John Hassall @ the Heath Robinson Museum

In the early twentieth century John Hassall was one of Britain’s best known commercial artists. Starting his career in 1895, he quickly developed an impressive reputation as a book illustrator, a humorous cartoonist for postcards and magazines, an art school founder and teacher, a painter in oils, consummate clubman, and a designer of toys, figurines, pottery and nursery decor. But it was through his commercial illustrations, and especially his posters – for travel companies, political causes, theatre and panto, and a host of well-known brands – that he made his name in an age when advertising hoardings were known as ‘the poor man’s art gallery’.

In the course of a hard working career Hassall designed some 600 posters, illustrated some 150 books and much more. By 1905 one magazine could dub him ‘the King of Posters’.

Skegness is SO Bracing – the famous poster featuring the jolly fisherman designed for the East Coast seaside town by artist John Hassall. Hassall was paid £10 (1908)

The small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum up in Pinner is hosting an excellent exhibition showcasing the full range of Hassall’s work, along with loads of photos, caricatures and paintings of the great man at work, and correspondence, brochures and whatnot relating to his many additional activities as art teacher and founder member of the of London Sketch Club and of the Savage Club.

Potted biography

John Hassall was born in Kent in 1868 but, when he left school at 18, art wasn’t his first choice. After twice failing entry to The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he emigrated to Manitoba in Canada in 1888 to begin farming with his brother Owen. The exhibition includes some fascinating correspondence describing, and a set of sketches depicting, the tough life of rural Canada, as well as a couple of wonderful illustrations of well wrapped-up children hunting wildlife in the snow (a moose and a walrus).

Boys hunting moose by John Nassall

It was only when one of his illustrations of daily life in Canada was published in the London Graphic magazine that he decided to return to England and try his luck with an artistic career in 1890. On the advice of friends, he went to study on the Continent, first in Antwerp, then in Paris. He met a fellow artist, married and moved back to London in 1894, when a couple of paintings were accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

But it was only in 1895 that he was given an introduction to the firm of David Allen and Sons, leading printers of theatre poster. At the interview he was asked to demonstrate his abilities and quickly knocked out a sketch for a poster of the fashionable hit, The French Maid. He was hired on the spot and, over the next four years, went on to produce almost 600 posters.

Poster promoting Pontings department store in Kensington High Street by John Hassall

The range and variety of posters (and postcards and book illustrations) on display in this exhibition allows you to trace Hassall’s development as a commercial artist, and his deployment of different styles for different purposes.

Early influences

The very earliest posters, including the fully worked-up version of The French Maid design, included here, very clearly demonstrate the influence of the French style of posters. In fact the 1890s was by way of being a golden age of poster art, technological advances in printing allowing for an explosion of colours and styles, exploited by artists like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha. This in turn triggered a craze among connoisseurs to collect poster art and Hassall had arrived back in London just as the craze arrived with him, partly triggered by a major exhibition in 1894. Here he is, in the early days, very much channeling the elongated, exotic and semi-abstract feel of Alphone Mucha’s Art Nouveau designs.

The Daughters of Babylon by John Hassall 1897

But as the exhibition shows, after just a few years Hassall had moved a long way from his Continental origins and developed his own, very distinctive style. The exhibition curator usefully defines this as consisting of:

  • bold outlines
  • flat colours
  • minimal letting
  • large areas of negative space

which Hassall combined to produce ‘an engagingly cheery style.’

I think that phrase about ‘negative space’ refers to the way that the use of shading to indicate perspective and/or light sources is dropped in order to produce flattened and simplified images. Probably the most extreme example of this is this almost surreal poster promoting the joys of Morecambe. Flat colours, bold outlines, minimal lettering, large areas of negative space. Look how far he’d come from his languid and cluttered, fin-de-siecle, Mucha phase!

Poster promoting Morecambe as a holiday destination by John Hassall

Hassall produced posters promoting a number of seaside destinations, of which the one for Skegness (at top of this review) became iconic. In 1936 the town invited him for a VIP day to celebrate its success and awarded him a vellum certificate, displayed in the exhibition! The town now boasts a statue of the jolly fisherman.

