Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 1

This is a brilliant literary biography, combining extraordinarily thorough research with discretion and sensitivity about Beckett’s private life, and a sure touch when it comes to analysing Beckett’s surprisingly numerous works. Everything a Beckett fan could ever want to know is covered, thoroughly and intelligently.

How James Knowlson came to write Samuel Beckett’s biography

James Knowlson (born in 1933) is Emeritus Professor of French and founder of the International Beckett Foundation at the University of Reading. He got to know Beckett after organising an academic conference to celebrate the fact that Beckett had won the Nobel Prize (1969) and founding the Beckett Archive at Reading, corresponding by letter and meeting him several times a year. As early as 1972 a publisher suggested he write a biography but when he broached the idea, Beckett said no.

But some 17 years later, the famous author changed his mind. He had realised that someone was going to write a biography come what may and that, on balance, he’d prefer it to be someone who knew and respected the actual works. He knew from their professional correspondence that Knowlson was very knowledgeable about his oeuvre and the result was that Beckett not only agreed to let Knowlson write the authorised biography, but agreed to give him a series of exclusive interviews and answer all the questions he posed.

Thus, over the last five months of his life, till Beckett’s death in December 1989, the two men had a series of long, in-depth interviews and Knowlson quotes from them liberally i.e. this book benefits hugely from Beckett’s own words and views about numerous aspects of his life and career. That is a masterstroke in the book’s favour.

But Knowlson went quite a lot further further and has spoken or corresponded with an extraordinary number of people, conducting over one hundred interviews with Beckett’s immediate family and close friends to a huge range of people he met in his professional life as a prose writer, playwright and director. The acknowledgements section lists them all and runs to six pages densely packed with names. The range is awesome and Kowlson’s stamina in meeting and corresponding with so many people, and then organising the resulting plethora of information into a coherent and fascinating narrative is awesome.

Samuel Beckett’s family and upbringing

Beckett’s family was comfortably upper-middle-class. His father, William, was a surveyor and made enough money to buy an acre of land in the rising suburb of Foxrock, south of Dublin, and build a big house on it which he named Cooldrinagh (after his wife’s family home), complete with servants’ quarters and tennis court.

The house was in sight of the Dublin hills which his father loved to go climbing and also of the sea, where the boy Beckett learned to swim and then dive into the locally famous pool named Forty-Foot at Sandycove. Not far away was the Leopardstown race track which features in various works, notably the radio play All That Fall.

Beckett’s parents were very different. His father, ‘Bill’ Beckett, was loud and sociable and not at all intellectual. He liked playing golf and going for long walks up into the Dublin hills. His mother, Amy, was tall and stern with a long face. Beckett inherited her looks and personality. The family was Protestant, the mother, in particular, being a devout church-goer.

Beckett had a brother, Frank, three years older, and a bevy of uncles and aunts who, with their own children, created a large, intelligent, well-off and cultured extended family. Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906, in later life he enjoyed the symbolism of having been born on Good Friday.

As a boy Beckett was sent to a small, eccentric preparatory school, Earlsfort House then, from age 13, on to an established public school, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (1919 to 1923) which, like most of its type, placed a big emphasis on sports and super-high standards of honesty, integrity and politeness. Everyone who ever met him later in life commented on Beckett’s immaculate manners and considerateness.

Beckett was very sporty

Beckett was a very sporty young man. At school he won medals for swimming and cross-country running, and was a very proficient boxer, becoming the school’s light heavyweight boxing champion. He was a keen golfer, joining his father’s club, Carrickmines Golf Club, playing for whole days at a stretch, and, when he went on to Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), representing the college at golf. He also played cricket for the college, and was included in the Dublin University team which went on a tour of English country clubs in 1926 and 1927. Hence the well-known fact that Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner who is also in the cricketing ‘Bible’, Wisden.

Beckett’s extended family was very musical and Beckett played the piano very well, well enough to know piano renditions of most of Gilbert and Sullivan when a boy, and to be able to play Debussy at university. When he was down in the dumps as a young man a friend hired a piano for his rooms to cheer him up.

Beckett’s parents bought him a motorbike in his final year at school, and then a two-seater ‘Swift’ sports car at college. As a student he was affluent enough to be able to pick holiday destinations, so one year went on a tour of the Loire Valley visiting the birthplaces of notable French writers, and, in his final college vacation, went to visit Florence where he looked up the sister of his Italian tutor at TCD.

Private school, piano lessons in a music-loving family, membership of sports clubs, top university in Ireland, motorbike, sports car, cultural trips abroad. Beckett had what we would nowadays think of as a very privileged upbringing.

Influences at Trinity College, Dublin

Beckett attended Trinity College Dublin from 1923 to 1927 where he studied Modern Literature. Here he came under the wing of the Professor of Romance Languages, Thomas Browne Rudmore-Browne, a brash, aggressively freethinking, womanising intellectual who taught him the English classics and introduced Beckett to a wide range of French poets, classic and contemporary. ‘Ruddy’ as he was nicknamed, is caricatured as ‘the Polar Bear’ in Beckett’s early short story collection, More Pricks Than Kicks.

Beckett’s second formative influence was:

small, plump, middle-aged, Italian tutor named Bianca Esposito, who gave him detailed private lessons in Italian language and literature, who ignited his lifelong love for Dante and features in Pricks’ opening story, Dante and the Lobster.

Nearly 50 years later, Beckett still carried round the student copy of Dante Bianca gave him, packed with his notes and annotations.

Beckett was solitary and aloof

Despite all this physical prowess, and his height and his piercing blue eyes, Beckett was a shy boy, at prep and boarding school and at college. He often withdrew right into himself and, when forced to attend social occasions, did so without saying a word. Tall, clever and charismatic, young Beckett sometimes felt contempt for those less able than him, which he then felt guilty about, redirecting the loathing inwards at himself, creating a downward spiral of negative emotions.

In other words, despite all the privileges of his upbringing, his loving extended family, loads of material advantages, encouragement in sports and the best education money could buy, Beckett developed into a hyper-shy, extremely self-conscious young man, plagued by narcissism, solipsism and self-obsession. Here are just some of the phrases Knowlson uses about him at this period:

  • Beckett, the least gregarious of people (88)
  • Beckett was diffident and solitary (90)
  • Beckett’s cocoon of shyness and silence (90)
  • retiring and inhibited (92)
  • shy, retiring nature (95)
  • he would lapse into deep, uncomfortable silences (95)

The problem of pain

Like many a privileged young man, the discovery of the misery of the poor in his student years had a devastating effect on Beckett, and combined with intellectual doubts to undermine his Christian faith – something which went on to become a bone of contention with his pious mother.

A long time ago I was paid to do the research for a documentary series about the conflict between faith and atheism, a series which set out to define the arguments and counter-arguments across the full range of human history, culture, philosophy, psychology and so on. What emerged, at least in my opinion, was that beneath the thousand and one arguments of believers and atheists, both intellectual positions have One Big Fundamental Weak Spot:

The chief intellectual difficulty for thinking Christians is The Problem of Pain i.e. the very old conundrum that if God is all-powerful and all-loving why does he allow children to die in screaming agony? There is no answer to this, though thousands of theologians have come up with clever workarounds e.g. he is all-loving but is, for some reason, not quite all-powerful; or he is all-powerful but is not what we think of as all-loving because he is working to a plan which is beyond our understanding and presumptuous to try.

Thus Beckett was being very traditional, almost trite, in losing his faith once he came to appreciate the pain and misery in the world around him which his privileged upbringing had hitherto sheltered him from. In a way, most of his writing career went on to focus on this theologically-flavoured issue. (Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Beckett’s central subject is not the Problem of Pain so much as the Problem of Physical and Mental Decay).

The biggest weak point in the Atheist position – the mirror image of what the Problem of Pain is for Christians – is The Problem of Consciousness: If we humans are the result of millions of generations of evolution by natural selection, descended from the first amoeba, and if we are the result of the purely mechanistic and amoral struggle for survival, how come we have such complex and delightful feelings and sense impressions, can be transported by the sight of a sunset or the fragrance of a flower? How come we have such a highly developed moral sense that can lead us to spend days debating the rights and wrongs of various actions, feeling such an acute sense of guilt, wasting so much time in complicated rumination? Surely we should just do whatever benefits us or the tribe without a moment’s thought. None of those attributes seem particularly useful for a creature which has come about via the blunt and violent process of evolution.

Maybe we can see this as another of Beckett’s central themes, or the other wing of his interests: the problem of consciousness, which in his prose works in particular, but also in most of the plays, is deeply compromised, broken, fragmented, in some cases, apparently, posthumous (in Play, for example).

Paris

(pp.107+). Beckett graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1927 with a BA degree. Patrons and supporters at the college wangled him the position of lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris from November 1928 to 1930.

Paris came as a massive cultural and personal liberation. Throughout school and university Beckett had been strictly teetotal and sexually puritanical but in Paris he learned to drink, both beer and wine, becoming particularly partial to white wine. From now on there are numerous stories of Beckett getting completely trashed, passing out, being found under the table or passed out in alleyways, and so on.

Regarding sex, Knowlson gives detailed accounts of Beckett’s love affairs as a teenager and young man which were strongly shaped by his strict Protestant upbringing and the ferocious emphasis on ‘purity’ at his public school. As a result he was screwed up about sex in a predictably traditional way and Knowlson quotes from diaries, journals and early stories to show how he had the classic difficulty of reconciling the women he respected and placed on a pedestal with the ‘dirty’ shenanigans he got up to with hookers in Paris brothels, sex and love. (pp. 108, 139).

(Later, in the mid-1930s, when he was living a solitary existence in London during his two years of intensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic, Knowlson claims Beckett availed himself of London prostitutes on a regular basis.)

James Joyce

The post Beckett took up at the Ecole Normale Superieure had been occupied by another Irishman, Tom MacGreevey, who stayed on in the city he loved, and acted as guide and mentor to young Sam. MacGreevey had developed high-powered literary contacts and, among others, introduced him to James Joyce and his circle, his wife and grown-up son and daughter, his publishers and magazine editors and so on. It was a golden opportunity, an entrée into a whole new world.

Joyce was widely acknowledged to be the most important avant-garde writer in Europe. Beckett was a star-struck 23-year-old graduate. Sam quickly became one of the great man’s secretaries, tasked with finding Joyce books, reading them out loud or providing written summaries, as well as taking dictation and other chores. The master and the ephebe went for long walks along the Seine (Joyce’s flat was only 100 yards from the river).

Beckett was still so utterly shy that he hadn’t the small-talk to spend with Joyce’s wife, Nora, who, partly as a result, took against him. Whereas Joyce’s nubile and impulsive daughter Lucia, just a year younger than Beckett, became infatuated with the tall, aloof, blue-eyed sportsman, sitting near him at dinner, making eyes at him, inveigling him to take her for walks.

Countless articles have been written about the impact of Joyce on Beckett but the central, much-repeated point is that in the end, Joyce’s example helped set Beckett on a track diametrically opposite to the great man’s. Both men not only spoke the major European languages (English, French, Italian, German) and were deeply familiar with the respective canons of literature of each of these countries, but were impatient with the realist or Naturalist worldview they’d inherited from turn of the century literature – were committed to going beyond the realist worldview.

