Catastrophe by Samuel Beckett (1982)

Catastrophe is a very short play by Samuel Beckett, written in French in 1982 at the invitation of the Association Internationale de Défense des Artistes and first produced in the Avignon Festival on 21 July 1982.

Unlike most of Beckett’s plays or works, which are notably apolitical and even asocial in their studiedly abstract, experimental and often very solipsistic focus, Catastrophe is something like a political play, an impression Beckett fostered by dedicating it to the Czech playwright and political reformer, Václav Havel who was, at the time, imprisoned by the Czech communist regime.

That said, the play is still very late-Beckettian in at least three respects:

  1. It is really very short – the Beckett Project production clocks in at just five and a half minutes
  2. It is very claustrophobic, small and confined and, as so often, only has two speaking parts, in this instance a bossy theatre director and his assistant
  3. As mention of the characters suggests, it isn’t set in a prison or concentration camp or dictator’s courtroom or party meeting or hideout of rebels and freedom fighters or any other overtly political setting that the word ‘political’ implies –instead it is set in a theatre

Mise-en-scène

As so often, Beckett’s stage directions convey half the information or impact of the piece. As so often there are only 2 speaking roles. As so often they and the two non-speaking roles don’t even have names but are assigned only initials.

Director (D).
His female assistant (A).
Protagonist (P).
Luke, in charge of the lighting, offstage (L).

Rehearsal. Final touches to the last scene. Bare stage. A and L have just set the lighting. D has just arrived.
D in an armchair downstairs audience left. Fur coat. Fur toque to match. Age and physique unimportant.
A standing beside him. White overall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.
P midstage standing on a black block 18 inches high. Black wide-brimmed hat. Black dressing-gown to ankles. Barefoot. Head bowed. Hands in pockets. Age and physique unimportant.
D and A contemplate P.
Long pause.

It is, in its telegraphese, prosey way, a kind of poem.

The plot

We are in a theatre. A haughty director snaps and bosses around a female assistant as they put the finishing touches to some kind of ‘last scene’ of some kind of dramatic presentation. This appears to consist entirely of one man, called The Protagonist, standing stock still on a plinth on the stage while the director and assistant circle him considering his dress, posture and so on.

In this respect – two characters animatedly discussing a third who does not move or speak – it is identical to Rough For Theatre II where two characters, A and B, discuss the character and case of a third figure, C, who stands in the open window, unmoving and unspeaking.

The Assistant has arranged the Protagonist atop the 18-inch-high black block and draped him in a ‘black dressing gown’ down to his ankles and wearing a ‘black wide-brimmed hat’. The action of the play consists of the irritable, domineering Director over-riding her presentation and fussing about innumerable details of the Protagonist’s posture, his hands, the hat, his face, telling the assistant to take off the Protagonist’s coat and roll up the trousers of his old grey pyjamas.

His irritability is symbolised by the way his big Director’s cigar keeps going out and he keeps snapping at the Assistant to provide him a light.

When he has got the Assistant to largely strip the Protagonist, she points out that he is now shivering. The Director doesn’t care. Or worse, he pretends (to himself) to care, saying ‘Bless his heart,’ but not changing his behaviour at all. He’s only interested in achieving his great creative effect, and also mentions that he’s late for a meeting (which he refers to by the unusual term of a ‘caucus’).

Throughout, whenever the Director makes a more general suggestion, the Assistant replies with the unusual phrase ‘I make a note’, rather than ‘I will make a note’ or ‘I’ll take a note’ or make sure it’s done’ or any of a  number of possible phrases. No. ‘I make a note’ has a surprisingly large impact in making the dialogue, and consequently the entire setup, appear strangely brittle and unnatural.

When the Director withdraws to the stalls to get a proper view of his handiwork, the Assistant flops down in an empty theatre seat, but only for a moment. She springs right back up and wipes the seat vigorously, as if to avoid contamination, before reseating herself.

In the last minute they call on Luke, the lighting technician, who has two lines, though he doesn’t appear, and who obeys the Director’s imperious instructions about changing the light on the Protagonist in order to create the most dramatic possible tableau. It is at this point that the title of the piece appears. When Luke adjusts the lighting so it falls solely on the Protagonist’s face, the Director goes into raptures.

D: [Pause.] Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag. Once more and I’m off… Terrific! He’ll have them on their feet. I can hear it from here…

‘In the bag’. Good. And with that the Director is ready to whisk off to his ‘caucus’. But it’s in the last 30 seconds that the piece acquires its bite. For in these last seconds, the Protagonist, who has been standing stock still, with his head down, submitting to all these indignities, finally raises his head and looks the audience directly in the eye, and the audience, which has been acquiescing in this bullying and humiliation, is slowly shamed into silence.

