Breath by Samuel Beckett (1969)

In 1969 Kenneth Tynan wrote to Beckett asking for a contribution to his hit stage revue, Oh! Calcutta!, which made headlines because of the extensive use of full-frontal nudity.

Beckett replied with the stage directions for what must be one of the shortest plays ever written. Some versions barely last a minute. Longer ones stretch it out to two minutes. Here are the directions:

Curtain.
1. Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold for about five seconds.
2. Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration and slow increase of light together reaching maximum together in about ten seconds. Silence and hold about five seconds.
3. Expiration and slow decrease of light together reaching minimum together (light as in 1.) in about ten seconds and immediately cry as before. Silence and hold for about five seconds.

Rubbish No verticals, all scattered and lying.
Cry Instant of recorded vagitus. Important that two cries be identical, switching on and off strictly synchronized light and breath.
Breath Amplified recording.
Maximum light Not bright. If 0 = dark and 10 = bright, light should move from about 3 to 6 and back.

That’s the full text in its entirety. In other words, the stage lighting comes up on a pile of rubbish for a few seconds, there is the distant sound of the cry of a newborn baby followed by a big breath in accompanied by the light growing, followed by a big breath out as the light fades, a repeat of the cry of a newborn baby, then fade to black.

There are quite a few versions on YouTube and one of the funny things about them, taken as a group, is how few of them adhere strictly to Beckett’s directions, but feel the need to add and elaborate and embroider the bleak simplicity of the original.

Absurdist joke

On one level it’s clearly a sort of joke, in the same sort of absurdist spirit as John Cage’s 4’33” or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal – a reduction of theatre to almost its minimal possible components in order to see what the bare bones look like, to see what the most reduced idea of a theatrical piece can be. And yet at the same time be a work which is interesting in its own right – just like John Cage’s 4’33” or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.

The unsustainability of a nihilistic attitude

At the same time it’s also a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the nihilistic attitude (I hesitate to use the word ‘philosophy’ because although Beckett likes to refer to canonical philosophers and difficult philosophical ideas in his works, he is not a philosopher and doesn’t propound a philosophy) expressed in the famous line from Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

In other words, we are born into a heap of rubbish, cry at our entrance, our entire existence can be summarised as a couple of breaths, and then there is the second cry of our death. Here’s another version, clearly inspired by Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi.

But as I remarked of that line in my review of Waiting For Godot, this nihilistic worldview is simply not true and everyone knows it’s not true. Lots of people live long, complex and fulfilling lives. People play computer games and chess, make discoveries, run theatres, write plays, go to art festivals and galleries and football matches, go scuba diving and skiing, build houses and cars, drive across America, join the army, join the navy, go to school, go to church, have children, grandchildren and quite a bit more.

It takes a special kind of imagination to see human life as simply a matter of two cries of pain and a handful of breaths set against a pile of rubbish, and a special kind of mindset to think this could possibly be true. It takes quite a bit of education to be quite this self-deluded.

Of course as a simplified allegory of human existence, as a symbol of a particular worldview, then fine. Paint what you like, draw what you like, write what you like. But as a depiction of the so-called ‘human condition’, it is profoundly untrue.

The unstoppable human instinct to tinker

And this is exactly the point driven home when you watch the half dozen or so short productions of Breath on YouTube – not one of them does it straight, just films Beckett’s simple directions; almost all of them feel compelled to add and embroider and elaborate in all kinds of ways, whether it’s bringing in the music of Philip Glass or a load of slides about the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Now there is where you have the real human spirit or experience – the endless urge to tell stories, tell anecdotes and jokes, harrow with horror, set to music, hum, sing, dance, plunge into grief, gossip about work colleagues, keep a diary, share instagram photos.

The multiplicity of productions which betray Beckett’s simple spartan and crystal clear stage directions, they’re the ones which tell you about ‘the human spirit’, the spirit which can’t stop itself adding, embroidering, inventing, yakking on, adding a new bit, what about some music, hey let’s project some slides, shall we add wheels, how about a flashing light on top and a siren. Humans: incorrigibly gabby.

In fact this betrayal of Beckett’s vision occurred right at the start, when the creator of Oh Calcutta, Kenneth Tynan, gratefully received Beckett’s contribution but thought, ‘Well, that’s a bit boring, let’s adapt it to suit the vibe of our bravely nude stage show’ and added a number of naked men and women to the production. As Beckett’s biographer, Deirdre Blair put it:

‘In one of his few displays of public anger, Beckett called Tynan a “liar” and a “cheat”, prompting Tynan to send a formal notice through his lawyers that he was not responsible for the travesty, which he claimed was due to others … Beckett decided the incident wasn’t worth the argument and dropped it.’

