Rough for Theatre I and II by Samuel Beckett

Rough for Theatre I

Rough for Theatre I is a one-act theatrical sketch by Samuel Beckett. Also known simply as Theatre I, it was originally written in French in the late 1950s and named Fragment de théâtre (although an early version was also known as The Gloaming). Beckett later translated it into English and that’s the version I’m reviewing here. Because it was only a fragment, it had to wait until 1979 for its first production, at the Schiller Theatre in Hamburg.


On a derelict and empty street corner a decrepit old man (referred to in the text as ‘A’) is playing a violin very badly when another man, in a wheelchair, (referred to as ‘B’), turns a corner and wheels himself up to him.

B offers to join forces with A ’till death ensue’, but their initially friendly exchanges develop into raillery and then abuse, of the kind found very often in Beckett, before the violinist, having been pushed to the ground by the wheelchair user, grabs the latter’s staff (very big stick) and is about to hit him when…

The  fragment ends at this point, the actors literally freezing in a tableau. Is A about to throw the stick away or is he going to hit the wheelchair guy, B, with it?

The scenario bears a more than passing resemblance to The Cat and the Moon, a play by W.B. Yeats, in which a blind man and a cripple form a symbiotic relationship but in a typically degraded, deteriorated world.

The play was filmed on location in Dublin as a part of the Beckett on Film project in June 2000. This short film stars David Kelly as A and Milo O’Shea as B, two absolutely outstanding character actors, brilliantly directed by Kieron Walsh.

Brief comments

Scholars speculate that the fragment was intended a sort of continuation of Beckett’s full-length  1957 play, Endgame. This certainly struck me when I saw that the man in the wheelchair (B) was carrying a large stick or stave and behaves very aggressively – exactly as Hamm does at some points in Endgame. Critic Helen Penet-Astbury claims that both Rough for Theatre I and II are ‘failed attempts to continue where Endgame had left off’. Maybe Beckett realised it was becoming too much like the earlier play, that he was repeating himself, and so abandoned it.

Maybe the freeze at the end of this filmed version is simply a clever way of stopping dead without having to go on – although it works fine from a creative point of view, freezing as the little vignette reaches its crisis and leaving the whole scenario hanging works, in a disruptive and innovative way.

Apparently, there’s an alternative manuscript of the text in which the characters are named ‘B’ for Blind and ‘C’ for Cripple. I don’t think that would be allowed in our censorious times.

What really strikes me about this, though, is the way that Beckett was becoming venerated as a great genius, such that even his half-finished fragments began to be carefully preserved, published, annotated and performed on special evenings devoted to fragments and fractions, as if every word, every scrap of text, bore a special and holy significance. In a sense they do because of his exceptional intensity and achievement – but it also marks the steady growth of his cult.

Rough for Theatre II

In Rough For Theatre II two bored bureaucrats, A and B, sit in an office and shuffle through the documents which they take out of briefcases as they discuss the life and career of a nameless man, C (once or twice named as Croker). What gives the mise-en-scène a twist, or edge, is that the man whose fate they are coolly discussing is, throughout the action, standing on the window ledge of the same room, as if about to jump. The studied indifference of two bureaucrats to the fate of a wretched victim whose life is in their hands feels reminiscent of the bored officials who hold the fate of Joseph K in their hands in The Trial.

The text consists of a sequence of exchanges of studied inconsequence, a drab parade of grey surrealist details, and a peculiar species of non-humorous joke:

A: Well, to make a long story short he had his head in the oven when they came to tell him his wife had gone under an ambulance. Hell, he says, I can’t miss that, and now he has a steady job at Marks and Spencer’s.

These sentence have the shape and appearance of jokes, but aren’t funny. There are actual jokes in the prose works and in Godot, but from that point onwards Beckett began to specialise in forms of words which have all the appearance of being jokes without any actual humour. Emphasising their humourlessness is a kind of satire on the point of any text or language. It drains humour from the text.

These anti-jokes, along with the deliberate inconsequentiality of so much of the detail, has a draining and demoralising effect. A and B are really exchanging fag ends of language, clichéd phrases,  exhausted stereotypes of conversation, language on its last legs.

An example of this species of comedy drained of all humour is the way the man standing on the ledge, who the bored officials wish would just get on and jump, is named Croker. Because he’s going to croke. It’s as if Beckett is daring his readers to accept dreadful jokes as key components of his works of art.