P raises his bead, fixes the audience. The applause falters, dies. Long pause

Beckett, whose every utterance was, by this late stage of his life, taken down and recorded for the use of future scholars, apparently told American theatre critic Mel Gussow that:

‘it was not his intention to have the character make an appeal… He is a triumphant martyr rather than a sacrificial victim… and it is meant to cow onlookers into submission through the intensity of his gaze and stoicism.’

Interpretations

Aristotle

In Aristotle’s seminal work of literary criticism, the Poetics, the Greek philosopher defines the catastrophe of a play as the moment when the tragic hero pulls down ruin and pain on himself and his society, when Oedipus blinds himself, when Pentheus is torn to pieces by the Maenads. More broadly, it is:

the final resolution in a poem or narrative plot, which unravels the intrigue and brings the piece to a close. (Wikipedia)

Catastrophe is obviously nothing like Aeschylus or Sophocles. It is muted and boring, the only real interest being the character of the thuggish, bullying male director, a character who could have walked directly from the accusations of the #metoo movement.

And yet the word ‘catastrophe’ is deliberately uttered by the key character, and he appears to be using it in its correct technical sense.

D: [Pause.] Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag.

The Director is satisfied that this tableau, of the protagonist stripped down to his undergarments and lit just so will provide just the right climax to whatever drama has preceded it.

There is, then, a tremendous irony in the way the play then proceeds, in the final 30 seconds, to enact Beckett’s ‘catastrophe’, the one whereby the Protagonist lifts his face to confront the audience and cow them into silence and shame.

This catastrophe doesn’t bring tragic recognition and ruin in the classic sense, but it does transform the figure from utterly passive object, rudely talked about, to a man who is fighting back, defying his owners and manipulators.

Thus the concept of the ‘catastrophe’ is correctly used twice at the end of the play, but to highlight the fact that it contains two narratives – the play-within-a-play whereby the Director achieves his effect – and the wider play, the Beckett play which the audience is watching, which achieves its catastrophe in an entirely different way. Or is working to a completely different aesthetic. Or to a completely different set of moral values.

For such a short piece, it’s quite a dense and complex effect.

Politics

If it hadn’t been dedicated to Havel, a world-famous dissident and political reformer, it might not have been easy to see Catastrophe as a ‘political’ play at all. But in the event, Beckett was involved in several of the productions around the West and left some pretty explicit comments about his intentions in this regard. Most notably, in answer to a reviewer who claimed that the ending was ambiguous, Beckett replied angrily:

‘There’s no ambiguity there at all. He’s saying, you bastards, you haven’t finished me yet.’

So quite obviously Catastrophe is about a figure who is poked and prodded and reified or objectified and reduced to a wordless mannequin to suit the whims of the Director. But who at the last minute asserts his freedom and agency.

Whether you think this rather slender ‘plot’, and the fairly tame and super-familiar setting (a rehearsal for a play, or part thereof) is sturdy enough to bear the heavy freight of political symbolism which the play has been loaded with, is a judgement call. In the febrile world of the theatre and the glib world of literary criticism it can easily be made to pass for one.

The Beckett on Film production

The Beckett on Film project set out, at the turn of the century, to produce high quality, filmed productions of all 19 of Beckett’s plays. The producers approached leading directors and actors, but not always with happy results.

To direct Catastrophe they chose acclaimed American playwright and director David Mamet, cast playwright and Beckett enthusiast Harold Pinter to play the Director and, in a great coup, secured acclaimed Shakespearian actor Sir John Gielgud as the Protagonist. It was Gielgud’s last role and he died only a few weeks after filming it.

Which makes it all the more of a shame that Mamet seems to have made quite a balls-up of the piece. Mamet made his name as the author of a series of plays about hairy, testosterone-fuelled toxic American men such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), and American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988).

If you’re familiar with Mamet’s attraction to strong, unpleasant male characters, often depicted in exploitative relationships with younger women, it comes as no surprise that his production devotes all its attention to the domineering figure of the Director, played by a characteristically offensive, barkingly pukka, alpha male Harold Pinter, and his bullying relationship with the (very attractive) Assistant.

Re, this Assistant, it is notable that, whereas, in the stage directions the Assistant wears shapeless ‘White overall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.’ in Mamet’s production, she is a) very attractive b) wearing the smart and shapely outfit of a briskly willing secretary, as per the Hollywood BDSM movie, The Secretary.

All subtlety whatsoever is scorched away from the piece. It has been turned into Sexual Perversity in Theatreland.

It doesn’t help your sense that Beckett’s original intentions have been left far behind when you learn that the actress playing A, Rebecca Pidgeon, is a) American – which helps to explain what is subtly wrong about her posh English accent – and b) is, um, married to David Mamet. Aha. People talk, these days, about crony capitalism. Maybe there’s such a thing as crony thespianism.

