… but the clouds… by Samuel Beckett (1977)

but the clouds… is a short play by Samuel Beckett written expressly for television. It was written in English from October to November 1976, first televised on BBC 2 on 17 April 1977, and published by Faber and Faber later the same year.

By this stage in his career, Beckett’s stage directions for his plays had become super-schematic, so much so that they beg the question whether the works can really be referred to as plays at all, in any conventional sense. This one consists of about a page and a half of detailed stage instructions followed by barely three and a half of action and dialogue, of which the actual dialogue takes up less than half the space. It is a play – if it is a play at app – overwhelmingly, of silent movements.

The stage instructions list six elements to the piece and it is symptomatic that the one and only human in the piece is placed on the same level as camera setups and a disembodied voice:

  1. M – Near shot from behind of man sitting on invisible stool bowed over invisible table. Light grey robe and skullcap. Dark ground. Same shot throughout.
  2. M1 – M in set. Hat and greatcoat dark, robe and skullcap light.
  3. W – Close-up of woman’s face reduced as far as possible to eyes and mouth. Same shot throughout.
  4. S – Long shot of set empty or with M1. Same shot throughout.
  5. V – M’s voice.

The directions go on to describe the set.

Set: circular, about 5 m. diameter, surrounded by deep shadow.

And, typically for Beckett, he provides a simple but very precise diagram.

Diagram of the camera angle and stage positions for ‘…but the clouds…’

The four cardinal points of the circle are numbered and given names, thus:

  1. West, roads.
  2. North, sanctum.
  3. East, closet.
  4. Standing position.

With number 5 indicating the position of the camera.

The play stipulates four ‘changes’ which require the performer to turn or walk into the shadow in each direction, or emerge from the shadow. And the lighting? As so often with Beckett, it plays with the bare minimum effect you can achieve on a stage, which is the spectrum from black to light via gloom and shadow. No colours.

Lighting: a gradual lightening from dark periphery to maximum light at centre.

This focus on the minimalist use of light and shadow echoes the lighting in Footfall, which was brightest at feet level, emphasising the pacing feet, and then tapered off so the body and face were in shadow or darkness.

And the obsessive precision doesn’t let up with the end of the initial stage set-up. The three and a half pages of the actual shooting script consist of precisely 60 detailed instructions for changes of lighting or shot. Less than half the text is actual speech. Over half of these directions are one-line shot directions. Here’s the first eight. Note how actual speech – V, the voice of the bowed man, M – are only 3 of the 8 lines:

  1. Dark. 5 seconds.
  2. Fade up to M. 5 seconds.
  3. V: When I thought of her it was always night. I came in –
  4. Dissolve to S. empty. 5 seconds. M1 in at and greatcoat emerges from west shadow, advances five steps and stands facing east shadow. 2 seconds.
  5. V: No
  6. Dissolve to M. 2 seconds.
  7. V: No, that is not right. When she appeared it was always night. I came in –
  8. Dissolve to S. empty. 5 seconds. M1 in hat and greatcoat emerges from west shadow, advances five steps and stands facing east shadow. 5 seconds.

28 words of speech to 64 of directions. Most of the speech is this minimal, although, as mentioned above, the sequence of relatively short, one-sentence directions is interspersed at intervals with longer descriptions of the four ‘changes’. Here’s the first ‘change’, direction number 25:

  1. Dissolve to S. empty. 2 seconds. M 1 in robe and skullcap emerges from north shadow, advances five steps and stands facing camera. 2 seconds. He turns left and advances five steps to disappear in east shadow. 2 seconds. He emerges in hat and greatcoat from east shadow, advances five steps and stands facing West shadow. 2 seconds. He advances five steps to disappear in west shadow. 2 seconds.

In fact, I counted the whole thing and if we include the 60 numbers and various other numbers (the ‘2’ in ‘2 seconds’ etc) as words, then the entire piece contains 1,093 words, of which 448 (40%) are spoken and 645 (60%) stage directions.

