N.S. production of Waiting for Godot scrapped after ‘discriminatory’ legal rider

A theatre director in Nova Scotia has cancelled plans to mount a production of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, after Beckett’s estate insisted that only “male actors shall play male roles.”

Ken Schwartz, artistic director of Two Planks and a Passion Theatre near Canning, N.S., has a knack for giving classic plays a contemporary twist and casting characters in non-traditional ways. Recently, he directed the Shakespeare classic Hamlet, casting a female actor in the lead role.  

Schwartz says Waiting for Godot had been on his wish list to direct for some time. The play, which was written by Beckett about 70 years ago, is considered by many to be a masterpiece of 20th-century theatre. The original features five characters, all identified as male.  

‘Male actors shall play male roles’

Because the play is under copyright, Schwartz contacted that company that holds the licensing rights for Waiting For Godot.

 He found out there is a legal rider that pertains to all plays by Beckett, who died in 1989, which includes the stipulation that “male actors shall play male roles” and “female actors shall play female roles.”

The estate of Irish playwright and writer Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989) has a licensing agreement that stipulates male roles in Beckett’s plays must be played by males and females must play female roles. (Hugo Jehle)

“Unless you legally agree to discriminate against actors based on gender, they will not even consider issuing a license to produce the play,” Schwartz told CBC’s Information Morning.  

“What I object to is that I have to participate, as an artist, in this discriminatory practice before I can even consider what I would do with the play. And that’s something I’m not willing to do.”

Other theatre companies have challenged the Beckett estate’s exclusionary rider. The estate even ended up in court, in Rome, where a judge ultimately decided that men don’t have exclusive rights to these roles.

Schwartz says he will not be pursuing any legal action.

“It’s very difficult for cultural organizations to undertake something like that. It’s expensive, it’s time consuming, so you know it’s really not something that I think is reasonable to expect,” he said.

“But what I can do as an individual, I think, is simply to call attention to this and at least keep the conversation going about how things should and must change.”

CBC has reached out to the Beckett estate for comment, but has not yet had a response.

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