The Skegness poster became so iconic that it is occasionally riffed on by later cartoonists: the exhibition features two examples, including a very funny one by Peter Brooks where the figure of the jolly fisherman is replaced by a swivel-eyed Jeremy Corbyn.

Book illustration

In 1899 Hassall took on his first book illustration project. In total he illustrated some 143 titles, not including jacket and spine designs. As you can imagine, many of these were for children’s books, some for older readers, such as the adventure stories of G.A. Henty, but most collections of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Making use of flat colours enclosed by thick black lines, his poster style was very adaptable for children’s books, and he produced many volumes of nursery rhymes and fairy stories, such as Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes (1909).

Cinderella enters the coach by John Hassall

In 1900 Hassall was commissioned by Laurence and Bullen of Covent Garden to design a range of nursery wallpaper friezes and lithographic prints for children. He produced a frieze of seven prints of children with their toys designed to be mass produced, sold and installed as a literal frieze around nursery walls. They were retailed by Libertys and other upmarket stores. You can see a slideshow of these on the Hillhouse antiques website.

The exhibition points out that J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, became an overnight sensation, generating piles of merchandising and spin-offs. As one of the leading illustrators of his day, Hassall contributed to the sensation with a series of six panels illustrating scenes from the play which are, to the modern eye, oddly flat and stylised. They resemble the stark simplifications of his toy friezes and in this particular scene, as Peter enters the children’s bedroom, you can see how it is liberally decorated with examples of Hassall’s own posters and friezes, a pleasing example of self-referentiality. In fact Hassall was deeply involved in the production: he drew the official poster and designed the cover of the programme, which also advertised these large-scale panels for two shillings each (10p in modern money).

Illustrated panel of Peter Pan by John Hassall (1907)

Also magazine covers: by this time his strikingly simple but effective designs made him a popular choice to provide cover illustrations for a wide variety of magazines such as the Scout magazine, and many others, on display here.

Pantomime

Pantomime is a form of theatre for children so his ability with cartoon and caricature was well suited to produce reams of posters for each season’s pantos.

Original antique theatre poster for the Drury Lane production of Babes In The Wood by the playwrights J. Hickory Wood and Arthur Collins. Poster by John Hassall (1907)

In fact the exhibition includes the complete set of 26 illustrations from a book titled The Pantomime ABC projected as a slideshow up on the gallery wall, with humorous and sometimes genuinely funny poems for each letter by Roland Carse.

The Great War

The First World War was actually the busiest time of Hassall’s career. He continued his commercial work but added a whole new stream of patriotic content, ranging from recruitment posters, to illustrations for patriotic pamphlets and songs, as well as personally touring the front in 1915, and working as a special constable.

The war posters are interesting because they feature iron-jawed, cleancut young men who are quite distinct from his commercial cartoon-style work. They’re the clearest proof that he could adapt his style quite drastically to suit the client and the need.

First World War recruitment poster by John Hassall (1916)

There are quite a few of the smaller cartoons, postcards, sheet music, pin badges and so on in a display case, the highlight of which, for me, is a copy of a satirical work he wrote and produced called Ye Berlyn Tapestrie a parody of the Bayeaux Tapestry featuring numerous examples of the perfidy of the beastly Hun.

Something the exhibition doesn’t include is any of the wonderfully realistic oil paintings depicting machines of war which Hassall made during the conflict. In these he applies all his skills he’s acquired over 20 years in the art of clear, striking composition, but infused with a wonderful ability to depict light and shade and depth. Its presence in stunning works like this (not in the exhibition) highlight how very much he excluded all these elements and abilities in his commercial work.

Short Seaplane by John Hassall (1915) The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery)

This section of the exhibition also showcases his broadly ‘political’ works, satirical cartoons about contemporary politics. These include a little sequence of cartoons produced in support of the little-known Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, an excellent cause which I think some brave and foolhardy souls ought to revive in our day.