The spoken text

Going a step further, we can extract all the spoken words, thus, to see what kind of sense they make when extracted from the carapace of stage directions. Doing this makes it easier to spot the repeated phrases, the dogged repetition of certain key words or phrases being Beckett’s central technique.

3. V: When I thought of her it was always night. I came in
5. V: No
7. V: No, that is not right. When she appeared it was always night. I came in
9. V: Right. Came in, having walked the roads since break of day, brought night home, stood listening, finally went to closet
11. V: Shed my hat and greatcoat, assumed robe and skull, reappeared
13. V: Reappeared and stood as before, only facing the other way, exhibiting the other outline, finally turned and vanished
15. V: Vanished within my little sanctum and crouched, where none could see me, in the dark.
17. V: Let us now make sure we have got it right.
19. V: Right.
21. V: Then crouching there, in my little sanctum, in the dark, where none could see me, I began to beg, of her, to appear, to me. Such had long been my use and wont. No sound, a begging of the mind, to her, to appear, to me. Deep down into the dead of night, until I wearied, and ceased. Or of course until –
24. V: For had she never once appeared, all that time, would I have, could I have, gone on begging, all that time ? Not just vanished within my little sanctum and busied myself with something else, or with nothing, busied myself with nothing? Until the time came, with break of day, to issue forth again, shed robe and skull, resume my hat and greatcoat, and issue forth again, to walk the roads.
26. V: Right.
28. V: Let us now distinguish three cases. One: she appeared and –
31. V: In the same breath was gone…. Two: she appeared and –
33. V: Lingered… With those unseeing eyes I so begged when alive to look at me.
35. V: Three: she appeared and –
37. V: After a moment
38. W’s lips move, uttering inaudibly: ‘…clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…V murmuring, synchronous with lips: ‘…but the clouds…
39. V: Right.
41. V: Let us now run through it again.
47. V: Look at me.
49. W’s lips move, uttering inaudibly: ‘…clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…‘  V murmuring, synchronous with lips: ‘…but the clouds…
50. V: Speak to me.
52. V: Right. There was of course a fourth case, or case nought, as I pleased to call it, by far the commonest, in the proportion say of nine hundred and ninety-nine to one, or nine hundred and ninety-eight to two, when I begged in vain, deep down into the dead of night, until I wearied, and ceased, and busied myself with something else, more … rewarding, such as … such as … cube roots, for example, or with nothing, busied myself with nothing, that MINE, until the time came, with break of day, to issue forth again, void my little sanctum, shed robe and skull, resume my hat and greatcoat, and issue forth again, to walk the roads… The back roads.
54. V: Right.
57. V: ‘…but the clouds of the sky…when the horizon fades…or a bird’s sleepy cry…among the deepening shades…’

The Gontarski production

So what do all these detailed instructions look like in practice? This is a production directed by Stanley E. Gontarski, the noted Beckett scholar.

Several points arise.

1. One is that the Gontarski production uses music, quite prominent modern music and musical sound affects such as the single penetrating note when the image of the woman appears. None of this is justified by the directions.

2. The second is that the precision of the circular set and the precise imagining of the man moving from one cardinal point to another are completely lost in a TV or film production, because we are all used to basic movie or TV technique, namely the camera’s point of view jumping all over the place, from one angle to another, from long shot, aerial shot, slow-mo, close-ups and what-have-you. So we have little or no sense of the man moving carefully from one point of the compass to another as indicated in the stage directions. He just seems to be moving in and out of darkness.

In this respect, the directions are very much conceived as stage directions, based on the notion of a fixed and unmoving audience point of view – and do not translate very well into the much more flexible medium of television/film.

