That Time by Samuel Beckett (1975)

A man is onstage standing high up and unnaturally still. Only his head is lit by a spotlight, a mature face with long flowing white hair. The audience hears a voice coming from somewhere, presumably his voice, although his lips don’t move, and after a minute or so the tone of the voice changes, then later for a third time, so that the audience slowly realises we are listening to three voices. Or are they three aspects of his own mind, specifically three trains or types of memory, gentle, wistful, and harsh (‘ah for God’s sake’) or from different periods of his life, young, mature and old man?

Stage directions

As usual, Beckett gives very precise stage directions in the script:

Curtain. Stage in darkness. Fade up to LISTENER’s FACE about 10 feet above stage level midstage off centre.
Old white face, long flaring white hair as if seen from above outspread
Voices A B C are his own coming to him from both sides and above. They modulate back and forth without any break in general flow except where silence indicated. See note.
Silence 7 seconds. LISTENER’s EYES are open. His breath audible, slow and regular.

And as to the NOTE mentioned, it says:

Moments of one and the same voice A B C relay one another without solution of continuity-apart from the two 10-second breaks. Yet the switch from one to another must be clearly faintly perceptible. If threefold source and context prove insufficient to produce this effect it should be assisted mechanically (e.g. threefold pitch).

Power of three

Three is, of course, a profoundly lucky number, three wishes, three bears, three billy goats gruff, a symbolic number, a theological number, the Trinity, and a very manageable number, a very practical number to arrange into any conversation or short play – witness the three heads in jars in Play or the three old women in Come and Go. Most of Beckett’s works can be sorted into solos, duos and trios. This combines two: a solo figure assailed by a trio of voices, which are all variations on his voice.

Beckett’s heads and the reflexive self

Visually, it is another Beckett head, disembodied, like the three heads activated by spotlights in Play or the jabbering woman’s head in Not I (where the head is positioned 8 feet above the stage, compared to the ten feet above stage level or That Time), or Winnie’s head sticking up out of the midden in part two of Happy Days.

Beckett’s obsession with heads can be simply explained because the head is the location of the human subject’s puzzlingly split consciousness, which is Beckett’s deepest, most enduring theme – the problem of being a self which observes the self observing the self thinking about the self, processing the things happening to the self now even as the self remembers events which happened to the self in the past – and so on and so on into an indefinitely recursive abyss of self-reflexive uncertainty, where first the sense of ‘self’ disintegrates into doubt and uncertainty, and then language itself begins to fall apart. That’s what happens in many of Beckett’s prose works.

After all, what is this ‘I’ that claims to be in control of the endlessly fissiparous mind? What a preposterous claim! How ridiculous! As one of the three voices puts it:

Did you ever say I to yourself in your life come on now? [Eyes close.] could you ever say I to yourself in your life?

We all say ‘I’ all the time, but none of us really knows what that means, once we start pondering what consciousness is, or appears to be, or how it thinks, or tries to think. Two and a half thousand years of philosophy and psychology have produced all manner of florid theories, but no-one really knows what the mind is or how it works.

Performance

That Time was specifically written for the actor Patrick Magee, who we have seen starring in productions of Krapp’s Last Tape and Cascando. Magee gave That Time‘s first performance, timed to mark Beckett’s seventieth birthday celebration, at the Royal Court Theatre on 20 May 1976.

Here’s the production made for the Beckett on Film project, with the Listener and the three Voices performed by Niall Buggy, directed by Charles Garrad.

Isolation

On a close reading you realise all three voices are describing scenes which, in their different ways, describe a life of self-induced isolation and retrospection. Solitude and isolation are what ooze out of the incantations. Alone alone alone.

alone in the same the same scenes making it up that way to keep it going keep it out on the stone [Eyes close.]
– alone on the end of the stone with the wheat and blue or the towpath alone on the towpath with the ghosts

The importance of memory, but even more of his isolation, is somehow rammed home by the insistent repetition of the title phrase ‘that time’:

  • that time you went back that last time to look…
  • that time in the Portrait Gallery in off the street out of the cold and rain…
  • that time curled up worm in slime…
  • muttering that time altogether on the stone in the sun or that time together on the towpath or that time together in the sand that time that time…
  • stock still like that time on the stone or that time in the sand…
  • that time in the Post Office all bustle Christmas bustle…
  • was that the time or was that another time…?
  • that time in the sand the glider passing over that time you went back soon after long after…
  • like that time on the stone the child on the stone where none ever came…
  • the Library that was another place another time that time you slipped in off the street out of the cold and rain…
  • that time in the end when you tried and couldn’t…

But that said (over and over again), the insistence and the implicit accusations… listening a bit more, I found the play slowly becoming, well, more nostalgic and comforting (if in a rather gritty way).