But whereas Joyce’s technique was accumulative, each sentence attracting to it multiple references and variations in other languages, breaking down English words and (by the 1930s) creating in their stead the entirely new polyglot language in which he wrote Finnegans Wake – Beckett found he could follow Joyce only so far. Indeed he did so in the short stories and novels of the 1930s, which are characterised by deliberately arcane syntax, literary references, the liberal sprinkling of obscure or foreign words, and an attitude which is deliberately contrived and non-naturalistic.

But Beckett lacked the musicality, the sensual feel for language, the world-embracing sympathy and the sheer joy of life which pours from Joyce’s pages. Beckett was by his nature much more tightly wrapped, intellectually costive, temperamentally depressive, repressed by his stern Protestant upbringing.

Compare and contrast the lovely swimming sensuality of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which ends Ulysses with any description Beckett ever wrote anywhere of sensuality and sex. Molly is sweet and sensual and world-accepting; Beckett writes about sex a lot, but it is nearly always shameful masturbating (Malone Dies), callous sucking-off (Mercier and Camier), the disgusting rutting described in the four post-war short stories, the horrible homosexual abuse in How it is and so on. Sex in Beckett is never any fun at all.

Joyce is open to all the world, his books are overflowing with characters, incidents and brimming over with the joy of language. Beckett is locked away in one small, grey room, lying in the darkness, listening to the voices in his head punishing him with guilt and remorse, obsessively paring away language till it is reduced to blunt telegraphese, laced with one or two obsessively repeated key phrases.

Beckett’s women

One of the most boring things about biographies is the attention they are forced to pay to their subjects’ love lives. Here, as everywhere else, Knowlson does a very good, thorough job, providing all the facts without judgement or salacity.

Peggy Sinclair (1911 to 1933)

Beckett fell madly in love with his cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, known as ‘Peggy’, daughter of William ‘Boss’ Sinclair who had married Sam’s aunt, Frances Beckett, generally known as ‘Cissie’. I’m not much interested in classic ups and downs of the actual ‘love affair’, the interesting thing was the way her parents moved from Dublin to Kassel in north Germany, and sent Peggy to school in Austria, so that his visits to see her accustomed Beckett to travelling all over the continent and speaking the local languages. He visited the Sinclair household in Kassel a number of times between 1928 and 1932.

Peggy was the inspiration behind the character of Smeraldina in Beckett’s first, unpublished novel, A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. Eventually the love affair burnt out, and when he visited the Sinclairs in the early 1930s, it was to be distressed by their mounting business problems and by Peggy’s deteriorating health. He was devastated when Peggy, by that stage engaged to another man, died of tuberculosis in May 1933 (page 168).

Lucia Joyce (1907 to 1982)

James Joyce’s daughter, unsmiling, squint-eyed Lucia Joyce, became infatuated with the tall, handsome Samuel and, to please his father, Sam obligingly took her for walks or out to dinner, but he was still in love with Peggy Sinclair and not in the market for affairs. Things came to a head when Lucia threw a fit, denouncing Beckett to her parents and claiming he had cruelly led her on. Egged on by Nora, Joyce cut his links with Beckett, refusing to see him again. Sam was distraught. It was only as the 1930s progress that it became increasingly obvious that Lucia was suffering from severe mental illness, and ended up being placed in a series of sanatoria. A couple of years later, the pair were quietly reconciled and when Beckett moved to Paris permanently in 1935, started to see a lot of each other again.

Ethna MacCarthy (1903 to 1954)

MacCarthy was arguably Beckett’s first mature love. She was a poet, short story writer and playwright who went on to carve a career as a paediatrician. Their love is very tenderly and respectfully traced.

These three women are singled out not least because Beckett’s first attempt at a full-length fiction was a novel about a young Irishman whose life is dominated by… three women! The novel eventually became titled A Dream of Fair To Middling Women (a typically learnèd reference to both Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Legend of Good Women and Alfred Tennyson’s long poem A Dream of Fair Women).

The Dream which is structured around a central protagonist (named, with characteristic over-learnedness, Belacqua Shuah, Belacqua being the name of a minor character noted for his lazy self-absorption in Dante’s Divine Comedy) and his relations with the three women, being Smeraldina, Syra-Cusa and the Alba. Much scholarly ink has been spilt arguing about which ‘real life’ women ‘inspired’ each character. Knowlson takes them to be based on Peggy, Lucia and Ethna, respectively.

After a year or so of trying to get the Dream published in the mid-1930s, and having it continually rejected, Beckett gave up and slowly came to regret having satirised his close friends and family so closely. In the end he actively suppressed the novel and it wasn’t published until 1992, three years after his death.

Writing

When he was introduced to Joyce, he not only met his family, but the network of book publishers and magazine editors connected with him. As an obviously highly intelligent, highly literate young man, Beckett found himself presented with opportunities to publish books, stories and articles which most aspiring authors can only dream of.

In 1929 he wrote his first short story, the 3-and-a-half-page Assumption which was immediately published in the leading avant-garde magazine, transition. Then a 100-line poem, Whoroscope, knocked off in a few hours in order to win the £10 prize for a poetry competition sponsored by literary entrepreneur and anthologist Nancy Cunard and published in July 1930.

A senior editor at Chatto and Windus suggested to Beckett that he write a detailed study of Proust for a series of literary introductions they were publishing. This Beckett did, extensively researching by rereading Proust, and the study was published in March 1931. Once he had bedded in with the Joyce circle he was commissioned to write a translation of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake into French. In other words Beckett was, by 1930, very well-connected with the leading avant-garde writer in Europe, his circle and supporters and publishers.

But, despite all these advantages, Beckett failed to find a published for A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. It went the rounds of numerous publishers, both mainstream and avant-garde for two years before Beckett gave up trying, and the trickle of odd, eccentric short stories he was writing fared no better.

In 1932 the teaching post at Ecole Normale Superieure terminated, and Beckett was forced to pack his bags and return to Ireland where he was extremely lucky to be offered a prestigious teaching post at Trinity Dublin, a very sought-after position, supported by Ruddy and other patrons and supporters.

Unfortunately, Beckett hated it and discovered he was awful at teaching. Miserable, that winter he fled to ‘Boss’ and Cissie Sinclair in Kassel in northern Germany, from where he wrote a letter of resignation which dismayed his sponsors and upset his parents.

Breakdown and psychotherapy

Having chucked in his prestigious job at Trinity, completely failed to get any of his writings published, and been forced to move back in with his parents in 1933, Beckett was deeply traumatised when his father, apparently still in the prime of life in his 60s, died of a massive heart attack, on 26 June 1933.

His father’s death exposed Beckett more than ever to the cloying, critical over-attention of his mother and Beckett suffered a series of increasingly serious physical symptoms, starting with a cyst on his neck, moving to heart palpitations, night sweats and panic attacks, which on several occasions brought him to a complete dead stop, in the street, paralysed with terror, and unable to move a muscle.

Beckett consulted a good friend of his from school, a nerve specialist, Geoffrey Thompson, who was planning to move to London and recommended Beckett to come with him and try psychotherapy at the relatively new Tavistock Clinic. So in January 1934 Beckett himself moved to digs in London and began his treatment with the pioneering psychotherapist Wilfred Bion. Bion was, Knowlson informs us, himself quite a strapping, hearty, sporty chap, while also being formidably well-educated at private school. So he and Beckett bonded on a social and personal level, quite apart from the treatment.

According to Knowlson, Beckett had psychotherapy with Bion for two years, at the rate of three times a week, which equals well over 2,000 sessions, during which Beckett explored his childhood, his formative influences, and came to realise the role his love-hate relationship with his mother played in cramping his life. He came to realise that, for his entire life to date, he had created an ivory tower founded on what he felt was his physical and intellectual superiority to all around him, becoming known for his aloofness and/or shyness, what Knowlson calls an:

attitude of superiority and an isolation from others that resulted from a morbid, obsessive immersion in self (page 180)

Beckett had to learn:

to counter his self-immersion by coming out of himself more in his daily life and taking a livelier interest in others (page 181)

But more than this, Knowlson claims that Bion showed him that he could mine many of these deeply personal compulsions and tendencies to create texts.

By externalising some of the impulses of the psyche in his work – the feelings of frustration and repressed violence for example – he would find it easier to counter the self-absorption that had seemed morbid and destructive in his private life. The writing thus became essential to his later mental and physical wellbeing.
(page 181)

Over 2,000 times Beckett lay on his back in a darkened room, closing his eyes, focusing on the moment, in order to let deeply buried memories bubble up from his unconscious, struggling to express them, struggling to understand their significance – while all the while another part of his mind observed the process with analytical detachment, critiquing the shape and pose of the figures in the memories, considering the words they spoke, assessing how the scene could be improved, the dialogue sharpened up, the dramatic core reached more quickly and effectively.

This is more or less the plot of Beckett’s late novella Company and clearly the basis of the so-called ‘closed room’ and skullscape’ fictions of the 1960s. You can also see how it forms the basis of the breakthrough novels Beckett wrote immediately after the war in French, Malone Dies and The Unnameable, texts of overweening, unprecedented self-absorption and self scrutiny. As late as his last published prose piece, Stirrings Still, Beckett is obsessed with a figure who regards himself as an ‘other’, sees himself rise and leave the room, although is other ‘self’ remains seated.

Reading Knowlson’s fascinating account of Beckett’s psychotherapy makes you realise the ‘essential’ Beckett was there all the time, lying dormant. First, though:

  1. he had to spend a decade, the 1930s, getting out of his system the immature wish to clutter his texts with smartarse quotes, foreign phrases, and mock-scholarly humour in the tradition of Rabelais and Sterne and Joyce, and then
  2. his experiences during the Second World War had to sear away any residues of Romantic optimism and even the last vestiges of late Victorian naturalism

for him to emerge in the immediate post-war period as the stripped-down, minimalist, and bleakly nihilistic writer who would go on to become one of the pillars of post-war literature.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

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

What Where by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Time passes.
That is all.
Make sense who may.

What Where is Samuel Beckett’s last play. Like many of his later works it was written for a commission, in this case for the 1983 Autumn Festival in Graz, Austria. Beckett wrote it between February and March 1983, initially in French as Quoi où, then translated it into English himself.

Setup

As you might expect What Where is a very minimal work, although quite a bit fuller than its predecessor, Nacht und Träume. In that play there was no dialogue at all and no named characters, so What Where feels positively packed by comparison, with no fewer than five characters, namely:

BAM
BEM
BIM
BOM
VOICE OF BAM (V)

Beckett gives relatively short and simple stage directions:

Players as alike as possible.
Same long grey gown.
Same long grey hair.
V in the shape of a small megaphone at head level

It is set in a confined ‘Playing Area’, for which Beckett, in his original script, characteristically provided a floorplan marked very precisely to indicate the location of the four actors, or the positions they entered, stood at, and exited from.

Note the way the Voice of Bam (V) is different from the actual physical person, Bam, and that the Voice emanates from a megaphone, carefully and distinctly placed apart from the main ‘Playing Area’. As we work through the different versions and interpretations of the play, the ‘apartness’ of this voice will take on larger and larger significance.

