Damned to fame: The moral rights of the Beckett estate

Rimmer, Matthew (2003) Damned to fame: The moral rights of the Beckett estate. Incite.

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The Company B production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot raises important questions about copyright law, moral rights, and dramatic works.

The playwright's nephew and executor, Edward Beckett, threatened to bring a legal action against the Sydney company for breach of contract on the grounds that unauthorised music appeared in the production. The Company B production denied that the contract made any such express provisions. The director Neil Armfield complained: 'In coming here with its narrow prescriptions, its dead controlling hand, the Beckett estate seems to me to be the enemy of art'.

In the biography Damned to fame, James Knowlson documents a number of other proceedings taken by Beckett and his agents to control the productions of his work: 'He was often represented as a tyrannical figure, an arch-controller of his work, ready to unleash fiery thunderbolts onto the head of any bold, innovative director, unwilling to follow his text and stage directions to the last counted dot and precisely timed pause.' However, Knowlson notes that Beckett was inconsistent in his willingness to use legal action: 'It made a tremendous difference if he liked and respected the persons involved or if he had been able to listen to their reasons for wanting to attempt something highly innovative or even slightly different'.

Famously, in 1988, Beckett brought legal action against a Dutch theatre company, which wanted to stage a production of Waiting for Godot, with women acting all the roles. His lawyer argued that the integrity of the text was violated because actresses were substituted for the male actors asked for in the text. The judge in the Haarlem court ruled that the integrity of the play had not been violated, because the performance showed fidelity to the dialogue and the stage directions of the play.

By contrast, in 1992, a French court held a stage director was liable for an infringement of Beckett's moral right of integrity because the director had staged Waiting for Godot with the two lead roles played by women. In 1998, a United States production of Waiting for Godot with a racially mixed cast attracted legal threats amid accusations it had 'injected race into the play'.

In the 2000 New York Fringe Festival, a company made light of this ongoing conflict between the Beckett estate and artistic directors. The work was entitled: The complete lost works of Samuel Beckett as found in an envelope (partially burned) in a dustbin in Paris labelled 'Never to be performed. Never. Ever. EVER! Or I'll sue! I'LL SUE FROM THE GRAVE!'. The plot concerned a fight between three producers and the Beckett estate.

In the wake of such disputes, Beckett and later his estate sought to tighten production contracts to state that no additions, omissions or alterations should be made to the text of the play or the stage directions and that no music, special effects or other supplements should be added without prior consent.

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ID Code: 86803
Item Type: Other
Refereed: Yes
Keywords: Intellectual Property and Innovation Law Research Group
ISSN: 2202-347X
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Law
Current > Schools > School of Law
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2003 Incite
Deposited On: 02 Sep 2015 05:50
Last Modified: 15 May 2017 17:18

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