Play by Samuel Beckett (1963)

The imaginatively-titled Play is a 15-minute stage play written by Samuel Beckett in English in late 1962. The first performance of Spiel, the German version, took place in Ulm-Donau in June 1963 and was published in German the following month. The English version was first performed by the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic on 7 April 1964 and published by Faber and Faber later the same year.

Play’s mise en scène

Three characters are set in yard-high urns, reminiscent of Nag and Nell who live in dustbins in Endgame. As usual in later Beckett there are very, very precise stage directions for exactly how the actors should be positioned, appear, move or not move. Here they are:

Faces so lost to age and aspect as to seem almost part of urns. But no masks.
Their speech is provoked by a spotlight projected on faces alone.
The transfer of light from one face to another is immediate.
No blackout, i. e. return to almost complete darkness of opening, except where indicated.
The response to light is immediate.
Faces impassive throughout. Voices toneless except where an expression is indicated.
Rapid tempo throughout.
The curtain rises on a stage in almost complete darkness.
Urns just discernible. Five seconds.
Faint spots simultaneously on three faces. Three seconds.
Voices faint, largely unintelligible.

You can see how this is, in its way, a kind of poetry but, characteristically, without any natural feel for language. It is as hard and blunt as a manual. The poetry, such as there is, is in the obsessive attention to detail, a strange obsessive-compulsive form of metallic rhetoric.

Note the way the faces are, inevitably, so ‘lost to age, as to seem almost part of [the] urns’, characteristic of Beckett’s obsession with old age and senility and decay and the atrophy of ‘the human’ in human beings. Almost all his people are post-people, post-human,

Also the relatively simplistic stage effect that each voice is ‘activated’ by a spotlight being shone on it. This isn’t the only stage direction. He goes on to give very detailed requirements for the spotlight and for the urns and positioning of the actors therein.

In order for the urns to be only one yard high, it is necessary either that traps be used, enabling the actors to stand below stage level, or that they kneel throughout play, the urns being open at the back.
Should traps be not available, and the kneeling posture found impracticable, the actors should stand, the urns be enlarged to full length and moved back from front to mid-stage, the tallest actor setting the height, the broadest the breadth, to which the three urns should conform.
The sitting posture results in urns of unacceptable bulk and is not to be considered.

Beckett took his stagings deadly seriously and was very upset by, and refused to give permission for, performances which deviated from them – the obsession with detail is part of the work or part of the mindset behind the work. Still, for someone not part of the luvvie profession, there is also something comic about its fanatical obsessiveness.

The Anthony Minghella production

Bearing this fanatical obsession with staging his plays just as he wanted them with the way Play was filmed by Anthony Minghella for the Beckett on Film project at the turn of the millennium.

What you immediately notice are a) the characters are very much not lost to age, they are in fact played by three British movie stars, the gorgeous Alan Rickman, charismatic Juliet Stevenson and the sensationally gorgeous Kristin Scott Thomas b) why are they wearing glitter on their faces, that’s not anywhere in Beckett’s directions, are they part of a Marc Bolan tribute band? and c) there’s no attempt at all to recreate the spotlight effect which is central to Beckett’s conception

As so often with Beckett’s plays, the mise-en-scène is stunning and exciting, but then what the characters actually say borders on the banal. In this case it appears to be one of the oldest plots in history, the triangle of husband and wife and mistress, who obsessively recount, at high speed, their encounters, arguments and recriminations. Boring.

All the more boring as Minghella focuses on this aspect by cutting the interesting opening section where the three ‘characters’ give a characteristically bleak, struggling-on-to-the-end, the darkness etc:

W1: Yes, strange, darkness best, and the darker the worse, till all dark, then all well, for the time, but it will come, the time will come, the thing is there, you’ll see it, get off me, keep off me, all dark, all still, all over, wiped out
W2: Yes, perhaps, a shade gone, I suppose, some might say, poor thing, a shade gone, just a shade, in the head-[Faint wild laugh.] – just a shade, but I doubt it, I doubt it, not really, I’m all right, still all right, do my best, all I can
M: Yes, peace, one assumed, all out, all the pain, all as if … never been, it will come – [Hiccup.] – pardon, no sense in
this, oh I know … nonetheless, one assumed, peace … I mean … not merely all over, but as if … never been –

That’s the true Beckett voice, but Minghella cuts this opening in order to focus on the adultery passages starting with:

W1: I said to him, Give her up . I swore by all I held most sacred­…

Incidentally, M stands for Man, W1 stands for woman 1 and… I’ll leave you to work out what W2 stands for. Fiendishly difficult, this avant-garde literature!

The word ‘play’ which appears to give the piece its title appears in the Man’s monologue. He wonders how long it will take before the sorry tawdry tale of his adultery is old enough to seem just ‘play’:

M: I know now, all that was just … play. And all this? When will all this –
[Spot from M to w 1 . ]
W1: Is that it?
[Spot from w1 to w 2.]
W2: Mightn’t you?
[Spot from w 2 to M .]
M: All this, when will all this have been … just play?

There is something so consistent in Beckett’s addiction to inserting trivia into his texts. The references to Erskine remind me of the reference to Woburn in the previous play, there’s always the innocuous name of someone peripheral who, through repetition, is meant to gain significance. There is always a clutch of innocuous and banal details, in this case the references to the pair drinking tea. The man speculates:

Perhaps they meet, and sit, over a cup of that green tea they both so loved, without milk or sugar, not even a squeeze of lemon…

Although later M remarks:

Personally I always preferred Lipton’s.

