Until an artist passes through living memory, let them control their own work

Dutch university decision to cancel Godot production over issues of audition diversity part of trend of disrespecting art creators

Like many, I was stunned by the story of how a production of Waiting for Godot was cancelled at the University of Groningen recently, on the basis that the casting procedure was not inclusive enough. The student cultural centre where it was supposed to be staged stated it had no objection to the play being performed by five white men, but that the auditions should have been open to all, in the name of diversity – even though some of those auditioning would be automatically disqualified.

That story is not about Samuel Beckett as such, but the patent absurdity of a cultural institution trying to force its own rules and political values on the actual producers of culture – which ultimately boils down to a lack of respect for the artist.

The Dutch, unfortunately, have form when it comes to Beckett. In 1988, I was living in Amsterdam when Haarlem Toneelschuur Theater put on an all-female Godot, against the wishes of Beckett himself. He tried to stop them, but a local judge ruled against him: after all, he was only the author. It was clear to me at the time that it wasn’t even about diversity, more about provocation, something of a go-to for many Dutch artists of all stripes in the second half of the 20th century, as they broke free of their Calvinist backgrounds (whether of the Protestant, Catholic or Jewish variant) and the drabness of Dutch society.

This reaction would make Amsterdam a world capital of counter-culture in the 1960s, led by the original provocateurs’ movement known as “the Provos”. But the Haarlem affair wasn’t just a provocation – it displayed a fundamental lack of respect for the writer, a tendency which has only grown in recent years.


In my years working in the film industry I was often astonished to meet producers who were convinced that, if they only had the time, they could write a better screenplay than the one produced by the writers they employed.

That barely sublimated hostility was due, I became convinced, to the fact that, ultimately, though these people might be better-paid than the writer, they were completely dependent on what the poor hack could create. And that is the key word: the creator. Where there was nothing, there suddenly is something. With blood, sweat and tears, the author has wrestled it out of his brain and his guts, on to the blank page and the empty stage. And once it is there, it is up to others, who, whether mere or magnificent, are still technicians working with the blueprint the artist has provided. This can lead to resentment, and what better revenge than to ignore the author’s wishes, or even bowdlerise his work?

As the stage director got more control, and their name grew larger on the posters, they began to wonder why they had to stick to the words provided by the dead white men, and so was born the phenomenon of the “theatremaker”.

By now, the argument about gender has largely been had and won. The best performance of Hamlet I have ever seen was Ruth Negga’s colossal turn at the Gate in 2018. I don’t think anyone in the audience questioned for a moment why this thirtysomething female out of Ethiopia via Limerick, was playing a teenage Scandi-boy. It’s make-believe after all; it’s a play. So why not take the same liberty with Godot?

I am not a member of the Church of Sam. When it comes to Waiting for Godot, I have seen dozens of productions, in different languages and across continents, but have rarely managed to stay awake to the end. But I still respect his right to have his work performed as he saw fit, in his lifetime, and as far beyond as is feasible. This is of vital importance to the writer.

TS Eliot famously refused all permission to set his works to music or versions in other media. His argument was that he wanted nothing to come between the reader and the actual work he had created. Unfortunately, he could not guarantee this forever, but he could least enforce it during his lifetime and the copyright period. The right of the artist to control his own work in every detail during his lifetime should be undisputed but why for another 70 years after his death? Ultimately, after death, apart from in our texts, we live on only in the minds of those who have known us – in other words, in living memory, which is about 70 years. It seems a reasonable demand to retain control for this period. It doesn’t mean forever.

Beckett died in 1989 and after 2059 it doesn’t matter what you do with him. You can put on a production of Godot played by five white goats (billy and/or nanny) in which Godot actually appears at the end, entering stage right, pursued by a bear riding a tricycle. Beckett can’t stop you. But until then, please show the writer some respect.

Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and poet