"[O]n 17 February 1952 ... an abridged version of the play was performed in the studio of the Club d'Essai de la Radio and was broadcast on [French] radio ... [A]lthough he sent a polite note that Roger Blin read out, Beckett himself did not turn up." Part of his introduction reads:
- I don't know who Godot is. I don't even know (above all don't know) if he exists. And I don't know if they believe in him or not – those two who are waiting for him. The other two who pass by towards the end of each of the two acts, that must be to break up the monotony. All I knew I showed. It's not much, but it's enough for me, by a wide margin. I'll even say that I would have been satisfied with less. As for wanting to find in all that a broader, loftier meaning to carry away from the performance, along with the program and the Eskimo pie, I cannot see the point of it. But it must be possible ... Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, their time and their space, I was able to know them a little, but far from the need to understand. Maybe they owe you explanations. Let them supply it. Without me. They and I are through with each other.
The Minuit edition appeared in print on 17 October 1952 in advance of the play's first full theatrical performance. On 4 January 1953, "[t]hirty reviewers came to the générale of En attendant Godot before the public opening ... Contrary to later legend, the reviewers were kind ... Some dozen reviews in daily newspapers range[d] from tolerant to enthusiastic ... Reviews in the weeklies [were] longer and more fervent; moreover, they appeared in time to lure spectators to that first thirty-day run" which began on 5 January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris. Early public performances were not, however, without incident: during one performance "the curtain had to be brought down after Lucky's monologue as twenty, well-dressed, but disgruntled spectators whistled and hooted derisively ... One of the protesters [even] wrote a vituperative letter dated 2 February 1953 to Le Monde."
The cast comprised Pierre Latour (Estragon), Lucien Raimbourg (Vladimir), Jean Martin (Lucky) and Roger Blin (Pozzo). The actor due to play Pozzo found a more remunerative role and so the director – a shy, lean man in real life – had to step in and play the stout bombaster himself with a pillow amplifying his stomach. Both boys were played by Serge Lecointe. The entire production was done on the thinnest of shoestring budgets; the large battered valise that Martin carried "was found among the city's refuse by the husband of the theatre dresser on his rounds as he worked clearing the dustbins," for example.
A particularly significant production – from Beckett's perspective – took place in Lüttringhausen Prison near Wuppertal in Germany. An inmate obtained a copy of the French first edition, translated it himself into German and obtained permission to stage the play. The first night had been on 29 November 1953. He wrote to Beckett in October 1954: "You will be surprised to be receiving a letter about your play Waiting for Godot, from a prison where so many thieves, forgers, toughs, homos, crazy men and killers spend this bitch of a life waiting ... and waiting ... and waiting. Waiting for what? Godot? Perhaps." Beckett was intensely moved and intended to visit the prison to see a last performance of the play but it never happened. This marked "the beginning of Beckett's enduring links with prisons and prisoners ... He took a tremendous interest in productions of his plays performed in prisons ... He even gave Rick Cluchey a former prisoner from San Quentin financial and moral support over a period of many years." Cluchey played Vladimir in two productions in the former Gallows room of the San Quentin California State Prison, which had been converted into a 65-seat theatre and, like the German prisoner before him, went on to work on a variety of Beckett's plays after his release. (The 1953 Lüttringhausen and 1957 San Quentin Prison productions of Waiting For Godot was the subject of the 2010 documentary film The Impossible Itself, produced and directed by Jacob Adams.)
The English-language premiere was on 3 August 1955 at the Arts Theatre, London, directed by the 24-year-old Peter Hall. During an early rehearsal Hall told the cast "I haven't really the foggiest idea what some of it means . . . But if we stop and discuss every line we'll never open." Again, the printed version preceded it (New York: Grove Press, 1954) but Faber's "mutilated" edition did not materialise until 1956. A "corrected" edition was subsequently produced in 1965. "The most accurate text is in Theatrical Notebooks I, (Ed.) Dougald McMillan and James Knowlson (Faber and Grove, 1993). It is based on Beckett's revisions for his Schiller-Theatre production (1975) and the London San Quentin Drama Workshop, based on the Schiller production but revised further at the Riverside Studios (March 1984)."
Like all of Beckett's translations, Waiting for Godot is not simply a literal translation of En attendant Godot. "Small but significant differences separate the French and English text. Some, like Vladimir's inability to remember the farmer's name (Bonnelly), show how the translation became more indefinite, attrition and loss of memory more pronounced." A number of biographical details were removed, all adding to a general "vaguening" of the text which he continued to trim for the rest of his life.
In the 1950s, theatre was strictly censored in the UK, to Beckett's amazement since he thought it a bastion of free speech. The Lord Chamberlain insisted that the word "erection" be removed, "'Fartov' became 'Popov' and Mrs Gozzo had 'warts' instead of 'clap'". Indeed, there were attempts to ban the play completely. Lady Dorothy Howitt wrote to the Lord Chamberlain, saying: "One of the many themes running through the play is the desire of two old tramps continually to relieve themselves. Such a dramatisation of lavatory necessities is offensive and against all sense of British decency." "The first unexpurgated version of Godot in England ... opened at the Royal Court on 30 December 1964."
The London run was not without incident. The actor Peter Bull, who played Pozzo, recalls the reaction of that first night audience:
Waves of hostility came whirling over the footlights, and the mass exodus, which was to form such a feature of the run of the piece, started quite soon after the curtain had risen. The audible groans were also fairly disconcerting ... The curtain fell to mild applause, we took a scant three calls (Peter Woodthorpe reports only one curtain call) and a depression and a sense of anti-climax descended on us all.
