Rockaby by Samuel Beckett (1981)

Rockaby is a short play which Samuel Beckett wrote at the request of Daniel Labeille from the State University of New York, for a festival and symposium arranged to celebrate Beckett’s 75th birthday.

In the printed text, one and a half pages of detailed description of the stage setup, the actor’s costume and position and so on are followed by eight pages of actual text, the words to be spoken. This is unusual for Beckett, in that it’s written in short unrhymed lines so the text looks more like a poem rather than prose. Less unusual is the fact that all but ten or so words are not spoken by the actor we seen onstage but are pre-recorded. So the majority of the play consists of listening to a tape recording of the actor’s voice, similar to the setup in That Time which features a single actor onstage who never in fact says anything, but listens to three different tape recordings of his own voice interweaving seamlessly.

As part of the Beckett on Film project, Rockaby was filmed in a production featuring Penelope Wilton as the Woman, directed by Richard Eyre. This version runs for 14 minutes, but I can’t find it anywhere online.

For the duration of this short performance, an old woman (‘prematurely old’) with unnaturally large eyes (heavily made up) sits rocking in a rocking chair, while we hear her pre-recorded voice reciting the short lines of the text. Her rocking and the recorded voice both start when the woman in the chair says ‘More’. After a few minutes the rocking and voice come to a stop, there’s a characteristically Beckettian pause and then the woman says ‘More’, and the voice and rocking start again.This pause and then rather harrowed request for ‘more’ occurs four times, punctuating the action, giving it a shape and rhythm.

It’s as if the Woman has to call the voice into action in order to restart her rocking, to give her motion, activity and, by implication, life.

The play premiered on April 8, 1981 at the State University of New York, starring Beckett’s favourite woman actor, Billie Whitelaw, directed by his longtime American associate, Alan Schneider. A documentary film, Rockaby, was directed by D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and recorded the rehearsal process and the first performance. This is the performance segment of that film. It is not great quality but it does feature the brilliant Billie Whitelaw and she was coached for the performance by Beckett himself, so it’s probably as close to being definitive as possible.

The impression is that only the Voice allows her to continue. The Voice keeps her rocking. The Voice keeps her going, ‘keeping going’ being the concern of most of Beckett’s characters ever since The Unnamable was published in 1953.

Repetition

And repetition, arguably Beckett’s central literary strategy. Key phrases and words are repeated numerous times to create an incantatory, spooky, ghostly power, like the witches at the start of Macbeth reciting in unison. It’s quite spectacularly brilliant and disturbing, isn’t it?

went down in the end
went down down
the steep stair
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
mother rocker
where mother rocked
all the years
all in black
best black
sat and rocked
rocked
till her end came

The text invokes confused identities, seems to indicate that the person going down the steep stair into the basement where the old rocker is, in doing so exchanges identities with the dead mother:

time she went right down
was her own other
own other living soul

So that the physical movement ‘down the steep stair’ appears to also be a psychological transition in which the woman upstairs metamorphoses into the mother in her rocking chair. The overlap of personalities or avatars or spirits comes into focus or crystallises at the three moments where the Woman onstage breaks her silence and speaks the short phrase ‘time she stopped’ in synchrony with the recorded Voice (a trick, incidentally, Beckett had used in …but the clouds… at the couple of moments when the phantom woman suddenly mouths the male speaker’s words in synchrony with him).

In the literary world, this theme of merging identities can be unravelled at some length because literature and literary criticism, particularly of a psychoanalytical persuasion, are obsessed with identity, the self and the ever-threatening ‘other’, the repressed or controlled elements of our psyche which are always threatening to break free.

But on a less highfalutin’ level, the theme of possession is a staple subject of horror novels and movies which routinely feature the innocent heroine venturing down to the spooky basement or the spooky attic to find themselves becoming possessed by a dead spirit – this is the very familiar and assimilable subject of countless horror movies.

Indeed, the image of the old woman dressed in black and gone quite mad and then dead, the image of a dead old woman in a chair, reminds me of Norman Bates’s mother dead in her basement chair in one of the most iconic horror movies of all time, Hitchcock’s, Psycho.

image

so in the end
close of a long day
went down
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
and rocked
rocked
saying to herself
no

Beckett and his mother

It adds quite a big new layer to your interpretation of the performance when you learn that in his 20s, Beckett underwent extensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic in London (over 1,500 sessions spread over two years with the pioneering psycho-analyst Wilfred Bion) in order to bring his panic attacks, night sweats and heart arrhythmia under control. In his massive biography of Beckett, James Knowlson explains that the core of Beckett’s psychological problems, and the cause of his psychosomatic symptoms, was established as his unusually intense love-hate relationship with his mother:

The key to understanding Beckett, said Dr Geoffrey Thompson – who, with Wilfred Bion himself, was the one most likely to know – was to be found in his relationship with his mother. And reductive analysis must have focused on the intensity of his mother’s attachment to him and his powerful love-hate bond with her.
(Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson, page 178)

Mother and son problems, OK. And yet in this and the very similar play, Footfalls, written a few years earlier (1976) it is not a man who struggles with the memory of his mother, but a woman who struggles with the memory of hers. It is a woman in these plays, a woman’s voice, a woman’s psyche, which is dominated and (maybe) taken over by the very old or dead mother, the dead mother whose personality lives on in the daughter, which appears to fight for ownership of the daughter’s mind.

so in the end
close of a long day
went down in the end
went down down
the steep stair
let down the blind and down
right down
into the old rocker
mother rocker
where mother rocked
all the years
all in black
best black
sat and rocked
rocked
till her end came

So you can, if you wish, bring aspect of Beckett’s personal life to the play; or you can dwell on the countless writings about identity and ‘the other’ produced by critical theorists throughout the 20th century (Freud, Lacan, Derrida) and investigate the impossibility of the self, and the multiple conflicts which not only rive the mind, but fissiparate language itself, a tiny glimpse of which is given in the ‘confusion’ or closeness of the words mother and other in the recitative format of the play.

But there is also the simple aspect of the theatrical performance to consider. Just to sit and listen and watch, to let yourself be drawn slowly further and deeper in to an uncanny zone by the actor’s deliberately flat, repetitive, incantatory voice (Beckett was forever instructing all his actor’s to drain all colour and expression from his words, to speak like robots), is to have an almost out-of-body experience.

Watch it with all the lights in the room turned off, close your eyes and drift with the words, and accompany the text on that slow descent into the basement and to sit in the rocking chair of the dead mother. It is a genuinely creepy experience. You rarely find critics categorising Beckett as a writer of ghost stories, of horror stories, but I think they should.


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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