Two weeks ago, communication with Samuel Beckett’s estate halted Oberlin’s production of Waiting for Godot due to its all-female cast. The script calls for a cast of five men, and Samuel Beckett’s estate has a long history of putting an end to female versions of Godot, often taking theaters to court over the issue.
Months before the production was cancelled, designers had begun working on the show — the set design had been finalized, costumes were set, and the director had developed his concept. However, when auditions came around, only two men expressed interest, and the Godot team cast the best actors for the roles — all of whom were female. Due to complications with the Beckett estate, the same cast and production team will now produce the play Collective Rage this January.
College fourth-year and cast member Clarissa Heart was disappointed that she couldn’t take on the challenge of working on this canonical show.
“It was going to be reimagined in a very new way,” said Heart. “It [would have been] very exciting to have the opportunity to, especially as a woman … work on this male play … because it’s like, okay, ‘What does it mean for us to be working on this piece now in this day and age versus when it was written versus what the playwright intended?’ So I think it’s actually the reimagining of very canonical pieces that’s most exciting, especially on this campus, and it’s something that is done often.”
However, this excitement was not immediately shared by everyone in the Theater department. College third-year Lauren Elwood, who is a Theater Department Student Representative and a cast member of the Winter Term show, was excited by the prospect of performing Godot. However, she mentioned department show choice is one of the largest concerns that Theater students have brought to her.
“[The Theater Representatives have] been trying to implement as many ways as possible [for] people [to] have their voices heard,” said Elwood. “Because a lot of people don’t feel seen by the department… Especially when it comes to gender … a lot of people feel like there aren’t as many opportunities for women or anybody who doesn’t identify as a cis man, so we’ve been trying to implement more ways to have voices heard.”
The traditionally all-male show was discouraging for some non-male auditionees. College third-year and cast member Sophie Rejto said the all-male character descriptions made her hesitant to audition.
“I just didn’t think [Oberlin] would cast women, which was a valid assumption considering I’d also done my own research into female casts of Godot and whether that was even a possibility, and [I] had discovered that [Beckett] had said things in his lifetime about women not being able to play these parts properly because they didn’t have a prostate,” said Rejto.
Rejto’s concern over Beckett’s views on female actors is historically founded. In 1988, Beckett took a theater company in the Netherlands to court for attempting to produce an all-female production of Godot. He argued that the character Vladimir, who Rejto was cast to play, had prostate problems, and female-bodied actors could not understand that experience. Beckett lost the case, and he subsequently banned all renditions of Godot in the Netherlands for three years.
Oberlin’s production fits in a long line of all-female productions of Godot that have been halted by the Beckett estate. Eric Steggall, Managing Director for Theater, Opera, and Dance, explained that although the Oberlin Theater department had secured the rights to Godot, the all-female cast was against the stipulations of the contract. The department sent a letter arguing its case to the Beckett estate, but it was denied.
“This [situation] wasn’t completely unforeseen from us as a department, but there was a lot of artistic and personal integrity on the line,” said Steggall. “We as a department had to try to convince the Beckett estate that in this day and age, there is absolutely no reason why this outdated law should still be part of how theater is created. That being said, I fully acknowledge and appreciate an artist and a playwright or musician, whoever it is, that it is their work and they can restrict it or constrain it in the way it’s performed. Whether you agree or disagree with the rule, it’s the rule set forth by the playwright as continued through his estate and we are legally bound to adhere to the laws that govern rights and royalties.”
Had the Oberlin team moved forward with the production, they would have faced legal ramifications, which could have resulted in a court case. Though the court has ruled in favor of all-female casts for professional companies in the past, there have also been productions that have lost their cases.
“I fully understand and appreciate that this should be a moment for us as artists to make a stand and to do what we consider ‘the right thing,’” explained Steggall. “And we very much want to do that, but what would we be sacrificing if this did move forward and we were taken to court? There could be far reaching ramifications that need to be weighed against this scenario. And I’m not trying to place value. I’m not trying to devalue one or the other. It’s a very complicated equation.”
With all of these factors in mind, the Theater department decided to switch productions. Tlaloc Rivas, the guest director who was set to direct Godot, worked with the department to pick a new play for the original cast. The full title of the new show is Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; In Essence, A Queer And Occasionally Hazardous Exploration; Do You Remember When You Were In Middle School And You Read About Shackleton And How He Explored The Antartic?; Imagine The Antartic As A Pussy And It’s Sort Of Like That. The play, by Jen Silverman, explores the lives of five queer women.
“There’s something very poignant about going from this all-male piece about humanity and potentially God, depending on who you ask, to this play about all women and about queerness and identity,” said Heart. “It’s just a total 180 that feels like a very nice, very solid rebuttal to the Beckett estate.”
Cass Gutterman-Johns, College second-year and Stage Manager, stressed the team’s commitment to the upcoming project and expressed her excitement about the production.
“I think that it’s a testament to the department [and] to the production process that the actors have been willing to stick with the show, that the stage management team has been willing to stick with the show, and [that others] have been willing to do such a quick pivot,” said Gutterman-Johns. “I think it’s going to be an incredible show with a great guest director no matter what we do, and I’m really excited about the show that we’ve chosen.”