When Samuel Beckett's En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot) opened at the The[ac]a[ci]tre Babylone in Paris on 5 January 1953, the French dramatist and critic Jean Anouilh compared the event to the historic opening of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author two decades earlier, and he astutely described this new work as ``a music-hall sketch of Pascal's Pense[ac]es as played by the Fraterlini clowns''. That combination of ontological enigma and vaudeville comedy (much of the latter indebted to the American silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton), combined, as Vivian Mercier observed, ``in a play where nothing happens—twice'', would become the hallmark of Beckett's assault first on naturalism and then on modernism itself.
The shock to English audiences schooled in the drawing-room comedies of Noe[um]l Coward, Somerset Maugham, and Arthur Wing Pinero was captured by the drama critic Harold Hobson: Godot
knocked the shackles of plot from off the English drama. It destroyed the notion that the dramatist is God, knowing everything about his characters and master of a complete philosophy answerable to all of our problems. It showed that Archer's dictum that a good play imitates the audible and visible surface of life is not necessarily true. It revealed that the drama approximates or can approximate the condition of music, touching chords deeper than can be reached by reason and saying things beyond the grasp of logic. It renewed the English theater in a single night.
The American premiere, however, generated something less than a theatrical renewal. Mistakenly promoted as ``the laugh hit of two continents'', Waiting for Godot opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami Beach, Florida on January 3, 1956, to audiences of vacationers looking for easy diversion, and they, to say the least, were not amused. But America also saw the most visceral production of Godot ever staged when,...