TV production

Though conceived and premiered in the theatre in 1983, in 1985 Beckett supervised a made-for-TV adaptation for the German Süddeutscher Rundfunk, assisted by Walter D. Asmus. The producers claim:

This new production of What Where also represents a significant technical updating of the original version with new production techniques adding subtleties and dimensions to the work that were not achievable with the technology that was available when What Where was first adapted for the screen.

In this version the whitened faces of the characters simply appear and disappear with no physical movement whatsoever, either by them or the camera, which remains rigidly in place. Compare this with Beckett’s script which describes both a definite, visible place, and the movements of the characters between very specified locations within it (the letters in the following refer to specific locations in Beckett’s set diagram).

[BOM enters at N, halts at 1 head bowed.
Pause.
BIM enters at E, halts at 2 head haught.
Pause.
BIM exits at E followed by BOM.
Pause.
BIM enters at E, halts at 2 head bowed.
Pause.
BEM enters at N, halts at 1 head haught.
Pause.
BEM exits at N followed by BIM.
Pause.
BEM enters at N, halts at 1 head bowed.
Pause.
BAM exits at W followed by BEM.
Pause.
BAM enters at W, halts at 3 head bowed.
Pause]

This sequence at the start has come to be called the ‘opening mime’ of the play. For the German TV version Beckett cut it altogether.

Plot

The four men are all dressed in identical grey gowns with the same long grey hair, similar to the long white hair of the protagonists in Ohio Impromptu and That Time.

The names are incongruously silly, nonsense names – Bam, Bem, Bim, Bom. The opening voice says there are five of them, suggesting one for each of the five vowels in which case the fifth member would be Bum. As my little boy would put it, ‘Daddy, you said a rude world’.

In fact Bim and Bom were the names of real historical personages, two Russian clowns from the 1920s and 30s who were allowed to travel abroad. Beckett saw them perform in Paris and their names or variations on them crop up throughout his works, in the collection of short stories More Pricks Than Kicks in the novel Murphy (along with Bum), in draft passages deleted from Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Bom and Bem appear in the long gruelling ‘novel’ How It Is before making their final appearance in this, Beckett’s final play.

The silly names contrast with the intense seriousness of the content. This can be divided into two aspects.

First there is the mystery of presence and absence, by which I mean the way the oracular opening voice calls into being the other characters, in a solemn stately, incantatory way, intones solemnly about time passing, calls the other three to him and disapproves (‘No good’) then approves (‘Good’) of their entrance and disposition.

But the second element is quite different. In this, Bam and Bom dialogue on a much more specific topic, namely the violent interrogation of a third, absent, person. By contrast with some other Beckett plays where characters speak at great length, the dialogue in What Where is very clipped, consisting of one short sentence each, like a call and response, making it harsh and brief, almost itself like an interrogation between a menacing interlocutor and someone almost visibly shaking with fear.

BAM: He didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.
BAM: You gave him the works?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: And he didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.
BAM: He wept?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Screamed?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Begged for mercy?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: But didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.

Screamed?. So the topic would appear to be torture. This links What Where back to Rough For Radio II, written back in 1961, in which a man is interrogating a prisoner tied to a chair with the help of a stenographer who reads out the previous day’s proceedings and an actual torturer who is periodically ordered to whip the prisoner, who as a result screams. Hmm. Torture. A surprisingly lurid and violent theme not usually identified with Beckett, whose plays rarely feature action of any kind.

And indeed, in this work, the animation of Rough For Radio II – the way we hear the victim actually being whipped and actually screaming – has been muted until it simply consists of Bom and Bem and Bim reporting on the supposed torture of the third party, who is tortured in each instance until he passes out.

What slowly becomes clear is that the person being tortured is one of them, that each of them are tortured, in turn. Each of the Bems presents themselves to Bam, who asks whether they got the desired results and, when they claim their victim passed out, Bam refuses to believe them, accuses them of being a liar, and summons the next in the sequence of Bems and Bims, orders them to take away their predecessor and give them ‘the works’.

Thus, one by one, three others is ordered to be taken away by one of the others to torture his predecessor; when he returns, having failed to get results, he himself is carted off and tortured until he confesses. But confesses to what?

BEM: What must I confess?
BAM: That he said where to you.
BEM: Is that all?
BAM: And where.
BEM: Is that all?
BAM: Yes.

In fact the thing each torturer is instructed to extract from his victim changes: First it is spring and the Voice of Bam tells Bim that he only wants to know ‘That he said it to him’. Then it is summer and the Voice of Bam orders Bim to take away Bem and to ascertain that ‘he said where to you’. Then it is autumn and Bem returns to report he has been unable to extract ‘where’ from Bim, whereupon Bam accuses Bim of lying and threatens him with ‘the works’. Since there is no one left to carry out this threat, Bam himself escorts Bem away.

That he said it, that he said where – Are these absurdly unspecific and apparently inconsequential concerns meant to highlight the absurdity of torture as a practice?

It is a notable aspect of the play that the ritualistic way each of the four becomes, in turn, the victim to be taken away and ‘given the works’, is preceded by a little passage from the Voice of Bam indicating the passing of the seasons:

V: I am alone.
It is summer.
Time passes.
In the end Bim appears.
Reappears.

Thus the movement of the status of prisoner and torture victim through the four characters is deliberately pegged to the very ancient trope of the passage of the four seasons, and you can see several reasons for this. One is that Beckett is addicted to numbers and patterns, witness the supercomplex choreography of Quad, also featuring four players, although silent fast-moving unspeaking dancers in that case, but also in numerous other works in prose and drama.

The second reason is, presumably, to make the doleful point that humanity’s tendency to persecution and torture is as ancient and unchanging as the cycle of the seasons.

What where

Let’s look again at what’s at stake in the serial interrogation. First of all Bam asks Bom whether the person he interrogated till he passed out (presumably the logical fifth in the sequence, the unnamed Bum) said ‘it’.

BAM: You gave him the works?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: And he didn’t say it?
BOM: No.
BAM: He wept?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Screamed?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Begged for mercy?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: But didn’t say it?
BOM: No.

Then Bam orders Bim to interrogate Bom till he admits that ‘he’ (presumably Bum) did say ‘it’ to Bom, but the latter is refusing to admit it. And when Bim fails in this task, Bam orders Bem to interrogate Bim in turn:

BEM: What must he confess?
BAM: That he said where to him.

So that’s where the What Where of the title come from. The first two interrogations are designed to identify ‘it’ (what?); the third interrogation is designed to identify ‘where’. So What? and Where? are the key subjects of the interrogation.

This has the vagueness of allegory, allowing thousands of critics and commentators to read into this focus on ‘what’ and ‘where’ the issues of their choice. Some have taken a psychological interpretation, focusing on birth and Freudian issues of personal guilt, others on the origin and nature of consciousness.

But maybe a more obvious interpretation is to expand the two questions into the big Meaning of Life ones, namely ‘What is it all about?’ and ‘Where do we come from and where are we headed?’ Thus, without much effort, the play can be turned into an allegory of ‘philosophical enquiry’, or at least of metaphysical enquiry.

An allegory but also, maybe… a parody, a mockery of the pointlessness of asking such questions. From the start of his writing career Beckett expended a lot of energy mocking the Rationalist tradition in philosophy, which he associated with René Descartes, and his entire oeuvre amounts to an attack on the notions that the human mind is rational or knowable, or that it can understand a rational, ordered world. Precisely the opposite.

And yet, we find ourselves over and over asking the same questions of life, of our existence, even though we know that no sensible answer exists, condemned by our natures to endlessly asking unanswerable questions. As Ezra Pound wrote in The Exile’s Letter in 1917:

What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking…

That could almost be Beckett’s motto. What is the point of writing, but there is no end of writing. The writing has to continue even if the writing is doomed to failure. You just have to fail again, fail better.

The Beckett on Film production

In December 1999 Damien O’Donnell directed a filmed version of What Where for the Beckett on Film project with Bam the person and the Voice of Bam-coming-through-the-loudspeaker played by Sean McGinley, and the succession of other Bems and Bims all played by the same actor, Gary Lewis.

This production is, in my opinion, preferable to the Asmus production. It makes a big difference to see the action taking place in an actual location because it clarifies the way each successive character fails in his attempts to get the previous one to confess and is himself hauled off to be given ‘the works’. It makes it a much more political play. It brings out the extreme menace of Bam, placing him up there with O’Brien, the torturer in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four, as an embodiment of total, terrifying power:

BAM: It’s a lie. [Pause. ] He said it to you. [Pause.] Confess he said it to you.

The Beckett on Film version dramatically highlights the transformation of each Bem figure from initially smirking torturer to terrified victim. And it brings out an aspect I didn’t get at all from the Asmus production, which is the way the Bems are picked off one by one, until there is only Bam left to escort the last one away and then, in the final scene, none of the clones remain, leaving Bam alone.

Thus this production brings out the way that the text is not cyclical but unidirectional. The way it starts with five characters and ends with one, the implication being that the others have been tortured to death. It paints an image of humanity as having exterminated itself down to a bare handful of survivors. As if in some science fiction apocalypse we witness the tragedy of the last survivors unable to end the ceaseless cycle of suspicion and pointless accusation and torture and death which has brought them to the brink of, and will drive them on to, extinction:

VOICE: We are the last five.

This is one way of interpreting the remark Beckett made for the 1985 production, that the Voice of Bam – which very stagily emits from an onscreen loudspeaker – is to be imagined as coming ‘from beyond the grave’. Maybe the last five have reduced themselves to zero. Mankind has tortured itself to extinction.

The German version, reprise

But this notion of the ghost peaking from beyond the grave brings us back to the 1985 German TV version for, if you watch it again after the Beckett on Film production, the German version may well lack the drama of the various Bems and Bims entering and exiting, and the amoral thrill of McGinley’s menacing presence – but this is because, instead, it has turned the play from a political powerplay into one of Beckett’s late period ghost stories.

The German version brings out, much more than the On Film version, the way that the entire action may be no more than a memory of the speaking voice, V. That the Voice of Bam may be only remembering all the onstage actions which are so carefully annotated.

More than that, more than a living mind remembering all these supposed events – what if Bam himself may be dead! What if the Voice of Bam (V) is so distinct and separate from the onstage actor called Bam, because it is a voice from beyond the grave, another of Beckett’s late-period spectral voices from nowhere.

This appears to have been the understanding encouraged by Beckett himself during the German production which he helped supervise. In the words of director Walter Asmus, we are dealing with:

The ghost Bam, dead Bam, a distorted image of a face in a grave, somewhere not in this world any longer, imagining that he comes back to life in the world, dreaming and seeing himself as a…face on the screen.

What? When? Turns out to be no-one, from nowhere.

The reflexive consciousness

Actually there is a third element, sitting above the way the 1. repeated scenes of accusation are embedded within 2. a frame of the four seasons – and this is the extremely characteristic way the narrative reflects on itself, stopping, pausing, making itself start again, try again, do another take.

Not good.
I switch off.
[Light off P]
I start again.

