Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future by Evelyn Waugh (1953)

‘State be with you.’
(Blessing in the New Britain satirised in Love Among The Ruins)

Waugh knocked off Love Among the Ruins as a response to the Labour Party’s victory in the February 1950 general election, which threatened five more years of socialist rule. It is another novella satirising the modern world, comparable in length to Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947).

Love Among The Ruins is obviously intended to be a scathing satire on the direction post-war Britain was taking but it prompted a very negative response from the publishers Waugh sent it to. One said: ‘It seems to me sad that this man’s talent should be wasted on such a story’. Another: ‘The theme is almost implausibly apt for satire by Waugh and yet his handling of it is, for the most part, dull-witted and tedious.’

In response Waugh quickly withdrew Love Among The Ruins from the market. He spent three years revising it and then issued it as a volume in its own right in 1953. The volume was notable for its satirical use of illustrations. It took illustrations from a book about the statues of the 18th century sculptor Canova and gave them satirical titles or adjustments, as in the depiction of the bearded heroine, Clara.

Waugh’s humorous reworking of a Canova image to depict the bearded ‘heroine’ of ‘Love Among the Ruins’

Having read some of these negative comments I was expecting Love Among The Ruins to be bad, but I enjoyed it. Sub-titling it ‘a romance of the near future’ links it to the fictions of H.G. Wells who called his science fictions ‘romances’. But its vision of a technocratic future, no matter how light and satirical, evokes other resonances and echoes, from Brave New World (1932) to Nineteen Eight-Four (1949) and associates it with contemporary science fiction visions of troubled futures, such as the all-female future depicted in John Wyndham’s novella, Consider Her Ways (1956).

The plot

Mountjoy prison

We are in England in the near future. Waugh tells us the current government is the Bevan-Eden coalition (p.444) – so it’s not set in the middle future under unknown leaders, but only a few years hence under very well-known political leaders. Its most popular stroke was the Incitement to Industry Act of 1955 which has consolidated the now-permanent government, so only a few years after he was writing…

The narrative opens in a ‘modern’ prison, Mountjoy, which is run according to all the latest fashionable principles, based on the foundational idea that people are not responsible for their actions; if they commit crimes, it is due to failings in the social services.

‘In the New Britain which we are building, there are no criminals. There are only the victims of inadequate social services.’ (p.437)

Thus the prison is a place not of punishment but rehabilitation and ‘Remedial Repose’ (at moments the satire on progressive, modern attitudes to crime and rehabilitation reminded me of Kingsley Amis’s We Are All Guilty).

Thus Mountjoy prison is at first deliberately described so that the reader mistakes it for a luxury hotel, what with its fountains, and flower gardens and a string quartet playing in the grounds, its stables and its chandeliers. In fact it becomes clear it is what was once a grand country houses belonging to the old aristocracy, which has been requisitioned and turned into a rehabilitation centre for criminals, a place for Preventive Custody and Corrective Treatment. (To be precise, Mountjoy Castle had been the ancestral seat of a maimed V.C. of the Second World War, who had been sent to a Home for the Handicapped when the place was converted into a gaol. Waugh neglects no opportunity to ram home the amorality and shabbiness of the new regime).

Miles Plastic

The narrative opens on the night before the criminal in question and hero of the story, Miles Plastic, is due to be released back into the community, allowed to resume being A Citizen, now he is a fully rehabilitated man. Miles is the epitome of The Modern Man. His parents were ruined by the State (presumably death duties, land taxes and all the other impositions of Socialism), reduced to poverty, forced to divorce, he was handed over to an aunt who died of boredom from working in a factory, and so he was raised in an orphanage.

Huge sums were thenceforward spent upon him; sums which, fifty years earlier, would have sent whole quiversful of boys to Winchester and New College and established them in the learned professions. In halls adorned with Picassos and Légers he yawned through long periods of Constructive Play. He never lacked the requisite cubic feet of air. His diet was balanced and on the first Friday of every month he was psychoanalysed. Every detail of his adolescence was recorded and microfilmed and filed, until at the appropriate age he was transferred to the Air Force. There were no aeroplanes at the station to which he was posted. It was an institution to train instructors to train instructors to train instructors in Personal Recreation. (p.434)

I can see how more critical reviewers might have thought this was a bit obvious, but I thought Waugh carried it off. It has a nice tone of amusement throughout, amusement laced with contempt for the people he is satirising.

Mountjoy doesn’t have punishment breaking of rocks, it has community singing. The governor isn’t a governor, he’s a ‘Chief Guide’.

Miles’s trial

Thus when Miles carried out an act of arson, burning down the air force buildings and killing half the people in it, he wasn’t treated as a psychopath, but handled sympathetically and diagnosed by a psychologist who judged that incendiarism was a perfectly normal part of adolescence which shouldn’t be bottled up. Now, after two happy years of luxury living, Miles is being ‘released’ or returned to the community.

Soapy and Mr Sweat

There is a comic passage where a couple of the old timers, Soapy and Mr Sweat commiserate with Miles for being let out; they love it here, living in the lap of luxury; they love it so much they want to stay forever and, with that aim in mind, have recently undertaken a little foray and massacred the peacocks which used to stroll round the grounds. If anyone tries to tell them they’re reformed and ready for release, they’ll show the dead birds and thus ensure a lovely further extension to their sentences. The old lags lament the good old days when committing a crime made you a criminal and prison meant prison, you knew where you were; now the authorities call you an ‘antisocial phenomenon’ and say you are ‘maladjusted’ and instead of hard time you get a luxury hotel and ‘Remedial Repose’.

The Minister of Welfare and the Minister of Rest and Culture

Miles’s release ceremony is attended by the Minister of Welfare and the Minister of Rest and Culture of the coalition government. They emphasise that the new programme has its critics, which is why Miles is important. He is considered the First Success of the new way, a ‘vindication of the Method.’

Miles is being sent to Satellite City, the nearest Population Centre. He is issued a Certificate of Human Personality and told to report to the Area Progressive. Transport has been laid on.

Satellite City

Mockery of a new town. The grand architect’s plans have given rise to a shabby reality of glass and concrete. A vast Dome of Security was built but the dome itself is not only invisible from street level but all its windows have been blacked out during various international crises and the concrete has stained and blotched. As to the surrounding buildings:

There were no workers’ flats, no officials’ garden suburb, no parks, no playgrounds yet. These were all on the drawing boards in the surveyor’s office, tattered at the edges, ringed by tea cups; their designer long since cremated. (p.441)

In Waugh’s description of the general air of shabbiness you can maybe detect the influence of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with its descriptions of a future of permanent shabbiness, degradation, pokey apartments in poorly maintained tower blocks. More close to home, it reminds me of the 1970s new town I grew up in, all stained concrete and broken lifts smelling of pee.

The officials subsisted in perpetual twilight. Great sheets of glass, planned to “trap” the sun, admitted few gleams from scratches in their coat of tar. At evening when the electric light came on, there was a faint glow, here and there. When, as often, the power station was “shedding its load” the officials stopped work early and groped their way back to their darkened huts where in the useless refrigerators their tiny rations were quietly putrefying. On working days the officials, male and female, trudged through cigarette ends round and round, up and down what had once been lift-shafts, in a silent, shabby, shadowy procession. (p.441)

There are endless strikes which bring this or that service to a halt. Reminds me of my boyhood in the 1970s. Similarly, Satellite City’s hospital, ‘one of the unfinished edifices, all concrete and steel and glass in front and a jumble of huts behind.’ Use of the word ‘hut’ links it to the kind of structure Waugh saw in Africa and the Amazon i.e. British society is reverting to the level of savages.

The Euthenasia Department

It’s pretty funny that Miles is sent to the Euthenasia Department. And Waugh develops the comic implications very drolly:

Under the Bevan-Eden Coalition the service came into general use and won instant popularity. The Union of Teachers was pressing for its application to difficult children. Foreigners came in such numbers to take advantage of the service that immigration authorities now turned back the bearers of single tickets.

Miles finds himself widely envied by colleagues:

‘Great State! You must have pull. Only the very bright boys get posted to Euthanasia.’
‘I’ve been in Contraception for five years. It’s a blind alley.’
‘They say that in a year or two Euthanasia will have taken over Pensions.’ (p.444)

Contraception is a dead end ha ha. It is run by a Dr Beamish:

Satellite City was said to be the worst served Euthanasia Centre in the State. Dr. Beamish’s patients were kept waiting so long that often they died natural deaths before he found it convenient to poison them. (p.445)

Miles’s job is to open the doors to batches of new clients, make them comfortable, turn on the telly, offer cups of tea while they wait to be ushered through the final door, with its whiff of cyanide, and then the roar of the crematorium ovens…

Clara

Dr Beamish tells him a special client has been sent. Miles fetches her from the VIP waiting room, a beautiful trim young woman with…a golden beard! Dr Beamish is impressed. Obviously a result of ‘Klugmann’s Operation.’ This, apparently, is an operation to sterilise young women which was forced on her when she said she wanted to pursue a career in ballet. A ludicrous symbol of a world which has lost all touch with nature and human nature, which fetishises sterility and death.

The bearded lady makes it quite clear she’s only come because of pressure from the head of her drama department and ballet – after the botched sterilisation procedures they’re all sure she must want to die – but has no intention of being euthenised. Dr Beamish wonders why the silly girl is wasting his time and throws her out. She explains to Miles how much she likes dancing. She finds that Art makes her value life all the more. Her name is Clara.

Lovers

They become lovers. Clara can no longer dance (a ballerina with a beard!) but she helps out at the ballet school. They cohabit in a cubicle of a Nissan hut (a chronic shortage of houses and accommodation being a result of the war which dragged on for years afterwards; another idea embedded in Nineteen Eighty-Four).

Sex is nothing new for Miles, he has been taught about it since toddler years. What surprises him is love, which he’s never been taught about, but which Clara has an instinctive feel for. She has prints of Old Master paintings (sounds like a Fragonard or Watteau) contrasted with the stern, machine-age Legers and Picassos Miles has been subjected to all his life.

They live a simple frugal life, going to their daily jobs, in the evening lying in the fields under the big moon and making love. Summer turns to autumn, and then November, ‘season of strikes’. Clara is growing fat. She goes to see the doctor. On her return they share a glass of wine. (In another instance of the Modern State totalitarianly dominating every aspect of existence, the state now chooses and names the vintage, so this one is called Progress Port.)

Doctor told her she’s pregnant. They are both sad their child will not be born an Orphan, which is much the most preferred way for infants in the New Britain. Then Clara leaves, clears out, disappears without trace. Miles is at first upset, then concerned, then angry, then indifferent.

Clara’s face replacement

Santa-Claus-tide approaches and the shops are full of shoddy goods. Christmas trees have been renamed Goodwill Trees. Someone he works with tells Miles Clara is in hospital. He goes to visit her. The porter doesn’t bother to look up from his television. The corridors are full of muzak from the wireless. Waugh’s vision of uncivil, modern barbarism.

Miles discovers the doctors have performed an abortion on his child, but almost as bad, or worse, they have cut off Clara’s beard and replaced the whole lower part of her face with a rubber flesh-substitute.

Her eyes and brow were all that was left of the loved face. Below it something quite inhuman, a tight, slippery mask, salmon pink. (p.459)

Miles gets up and walks out, walks out the hospital, walks away from Satellite City, walks for hours through the countryside till he is surprised to read a sign saying Mountjoy Castle is nearby. The gates are always open and welcoming in the way of the New Penology, so he walks right up to the building and sets it on fire. Uses a lighter he carries with him to set afire the dry curtains and soon the whole lots goes up. ‘The murderers were leaping from the first-storey windows but the sexual offenders, trapped above, set up a wail of terror.’

Once it is utterly burned to the ground Miles turns and walks away, walking the long road back to Satellite City feeling light of heart and with a smile on his face.

Back to work

Next day Miles wakes to the smell of cheap State sausages cooking in his hostel, dressed and goes to work. I was astonished when there is a reference to Parsnipthe comic name he gave to his caricature of the famous 1930s poet W.H. Auden in Put Out More Flags. Now he is described as a shabby has-been who wants to kill himself, joins the queue for the Euthenasia department but always bottles out. Not today.

Miles turned to the periscope. Only one man waited outside, old Parsnip, a poet of the ’30s who came daily but was usually jostled to the back of the crowd. He was a comic character in the department, this veteran poet. Twice in Miles’s short term he had succeeded in gaining admission but on both occasions had suddenly taken fright and bolted.
‘It’s a lucky day for Parsnip,’ said Miles.
‘Yes. He deserves some luck. I knew him well once, him and his friend Pimpernell. New Writing, the Left Book Club, they were all the rage. Pimpernell was one of my first patients. Hand Parsnip in and we’ll finish him off.’
So old Parsnip was summoned and that day his nerve stood firm. He passed fairly calmly through the gas chamber on his way to rejoin Pimpernell. (p.464)

Clara again

After a hard day at work Miles goes back to the hospital to see Clara. She has succeeded in painting the rubber mask to make it impressively lifelike. He feels cold and distant from her.

Promotion

Next day Miles is told he’s been promoted, is given a suit and bowler hat and a driver who drives him up to the London where he enters the imposing ‘Ministry’. Miles is surprised to discover that the burning down of Mountjoy prison has become a real talking point. And it has changed his status. Instead of being the first of many rehabilitated patients, he is now the Only One. The New Penology has always had its critics and so now, to counter them, the ministers intend to send him the length and breadth of the country to lecture about its wonderful benefits.

They unveil a model of the New Mountjoy they are planning to build and it is, in fact, merely a cardboard packing case. But it stirs something in Miles’s soul, his entire upbringing up to this date is summed up in the object. Stripped of all ornament and pleasure, a fitting place to consign the lifeless inhabitants of a lifeless society.

‘Does he have a wife?’ the minister asks him, ‘Folk like a man with a wife.’ ‘No,’ replies Miles. Well, on the spot they fit him up with Miss Flower, the ‘gruesome’ secretary who has been assisting at the meeting. And off they’re whisked to the registrar office and are half way through the service when… when Miles realises he is fidgeting with a hard object in his pocket. With a cigarette lighter. He clicks it to light a small flame. A flame. A fire. An earnest of the future.

Thoughts

Endings are difficult. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half, up to Clara disappearing before being discovered at the hospital. Up to that point the story flowed very naturally and contained lots of humorous touches. Up to that point it had been a kind of sci fi-political farce, funny because ridiculous. With the running off of Clara the storyline somehow became more serious, almost as if trying to be a serious fiction, with serious people and serious emotions. Once that possibility was allowed in, Love Among The Ruins felt like it lost a lots of its cartoonish spontaneity and sparkle.

Although it ends with a wicked glint in its eye, somehow the end doesn’t quite fit the beginning and certainly doesn’t match the more ‘serious’ tone which threatened to emerge during the Clara-absconding -and-Miles-feeling-bereft passages. It doesn’t quite resolve properly.

Love Among the Ruins is obviously not a classic text by any means. It’s not in the same ballpark as Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is a frippery, a squib, an entertaining lampoon and, like most of his post-war fictions it feels incomplete, lacking something, some quality of real humour or resonance.

Waugh’s animosity against all the aspects of the modern world which he can cram into the narrative feel real and alive, specially in the opening passages but, as soon as he tries to concoct a plot to carry it forward, the text feels contrived.


Credit

Love Among the Ruins by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1953. All references are to its place in the 2018 Penguin paperback edition of the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

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

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