Samuel Beckett in Prison
It was December 1974—one of those monochromatic winter days in Paris when the sky, the streets, and the river all seem to turn the same shade of gray.
Rick Cluchey (the founder of the San Quentin Drama Workshop) and I, a longtime friend of the company, were on a mission. Our goal was to find 38 Rue Saint Jacques in the Luxembourg district—the home of Samuel Beckett. Our mission was to deliver an invitation to Beckett to attend the company’s production of Endgame that would be performed that night.
With a certain amount of fumbling we found the apartment and left the invitation. And although Beckett chose not to attend, he did send a representative who reported back that the production was certainly worthy of his attention.
Cluchey and Beckett had never met. But Beckett was well aware of the San Quentin Drama Workshop and its unusual relationship to his plays. The delivery of that invitation set in motion a chain of events that resulted in Beckett personally directing Rick in Krapp’s Last Tape in Berlin in 1977, and then the famous San Quentin Drama Workshop productions in Paris of Krapp’s Last Tape, Endgame, and Waiting for Godot a decade later—the only time Beckett directed an American theatre company.
On the night of November 19, 1957, Rick Cluchey was locked in a cell in San Quentin Prison serving a life sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping (though the circumstances had been questionable).
At that same time members of the Actor’s Workshop from San Francisco were preparing to perform Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in the prison’s massive dining hall, their stage erected, ironically, on the spot where the prison’s gallows once stood.
Alan Mandell, then a lanky young man in his late 20s, was the company’s manager.
“There were about 1,500 inmates there,” Mandell remembers.
“So the play began and it was amazing; you could hear a pin drop. Herb Blau (the company’s principal director) had explained to them that the play was about what we do while we’re waiting—waiting for Godot—which for some people represents the end and nothingness; for others it may be God and salvation. Well, these guys really understood what waiting was about. At the end there were screams and shouts and applause. It was astounding.”
So the play began and it was amazing; you could hear a pin drop.”–Alan Mandell
Locked in his cell, Cluchey was unable to see the performance, but he could hear it piped in over the prison’s P.A. system. The effect it had on him was palpable. And in the months that followed Cluchey and a small group of inmates formed the San Quentin Drama Workshop. They asked Alan Mandell if he would coach them, which he did on Monday nights from 1958 until 1965. The first play staged by the fledgling company was Waiting for Godot.
With the aid of Mandell and Blau, Cluchey’s case came under review, and with due consideration he was released on parole. In its new incarnation, outside the walls of San Quentin, the company flourished and gained particular notoriety for its productions of the plays of Samuel Beckett.
It was at this time that Mandell became a formal member of the company, which toured extensively around the U.S. performing principally on college campuses. In addition to the plays of Beckett, the company also gave performances of Cluchey’s hard-hitting prison drama, The Cage.
In the early 1970s, in an attempt to expand its audience, the company moved to Europe and based itself in Edinburgh, Scotland. December of 1974 found them in Berlin, where after performances of Endgame they boarded the train to Paris. And that brings this story full circle, back to that gray day when Samuel Beckett and the San Quentin Drama Workshop crossed paths for the first time.