The way in which his texts comment on themselves or, more precisely, one of the several ‘voices’ in the text will command it to stop, try again, start again and so on – in the words of the famous quote from Worstward Ho, ‘Fail again. Fail better’ – this had been a central characteristic of most of Beckett’s prose from Molloy onwards.

The novel has a long tradition of intrusive narrators right from the start (Henry Fielding in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy) but generally they were light, humorous, chatty and inventive. In Beckett, the comic exuberance of the tradition has been pared right back to the bone, right down to this specimen of hard, mechanical, rote repetition, as grimly robotic as every other element of this bleakly automated fable.

There is a God supervising our fates but he has the heart and soul of a robot arm in a Nissan car-making factory.

It says what it means

I’ve a lifelong aversion to seeking symbolic or moral or psychological truths lurking in the depths of literary texts. All too often, when these are dredged to the surface they turn out to be trite and disappointing, blether about Original Sin or the Oedipus Complex or the revelation that all the world’s a stage or money makes the world go around.

I am far more interested in the mechanics of language, and the infinite number of registers, tones and effects it can create. In the detail and precision of the language and in the weird, other-worldly effects language (and light and sound and music and movement) can create in a theatrical context.

Therefore I have every sympathy with the Beckett who loathed being asked what his works ‘meant’. For example, the exasperated author was forced to state explicitly that if he had meant the name Godot to refer to God, he would have written as much.

Over and over Beckett had to tell inquisitive actors that he had no idea what happened to his characters before they make their appearance in the plays, what their ‘back stories’ or ‘personal histories’ consist of. I was delighted when I came upon director George Devine’s 1964 statement regarding the script of Play that even the text itself barely matters, but is merely the dramatic ammunition which enables the performance to take place (quoted in Knowlson, page 516) – a performance which, in Beckett’s vision, is often closer to a kind of moving sculpture, or painterly ballet, than any traditional idea of a ‘play’.

So I am heartened to find Beckett, here at the end of his writing career, repeating the same stance. When he was asked by yet another in a long line of berks what What Where ‘means’, he very reasonably and accurately replied:

I don’t know what it means. Don’t ask me what it means. It’s an object.

I think of works of literature as sophisticated devices designed to create certain psychological or aesthetic effects, neurological reactions in the mind. ‘Meaning’ can be among these effects and may well be a component of the work, the author might even think it’s the most important part of the work, but it needn’t be either the most important or the most interesting aspect.

Often asking what the ‘meaning’ of a work is, is as stupid as asking what’s the meaning of vanilla ice cream. It’s a flavour. You like it or don’t like it, it produces a certain reaction on your palette, you may be in or not in the mood for it. It’s an experience not a ‘meaning’.

Same with most poems, novels and plays, in my opinion. They are psychological experiences in which the ostensible or even buried meanings may play a part but don’t account for the entire experience, which is likely to be much richer, stranger, deeper, emotional or aesthetic and so on, than the narrow concept of ‘meaning’ allows. A lot more is going on than we are ever aware of…

Two versions

Having read about What Where in James Knowlson’s brilliant biography of Beckett and in the Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett I have now understood that the two YouTube versions I’ve included in this review represent what were, in fact, two distinct versions of the play. The Beckett on Film version is (despite the grandiose Terry Gilliamesque setting in a futuristic library) very loyal to the original script 1983 (as published in the Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett), and so makes clearer the sequence of events Beckett originally conceived, whereby successive Bems and Bims are turned on each other and done away with, until there is only one left.

Whereas the 1985 Asmus version benefited from Beckett’s ongoing amendments to the play, and transformed it into a thorough-going ghost story, in the sense that Bam might well be dead, all the characters in it might be dead, including the physical Bam, and the entire thing might be the staging of a ‘memory’ and the creation of fake personages, who are put through their paces and then put through their paces again in the strange ritualistic way, by the faint volition of a person beyond the grave.

By the time of a 1986 production, Beckett had revised the text so much – dispensing with the opening mime which I quoted at the start of this review, reconceiving the Bems and Bims not as actual people coming and going but as static disembodied faces illuminated only by spotlights, the actors now standing stationary on platforms two feet off the stage with none of the entrances and exits of the original version – that this new iteration came to be known as What Where II. It is, according to the Beckett Companion, nowhere written down or published, for reference we have only the earlier, unamended What Where I version which is what is included in the edition of Collected Shorter Plays which is the text I started off analysing and working from, and which is why it took me a while to even realise that the play exists in two such very different forms.

So the Beckett on Film version presents What Where I and the Asmus production presents What Where II and you’re left reflecting on the immense impact different stagings can have on work which is essentially the same but which, through different visualisations, can create such sharply, such hugely different experiences.


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

Nacht und Träume by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Nacht und Träume (German for Night and Dreams) is the last television play written and directed by Samuel Beckett. It was written in English in mid-1982 for the German TV channel Süddeutscher Rundfunk, recorded in October 1982 and broadcast on 19 May 1983.

Wordless

Beckett had run out of words, but all is not silence. Although for only a fraction of the time, although only intermittently, the viewer hears the sound of a male voice softly humming, then singing, the last seven bars of Franz Schubert’s song Nacht und Träume and a fragment of the song’s lyrics, ‘Holde Träume, kehret wieder!’ (‘Sweet dreams, come back’). Schubert was one of Beckett’s favourite composers, and this was one of Beckett’s favourite songs.

By this late stage of his career, Beckett aficionados knew that this kind late work would probably dispense with character, plot, realistic setting and all the other conventions of theatre or drama. Instead, it’s better to think about the production as composed from basic elements, or elements of stagecraft reduced to a bare minimum (like the spotlight on the talking mouth in Not I), to the bare minimum of lighting, movement and gesture.

In many respects the late plays or playlets (because they’re generally so short) are more like abstract modernist sculptures except sculptures which exist in time. In his last period Beckett was far more interested in the precision and timing of gestures, movements, lighting effects, than anything remotely resembling character or plot or psychology.

With no characters and no dialogue and no real action, the text for the production really consists of technical instructions. Beckett lists five elements: evening light, the dreamer (A), his dreamt self (B), a pair of dreamt hands and the last seven bars of Schubert’s lied (German for classical art song, pronounced leedt). In fact, they’re so short, why not share the entire text of the instructions?

Full text

Elements

Evening light.
Dreamer (A).
His dreamt self (B).
Dreamt hands R (right) and L (left).
Last 7 bars of Schubert’s Lied, Nacht und Träume.

  1. Fade up on a dark empty room lit only by evening light from a window set high in back wall.
    Left foreground, faintly lit, a man seated at a table.
    Right profile, head bowed, grey hair, hands resting on table.
    Clearly visible only head and hands and section of table on which they rest.
  2. Softly hummed, male voice, last 7 bars of Schubert’s Lied, Nacht und Träume
  3. Fade out evening light.
  4. Softly sung, with words, last 3 bars of Lied beginning ‘Holde Träume…’
  5. Fade down A as he bows his head further to rest on hands. Thus minimally lit he remains just visible throughout dream as first viewed.
  6. A dreams. Fade up on B on an invisible podium about 4 feet above floor level, middle ground, well right of centre. He is seated at a table in the same posture as A dreaming, bowed head resting on hands, but left profile faintly lit by kinder light than A’s.
  7. From dark beyond and above B’s head L appears and rests gently on it.
  8. B raises his head, L withdraws and disappears.
  9. From same dark R appears with a cup, conveys it gently to B’s lips. B drinks, R disappears.
  10. R reappears with a cloth, wipes gently B’s brow, disappears with cloth.
  11. B raises his head further to gaze up at invisible face.
  12. B raises his right hand, still gazing up , and holds it raised palm upward.
  13. R reappears and rests gently on B ‘s right hand, B still gazing up.
  14. B transfers gaze to joined hands.
  15. B raises his left hand and rests it on joined hands.
  16. Together hands sink to table and on them B’s head.
  17. L reappears and rests gently on B’s head.
  18. Fade out dream.
  19. Fade up A and evening light.
  20. A raises head to its opening position.
  21. Lied as before (2).
  22. Fade out evening light.
  23. Close of Lied as before (4).
  24. Fade down A as before (5).
  25. A dreams. Fade up on B as before (6).
  26. Move in slowly to close-up of B, losing A.
  27. Dream as before (7 to 16) in close-up and slower motion.
  28. Withdraw slowly to opening viewpoint, recovering A.
  29. Fade out dream.
  30. Fade out A.

The action

The action begins with a dreamer sitting alone in a dark empty room, his hands resting on the table before him. He is on the left of the screen and we see his right profile. A male voice hums the last seven bars of the Schubert lied. Then, as we hear the same section sung again, the man rests his head on his hands and the light fades until the words ‘Holde Träume’ at which point the light fades up on the man’s dreamt self who is seated on an invisible podium four feet higher and well to the right of him. We see the dreamed man’s left profile, a mirror image of his waking self. The dreamed self is shown in what the directions describe as a ‘kinder light’. The dreamer is still faintly visible throughout though.

A left hand appears out of the darkness and gently rests on B. As the man raises his head it withdraws. The right hand appears with a cup from which B drinks. The right hand vanishes and then reappears to gently wipe the dreamed man’s brow with a cloth. Then it disappears again.

B raises his head to gaze upon the invisible face and holds out his right hand, palm upward. The bodiless right hand returns and rests on B’s right hand. He looks at the two hands together and adds his left hand. Together the three hands sink to the table and B rests his head on them. Finally the left hand comes out of the darkness and rests gently on B’s head.

The dream fades as A awakens but, as in so many Beckett plays, the entire sequence is then repeated – the music is replayed and the sequence recurs, only this time ‘in close-up and slower motion’.

After this repeat, the camera pulls back, leaving us with the image of A ‘recovering’ before the two visual zones fade out, first the dream space on the right, and then the original image of A at his table.

Themes

A number of things are obvious.

1. Wordless It is wordless, and so linked to Beckett’s several mimes from the 1960s. Lacking character, plot or dialogue the ‘play’ relies entirely upon the visual effects and, to a lesser extent, on the few moments of fragmentary music…

2. Personless A and B are almost the last in a long line of Beckett personages who have been deprived of names or identities and reduced to letters, literally to cyphers, algebraic notations rather than people, since at least Rough For Theatre I and II (c.1960) which both feature characters labelled simply A and B, or Play (1963) which features personages referred to simply as M, W1 and W2.

3. Moving It is sad and sombre and moving. A is an old man, moving in slow motion, requiring care. Having read the Beckett biography I know that he spent a lot of time caring for his ailing mother in her last years, and then being with his elder brother Frank during his final illness. Beckett had done a lot of lifting cups to weak lips, stroking the hair of the ill, resting hands together.

4. Repetition Repetition is Beckett’s key strategy at a meta level many of his pieces take place in a first part, and then are repeated, generally with deterioration, in the second. Classic examples are Waiting For Godot and Happy Days, but also the less well-known Play and Quad, part two of the latter, in particular, repeating part one only more slowly and in black and white. Same here. Life is repetition, over and over, while we wait for the end.