A (once or twice referred to as ‘Bertrand’) and B (referred to as ‘Morvan’) poke and pry over various aspects of C’s life, his ‘literary aspirations’ and consider a letter to ‘an admiratrix’. This seems heavy satire on the pointlessness of the literary life. The two officials let slip aspects of their own lives; for example, A once belonged to the Band of Hope, a youth temperance movement.

There is a kind of transcendental irrelevance about more or less everything they say. For me the futility doesn’t come from the man about to jump off a window ledge but the utter inconsequentiality of the behaviour and dialogue of the officials, written in a peculiarly dead, airless style. For example, A goes over to look C in the face. B asks how he seems:

B: How does he look?
A: Not at his best.
B: Has he still got that little smile on his face?
A: Probably.
B: What do you mean, probably, haven’t you just been looking at him?
A: He didn’t have it then.
B: [With satisfaction.] Ah! [Pause. ] Could never make out what he thought he was doing with that smile on his face. And his eyes? Still goggling?
A: Shut.
B: Shut!

I appreciate that the ‘play’ is a highly stylised depiction of human inertia and heartlessness, but still… I found myself reading this or watching the film (well-made thought it is) and thinking… this is really boring.

The pair’s desk lights go on and off with the kind of mechanical clunkiness I associate with the obsessive mechanical behaviour found throughout the novels. The dialogue is sprinkled with the kind of banal deadpan repartee familiar from Godot.

B: I’ll read the whole passage: ‘… morbidly sensitive to the opinion of others –’ [His lamp goes out.] Well! The bulb has blown! [The lamp goes on again.] No, it hasn’t! Must be a faulty connection. [Examines lamp, straightens flex.] The flex was twisted, now all is well. [Reading.] ‘… morbidly sensitive –’ [The lamp goes out. ] Bugger and shit!
A: Try giving her a shake. [B shakes the lamp. It goes on again.] See! I picked up that wrinkle in the Band of Hope.

They hear a bird sing and discover a birdcage in the corner of the stage, but discover one of the original pair of finches it contained, the male finch, is now dead, leaving the female to carry on forlornly singing. There is an old cuttle-bone at the bottom of the cage. Aridity. Blank pointlessness.

A and B eventually decide there is no point C carrying on living, given he has ‘a black future, an unpardonable past’, a conclusion which doesn’t follow particularly logically from the random quotes and excerpts from official documents they’ve spent the previous 15 minutes quoting from. Heartless, they agree: ‘Let him jump, let him jump.’

At the very end A climbs up onto the window-ledge and lights a succession of matches to illuminate C’s face. (C, by the way, does not move or respond during any of the previous dialogue or action). A gasps with surprise. I think the implication is that C, despite everything, has a smile on his face… though even this much concession to a meaningful ending is suppressed.

A: Hi! Take a look at this! [B does not move. A strikes another match, holds it high and inspects C’s face.] Come on! Quick! [B does not move. The match burns out, A lets it fall.] Well, I’ll be…! [A takes out his handkerchief and raises it timidly towards C’s face.]

And that’s the end.

This is the black-and-white film of Rough For Theatre II, which was made for the Beckett On Film project, starring Jim Norton as A, Timothy Spall as B, and Hugh B. O’Brien as C, directed by Katie Mitchell.

It felt like Kafka from start to finish, with the added inconsequentiality of dialogue which is Beckett’s own particular contribution to the literature of nihilism and absurdity. At some moments the officiousness of the two bureaucrats squabbling and fumbling with their briefcases full of files, more or less oblivious to the character at the window, feels deliberately reminiscent of the great totalitarian states of the middle part of the twentieth century, the Nazi regime of the Holocaust with its mind-boggling concern for correct procedure in murdering millions, or the administration of Stalin’s gulags, with harassed officials struggling to process the huge numbers of the guilty passing through their books on their way to living death in Siberia.

In other words, despite the studied inconsequentiality of the dialogue and the action, the situation itself is perilously close to realism. Maybe that’s why Beckett didn’t make it any longer or promote it very much.


Rough For Theatre I by Samuel Beckett was first published in the summer of 1958, and first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in October 1958.

Rough For Theatre II by Samuel Beckett was written and then abandoned around 1960. It was eventually published in 1976.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays, using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be found on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

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1 Comment

  1. Laughter and Annihilation: The Writing of Samuel Beckett – Mark Danner

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