When you think about it it’s a delicious irony, because lovely naked young men and nubile young women, powerful symbols of fertility and sex and the Life Force are pretty much the exact opposite of the nihilistic and bleak ‘philosophy’ the piece supposedly exemplifies.

Drop it, Sam. Walk away. It’s just people, Sam, doing what they do, adding bells and whistles and go-faster stripes. I know you intended it as a searing indictment of the human condition, but the producer wanted boobs and bums.

Beckett as writer not ‘philosopher’

I am interested in Beckett, I am reading my way through his complete works, because I think he is an extraordinary writer – he conceives of language and the scenarios language can conjure and the tension between what can barely be called its ‘subject’ and the wrecked tatters of language it is conveyed in, with extraordinary originality. He repeatedly takes language to entirely new places, creating a kind of powerful and original dynamic interplay between form and content which is unparalleled.

But I don’t think his subject matter is true, good grief, what an idea. It is merely the subject matter he needs to create in order to develop the linguistic effects he is interested in. The white boxes which the narrative finds its protagonists stuck inside in the so-called ‘skullscapes’ or the people crawling through the mud in How It Is are objective correlatives or symbols or scenarios or setups which justify the extreme linguistic experimentation, the phenomenally strange and eerie way he handles the language.

The producers of the Beckett On Film project asked artist Damian Hirst to film it but even though part of an attempt to produce canonical versions, Hirst’s version simply omits the baby’s cry, the vagitus at beginning and end. It’s almost as if the text’s brevity and simplicity taunts producers to over-ride it.

The triumph of stage directions

And, quite obviously, this micro-drama also represents the triumph of stage directions over content. It’s easy to find critics and commentators lauding Beckett as among the greatest prose explorers of the 20th century, and I would whole-heartedly agree. But not so many people make the just-as-obvious point, that he was one of the greatest writers of stage directions.

All of the plays contain very, very detailed stage instructions specifying every aspect of the set, of props, what the characters are wearing, the kind of lighting, exactly how they move, how they speak or whisper or pause.

There’s the story of the hapless Americans who had the bright idea of staging Endgame but setting it in a disused New York subway station. Oops. It is comic and instructive to read the outraged response this prompted from Beckett himself, who tried to get the production stopped and, when that failed, got his lawyers to ensure that the following note was inserted into the programmes for the production:

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.
(quoted in the Wikipedia article)

What I’m driving at is that many of the later plays can be seen as the triumph of stage directions over prose content. Thus the short work Come And Go really consists of the tightly choreographed movements of the three women. The two Acts Without Words cease to have any dialogue at all, and are what they say on the tin, mimes. Similarly, Quad consists of the wordless movement of four humans dressed in shrouds through a complex series of positions on a stage set conceived as a mathematical quadrant, not really resembling anything we associate with the word ‘play’.

Even some of Beckett’s most famous works can be seen as the triumph of mise-en-scène over content. The only thing most people know or remember about Happy Days is that it’s about a woman trapped up to her waist in a mound of sand trying to look on the bright side of the situation.

Similarly, it’s not really necessary to understand any the text spoken in Not I to be dazzled by the beautiful simplicity of having the stage (or camera) focused entirely and only on a disconcerting close-up of the yammering mouth.

And Krapp’s Last Tape can be summed up as a knackered old man listening in anguish to tape recordings of his much younger, more confident self.

Prose there might have to be, language might be required, to make plays go, to allow a production to go ahead. I’m just suggesting that the stage setups and the fantastically detailed stage directions Beckett supplied to all his dramatic works is at least as, and sometimes maybe more, important than the supposed semantic content of the texts, their so-called ‘philosophy’ and so on. The setup and the actions are the play.

So, to repeat, a minute-long work in which we simply hear the cry of a newborn baby set against a rubbish dump, is brilliantly minimalistic, reduces Beckett’s so-called philosophy of life to one piercing image – but is also a kind of epitome of his theatrical practice.

The law of unintended adaptations

Last point. I suppose there is a cheeky connection between Beckett’s minimalism and the way so many of the interpreters on YouTube and elsewhere have felt free to embroider it. Maybe Beckett’s work survives and his reputation endures precisely because, contrary to his emphatic and repeated directions, the very minimalism, especially of the later plays, allows directors and producers a surprising amount of creative freedom.

More, as I hinted earlier, it’s almost as if the super-precise stage directions are tempting producers to ignore this or that aspect of them, and to improve on Beckett’s vision – to make it contemporary, make it diverse, bring it up to date, make it relevant to the age of social media, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and so on.

There’s some kind of perverse law of human nature at play, almost as if the more precise Beckett’s directions became, the more free later generations of producers have felt to bugger about with them,


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

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