It was late fall 1957 and 24-year-old Robin Wagner was getting ready for an unusual repeat showing of a production he’d done earlier in the year, his first professional gig designing for theatre. As the performance’s set and lighting designer became absorbed in preparing the light boards, he forgot all about the crew members he’d asked to tie off the cyclorama. Then Wagner realized they were still there, sitting on the scaffolding about 30 feet in the air, having completed the work and awaiting his next instructions.
“I saw these eight guys sitting up there,” he recalls, “and I said, ‘Gee, I’m really sorry, you guys. I forgot that you were working on that, and I see that you finished.’ And one of them said, ‘It’s okay—we’ve got lots of time.’”
These men accustomed to waiting were no ordinary crew members but inmates at San Quentin State Prison, on San Francisco Bay about 20 miles northwest of the city. The play? Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, produced by the Actor’s Workshop, then a young company poised to become one of the leading institutions of the U.S. resident theatre movement. And this Godot was no everyday production. The prison, California’s oldest, had last hosted a play in 1913, when French star Sarah Bernhardt appeared there in One Christmas Night (also translated as A Christmas Night Under the Terror), a play about the French Revolution that ended with prisoners freed from the Bastille. Now, more than four decades later, Wagner and the prisoners assisting him were outfitting a dining hall at the maximum-security prison to serve as the stage and auditorium for the Actor’s Workshop performance.
Wagner recalls the prisoner’s “lots of time” comment as typical. “Everybody was pleased to be working on the production,” he notes. At 12, Anthony Miksak was reprising his role as the Boy from the staging’s successful run at the troupe’s home base in San Francisco. (His father, Joseph Miksak, played Pozzo, and the rest of the cast included Robert Symonds as Estragon, Eugene Roche as Vladimir, and Workshop managing director Jules Irving as Lucky. Costumes were by Jean Parshall.) He recalls that the excitement at the prison was palpable. The audience, Miksak says, was “extremely enthusiastic,” no doubt “just because of the novelty of having a full-on play being produced in front of them.”
That a play was being performed at San Quentin at all was largely due to the efforts of George Poultney, San Francisco representative for Actors’ Equity Association. Poultney’s other job was equally relevant: According to Alan Mandell, then business manager of the Actor’s Workshop and Godot’s assistant director, Poultney oversaw inmate transfers among California prisons. Mandell vividly remembers his initial conversation with Poultney.
“He said, ‘Every Christmas, New Year’s, we do a big variety show with all the acts that are in the nightclubs’” at San Quentin, Mandell recalls. Poultney said a number of prisoners had asked the warden, “How about doing a play?” When Mandell floated the idea with workshop leaders Herbert Blau and Jules Irving, they immediately said yes. The prison staff’s requirement that any play they brought could include only men in the cast wouldn’t be a problem, as they’d produced an all-male piece earlier in the year, Waiting for Godot.
The choice of play didn’t just turn out to be novel, as the first dramatic work staged in the prison in nearly half a century and the first play many prisoners had seen. Even for those who had been to the theatre before, Godot was different from anything they’d ever seen. To prepare the crowd of 1,000-plus inmates for Beckett’s now-iconic work about two vagabonds who wait in vain for the title figure to appear, director Herbert Blau gave a curtain speech referencing the prison jazz band that completed a set before the play. “Just like jazz,” Blau said, according to the prison newspaper, The San Quentin News, “one must listen for whatever they may find. It is the same with Godot. For each there will be some meaning, some reaction, and dressed in what we hope is good theatre.” The prison audience found quite a lot of meaning, says Ed Reed, a jazz vocalist and former San Quentin inmate who performed with the band that evening. “Godot was pretty special,” he says. “Everybody loved it.”
Indeed the play, which would go on to define the Theatre of the Absurd, resonated with the prisoners at San Quentin in a way it hadn’t in its previous U.S. mountings. Godot’s North American premiere in Miami the previous year prompted walkouts, due in part to famously off-the-mark promotional materials touting the play as a hilarious comedy. The Broadway run, later in 1956, which replaced everyone in the cast except Bert Lahr of Wizard of Oz fame, fared better, but still had some theatre critics scratching their heads. (A return engagement in early 1957 with an all-Black cast closed in less than a week, reportedly because of a union dispute.)
What had upset or befuddled many attendees of those stagings met a strikingly different reaction at San Quentin. Miksak and Wagner recall the prisoners’ highly vocal response to the one-night-only performance on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1957. “They responded as though they were in it,” Wagner says.
The tenor of the critical notices echoed the inmates’ enthusiasm, contrasting earlier reviews from New York City and Florida. Whereas The New York Times, in its headline for the review of the Broadway debut, notoriously branded the play a “Mystery Wrapped in Enigma,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s review of the prison showing bore the headline “Theme Not New to Cons: ‘Godot’ Presented at San Quentin,” with writer Michael Harris wryly observing that the “surrealistic drama with no plot and no clear meaning played this week before its first captive audience.”