5. Old Master Painting I mentioned sculpture earlier, which is one way of thinking about the late pieces, but probably a more obvious analogy is painting. The two images, A at his table, B in his separate space, at numerous points appear like Old Master paintings. Biographer James Knowlson made the link with Beckett’s fascination with Albrecht Dürer’s famous etching of praying hands, a reproduction of which hung in his room at Cooldrinagh as a child (as it did in one of my school corridors). Then again, Beckett was a lifelong devotee of Dutch seventeenth century painting with its immaculate depictions of calm, motionless interiors, and something of the almost complete stillness of the simple domestic scene possibly invokes them…

6. Consolation Freud wrote in a letter that he was unable to give his patients the one thing which, deep down, they all wanted, which was consolation. Similarly, Beckett made a career out of depicting a comfortless universe or, more precisely, the inside of minds which have collapsed, which can barely sustain a narrative of any kind let alone one which provides any kind of comfort.

But all that said, the helping hands which are offered to B, well they are very powerful images of comfort and consolation. When the three hands are conjoined and B lays his head on them, well, there could hardly be a more moving image of support and basic human comfort.

7. Christian imagery The way the figure of A appears behind a screen, the notion of a screen itself, recalls countless big Christian paintings from the Western tradition, and the image of a chalice, cloth and comforting hand are core Christian iconography. Astonishingly, the English cameraman who worked on the German TV production, Jim Lewis, said that:

…at the moment when the drops of perspiration are wiped from the brow of the character, Beckett simply said that the cloth alluded to the veil that Veronica used to wipe the brow of Jesus on the Way of the Cross. The imprint of Christ’s face remains on the cloth.

Wow. This is an astonishing reversion on Beckett’s part to the core Christian iconography of his boyhood in a God-fearing, church attending Protestant household. Why? Well, one interpretation is that it lay to hand. The Wikipedia article on the play quotes Beckett telling actor Colin Duckworth:

Christianity is a mythology with which I am perfectly familiar, so I naturally use it.

The artist works with what he or she has to hand. In theory, this doesn’t mean he or she endorses, the narrative structures, iconography and imagery provide raw materials to work with, clay to be shaped, metal fragments to be arranged into post-modern abstract sculpture.

Yes, but despite all that, it still feels mighty religious, doesn’t it? It feels like an image of hope.

But then again, the way the music appears only as fragments, lost forlorn fragments of an abandoned or ruined civilisation, and the way the action is mechanically repeated with a strong suggestion of steady entropy and decay, those are emphatically not images of hope.

Therefore, we can observe a simple tension between the structure of degradation and decay, against which silent images of consolation are set. A dynamic tension or interaction.

TV production

As far as I can tell, this is the original German TV production. Haunting, though, as so much late Beckett is haunting, is a matter of ghosts and ghostly memories.

Thoughts

Once again I am struck by the contrast, or contradiction, between the way Beckett has evolved a highly avant-garde, experimental, out-on-the-edge approach to a theatrical production, to creating productions which aren’t really plays in any meaningful sense – and the way that what content you can make out is surprisingly old fashioned, conservative. Schubert and Christian imagery, both have been twisted and mashed into something utterly weird and strange, and yet Schubert and Durer are almost as traditional and old school as you can imagine.

As it happens I’ve recently been reading cyberpunk novels by William Gibson, and Gibson’s work just seems to come from another world, a world where there is absolutely no concern or acknowledgement of Western culture, or Christianity, or the classics or icons of either, an internationalised consumer world of shiny chrome surfaces and hi-tech digital gadgets.

The comparison really brings out how Beckett, for all his hyper-modernism, for all his ostensible rejection of it, nonetheless, at his core, derives from an old, conservative, deeply Christian, highly traditional view of Western culture – a slow, sombre, reverential, poignant quality that Nacht und Träume, probably more than any other of his works, feels soaked in.


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

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

Ohio Impromptu by Samuel Beckett (1981)

Nothing is left to tell.

Ohio Impromptu is a very short play by Samuel Beckett. The Beckett on Film production of the entire play lasts ten minutes 30 seconds.

Ohio Impromptu was written in English in 1980 as a favour to Beckett scholar S.E. Gontarski who had requested a piece to be performed at a symposium held in Columbus, Ohio (USA), in honour of Beckett’s seventy-fifth birthday.

Beckett proclaimed himself ‘unfitted’ for writing to order and struggled with the piece for nine months, repeatedly telling friends he was failing to get anywhere, before finally delivering this brief but complex piece.

Ohio Impromptu was first performed on 9 May 1981 at the Stadium II Theatre in Columbus, where long-time Beckett collaborator Alan Schneider (who had directed the first American production of Waiting For Godot back in 1953) nearly 30 years later directed David Warrilow as ‘Reader’ and Rand Mitchell as ‘Listener’.

Mise-en-scène

Two old men are sitting at right angles to each other beside a rectangular table. According to Beckett’s stage directions they are to be as ‘alike in appearance as possible’, both wearing long black coats and sporting long white hair. To be precise:

L = Listener.
R = Reader.
As alike in appearance as possible.
Light on table midstage. Rest of stage in darkness.
Plain white deal table say 8′ x 4 ‘.
Two plain armless white deal chairs.
L seated at table facing front towards end of long side audience right. Bowed head propped on right hand. Face hidden. Left hand on table. Long black coat. Long white hair. R seated at table in profile centre of short side audience right. Bowed bead propped on right hand. Left hand on table. Book on table before him open at last pages. Long black coat. Long white hair.
Black wide-brimmed hat at centre of table.
Fade up.
Ten seconds.
R turns page.
Pause.

The characters, as so often in later Beckett, do not have names but allegorical, or even plain functional, labels. After all, in many ways they are just functions of the text or the work.

The one called ‘Listener’ is facing the audience but his head is bowed so that his face hidden. The other character is named ‘Reader’ and his posture is similar, except that he has a book in front of him which is open at the last pages.

The entire ‘action’ of the play consists of Reader starting to read out loud from the book before him. When Listener knocks on the table with his left hand Reader pauses, repeats the last full sentence, and then waits for a further knock on the table before recommencing. Like a robot.

This happens ten or so times. At one point the Listener stops the Reader turning back to an earlier page to which the text refers, by laying his hand on Reader’s hand – at another the Reader stumbles over a seemingly ungrammatical structure in the text, rereads it, grasps it and says, ‘Yes’ — the one and only thing he says which isn’t read from the text before him.

Listener makes Reader repeat the last sentence of his tale and then the book is closed. ‘Nothing is left to tell’ and yet Listener insists on knocking one last time, as if calling for more – but there is nothing more to read. The two look at each other without blinking until the light fades.

Note the symmetrical use of a ten second pause to open and close the play. It’s ten seconds after the lights come up before anything happens. Then, at the end of the play, the tableau is held for ten seconds before the lights fade.

Nothing is left to tell.
[Pause. R makes to close book. Knock. Book half closed.]
Nothing is left to tell.
[Pause. R closes book. Knock. Silence. Five seconds. Simultaneously they lower their right hands to table, raise their beads and look at each other. Unblinking. Expressionless: Ten seconds.
Fade out.]

A number of other Beckett plays use this magic period of ten seconds.

The story

So what is this ‘story’ which Reader reads out to Listener?

The text that Reader reads out is pretty straightforward and, as first occurred in Krapp’s Last Tape from 25 years earlier (1958), is, at first sight, surprisingly sentimental. It describes an unnamed man who in a last attempt to gain some kind of emotional ‘relief’ moves from the apartment where ‘they’ had been living together to a single room from which he can see downstream to the Isle of Swans. Day after day he paces the island in his long black coat and Latin Quarter hat (like the long coat Listener is wearing, like the black hat on the table). ‘They’? His beloved? Have they split up? Or has she died?

In dreams he had been warned against this move, dreams which say:

‘Stay where we were so long alone together, my shade will comfort you.’

Like Beckett in real life, the character begins to be haunted by ‘his old terror of night’, and ‘fearful symptoms’. (Beckett in his twenties suffered panic attacks, night sweats and heart palpitations.) He comes to realise he has made a mistake by moving – familiar surroundings could have soothed and ‘sedated’ him because of their long association with his loved one, but unfamiliar surroundings accentuate his sense of deprivation.

Then, a new development. One night as he is sitting with his head in his hands and trembling all over, a man appears from nowhere. He explains that he has been sent by the man’s beloved – ‘and here he named the dear name’ –to comfort him. He then pulls a worn volume from the pocket of his long black coat and reads till dawn, at which point he disappears ‘without a word’.

Thereafter the man reappears from time to time, and reads the sad tale again. Is it, one wonder, this man, the man reading the text about the man who appears to an unhappy man in a long black coat and reads him a sad tale. Is he reading the story of his own appearance to read the story of his own appearance? Is it a recursive story?

The final stage is reached when the visiting man tells the sad man that he has seen her, the loved one, again, and she has said he should not come again, should not visit the sad man again – ‘No need to go to him again.’

And so, on this final occasion, the visitor tells the sad story for one last time, and then they both sit on in silence, oblivious of the rising dawn and the sounds of the city reawakening.

It is at this point that Listener knocks on the table but, for once, Reader has nothing more to read. He has closed the book he was reading from. There is nothing more to tell. Exactly like the two men in the ‘story’, the two men sit looking at each other in fraught silence.

The Beckett on Film production

In Charles Sturridge’s 2002 film adaptation of Ohio Impromptu for the Beckett on Film project, modern cinematic techniques allowed Reader and Listener to both be played by the same actor (Jeremy Irons), fulfilling Beckett’s instruction that the two characters should be ‘as alike in appearance as possible’ and bringing out the implication that they are really two aspects of the one personality.

In the text, the pair are only described as looking directly at each other right at the very end. In this production, however, they interact continually. Reader is made to be dependent on Listener. Reader is played as a gentler half-smiling figure, visibly concerned to please the impatient, knocking Listener who, for his part, seems to be nervous and twitchy, angry, unsatisfied, or on the verge of tears, repressing some strong emotion.

I don’t like Jeremy Irons. He has as much warmth and personality as a fridge freezer.

Plus, the more I read about Beckett, the more deeply Irish he feels, not least in these later texts which incorporate a fair amount of disguised autobiography, (his panic attacks as a young man, the years he spent living in Paris and walking along the Seine, his unhappy love affairs). Whereas Irons (educated at Sherborne public school, annual fees £42,000) is the quintessence of English poshness and completely wrong for this material. More granularity, character and ambivalence is given to the texts when spoken by Irish actors like Patrick Magee, Jack MacGowran or Niall Buggy.

Compare and contrast Iron’s frigid lifeless drone with the warmth but also the eeriness of Niall Buggy in That Time, infinitely better.

Beckett’s characters are haunted, hag-ridden by their memories. The text conveys this as it moves from the dreams warning him not to move, to the bigger picture, as the reader / viewer begins to suspect that Reader is only a figment of Listener’s imagination. Irons conveys absolutely none of the ambivalence shading into ghostly horror which the text contains.

Instead this production adds a slick finale which can’t be done onstage and is not contained in Beckett’s instructions, namely that the figure of Reader fades away leaving Listener on his own, precisely as the big window behind them is lit by the coming dawn and sound effects create the sound of the city awakening, as described in the play’s last few lines.

