Israel Didn't Have to Wait Long for Mr. God

Israeli theater discovered Beckett and "Waiting for Godot" long before the rest of the world did. Michael Almaz translated and directed the play in 1955 at the Zira (Arena) theater, under the name "Anu Mehakim Le'marel" ("We Are Waiting for Mr. God"), but Israeli audiences were apparently not quite ready for it yet. Edna Shavit, who played Lucky in that production, directed the play at Tel Aviv University's theater department in the 1960s, and in the 1970s, Yossi Yizraeli directed the play at Habima, with set designs by Igael Tumarkin.

But the most interesting production of "Waiting for Godot," which was striking even by global standards, must be credited to Haifa's municipal theater in the mid-1980s, when Beckett was still living. As far as I know, Beckett was not aware of the details of that production, and had he been aware, would probably not have consented to its being staged: He demanded that his plays be staged as he wrote them, and the copyright holders still make sure of that.

The play that Ilan Ronen directed two years before the first intifada began was in both Arabic and Hebrew. It was translated by Anton Shammas back when he still lived in Israel, during the period in which his first and most well-known book, "Arabesques," was published.

The stage represented an abandoned construction site, and the tree was a cement pole from which steel rods protruded. Gogo and Didi were two Palestinian construction workers who conversed with each other in colloquial spoken Arabic. They were played by Makhram Khoury and Yusuf Abu Varda, who shortly beforehand had acted in Arabic in Athol Fugard's "The Island," a play in which two black prisoners in South Africa put on "Antigone" ("Waiting for Godot" was once famously staged by prisoners at San Quentin State Prison in California).

Pozzo in the Haifa production was a building contractor who spoke Hebrew and dressed in colonialist garb, white pith helmet included.

He was portrayed by Ilan Toren. The slave Lucky was played by Doron Tavori, who delivered his philosophical speech in literary Arabic that the Palestinian construction workers could not understand. Beckett's play lost nothing of its universal value, but was assimilated into the complex Israeli reality.

Habima Theater put on the play earlier this decade with Ronen as director again, but this time using a translation by Yosef El-Dror, and with Rami Hoyberger and Dov Navon in the lead roles. The play's charm remained intact, as did that of the actors. But anyone who had seen Ronen's production in the 1980s could not help but feel nostalgic.