All of which is getting on for tragic because of the criminal under-use of one of the greatest English actors of all time, Sir John Gielgud, who stands out of vision for almost the entire piece.

Now, you can understand why they keep his figure peripheral for the scripted part of the play – it is in order to raise the tension and expectation so that when the Big Reveal comes it will be all the more dramatic. Reasonable idea.

And yet, when the Big Reveal does come, the moment which the entire interpretation of the piece as a political play hangs on, the notion that his final facial expression conveys the Protagonist’s revolt and defiance and cows and shames the audience which has acquiesced in his humiliation into embarrassed silence – well, Mamet muffs it big time and makes Gielgud look exactly like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Instead of a look of defiance designed to shame the audience which has tamely acquiesced in his torment, Gielgud is made to look like a grinning goblin. It’s a travesty. A travesty of a mockery of a sham.

Mamet’s mangling of this subtle play is a good piece of evidence for the broader argument that Americans simply can’t understand European culture because they have never been invaded, overrun, defeated, cowed and crushing into submission, as almost the entire continent of Europe was from 1939 to 1945.

And then that, while half of Europe groaned under communist tyranny for decades after the Second World War, and their intellectuals agonised about communism and decolonisation, Americans were enjoying a bubblegum postwar boom, driving bigger and bigger cars, building bigger and bigger houses equipped with swimming pools and ever-more convenient domestic appliances, and ogling pneumatic pinup girls. Brainless consumerism.

So, in my opinion, Mamet completely misses what so many critics take to be the play’s central importance, namely the way the dominating Director functions as a symbol of the thoughtless, bullying authority which forms the basis of most repressive regimes.

But not only this, Mamet also completely omits the artistic subtlety of the piece – the Beckettian overtones, the weird, abstracted, formalised armature to be found in so many of Beckett’s plays, the oddities of language and phrasing (the way the Assistant says ‘I take a note’ and the Director keeps saying, ‘Come on. Say it’) the language oddly off kilter, which alert the viewer or reader that we are in a strange and unusual place, in Beckettland.

No, Mamet and Pinter conspire to make this piece all about cocky, swaggering masculinity, about a big swinging theatrical dick, so that the subtlety of language, the oddity of the action, and the ghosts of Europe’s history of oppression and struggle, are all utterly erased.

In the theatre

In several other reviews I’ve pointed out a basic fact of much of Beckett’s prose, which is that it can be seen as consisting of narrators who pose, position and direct other characters.

Take Ill Seen Ill Said which I’ve just reviewed. There is very little plot in the ordinary sense; what there is, is a narrator who is trying to arrange the disparate elements of the situation into some kind of order and, in doing so, he frequently stops to comment on his own efforts, wonders whether he should pose the old lady protagonist in this, that or the other position even, at one point, stops arranging the action altogether in order to wonder whether his approach is correct or valid.

In other words, in a lot of Beckett prose pieces the narrator behaves like a theatrical director, getting his characters to do things or say things over and over again, with multiple variations, as he struggles to achieve the desired effect (the desired effect often explicitly being described as ‘finishing’, completing the task, achieving the closure which, however, the texts forever hold out of reach of all concerned, both characters and author).

In this respect Catastrophe brings this situation up out of the shadows of the (often hard to read) prose pieces and makes it explicit.

1. It is one thing to read the play as a political allegory, with the Director as a heartless and ruthless brute treating people like objects to achieve a satisfying result, whether fascist, communist or any other way tyrannical…

2. But Catastrophe is obviously also a simple and straightforward account of what bastards theatrical directors can be, treating people like meat, forcing them to undergo humiliating actions, costumes and poses in order to achieve the desired effect.

3. And not very far behind that, is the even simpler interpretation, of what utter bastards writers can be – on the one hand, playing havoc with people in real life, exploiting their names and characters and lives and stories and mannerisms regardless of the consequences, in order to create the all-important ‘work of art’; and then subjecting their fictional characters to a vast array of humiliations, fiascos, tortures and death, in order to entertain and amuse their readers.

Writers of fiction like to tell themselves they are educating the nation and firing the imagination and liberating people’s minds and striking blows for freedom and justice and all the rest of the standard boilerplate. But when you compare this rhetoric with most of the works of fiction that are actually published in a year – the slushy romances, the thrillers and cop novels, and the vast number of fantasy, sword and sorcery novels in which endless legions are hacked, stabbed, burned and eviscerated to death, you realise what a weak and self-serving argument that is.

Being a writer of fiction is a profoundly morally compromised activity, and it is the way this realisation is one of the three or four layers of meaning packed into Catastrophe – much more than the supposed ‘political’ interpretation – which is what I take away from this incredibly short but amazingly dense and multi-levelled piece of drama.


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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