Write-ups in the prison paper captured and extended the effusive response. The Nov. 28 issue featured three items on the play, including a cover story that proclaimed, “The San Francisco company had its audience of captives in its collective hand.” The unnamed writer went on to remark, “A sensitive and compelled audience closely followed the oft-times poignant, sometimes earthy, and always provocative struggles of the two wayfarers. Even in the immense and barn-like spaces of the North Dining Hall, an almost tangible feeling of understanding and empathy could be felt as competent mimes plumbed the depths and soared to the heights, telling the story about going nowhere.” The author of the publication’s Bastille by the Bay column, Etaoin Shrdlu (a pseudonym alluding to typesetters’ nonsense code for material that needs to be scrapped), covered the show in the column’s first item: “The trio of musclemen, biceps overflowing,” wrote Shrdlu, “parked all 642 lbs. on the aisle and waited for the girls and funny stuff. When this didn’t appear they audibly fumed and audibly decided to wait until the house lights dimmed before escaping. They made one error. They listened and looked two minutes too long—and stayed. Left at the end. All shook…”
The inmates’ affinity for the play may not seem surprising now, but it came as a surprise to many contemporary observers. The 1953 work, originally composed in French by the Irish author, was then the height of European avant-garde drama, and had so far left perplexed audiences and critics in its wake. Martin Esslin opened his 1961 tome The Theatre of the Absurd, which defined and named the genre, with a description of the San Quentin performance, marveling that “what had bewildered the sophisticated audiences of Paris, London, and New York was immediately grasped by an audience of convicts.” Esslin’s choice to open his book by analyzing the production helped secure its place in theatre history.
The production also had a lasting impact on the creation of theatre for and with prison populations. A year after the Actor’s Workshop visited San Quentin, with approval from warden F.R. Dickson and guidance from Alan Mandell and others from the Actor’s Workshop, inmates created their own troupe, performing works by Beckett and others. That group, eventually called the San Quentin Drama Workshop, was in operation from 1958 to 1965, likely making it the first extended prison theatre program in the U.S. launched by prisoners.
In 1963 Recreation Magazine published an article about the project by John N. Apostol, then San Quentin’s supervisor of recreation, who suggested that the drama group “serves a twofold purpose.” Wrote Apostol: “Not only does it provide an excellent creative outlet for the men, along with serving as a leisure-time activity, but the group has proved to be a splendid emotional outlet with marked therapeutic values. The men learn to work together and accept a responsibility toward the show they are doing and toward one another.” According to Apostol’s piece, no less an eminence than actor Lee Marvin, who served as a consultant for one of the group’s productions, called it “a highly creative workshop, and the fellas go at it like a bunch of pros.”
Another San Quentin recreation supervisor, John Barrie, wrote in his 1965 booklet on the prison, Inside San Quentin…Today, “At San Quentin we have a house full of actors, some good and some not so good.” Despite this lukewarm assessment of the workshop’s performers, Barrie observed, “Since its beginning seven years ago, this group has become world famous,” pointing out that critics from New York City, Dublin, and Belgrade “have acclaimed this group as one of the most creative, talented, unusual, and interesting amateur theatrical groups in the world.”
One inmate on whom the San Quentin Drama Workshop had an especially profound effect couldn’t attend the 1957 Godot. Rick Cluchey had been serving a life sentence and wasn’t permitted to leave his cell at night. But he got an earful from his cellmate later that night about the show, recalling in a 2015 interview with Beckett scholar Rhys Tranter how his cellmate told him about the bombastic Pozzo and his slave, whom Vladimir and Estragon encounter while waiting. “Guess what the guy-whipping dude called him?” Cluchey’s cellmate said, adding, “Lucky.” Cluchey, all too aware of the irony, identified with the character, even described secondhand. “Warden had a rope ’round [my neck] too,” he told Tranter.
The San Quentin Drama Workshop helped loosen that rope. While Cluchey wasn’t involved at the very beginning (though he’s often credited with co-founding the group), he was interested right away and joined for the company’s fourth production. He soon became a driving force in the workshop, which ultimately contributed to his release in 1966. Cluchey, whose story would later inspire the 1987 Nick Nolte film Weeds, became personal friends with Beckett and a leading interpreter of his work. He founded the Barbwire Theater, a company that featured a number of former inmates, and in 1970 toured U.S. carceral institutions performing his play The Cage, a play he wrote and first staged at San Quentin. He later adopted the San Quentin Drama Workshop name for his own producing efforts until his death in 2015.
The San Quentin Godot wasn’t the first prison Godot: In 1953, the same year as the play’s Paris and Berlin premieres, inmates at Lüttringhausen Prison near Düsseldorf presented an unauthorized German translation. (Godot at Lüttringhausen is discussed in The Impossible Itself, a 2010 documentary on the 1957 San Quentin performance.) But the high-profile reception of the San Quentin performance helped it become influential, both in the U.S. and internationally. In 1985 Jan Jönson staged Godot with inmates at Kumla, a maximum-security prison in Sweden, and then, encouraged by Beckett himself, Jönson worked with prisoners on Godot at San Quentin in 1988. Since 2003, Marin Shakespeare Company has been working with prisoners there.
The original program’s inspiration, as Miksak points out, was rooted in the Actor’s Workshop’s “background of socialism, communism, working-class—a theatre of the people. An extension of that would be going to a prison and performing for the most oppressed. Clearly there was a social component to it too—that these people deserved some art, some contact, and some culture, and deserved to be considered part of the citizenry.”
The 1957 Godot “first and foremost suggested that prison residents were worthy of experiencing performance,” concurs Jodi Jinks, who established the Oklahoma-based ArtsAloud prison program as an extension of her work with Rude Mechs in Austin. “The fact that a performance took place at all has had enormous impact on prison theatre programs like mine that have followed. In addition, it was not just any performance, but a play that mirrored the absurdities of life—a life incapable of understanding, a life of senseless routine, oppression, and existential angst.”
Making theatre, then as now, can be a powerful antidote to meaninglessness. As Jinks puts it, “Ultimately theatre continues to do what it does best: Ask questions and poke at answers. The 1957 performance of Waiting for Godot in San Quentin distilled both.” Hardly nothing to be done.
All photos: California Department of Corrections/Billy Rose Theatre Division, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.