s not to bootleg?
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: This also needs explaining.
In 1999, Britain’s Royal Theatre polled 800 playwrights, directors, actors and journalists and asked them to name the “most significant English-language play” of the 20th century. Curiously, I was not asked to participate in that vote. But if I did, I would have joined the majority who voted for Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
Okay, the Irish-born Beckett originally wrote “Waiting for Godot” in French, and the play had its world premiere in Paris in 1953; the English version came later. Nonetheless, the play has been a constant source of wonder – many people who see it inevitably wonder what it is supposed to be about.
Americans were originally baffled by “Waiting for Godot.” The play’s U.S. debut, at Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse in January 1956, was one of the great disasters of American theater history – inaccurately advertised as “the laugh sensation of two continents,” it lost half of its first-night audience before the intermission curtain fell. A Broadway production that followed only ran 59 performances.
Yet, slowly, “Waiting for Godot” began to find its way into popular culture. By 1961, its value as a work of theater was confirmed when Beckett was approached for a U.S. television adaptation as part of the “Play of the Week” series.
“Play of the Week” was an extremely ambitious project that brought great theatrical works to the small screen. Produced by David Susskind and Worthington Miner, it provided intriguing versions of the classics, starting with “Medea” starring Judith Anderson. The works of Shakespeare, Shaw, O’Neill, Sartre, Chekov, Ibsen and Strindberg were par for the course, and all-star casts were recruited for each show.
Despite its prestige trappings, “Play of the Week” actually worked on the cheap. The starry casts were paid minimum wages for their efforts, and the production values were fairly low rent. Nonetheless, the series had a strong reputation. “Play of the Week” was syndicated to independent television stations around the country, which used the series to add a touch of class to their otherwise unremarkable programming.
“Waiting for Godot” was one of the final episodes produced in the 1959-1961 run of “Play of the Week.” Alan Schneider, a theatrical director who helmed the disastrous Miami “Godot,” was brought in to direct the TV production. Schneider had never worked in television, so having him behind the camera was a bit of a gamble. Kurt Kasznar and Alvin Epstein, who played Pozzo and Lucky in the Broadway “Godot,” were recruited to revive their roles.
For the key roles of Vladimir and Estragon, the casting took a bold stand with a pair of actors who were rebuilding their careers after being blacklisted during the McCarthy period: Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel. While both men were beginning to get work on television by 1961 – Mostel had previously appeared in the “Play of the Week” production of “The World of Sholom Aleichem” – neither was able to get back into movies. Thus, their presence here was a major career visibility boost.
Recognizing that most viewers would be seeing “Waiting for Godot” for the first time (and might be totally confused at what they were watching), the production was prefixed with an appearance by Barney Rosset, the president of Grove Press and the U.S. publisher of Beckett’s works. Rosset introduced the play by casually reminding viewers that it has constantly intrigued audiences and sparked debate about its enigmatic meaning – adding that even Beckett did not have a be-all/end-all explanation of what was happening.
And how did this “Waiting for Godot” turn out? Well, I think it was an interesting endeavor that did not quite click. For a first-time TV director, Schneider did a wonderful job in framing the actors and maintaining the pace of the work. (The text was carefully trimmed to accommodate the series’ running time of two hours minus commercial breaks.)
Yet the performances were often at odds with each other. Meredith’s Vladimir seemed a little too self-confident for my tastes – his exchanges with the messenger boy seemed more antagonistic than fatalistic, which diluted the nature of his predicament. Mostel, who could easily plumb emotional depths or brilliantly chew scenery, chose to do neither – his Estragon was a benign entity that was rarely amusing and lacked any sense of pathos. (It is a major shame that Bert Lahr, who originated the role in Miami and Broadway, was not cast in this production.) Kasznar and Epstein carried on as if they were still on stage – their performances (not to mention their make-up) were too broadly theatrical for the tight TV camera set-up.
Reportedly, there were major tensions in the rehearsal process, particularly between Schneider and Mostel. Schneider could be a difficult personality – he famously clashed with Lahr during the initial U.S. theatrical offerings of “Godot” – yet Mostel was not exactly the easiest person to work with. After the production concluded, Mostel facetiously stated that he would prefer to be blacklisted again rather than work with Schneider – and the ill-will was so strong that Mostel turned down Schneider’s offer to star in the 1965 short subject “Film,” based on Beckett’s screenplay. (Buster Keaton, who turned down the role of Lucky in the Broadway version of “Waiting for Godot,” got the part instead.) Mostel wanted to pursue “Godot” again and unsuccessfully lobbied Beckett to sell him the film rights, but Beckett never wanted a movie version of his play.
“Waiting for Godot” had its TV premiere on April 3, 1961, on New York’s WNTA-TV, and it later played on 100 different local stations. During the 1960s and 1970s, it was available in home entertainment market as a 16mm film print that was somewhat poorly transferred from its original videotape recording.
Evergreen Review, the literary journal created by Rosset, has sold “Waiting for Godot” on 16mm, VHS video and DVD. However, I am not entirely certain whether Evergreen Review received the rights to this production from the “Play of the Week” producers – there is no copyright on the print that they’ve used, hence my wondering. Furthermore, this release is not available outside of the Evergreen Review website – Amazon.com has several used VHS copies, but no original DVD copies. Not surprisingly, there are collector-to-collector copies floating around.
“Waiting for Godot” resurfaced a few weeks ago, when a restored DigiBeta version was presented as part of the UCLA Festival of Preservation. Hopefully, UCLA or some other well-funded entity will go forward and restore the other “Play of the Week” titles for future generations to review and enjoy.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!