3. Another is that the meanings Beckett attributes to the four points of the compass in his stage directions:

  1. West, roads.
  2. North, sanctum.
  3. East, closet.
  4. Standing position.

Only come out with great subtlety if at all. Nobody watching the piece would know that when the main figure goes to the shadowy position off to the left of the set, this is ‘1. West, roads’. The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett suggests that these later plays are ‘post-literary’ in the sense that simply reading them is not enough, you have to see them in production to grasp the meaning. But I think this is incorrect in two respects. One, anyone who’s ever made any film or TV can tell you that a shooting script is just as ‘post-literary’, in the same sense, that it’s just a set of instructions for creating a final programme or movie.

But, secondly, these late playlets do in fact demand to be read, precisely so that you can enjoy the precision and mathematical numeration of their layout. Rather than being ‘post-literary’, they are in fact a new kind of literary, a new genre, a super-precise, over-enumerated, computer readout style of playwriting, which Beckett took to an extreme, and which has a mechanistic flavour and pleasure distinct to itself.

4. Lastly, an actual visualisation like this brings out what is easy to overlook when reading the text, which is the sudden appearance of those images of the woman:

W – Close-up of woman’s face reduced as far as possible to eyes and mouth. Same shot throughout.

When you read the text, the importance of the woman is easy to overlook because she has no physical presence and doesn’t do anything or say anything. But in the produced film – well, in this one at any rate – the woman has a striking, almost dominating, presence and really brings out the male narrator’s abject submission to her, or the memory of her.

5. And her visual dominance rises to a climax at the two times when we see her face mouthing the words and the male voice speaking them:

‘ …clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…but the clouds…’

These are genuinely spooky. The superimposition of one person’s mouth mouthing words while another person’s voice actually articulates then is genuinely creepy, like a sci fi nightmare, a tale of possession and dispossession.

Themes and interpretations

W.B. Yeats

The title of the piece and those short phrases which the woman mouths and the narrator speaks, are all from the end of a poem, The Tower, by the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats:

Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Testy delirium
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come –
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath –
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades;
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

The poem expresses an attitude of detachment associated with Eastern philosophy. The poet will deliberately mould his soul in such a way as to be a tower amid the human chaos, so utterly schooled in a philosophy of detachment that every aspect of human life, all its trials and tribulations, will seem but the clouds in the sky, faraway and transient.

With this in mind we can see how the play enacts a dynamic tension, between a man who is trying to attain this level of detachment, to rise above himself and his own petty concerns – but who is quite clearly still in thrall to the image and memory of the woman who, we deduce, he has loved and lost. He is trying to escape from the world – but repeatedly dragged down into it by his own passions and longing.

It is, therefore, despite all the alienating and mechanical modernist trappings, a love story; or a story of lost love, of a man haunted by his lost love and making up all manner of mechanical and mathematical protocols to try and smother and control his hurt.

Endlessly trying to complete a narrative

In countless plays and prose texts since The Unnamable Beckett protagonists have struggled to complete a narrative – in order to achieve completion and closure, in order to get it right, so as to define and understand something, so as to be able to move on.

But they never can. The circle is never complete, the story is never told. My favourite example is the radio play Cascando in which the Voice endlessly restarts and tries to complete one single anecdote about a man who wakes, goes down to the sea, and launches a dinghy… but the Voice can never quite complete the tale or get it right, despite trying, over and over.

Presumably this is easily enough identified as an allegory on ‘the human condition’ – permanently trying to complete, finish and understand our lives and what we’ve done, forever condemned not to be able to.

And so this short play appears to be another iteration of the same basic idea, with the man saying:

39. V: Right.
41. V: Let us now run through it again.

Unaware or not acknowledging that he’s going to have to keep ‘running through it again’, forever.

The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett makes the canny point that the narrator is split in two, into M and M1, because he is directing himself. It is M who is directing his puppet self, ‘M in set’, to try and achieve the ‘right’ result.

