This Day In History: January 5

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Samuel Beckett's “Waiting for Godot” premieres in Paris, to mixed reviews. Despite audiences' initial reaction, the play becomes a landmark of modern theater. In a 1998 poll of more than 800 theater professionals conducted by the UK's Royal National Theatre, "Godot" was voted the most important English-language play of the 20th century.

"Godot" opened in Paris at a small Left Bank theater called the Théâtre de Babylone on January 5, 1953. Beckett, a Dublin native living in Paris, originally wrote the play in French, with the title “En attendant Godot.” On opening night, some audience members walked out, confused by the spectacle of a play with no action and barely any scenery. A French critic remarked, "This is not theatre as we know it." “Godot” had its English-language premiere in London in 1955, and in Dublin several months later. When it opened in New York in 1956, New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson famously called it "a mystery wrapped in an enigma."

The plot consists of two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for someone named Godot, who never arrives. The stage stands bare, except for a single tree. Three other characters, Pozzo, Lucky and A Boy, appear briefly. According to a 1956 review by Irish critic and Beckett scholar Vivian Mercier, Beckett “has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice." As a pioneering piece of spare, metaphorical theater, "Godot" became a standard bearer for what came to be known as the Theater of the Absurd.

Beckett resisted ever clarifying what the play was "about," beyond its literal text. "It's fairly obvious ‘Godot’ can be anything you want,” Sir Peter Hall, who directed the play’s 1955 London premiere, told The Guardian in 2009. ‘Godot,’ he continued, is “a metaphor for religions, philosophy, belief, every kind of thing you can think of, but it never arrives."

The play’s ambiguity and sense of timeless universality have made it a theatrical empty slate that has resonated with directors the world over. Some of its most compelling stagings came in historically challenging situations, including in San Quentin Prison (1957), apartheid-era South Africa with an all-Black cast (1976), Haifa, Israel with a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic production (1984), Sarajevo under siege during the Bosnian war (1993), and New Orleans after hurricane Katrina (2007).

"The play is a universal metaphor precisely because it wasn't designed as being a metaphor for anything in particular…” observed British playwright Tom Stoppard. “It's one of the few plays that really stand the test of time.”