None of the three difference voices recall any horror, physical violence or abuse, nothing really disturbing. The first time I listened, I caught just random details – the protagonist remembering going into the portrait gallery, huddled in a doorstep, sitting together on a stone in the sunshine on the edge of a little wood with his sweetheart, hiding in some old ruins as a child, making up stories and voices when a child, by moonlight, on the towpath, on the sand ran away from home and everyone out looking for him…

Maybe it’s meant to be harrowing, and some bits are rather chilling, but overall I found the stories and the memories and the imagery (grittily) nostalgic. It sounds like your man had, in its way, quite a colourful life, a rather wonderful childhood in the country, exciting ruins, Foley’s Folly, woods and fields of wheat, a pretty girl with blue eyes, a night ferry, a portrait gallery. To a listener stuck inside during a COVID lockdown, it bespeaks a big wide wonderful world.

Structure

The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett, as is its wont, emphasises the structural aspects of the piece and the history of its careful assembling by Beckett. This has at least two obvious features. 1. The piece is divided into three parts of exactly five minutes each, the parts divided by the breaks consisting of ten seconds of silence when you can hear his breathing quite audibly. 2. More subtly, the three voices alternate in alternating patterns. In the first two parts, these are: ACB, ACB, ACB, CAB and CBA, CBA, CBA, BCA. So a triplet with the same order and a fourth trio in a different order. However, the third part has a consistent pattern all the way through, namely BAC, BAC, BAC, BAC, thus creating a subliminal sense of order and what the Companion calls ‘serenity’.

Does it? Is this very calculated structuring of the piece what creates, at an unconscious level, the sense of a lulling rhythm of memory and reminiscence which is strangely, incongruously, comforting? Almost like… a lullaby.

The final smile

The main character is, in accordance with Beckett’s anti-humanist requirements, unnamed. In fact he is referred to simply LISTENER, along the lines of OPENER, VOICE and MUSIC in Cascando or HE and SHE in Rough For Radio, or W1 and W2 in Play or READER and LISTENER in Ohio Impromptu (I wonder if someone’s done the simple exercise of totting up all the ‘characters’ in all Beckett’s plays and figuring out whether there are more unnamed than named ones).

For most of the performance the actor is required to stand quite still, his only action being opening or closing his eyes. The text is punctuated by three ten-second silences (much as the jabbering monologue of Not I is punctuated four times by abrupt pauses, when the mysterious ‘other figure’ raises and lowers its arms).

So far so schematic and familiar as the three voices punish, criticise and assail the stricken, immobile, silent figure, very much as the silent figure of Joe is harangued with all his past betrayals and adulteries by WOMAN’S VOICE in Eh Joe.

But there’s a big surprise at the end, when the play requires that the LISTENER, right at the very end of the 20-minute play, when all the voices have finished… breaks into a smile. Now, Beckett being Beckett, the author tries to disavow any sentimental or romantic interpretation by requiring that the smile should be ‘toothless for preference’. Still. It’s a smile.

And it’s not the first one, because after tormenting Joe for eighteen minutes or so in the play Eh Joe, right at the very bitter end of that play, after having his life and bad behaviour and betrayals thrown in his face as if under an intense interrogation, the voice eventually ceases and… Joe breaks into a big smile. So that’s two plays which end, very unexpectedly, with smiles.

Why? Why do both these plays showing a middle-aged man being assailed by bad memories or an external accuser, suddenly end with this enigmatic smile? The shortest answer is that it is a smile of relief, certainly in Joe’s case, because the nagging accusing woman’s voice has finally ceased punishing him, at least for this evening.

But maybe the smiles hint at something subtler, which is a sense of psychological closure. Nowadays we all know a lot more about therapy and counselling than people did 50 years ago, about the need to talk, to get it out, to express the hurt, to be listened to, and so on. And the notion that, eventually, by dint of this process, you achieve closure, a word which has become more and more common currency in recent decades.

So the smiles might be both: smiles of simple relief – and also smiles indicating the process of self-accusation is in some sense, in this dramatic representation, something approaching ‘over’.

That Time and Not I

So That Time has a pretty close resemblance to Eh Joe in that both consist of a wordless, speechless man being persecuted by bad memories from the past but who, in the plays’ dying moments breaks into a broad smile. But Beckett also highlighted links with another of his works, Not I. In a letter he described That Time as a ‘brother to Not I‘.

He wrote to George Reavey [in his characteristic clipped style]:

Have written a short piece (theatre): That Time. Not I family.

The fact that Beckett described That Time as ‘cut out of the same texture’ as Not I explains why he didn’t want them on the same theatre bill.

As you enter the final phase of Beckett’s career, the gathering linkages between the plays and prose, the recurring topics, setups, themes and images, build up to create a kind of meta-structure – a Beckett cathedral of correspondences and connections which ramify out in all directions, reinforcing and complexifying each other.

… after that never looked back after that was that the time or was that another time… or was that another time all that another time was there ever any other time but that time…


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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