This insight sheds light on many of Beckett’s texts, which are routinely divided between a kind of doing protagonist and a consciousness protagonist, between the self doing and the self commenting on the self doing. This insight suggests that all these texts are, in a sense, plays, in which the observing commenting self is endlessly directing the actor self, rehearsing the scene or sequence over and over again till he gets it right. But he can never get it right, only fail again, fail better.

The meaning of numbers

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, reading the obscure autobiographical fragment, Heard in the Dark 2, was a revelation because in it Beckett writes about the boy protagonist 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, and explains the deeper meaning of his mechanical way of conceiving of the human body, human nature and, above all, the mechanical, rote movements of human bodies, as described in his numerous prose texts, plays and mimes.

Yes, they fall in with the avant-garde tradition dating from Dada of viewing human beings as robots, automata, and this aspect of his work has a strong anti-humanist intention.

But Heard In The Dark 2 reveals that the obsession with numbers also has a very personal psychological meaning for Beckett. It is comforting. It is reassuring. It was a help in times of trouble to the boy and young man, and it is a similar ‘help’ in all his adult fictions.

This piece is no exception and it comes as no surprise when the narrating Man says that, when his desperate pleas to the woman meet with failure – then he busies himself with other things, with something:

more…rewarding, such as…such as…cube roots, for example…

It is no surprise that he categorises the woman’s appearances into four types. It is no surprise that he has worked out the relative proportions in which these cases arise.

This obsession with numbers (and also with enumerating every possible permutation of basic human movements such as infest the experimental novel Watt), this obsession underpins everything Beckett wrote, and especially the plays, which, as we pointed out at the start of this review, became by the mid-1970s, increasingly obsessed with numbers in their apparatus (the stage directions) and in their onstage actions (the actor’s precisely specified movements) and in the text, the actual words spoken. Three levels. Thus:

  1. The superprecise description of the set and the precise numbering of the 60 stage directions.
  2. The superprecise description of the four pieces of onstage activity, the so-called ‘changes’ between one part and the next
  3. The numerical content of what M actually says, namely the enumeration of the four ‘cases’ and then his assessment of the proportion of these ‘cases’, nine hundred and ninety-nine to one, or nine hundred and ninety-eight to two…’, the cube roots and so on

What is the consoling nature of numbers? Well, numbers give the appearance of meaning, even when there is none. They belong to a world of reassuringly objective truth and consistency. In this short piece the psychological reassurance they provide is linked to the voice’s repeated description of himself seeking out his ‘inner sanctum’, ‘where none can see him”, where he crouches and hides away, busying himself with…the consoling power of numbers.

Let’s look at those four cases more closely. M enumerates four possibilities:

  1. the woman appears and instantly leaves
  2. she appears and lingers
  3. she appears and speaks Yeats’s words
  4. she does not appear at all whereupon the narrator busies himself with consolatory activities such as cube roots

In this respect, numbers are like a replacement for religion, which Beckett appears to have long since abandoned. They are a lucid, rational, objective system which can be used to give logic, order and meaning to what are, otherwise, the utterly meaningless actions and the hopelessly unfulfillable hopes of the human animal.

Trudging

Beckett characters walk a lot. Well, trudge might be a better word. Trudge endlessly across bleak landscapes as in Fizzle 8, or as with Pozzo and Lucky endlessly circling round their little world in Godot, or the 120 lost souls traipsing around inside their rubber cylinder in The Lost Ones.

Walking is a basic element of the profoundest, deepest allegorical fictions in literature, from Dante walking through hell and purgatory to Pilgrim walking through the allegorical landscape of Pilgrim‘s Progress.

In Beckett, however, walking is deliberately reduced, humiliated, to trudging, round in a circle, or shuffling forward bent painfully over like the old man in Enough.

Here the male figure, when all else fails, has no other recourse except to take his hat and coat, issue forth again and take to the roads, a phrase repeated four times, to walk the roads, the back roads, trudging and traipsing without hope or consolation…


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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