The critics were less than kind but "[e]verything changed on Sunday 7 August 1955 with Kenneth Tynan's and Harold Hobson's reviews in The Observer and The Sunday Times. Beckett was always grateful to the two reviewers for their support ... which more or less transformed the play overnight into the rage of London." "At the end of the year, the Evening Standard Drama Awards were held for the first time ... Feelings ran high and the opposition, led by Sir Malcolm Sargent, threatened to resign if Godot won [The Best New Play category]. An English compromise was worked out by changing the title of the award. Godot became The Most Controversial Play of the Year. It is a prize that has never been given since."
The first production of the play in the United States was at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Coconut Grove, Florida on 3 January 1956. It starred Tom Ewell as Vladimir and Bert Lahr as Estragon. It bombed, but a Broadway version with Lahr, a new director (Herbert Berghof), and E. G. Marshall as Vladimir met with much more favour. The production and its problems are described in John Lahr's book about his father, Notes on a Cowardly Lion.
In the Australian premiere at the Arrow Theatre in Melbourne in 1957, Barry Humphries played Estragon opposite Peter O'Shaughnessy's Vladimir.
Beckett resisted offers to film the play, although it was televised in his lifetime (including a 1961 American telecast with Zero Mostel as Estragon and Burgess Meredith as Vladimir that New York Times theatre critic Alvin Klein describes as having "left critics bewildered and is now a classic"). When Keep Films made Beckett an offer to film an adaptation in which Peter O'Toole would feature, Beckett tersely told his French publisher to advise them: "I do not want a film of Godot." The BBC broadcast a production of Waiting for Godot on 26 June 1961, a version for radio having already been transmitted on 25 April 1960. Beckett watched the programme with a few close friends in Peter Woodthorpe's Chelsea flat. He was unhappy with what he saw. "My play," he said, "wasn't written for this box. My play was written for small men locked in a big space. Here you're all too big for the place."
Although not his favourite amongst his plays it was the work which brought Beckett fame and financial stability and as such it always held a special place in his affections. "When the manuscript and rare books dealer, Henry Wenning, asked him if he could sell the original French manuscript for him, Beckett replied: 'Rightly or wrongly have decided not to let Godot go yet. Neither sentimental nor financial, probably peak of market now and never such an offer. Can't explain.'"
In 1978, a production was staged by Walter Asmus at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City with Sam Waterston as Vladimir, Austin Pendleton as Estragon, Milo O'Shea as Lucky and Michael Egan as Pozzo.
A young Geoffrey Rush played Vladimir opposite his then flatmate Mel Gibson as Estragon in 1979 at the Jane Street Theatre in Sydney.
The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center was the site of a 1988 revival directed by Mike Nichols, featuring Robin Williams (Estragon), Steve Martin (Vladimir), Bill Irwin (Lucky), F. Murray Abraham (Pozzo), and Lukas Haas (boy). With a limited run of seven weeks and an all-star cast, it was financially successful, but the critical reception was not particularly favourable, with Frank Rich of The New York Times writing, "Audiences will still be waiting for a transcendent Godot long after the clowns at Lincoln Center, like so many others passing through Beckett's eternal universe before them, have come and gone."
The play was revived in London's West End at the Queen's Theatre in a production directed by Les Blair, which opened on 30 September 1991. This was the first West End revival since the play's British première. Rik Mayall played Vladimir and Adrian Edmondson played Estragon, with Philip Jackson as Pozzo and Christopher Ryan as Lucky; the boy was played by Dean Gaffney and Duncan Thornley. Derek Jarman provided the scenic design, in collaboration with Madeleine Morris.
Neil Armfield directed a controversial production in 2003 with Max Cullen as Estragon at Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre.
On 30 April 2009, a production with Sir Ian McKellen as Estragon and Sir Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London's West End. Their performances received critical acclaim, and were the subject of an eight-part documentary series called Theatreland, which was produced by Sky Arts. The production was revived at the same theatre in January 2010 for 11 weeks and, in 2010 toured internationally, with Roger Rees replacing Stewart as Vladimir.
A 2009 Broadway revival of the play starring Nathan Lane, John Goodman, John Glover and Bill Irwin was nominated for three Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play (John Glover), and Best Costume Design of a Play (Jane Greenwood). It received rave reviews, and was a huge success for the Roundabout Theatre. Variety called it a "transcendent" production.
For the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's 61st season in 2013, Jennifer Tarver directed a new production at the Tom Patterson Theatre starring Brian Dennehy as Pozzo, Stephen Ouimette as Estragon, Tom Rooney as Vladimir and Randy Hughson as Lucky.
A web series adaptation titled While Waiting for Godot was produced at New York University in 2013, setting the story among the modern day New York homeless. Directed by Rudi Azank, the English script was based on Beckett's original French manuscript of En attendant Godot (the new title being an alternate translation of the French) prior to censorship from British publishing houses in the 1950s, as well as adaptation to the stage. Season 1 of the web series won Best Cinematography at the 2014 Rome Web Awards. Season 2 was released in Spring 2014 on the show's official website whilewaitingforgodot.com.
A new production directed by Sean Mathias began previews at the Cort Theatre on Broadway in late October 2013, with Ian McKellen as Estragon, Patrick Stewart as Vladimir, Billy Crudup as Lucky and Shuler Hensley as Pozzo.
Sydney Theatre staged Godot in November 2013 with Richard Roxburgh as Estragon and Hugo Weaving as Vladimir, Philip Quast as Pozzo. The production was originally to be directed by Tamás Ascher who had to withdraw and Andrew Upton stepped in.