In other words, the delicate and strange ambiguity inherent in Beckett’s mise-en-scène is ripped up in favour of the straightforward implication that Reader is not only the same as the figure in the long black coat who crops up periodically to read the distressed man from the same sad tale, but that both figures – both Reader and Visitor – are merely aspects of the haunted Listener’s mind.

Ohio Impromptu is, of course, sad, a depiction of a sad man haunted by the end of a love affair, by the memory of loss, very much like Krapp from 25 years earlier. Haunted like so many of the characters in these, Beckett’s final, ghost stories.

Beckett’s dyads

In sociology, a dyad is a group of two people, the smallest possible social group. How many of Beckett’s plays are reduced to this social minimum:

  • the two Krapps in Krapp’s Last Tape
  • Hamm and Clov in Endgame
  • Gorman and Cream in The Old Tune
  • Winnie and Willy in Happy Days
  • Words and Music in the play of the same name
  • the Voice and Joe in Eh Joe
  • A and B in Rough for Theatre I
  • the two bureaucrats, Bertrand (A) and Morvan (B) in Rough For Theatre II
  • the old man and the Voice in That Time
  • the man and the woman’s voice in Ghost Trio
  • May and her Mother in Footfalls
  • the woman and the Voice in Rockaby

Two is the bare minimum required to create any kind of dramatic energy and in quite a few cases it’s actually reduced to less than 2, to something like one and a half, with one actual actor and a disembodied voice (Eh Joe, Footfalls, That Time, Rockaby) or, as here, two physically present actors but barely more than one mind…

The moral of the story..?

Early on in the story, the sad man who’s moved apartment is described as pacing the Isle of Swans, from the upstream end where the river divides to flow round it, to the downstream end where the two streams of the river are reunited:

At the tip he would always pause to dwell on the receding stream. How in joyous eddies its two arms conflowed and flowed united on…

Is that a metaphor for what has happened here? Have Listener and his doppelgänger reached a point where, at the end of the nightly reading, with ‘nothing more to tell’, they, like the two arms of the same river, are reunited? Is the metaphysical division of the mind into actor and observer finally healed?

Or is this only a temporary ceasefire? As dawn appears and the Reader disappears, are we to take it he will return that night, or another night, like the mysterious man in the story, and once again take his place at the table and once again repeat the long sad story of Listener’s lost love, and once again promise closure, that there is nothing more to tell, and once more melt into Listener, the two halves of his mind reconciled… only for the next evening to bring the same ritual… again, and again, and again, without cease?

Knowing Beckett, the second scenario seems more likely, except that aspects of the text make it seem as if it really is the last time, not least when the loved one tells the mysterious visitor to stop visiting Listener. But is that what she says every night, in the story? Is the imprecation to stop visiting and reading the story an intrinsic part of the story which the visitor visits in order to read out loud?

In this respect, in trying to make rational sense of the narrative, the viewer finds themself entering a sort of Escher landscape of infinite recurrence where, at any given moment the situation seems to make sense, but trying to reconcile all the moments into one sensible narrative can’t be done boggles the mind.

Relativity by M.C. Escher (1953)

Like his pre-war novels, Murphy and Watt, 30 years later and in a different medium, Ohio Impromptu is making the same point. Rationalism cannot work. All attempts to make sense are doomed to fail.


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

Quad by Samuel Beckett (1981)

Quad is a very short television ‘play’ by Samuel Beckett, written and first produced and broadcast in 1981 – the production embedded in this blog post lasts just 13 minutes. When printed in 1984 it was described as a ‘piece for four players, light and percussion’ and has also been called a ‘ballet for four people’.

Intensely choreographed

Quad consists of four actors dressed in robes, hunched and silently walking around and diagonally across a square stage in fixed patterns, alternately entering and exiting the set.

Each actor wears a distinct coloured robe (white, red, blue, yellow). According to Beckett’s instructions:

Gowns reaching to ground, cowls hiding faces. Each player has his particular colour corresponding to his light. 1 white, 2 yellow, 3 blue, 4 red. All possible costume combinations given.

The piece is accompanied by hyper-modern percussion track, for which Beckett gives characteristically precise instructions:

Four types of percussion, say drum, gong, triangle, wood block.
Each player has his particular percussion, to sound when he enters, continue while he paces, cease when he exits.
Say 1 drum, 2 gong, 3 triangle ,4 wood block. Then 1st series: drum, drum + triangle, drum + triangle + wood
block etc. Same system as for light.
All possible percussion combinations given.
Percussion intermittent in all combinations to allow footsteps alone to be heard at intervals.
Pianissimo throughout.
Percussionists barely visible in shadow on raised podium at back of set.

The actors walk in sync (except when entering or exiting), moving on one of four symmetrical paths – so that when one actor is at a corner, so are all others, when one actor crosses the stage, they all do together, and so on. Yet somehow, such is the choreography that despite the hectic pace at which they walk, they never touch or bump into each other  when walking around the stage they move in the same direction, when crossing the stage diagonally, at the moment they would collide, they veer off to avoid the centre area (walking around it, always clockwise or always anti-clockwise, depending on the production).

Beckett’s instructions

The dancers move counter-clockwise on the sides of the square once. After that they go to centre, making a clockwise semicircle move toward each respective opposite angles, thereby repeating the counter-clockwise move on the sides. After completing one cycle of four moves, the earliest of the four dancers steps out of the stage until only one dancer left. The last one dancer must complete one cycle in order for the second dancer to step inside, and so on.

Here are the stage directions given in the Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett:

Course 1: AC, CB, BA, AD, DB, BC, CD, DA
Course 2: BA, AD, DB, BC, CD, DA, AC, CB
Course 3: CD, DA, AC, CB, BA, AD, DB, BC
Course 4: DB, BC, CD, DA, AC, CB, BA, AD

1 enters at A, completes his course and is joined by 3. Together they complete their courses and are joined by 4. Together all three complete their courses and are joined by 2. Together all four complete their courses. Exit 1. 2, 3 and 4 continue and complete their courses. Exit 3. 2 and 4 continue and complete their courses. Exit 4. End of 1st series. 2 continues, opening 2nd series, completes his course and is joined by 1. Etc. Unbroken movement.

1st series (as above): 1, 13, 134, 1342, 342, 42
2nd series: 2, 21, 214, 2143, 143, 43
3rd series: 3, 32, 321, 3214, 214, 14
4th series: 4, 43, 432, 4321, 321, 21

Thorough as these instructions look, they miss the uncanny way the four actors don’t move in a square around the central point E, but do something more like dodging it, as if it is a zone of greatest danger to which they are mechanically, repeatedly, attracted and yet have to duck away from at the last moment.

Quad II

According to The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, during the German TV production, Beckett watched the recorded performance being played back on a black and white monitor as technicians checked for image quality. As part of the check they also experimented with slowing the tape down. Beckett was thunderstruck by the look of the performance slowed down and in black and white and, apparently, exclaimed: ‘My God, it’s a hundred thousand years later!’

Seeing the bustle of the original transformed this way into a slow, dim shuffle, made Beckett imagine a future time where his walkers continue their performance, this time in black and white, and much slower, or, as his characteristically pared-down instructions put it:

No colour, all four in identical white gowns, no percussion, footsteps only sound, slow tempo.

Since that first German TV production, the two parts have been titled Quad I and Quad II.

The 1981 German production

The play was first broadcast by the Süddeutscher Rundfunk in Germany on 8 October 1981, as Quadrat I + II. Beckett himself directed it and it’s significant that the four performers were all members of the Stuttgart Preparatory Ballet School for, according to Beckett’s instructions, the performers are to be:

As alike in build as possible. Short and slight for preference. Some ballet training desirable. Adolescents a possibility. Sex indifferent.

The same performance was rebroadcast on 16 December 1982 on BBC2.

As so often, a notable aspect of the piece is the extent to which Beckett’s instructions are not followed: it is not really clear that each performer is accompanied by their own particular instrument. It is certainly not ”Pianissimo throughout’. And the performers are not visible on a raised podium at the back of the set.

Interpretations

Entropy Adding part II meant that, like Waiting For Godot and Happy DaysQuad becomes a performance not only in two halves, but two halves in which almost the exact same sequence of actions are repeated, reflecting Beckett’s obsession with decline and degeneration or, to give it a swanky name derived from thermodynamics, entropy.

Dante The authors of the Faber Companion drag Dante, Beckett’s favourite author, into the mix by pointing out that the general direction of travel is to the left, the direction of the damned in Dante’s hell. Well, maybe, although the instructions actually say they can move round the course in either direction as long as it is consistent all the way through.

Choreography For my part, I would point out Quad‘s continuity with the other mimes in his oeuvre, the two Acts Without Words which amounted to wordless choreography, and to the wordless Film.

Numerical precision And to the importance of obsessive numbering, counting and enumerating all the possible permutations of set physical actions which feature prominently throughout all his prose and poetry.

Science fiction Also, I like science fiction as a genre, so even without Beckett’s explicit idea of part II being set 100,000 years in the future, the second part certainly has the haunting feeling of just the kind of obscure ritual which has long lost its original meaning and is being acted out by cowled faceless figures, the kind of thing the heroes of Star Trek or countless science fiction novels encounter when they travel into the future or land on some planet whose long lost civilisation has been decimated leaving only broken fragments and meaningless rituals.

Critics tend to overlook the possible science fiction interpretation of much of Beckett’s work: Waiting For Godot takes place in an allegorical nowhere which looks a bit like a Star Trek set complete with styrofoam rocks, and Endgame appears to take place in a nuclear bunker after a nuclear war; while The Lost Ones is set inside a horribly claustrophobic, rubber-walled cylinder, which can also be interpreted as a kind of science fiction hell.

So there are quite a few themes and ideas which the educated observer can drag into discussion of Quad I and II. But the main impression of watching the performance is surely to acknowledge what a magnificent piece of avant-garde theatre / mime / performance it is – that the spectacle of these four faceless figures shuffling through their endlessly repeating routine is too deep for precise definition or categorisation, addictively weird and unsettling.


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

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

A Piece of Monologue by Samuel Beckett (1980)

Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go

A Piece of Monologue is a short play by Samuel Beckett written between 1977 and 1979 specifically for the American actor David Warrilow. It consists of five pages of text in the Faber Collected Shorter Plays edition and lasts about 20 minutes in performance.

A Piece of Monologue contrasts with the immediately preceding plays (That Time, Footfalls, Ghost Trio, …but the clouds…) in that it is, as the title indicates, a remarkably simple monologue, just a block of continuous, uninterrupted text, as if cut whole from The Beckett Trilogy, very unlike the previous three or four plays which – as I’ve shown – had reached a kind of extreme of hyper-detailed, mathematical, almost computer-algorithm levels of precise and numbered stage directions. Obviously there are some stage directions, but they are kept to an unusual minimum. Here they are:

Curtain.
Faint diffuse light.
Speaker stands well off centre downstage audience left.
White hair, white nightgown, white socks.
Two metres to his left, same level, same height, standard lamp, skull-sized white globe, faintly lit.
just visible extreme right, same level, white foot of pallet bed.
Ten seconds before speech begins.
Thirty seconds before end of speech lamplight begins to fail.
Lamp out. Silence. SPEAKER, globe, foot of pallet, barely visible in diffuse light.
Ten seconds.
Curtain.