Presumably the point is the utter trivia with which humans, with their god-given ‘intelligences’, waste their lives and minds on trash.

The Beckett Companion tells me the play was ‘inspired’, if that’s the right word, by an affair Beckett had with another woman, thus ‘betraying’ his long-time companion, resulting in ‘the inevitable guilt rising from the intense banalities of an emotional triangle’ (Beckett Companion, Faber, 2004, page 443). This also, apparently, accounts for the very ‘Home Counties’ feel of the content (Liptons tea) unlike the rural Irish content of most of his novels and plays.


The play actually takes about 7 minutes to perform, what makes it last 15 minutes is that the entire thing is repeated, but with slight decay. Very much like Waiting For Godot or Happy Days are in two parts, the second parts repeating the key elements of the first but significantly deteriorated. In the original London production the second half just repeated the first half in every detail. In the original Paris production the repeat was shorter, the speakers more breathless, the spotlights on them less strong. ‘Repetition with decay’.

The repetition and exactly how it should be performed are, of course, very precisely defined by Beckett in his production notes.

It’s worth quoting at such length to make the point – which becomes steadily more apparent as you read Beckett’s later works – that their stage directions often have more verve and precision, are more striking and vivid, than the supposed ‘content’ of the plays or works.

In some of the later works you get the sense that the content is cobbled together using a reliable set of techniques – the pauses, the rhetoric about darkness and the end, references to gloomy sex or love affairs, the mysterious individual whose name is repeated (Erskine), the tragi-bathetic reference to brands of tea or some other trivia, like the man’s memory of being in a rowing boat with one of the women, as banal and pathetic as Krapp’s much-repeated memory of lying in a field with his hand on his lover’s breast etc – while Beckett’s real imaginative energy went more and more into the envisioning and staging of the works, which he describes in ever-more obsessive precision.

Thus, in Play, you can’t help thinking the urns and the spotlight activating the speakers, are the key elements. What they actually say is of barely any significance.

This explains the lengthy arguments which accompanied the first productions in Paris, London and New York, where Beckett insisted to all the directors that the words be spoken at breakneck speed, so fast no audience could catch them or make sense of them. In all three cases directors and actors pushed back and wanted the words spoken slow enough to be understood by an audience. On the one hand Beckett may be making a point about dialogue and the theatre in general, an anti-humanistic, anti-theatre statement. On another interpretation, he may just have been embarrassed by the banality of the content and so devised a way of it being spoken too fast for anyone to understand.

Anyway, the speed at which actors say the words is no accident. Overall, the play was a phenomenal shock to polite, dressed-up theatre goers in the 1960s and amounts to a calculated assault on ideas of narrative, storyline, plot, closure, character or dialogue. Instead it presents images of dehumanisation and entropy. I hadn’t realised from reading or watching the play, but the Beckett Companion points out the characters are ‘post mortem’ i.e. dead, voices, phantoms, condemned to obsessively relive meaningless fragments of their meaningless lives in jagged snatches of accelerated monologue…

According to the Companion Play marks a turning point. Beckett, never anything like a traditional humanist playwright, from now on produced works of ever-great mechanisation which barely feature people at all, but body parts, fragments, gestures and actions isolated and abstracted and stylised. Words, what most of us think of as the content or purpose or meaning of a literary work or play, become increasingly merely the ‘dramatic ammunition’ (in Beckett’s phrase) for staged events which become more like living sculptures. Seen in this perspective, later Beckett is more like living sculptures to be viewed in an art gallery, than ‘plays’ with narrative arcs or anything like characters or dialogue.

If you stop trying to process them as plays, if you liberate your mind from those expectations – then you are freed to experience them as very interesting works of art, which happen to be in a theatre.

Betrayal or modernisation?

Given all this, the question inevitably arises of whether the Minghella production is a profound betrayal of Beckett’s original and hyper-precise envisioning of his work – or a stylish and very tech-savvy (all those funky quick cuts and jagged camera moves) updating of Beckett for the Instagram age.

This comes into focus at the end for the original Beckett vision obviously sees the play as literally consisting of just three urns on a stage. Never in his wildest dreams can he have imagined Minghella’s funking up of the whole thing to feature not only Hollywood A-list stars but the astonishing array of other urns, stretching off in all directions to create a landscape. You can see what he’s doing, placing the futile repetitive stories told by this tawdry little trio of middle class adulterers amid an entire world of exactly similar futile repetitive stories told by thousands and thousands of other humans, potentially the entire human race.

In this respect – fidelity to the original – this 1974 production by the New Music Choral Ensemble, UCSD, La Jolla directed by Kenneth Gaburo, may be terrible quality but gives a much better indication of what Beckett imagined and what his production notes demand.

In particular the way the voices don’t activate until they are hit by the spotlight, begin the instant they are lit, cease the second the spot cuts off them, makes the entire experience much more jagged and broken.

It’s harder to watch, infinitely less finished and Hollywood high tech than the Minghella production, but I think I prefer its lo-fi minimalism.

Related link

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 watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. nemo hove

     /  February 28, 2021

    Just on the Minghella or Kenneth Gaburo version part of your post – I entirely agree the latter is much better on a ‘good-for-the-soul’ ascetic way, but Minghella never-the-less does manage (I think) to create something wonderful and strange – admittedly something of a hatchet job in leaving out the first section (which if retained I assume he thought would “lose” some people from the start with its existential malaise fractured-abstractness (have I just created a new genre?!) and instead decided to plump for the faux-soap opera type line of a putative adulturous affair to engage the interest of people brought up in the MTV age. Anyway, thank you so much for your lucid ramblings! I really enjoy them!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: