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

Rough for Theatre I and II by Samuel Beckett

Rough for Theatre I

Rough for Theatre I is a one-act theatrical sketch by Samuel Beckett. Also known simply as Theatre I it was originally written in French in the late 1950s and known as Fragment de théâtre, although an early version was known as The Gloaming. Beckett later translated it into English. As a fragment it had to wait until 1979 for its first production, at the Schiller Theatre in Hamburg.

On a derelict and empty street corner a decrepit old man (referred to in the text as A) is playing a violin very badly when another man in a wheelchair (referred to as a B) turns a corner and wheels himself up to the violinist. B offers to join forces ’till death ensue’, but their initially friendly exchanges develop into raillery and then abuse, of the usual Beckett kind, before the violinist, having been pushed to the ground by the wheelchair user, grabs the latter’s staff or very big stick and seems about to hit him. The drama cuts at that point, the actors literally freezing in a tableau. Is he going to throw it away? Is he going to hit the wheelchair guy?

The scenario bears a more than passing resemblance to The Cat and the Moon, a play by W.B. Yeats, in which a blind man and a cripple form a symbiotic relationship.

The play was filmed on location in Dublin as a part of the Beckett on Film project in June 2000 starring David Kelly as A and Milo O’Shea as B, two absolutely outstanding actors, brilliantly directed by Kieron Walsh.

Scholars speculate that the play was a sort of continuation of Endgame. This certainly struck me when I saw that the man in the moving chair (B) was carrying a large stick or stave and behaves very aggressively, as Hamm does at some points in Endgame. In fact critic Helen Penet-Astbury claims that both I and II are ‘failed attempts to continue where Endgame had left off’. Maybe Beckett realised it was too much like the earlier play, that he was repeating himself and so abandoned it.

Maybe the freeze at the end of this filmed version is simply a clever way of stopping dead without having to go on – although it works fine imaginatively, in a disruptive and innovative way.

Apparently, there’s an alternative manuscript of the text in which the characters are named B for Blind and C for Cripple. Don’t think that would be allowed in our censorious times.

What really strikes me about this, though, is the way that Beckett was becoming venerated as a great genius, such that even his half-finished fragments began to be carefully preserved, published, annotated and performed on special evenings devoted to fragments and fractions, as if every word, every scrap of text, bore a special and holy significance.

Rough for Theatre II

In Rough For Theatre II two bored bureaucrats, A and B, shuffle through documents which they take out of briefcases as they discuss the life and career of a nameless man, C (once or twice named as Croker) who stands on the window ledge as if about to jump. The studied indifference of two bureaucrats to the fate of a wretched victim whose life is in their hands feels very reminiscent of the bored officials who hold the fate of Joseph K in their hands in The Trial.

The text consists of a sequence of exchanges of studied inconsequence, grey surrealist details, and a peculiar species of non-humorous jokes:

A: Well, to make a long story short he had his head in the oven when they came to tell him his wife had gone under an ambulance. Hell, he says, I can’t miss that, and now he has a steady job at Marks and Spencer’s.

Arf arf, as we said at school forty years ago, about sentences which have the shape and appearance of jokes, but aren’t really that funny? There are sly jokes in the prose works and in Godot, but from that point onwards Beckett begins to specialise in forms of words which have all the appearance of being jokes without any actual humour. Emphasising their humourlessness is a kind of satire on the point of any text or language. It drains humour from the text. These anti-jokes, along with the deliberate inconsequentiality of so much of the detail, has a strong draining and demoralising effect. A related example is the way the man standing on the ledge, who the bored officials wish would just get on and jump, his name is Croker. Because he’s going to croke. It’s as if Beckett is daring his readers to accept dire and dreadful jokes as key components of his works of art.

A (once or twice referred to as ‘Bertrand’) and B (referred to as ‘Morvan’) poke and pry over various aspects of C’s life, his ‘literary aspirations’ and consider a letter to ‘an admiratrix’. This seems heavy satire on the pointlessness of the literary life. The two officials let slip aspects of their own lives, for example, A once belonged to the Band of Hope, a youth temperance movement.

There is a kind of transcendental irrelevance about more or less everything they say. For me the futility doesn’t come from the man about to jump off a window ledge but the utter inconsequentiality of the behaviour and dialogue of the officials, written in a peculiarly dead, airless style. A goes over to look C in the face. B asks how he seems:

B: How does he look?
A: Not at his best.
B: Has he still got that little smile on his face?
A: Probably.
B: What do you mean, probably, haven’t you just been looking at him?
A: He didn’t have it then.
B: [With satisfaction.] Ah! [Pause. ] Could never make out what he thought he was doing with that smile on his face. And his eyes? Still goggling?
A: Shut.
B: Shut!

I appreciate that the ‘play’ is a highly stylised depiction of human inertia and heartlessness, but still… I found myself reading this or watching the film (well made thought it is) and thinking… this is really boring.

The pair’s desk lights go on and off with the kind of mechanical clunkiness I associate with the obsessive mechanical behaviour found throughout the novels, and sprinkled with the kind of banal deadpan repartee familiar from Godot.

B: I ‘ll read the whole passage: ‘… morbidly sensitive to the opinion of others –’ [His lamp goes out. ] Well ! The bulb has blown! [The lamp goes on again.] No, it hasn’t! Must be a faulty connection. [Examines lamp, straightens flex.] The flex was twisted, now all is well. [Reading.] ‘… morbidly sensitive –’ [The lamp goes out. ] Bugger and shit!
A: Try giving her a shake. [B shakes the lamp. It goes on again.] See! I picked up that wrinkle in the Band of Hope.
[Pause.]

They hear a bird sing and discover a birdcage in the corner of the stage, but discover one of the original pair of finches it contained is dead, the male finch, leaving the female to carry on forlornly singing, an old cuttle-bone at the bottom of the cage. Aridity. Blank pointlessness.

A and B eventually decide there is no point C carrying on living, given he has ‘a black future, an unpardonable past’, a conclusion which doesn’t follow particularly logically from the random quotes and excerpts they’ve spent the previous 15 minutes quoting from. Heartless, they agree: ‘Let him jump, let him jump.’

At the very end A climbs up onto the window-ledge and lights a succession of matches to illuminate C’s face. (C, by the way, does not move or respond during any of the previous dialogue or action). A gasps with surprise. I think the implication is that C, despite everything, has a smile on his face… though even this much concession to a meaningful ending is suppressed.

A: Hi! Take a look at this! [B does not move. A strikes another match, holds it high and inspects C’s face.] Come on! Quick! [B does not move. The match burns out, A lets it fall.] Well, I’ll be…! [A takes out his handkerchief and raises it timidly towards C’s face.]

This is the black-and-white film of Rough For Theatre II, which was made for the Beckett On Film project, starring Jim Norton as A, Timothy Spall as B, and Hugh B. O’Brien as C, directed by Katie Mitchell.

It felt like Kafka from start to finish, with the added inconsequentiality of dialogue which is Beckett’s own particular contribution. At some moments the officiousness of the two bureaucrats squabbling and fumbling with their briefcases full of files, more or less oblivious to the character at the window, feels deliberately reminiscent of the great totalitarian states of the middle part of the twentieth century, the Nazi regime of the Holocaust with its mind-boggling concern for correct procedure in murdering millions, or the administration of Stalin’s gulags, with harassed officials struggling to process the huge numbers of the guilty passing through their books on their way to living death in Siberia.

The symbolism of the situation seems almost too obvious. Maybe that’s why Beckett didn’t make it any longer or promote it very much.


Credit

Rough For Theatre I by Samuel Beckett was first published in the summer of 1958, and first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in October 1958.

Rough For Theatre II by Samuel Beckett was written and then abandoned around 1960. It was eventually published in 1976.

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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