Note the repetition of the period of ten seconds, the same interval as occurs in other plays, as if a magic number, a luminous interlude of half-lit silence.

A Piece of Monologue consists of yet another solo figure talking, yet another old man, bereft, talking about loss and loneliness, the usual cheerful subject matter, a man facing a blank wall where the photos of his family used to hang – until he tore them all down, and then prey to increasingly feverish memories of endless funerals he’s attended.

Nothing there either. Nothing stirring there either. Nothing stirring anywhere. Nothing to be seen anywhere. Nothing to be heard anywhere…

To quote the YouTube summary, ‘The play dramatises a successive loss of company: firstly, in an account of the destruction of photographs and secondly, in the memories of a funeral in the rain.’

Repetitions

A Piece of Monologue uses the kind of verbal repetitions to structure and anchor it, and give it a mounting ghostly atmosphere,

which had characterised Beckett’s work ever since the Trilogy. Key repeated phrases include:

  • Birth was the death of him
  • From funeral to funeral
  • Hard to believe so few
  • Gropes to window and stares out. Stands there staring out. Stock still staring out
  • Faint light in room. Whence unknown
  • Dwells thus as if unable to move again. Or no will left to move again. Not enough will left to move again
  • Once white. Hair white to take faint light… Once white to take faint light.
  • Thirty thousand lights…
  • Black vast
  • Fade. Gone. Again and again. Again and again gone.
  • Fade

The Beckett Companion points out the opening sentence is itself a variation on a sentence from the short story First Love, ‘What finished me was the birth’. It is what you could call a stock piece of Beckettian paradox.

And it’s obviously not only the words which repeat, but the narrator himself, who seems stuck in an endless cycle of repetitive actions, triggered by the word ‘birth’. Each time the word ‘birth’ is uttered, the speaker is forced, once again (‘Again and again. Again and again gone’), into the routine of noticing the fading light through the window, lighting the lamp with three matches, stepping to the wall and staring at the blank spaces where the photographs used to hang, again and again and again without surcease.

In particular, the word ‘gone’ starts to recur like the clanging of a church bell in a horror film and in fact the piece was originally titled Gone, in line with Beckett’s long established practice of naming pieces after one, talismanic, much-repeated key word for example ‘ping’ in the piece of that name or ‘that time’, named for the repetition of that phrase in the play of the same name.

Stands there stock still staring out as if unable to move again. Or gone the will to move again. Gone.

The increasing focus on the words ‘go’ and ‘gone’ reminds us of the much-quoted end of The Unnamable:

You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Back then, in the late 1940s, Beckett’s narrator heroically vows to go on despite the odds. Now, thirty years later, that struggle feels like it is over – his family and all the living, are gone. Past. The play’s keyword (‘gone’) is a past participle, denoting an action finished and over.

The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. The word begone. Such as the light going now. Beginning to go. In the room. Where else? Unnoticed by him staring beyond. The globe alone. Not the other. The unaccountable. From nowhere. On all sides nowhere. Unutterably faint. The globe alone. Alone gone.

On one level, Beckett’s oeuvre amounts to the adventures of the verb ‘to go’.

Bleakness

Obviously, someone new to Beckett would be most struck by the unremitting negativity of the text, the old man having ripped up the photos of his family, who he dismisses, one by one, as ‘grey voids’ (charming!) and, by the emphasis in the second part on the subject of death and funerals, and throughout by the continual use of nihilistic phrases such as:

  • Dying on. No more no less. No. Less. Less to die. Ever less
  • There alone. He alone. So on. Not now. Forgotten. All gone so long. Gone…
  • Sun long sunk behind the larches. Light dying. Soon none left to die. No…

Readers familiar with Beckett, however, know this is his schtick, like Dickens and comic grotesques, Graham Greene and sin, Somerset Maugham and settlers in Malaya, Franz Kafka and anxiety or T.S. Eliot and Anglicanism. It’s his flavour. It’s his brand.

Beyond that black beyond. Ghost light. Ghost nights. Ghost rooms. Ghost graves. Ghost

It’s part of the pleasure of Beckett, in the same way that anyone who hadn’t tried whiskey before, at their first sip would spit it out for burning their mouth… But a slow, gentle introduction, in moderate sips, with explanations of the different distilleries, with explanation of the flavour given by the local peat and moss, will eventually make anyone into a connoisseur, someone who takes the basic alcoholic ‘hit’ of the thing for granted, but comes to savour and enjoy the subtle differences from malt to malt or – back to Beckett – takes the big central nihilism in their stride, and instead focuses on the differences of construction and emphasis from work to work.

Beckett and counting

And numbers. Numbers are to Beckett what religion or symbolism are to other authors, a permanent, objective system of thought with which to order, structure, calm and console the speaker, the narrator, the text.

  • Two and a half billion seconds. Again. Two and a half billion seconds
  • Thirty thousand nights
  • Thirty seconds. To add to the two and a half billion odd

Beckett’s rule is: If in doubt – count. Putting key aspects of human life into numbers (how many breaths inhaled, how many steps taken) simultaneously highlight the vast futility of human existence and yet is also, somehow, consoling.

You could say that 1) the incantatory repetition of a dozen or so key phrases, and 2) the obsessive counting and enumerating of the most banal activities, are what Beckett has instead of plot.

The Beckett on Film version

Here’s the Beckett on Film version, featuring Stephen Brennan as the Speaker and directed by Robin Lefevre. The obvious thing, as with so many TV adaptations of Beckett, is how much his detailed stage directions are not so much omitted as superseded by the medium of TV or film which can, quite simply, be far more visually and aurally inventive that theatre.

Thus the dominant and dominating image of the filmed version is the rain, introduced from the start drizzling down the outside of the window and so distorting our view of the solitary old man in his room, and sounding very loud, so aurally dominating our perception. Whereas in Beckett’s meticulous stage directions there is no mention of rain or the sound of rain (although there is, obviously, in the text, from which the effect is taken).

It’s also easy to overlook the fact that, like so many of the Beckett on Film productions, it’s in black and white, as Beckett almost always, naturally, feels like it should be.

Thoughts

Performance

I’m afraid I didn’t really like Stephen Brennan’s performance. He’s good but, like Susan Fitzgerald in Footfalls, I just didn’t warm to his voice, his accent or articulation. Compare and contrast with Patrick Magee’s show-stopping performance in Cascando or Niall Buggy in That Time both of which blow me away every time. But the great thing about plays is they live to fight another day. Directors and actors can bend their ingenuity to fail again, fail better, indefinitely, just like Beckett’s characters.

In fact a lot of Beckett’s metaphors about repetition – forcing his protagonists to endlessly perform the same action over and again (and again) – and his scenarios in which a voice is telling someone what to do and how to move – these can both be viewed as extensions of theatrical practice. Many of his prose pieces instantly become more accessible if you reimagine the guiding voice as a director telling his actors just what to say and how to say it, how to move and what to do onstage.

Indeed, half way through A Piece of Monologue, the play makes this subtext explicit and the monologue turns into full-on stage directions, the monologue including the kind of instructions you get in stage directions or a screenplay. The narrating voice turns into a directorial voice, at the moment when, about half way through, the piece starts over again, as if born again, from instance of the much-repeated word, ‘Birth’ which Robin Lefevre chooses to give a big booming echo to, to fade the screen to black, and then restart the film as if it is now being staged by the onscreen protagonist.

… slow fade up of a faint form….

It is a deliberate confusion or mixing of stage directions with content, the latter morphing into the former:

Hand with spill disappears. Second hand disappears. Chimney alone in gloom. Hand reappears with globe. Globe back on. Turns wick low. Disappears. Pale globe alone in gloom. Glimmer of brass bedrail. Fade.

‘Fade’. This is a stage or scrip instruction which, from this point onwards, appears about 20 times, foregrounding the artifice of the piece, making what had previously been monologue now read exactly like the stage directions to the half dozen preceding plays, as do the deliberate inclusions of several other explicit stage directions:

White foot of pallet edge of frame stage left.

The monologue dramatises its own staging.

Beckett’s late prose

I think I don’t like Beckett’s later prose. After a while I’ve realised that the stage directions and the pieces themselves are both written in the same artificially contracted, abbreviated style, deliberately omitting prepositions and pronouns and copulas.

Faint light in room. Whence unknown. None from window.

Morphing the spoken text into stage directions half way through is clever and creates a whole new level of spectral spooky repetition, but has the – for me – negative impact of accentuating its staginess.

Beckett had evolved over 30 years from the Trilogy to this very distinctive style of prose poetry, replacing properly written-out sentences with abbreviated snippet which are compulsively repeated, as a way of conveying meaning – but I think it was more effective in the plays and prose from the mid-1960s through the 70s. Maybe I’ve read too much Beckett, but, to my ear, by this point, in Company and here, it has become a mannerism, and a rather irritating one.

There is no internal logic why sentences such as:

Match goes out. Strikes a second as before. Takes off chimney. Smoke-clouded. Holds it in left hand. Match goes out. Strikes a third as before and sets it to wick. Puts back chimney. Match goes out. Puts back globe. Turns wick low…

Plenty of works of literature foreground their own artifice, but often with style or humour. For me the excitement and verve of the pieces from the 1960s has degenerated into a manner and an irritating one at that. At 4 minutes 50 seconds into the Beckett on Film production, he says:

So stands there facing blank wall.

For me, the omission of ‘a’ – ‘stands there facing a blank wall’ – draws attention to itself. It is not only semantically odd but it is oddly incongruous for any idea of any variety of ‘real’ person speaking. No-one would say ‘So stands there facing blank wall’. That is a stage direction not a piece of speech. As is:

Lamp smoking though wick turned low. Strange. Faint smoke issuing through vent in globe

I don’t mind any kind of experimentalism or stylisation, go for it, try it, see what happens. But in practice, for me, this late style seems pretentious and contrived. There is no rulebook, no right or wrong about these things, the only question is, ‘Does it work?’ and for me, it doesn’t. It doesn’t help build and augment the experience, the elliptical, telegraphese of the prose continually distracts from its aims.

Thinking about it further, I think we can make a distinction between where Beckett uses this style to convey weird, spectral, other-worldly psychological states, for example the final passage:

Treating of other matters. Trying to treat of other matters. Till half hears there are no other matters. Never were
other matters. Never two matters. Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. The word begone. Such as the light going now. Beginning to go. In the room. Where else? Unnoticed by him staring beyond. The globe alone. Not the other. The unaccountable. From nowhere. On all sides nowhere. Unutterably faint. The globe alone. Alone gone.

Here, for me, the style works, because it is creating strange psychological states by its use of clipped sentences which both leap from place to place and also repeat key phrases, as if examining the states from many angles, à la cubism. Applied to psychological states, I still enjoy it and find it weirdly liberating and intoxicating.

It’s when he applies it to physical actions, which you feel ought to be – could be – much more straightforwardly described, that I find it forced, mannered and clumsy. I almost feel embarrassed for Beckett at finding himself constrained to write ‘So stands there facing blank wall’ ‘So he stands there facing a blank wall’.

Ripped from the wall and torn to shreds one by one. Over the years. Years of nights. Nothing on the wall now but the pins. Not all. Some out with the wrench. Some still pinning a shred. So stands there facing blank wall.

For me, the thumping banality of the actual stage directions threatens to destroy much of the spectral, barely perceivable subtlety of the more psychological passages.


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

Footfalls by Samuel Beckett (1976)

Footfalls is a short play by Samuel Beckett. Although it consists of barely five pages of text, it lasts a good 25 minutes in performance because of the very frequent use of long, pregnant pauses and its division into four parts separated by intermissions when the lights go completely dark, while the audience hears the solitary chime of a distant church bell.

The action, the onstage activity such as it is, consists of one woman, May, pacing slowly across the stage, reaching the edge of the stage, turning and… pacing slowly back, all the time exchanging slow, moody dialogue with the voice of a woman offstage, who she refers to as ‘Mother’.

Stage directions

In terms of stagecraft, Footfalls is another example of Beckett’s fastidious concern with ultra-precise stage directions. Here’s his instructions for how it opens:

Curtain. Stage in darkness.
Faint single chime. Pause as echoes die.
Fade up to dim on strip. Rest in darkness.
M discovered pacing towards L. Turns at L. paces three more lengths, halts, facing front at R.

That’s the opening, but the full mise-en-scène is this, complete with a precise diagram showing the footsteps.

Strip: downstage, parallel with front, length nine steps, width one metre, a little off centre audience right.Directions for the actress to walk in Samuel Beckett's Footfalls

 

 

Starting with right foot (r), from right (R) to left (L), with left foot (I) from L to R.
Turn: rightabout at L, leftabout at R.
Steps: clearly audible rhythmic tread.
Lighting: dim, strongest at floor level, less on body, least on head.
Voices: both low and slow throughout.

Start stage right, take nine steps, length one metre, starting with the right foot, ending with the right foot, then turn and commence the return journey with the left foot.

The lighting is brightest at floor level to really emphasis the feet pacing and growing dimmer further up the body so the audience can barely see the walking woman’s face, making her voice disembodied.

The consolation of mechanism

I’m so glad I took the trouble to read Beckett’s shorter fiction because it’s in a relatively obscure autobiographical fragment, Heard in the Dark 2, that Beckett writes that:

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble… Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort…

This, for me, is the key which opens Beckett’s entire worldview. I’ve always felt the critics who dwell on the supposed nihilism and bleakness and existentialism of his worldview were missing or downplaying the equally important element of mechanism, his mechanical way of conceiving the human body and human activity, the obsessive enumeration of all the ways of performing deliberately trivial tasks which infests novels like Molloy and Watt, the obsessive visualising of the way human bodies are cramped and confined and bent at precise angles in the avant-garde prose pieces like How It Is or All Strange Away, and then the obsessive attention to precise measurements in all aspects of the later plays, not only physical distances such as the head of the actor being 8 feet off the stage in Not I but 10 feet in That Time, right down to the exact specification for duration of pauses or, for example in That Time, of the breaths (10 seconds).

Comfort. The boy Beckett found comfort in simple sums, counting and figures. The effect for the reader and viewer may to be powerfully alienated from the protagonists of the fiction and the performers in the plays, which emphasise an anti-humanist mechanistic view of the human machine.

And, when you read the stage directions of this play you realise that the words, the speaking of the words, must at moments exactly match the pacing of the feet. That must be extremely difficult to achieve in actual performance. It is bending the performer to become as precise as a musical instrument, as regular as a metronome.

The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett tells us that, once he saw it in performance, Beckett changed the number of paces from seven to nine. It was crucial to the rhythm of the piece. Likewise, the period of seven seconds. He told the director of the German production that the first chime of the bell must die away in seven seconds and the light comes up in seven seconds. At the end of each of the three parts the light must fade away across seven seconds, and then comes back up for the next part in seven seconds. Exactly. Mechanical and precise as a composition by Bach.

Yes, we understand all that but… it transforms your understanding to realise that this entire worldview has its origin in an urge to control the world, and to control his feelings, felt by a lonely, solitary little boy, and a very clever, sensitive and isolated young man. To realise that the extreme mechanicalness of all these stage details is fraught with tightly controlled emotion. Ready to explode. Those phrases in Heard In the Dark 2 are the key which explains why such low-profile, muted, quiet, dimly-lit and precisely choreographed pieces of stagecraft are, in fact, bursting with suppressed fury.

Beckett on film

This is the Beckett On Film version, directed by Walter Asmus, with Susan Fitzgerald as May, the walking woman, and Joan O’Hara as the Voice, referred to as Mother.

The most obvious thing about it is that it ignores the purity of Beckett’s stage direction and complicates things visually by placing May behind a row of banisters and making it look like she’s on the landing of a house, pacing up and down outside two bedroom doors. Making it much less abstract and minimalist, much more specific than the play’s directions justify.

Themes

Numbers

Obviously it’s two women, a dyad but, in a way, more dynamic than the characters, is the play’s careful division into four parts: part 1 May and mother’s dialogue; part 2 the mother’s monologue; part 3 May’s monologue; part 4 the brief coda with no-one onstage.

Speed

The speed is the extreme opposite of Not I or Play in which the actors were told to rattle on at breakneck speed. Here it is the opposite, slow to almost to soporific, with long pregnant pauses between phrases. And the metronomic speed of the pacing steps is like the tempo of unheard music.

Voices

It is a play of voices, maybe most plays are, but Beckett’s more than most, where there is often no action at all, no interplay, just the haunting effect of voices. One aspect of voices-only drama is that the voices themselves can change identity in the way a physical actor cannot.

Decrepit

Beckett delights in the details of physical decay and decrepitude, hence the initial dialogue about the bedpan, dressing sores etc. Can the Voice really be 90 years old, 89 or 90? The woman onstage, May or Amy, she is quite old, too, certainly a wreck: ‘dishevelled grey hair, worn grey wrap hiding feet, trailing.’ Very often Beckett throws in a swearword or two. Maybe he was restrained out of respect for a woman actor.

Identity

Footfalls is divided into 4 parts by silence and the lights going down to blackness and then the distant chime of a church bell. It is very unnerving when the lights come up on part two and May is no longer speaking, but is addressed by the Voice, the alleged mother, in a sustained monologue, revealing creepy details about the woman we observe continuing her endless pacing. As the piece progresses their respective identities become more uncertain, as the Mother speaks vindictively about the daughter in part 2, before May appears to have a breakdown in part 3 as she becomes utterly absorbed into the anecdote about the mother and daughter in church, before she finally seems to reveal that the mother’s voice is part of her psyche.

And then all identities are cancelled when part 4 opens (briefly) on an empty stage. All gone like dreams, ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’ or, in this case, nightmares of personality disorder.

Pacing

How many Beckett characters are engaged on endless, pointless trudges, from Molloy and Malone in the Trilogy or Mercier and Camier on their pointless quest through to the more blighted characters in prose pieces like How It IsEnoughHeard in the Dark 1, or Lucky and Pozzo on their pointless circular journey in Waiting For Godot?

Footfalls in a sense zeroes in on just this aspect of Beckett’s small palette, zeroing in on more than the pacing to focus on the very process of footfalls, the falls of foot, precise and precisely notated, the loud, bocking noise of the hard woman’s shoes clod clod clodding across the carpetless floor, ‘however faint they fall’, in an endless sequence, forever.

Stephen King

One of the commentators on YouTube mentions Stephen King. It’s a reminder that Beckett exists in the real world, the wide world that includes Disneyland and Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and reggae. Seen from the perspective of ordinary people a play like this is a spooky ghost story. In fact Beckett’s obsession with people we can see – like May, here, or Joe in Eh Joe or the Listener in That Time – being haunted, bullied and harrowed by the voices of the unseen, they are very much like ghost stories.

The spine-chilling ghoulishness is brought on by the Voice telling us about the woman onstage, that when she was a girl, when other girls were out playing lacrosse, ‘she’ was already at it, at this, at this pointless pacing which has consumed her life. She has rarely if ever left the house, living a life of confinement and obligation to an aged parent. Trapped.

And then the vehemence of the apparently trivial anecdote of the mother and daughter in church, pretty pointless in itself but which leads into the terrifying last minutes where the woman we see, the actress onstage, appears to change from the ‘May’ who began the piece into the ‘Amy’ who featured in the church story. And now for the first time we appear to see that the voice of ‘mother’ is inside her head, as she expresses both characters, Mother and Amy.

It turns, in the final moments, into Psycho, an initially sensible, calm-seeming younger person apparently possessed by the personality of their dead mother.

Leading up to the very final stage instruction which is that, after the lights go down for the third time, after we hear the distant chime even more feebly than before, after an even longer wait for the lights to slowly, feebly go back up, a little…. there is NO TRACE OF MAY! She has disappeared. She was never there. She was a ghost in our minds just as her mother was a ghost in her mind.

For the play turns out to be about people who are not there, in multiple senses. May may only be a figment of her mother’s imagination. Or memory. And May’s rather violent anecdote of the mother and daughter in church may be a representation of the mother’s guilt, a confused expression of the accusation she know can be hurled at her of immuring her daughter, the mother realising her representation of the fictitious version of her daughter, Amy, is as incomplete as her actual daughter, May’s, actual life was. Hence Amy, and maybe her mother through her, claiming:

Amy: I was not there. Mrs W: Not there? Amy: Not there.

Maybe May only existed because her mother gave her being (in a literal and psychological sense, for which she apologises, like everyone in Beckett is sorry for being born) and then gave rise to an accusing imago, May, who berates her. And maybe none of them existed. Or existed for only as long as the audience watched the play. For before and after the curtain went up and down, none of them were there. No one was there.

Personal taste

Myself, I preferred That Time. It may be down to a number of factors: I preferred the lulling cadences of the boyhood memories in That Time which, probably against Beckett’s intentions, I found had an overall comforting effect.

Maybe it’s a gender thing: I found the stories of his earlier life which the Listener is subjected to, were vivid and empowering and adventurous, catching a midnight ferry, ducking into a gallery out of the rain. I identified with them. Whereas Footfalls seemed to me a very feminine story of entrapment, of a middle-aged woman whose life appears to have been stifled into becoming her elderly mother’s carer. It seems to be about a form of psychological imprisonment, immurement since girlhood, the complete loss of agency and, eventually, of identity. I found it demoralising.

Plus I really liked the voice of the Beckett On Film performer, Niall Buggy. I found it warm and enfolding, whereas, I’m afraid to say, I didn’t like Susan Fitzgerald’s performance. It may be apt and appropriate but I found her icy and unsympathetic and, towards the end of her monologue, harsh and shrewish.

Then again, maybe it’s neither performer so much as their respective plays, for Footfalls seems to me much more cold, calculated and detached. It is more spectral and spooky, certainly. It made me feel cold and rather scared. I only watched it once. Whereas I listened to warm Niall’s stories about running away to his boyhood refuge in the ruins on Foley’s Hill multiple times, and enjoyed it more each time I listened.


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

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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