Anti-suffrage cartoon by John Hassall (1912)

Pick a favourite

I loved all of it, I loved everything I saw. Hassall was a commercial artist who aimed to please, whose works are designed to make the viewer feel good, to associate a positive feeling with the product being sold, whether play or panto, shop or product, book or story – and it works. This is a hugely enjoyable, interesting and uplifting exhibition. I defy any visitor not to come out with a broad smile on their face.

Pick a favourite? Well in the midst of his immense productivity and hard work, Hassall found time to create uncommissioned art works which he submitted to serious exhibitions and competitions. These were generally storybook in style and took as their subject classic moments from English history, such as the morning of the battle of Agincourt.

I found them very appealing because they remind me, I think, of some of the long distant children’s books about history I read when I was very young. They are packed with crowds, soldiers or raiders, they have a rugged Edwardian masculinity and vividness which I really enjoyed. Here’s a photo I took of a detail of the painting ‘The morning before Agincourt’, which was exhibited in 1900. (Apologies for the terrible quality, the exhibition is held in a darkened room and I have a terrible camera. I include it to demonstrate what I mean by the ‘manliness’ of the figures in his ‘serious’ art works.)

Detail from ‘Morning before Agincourt’ by John Hassall (1903)

In these historical paintings Hassall took the opportunity to reintroduce those elements he so rigorously excluded from his commercial work. There is deep perspective, there are complicated crowds instead of a handful of isolated individuals, and, when you look closely, there is a deliberate blurring or mistiness about the faces which gives them a strange dignity, which somehow implies that you are seeing them through a time machine, their faces flickering and blurring through the distance of 500 years. In every way except for the patriotic storybook subject matter, as unlike the minimalist clarity of his posters and commercial work as can be.

Procession by John Hassall (1901)

But if I had to choose one out of all the works on show here, it would be a classic example of Hassall’s commercial poster art, a clear composition, limned with bold black lines in the style of a newspaper cartoon, all background detail kept to a bare minimum in order to focus your eye on the main character which is drawn with affectionate humour.

It’s titled ‘Treasure Trove’ and is an original artwork for a brand of whiskey but, intriguingly, nobody seems to know which one.  I think I was partly attracted because the fish look the dead spitting image of the fish which feature in the Tintin adventure, Red Rackham’s Treasure (and because both feature a man in an old-fashioned diving suit). I wonder whether Hergé knew and was influenced by Hassall’s work, by its clarity of composition, solid outlines and blocs of bare or negative space…

Treasure Trove by John Hassall (date unknown)


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

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

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

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

Not I by Samuel Beckett (1972)

…. grabbing at the straw… straining to hear… the odd word… make some sense of it… whole body like gone… just the mouth… like maddened… and can’t stop… no stopping it… something she – … something she had to –
… what?… who?… no!… she!…

Remember how episodes of the American sitcom Friends were named ‘The one where….’, well, this Beckett play is ‘the one where’ almost the entire stage is in darkness except for the face of a woman, in fact just her mouth, a woman’s mouth illuminated by one tight spotlight while she declaims a fragmented panic-stricken monologue at breathless speed.

Mise-en-scène

As with all Beckett’s ‘plays’ from 1960 or so onwards, the stage directions are extremely precise, because Not I is, arguably, less a play than a piece of performance art which happens to be taking place in a theatre:

Stage in darkness but for MOUTH, upstage audience right, about 8 feet above stage level, faintly lit from close-up and below, rest of face in shadow. Invisible microphone. AUDITOR, downstage audience left, tall standing figure, sex undeterminable, enveloped from head to foot in loose black djellaba, with hood, fully faintly lit, standing on invisible podium about 4 feet high shown by attitude alone to be facing diagonally across stage intent on MOUTH, dead still throughout but for four brief movements where indicated. See Note. As house lights down MOUTH ‘s voice unintelligible behind curtain. House lights out. Voice continues unintelligible behind curtain, 10 seconds: With rise of curtain ad-libbing from text as required leading when curtain fully up and attention sufficient
into:

Into the ceaseless flow of verbiage coming out of MOUTH’s mouth. As to ‘See Note’, the Note says:

Movement: this consists in simple sideways raising of arms from sides and their falling back, in a gesture of helpless compassion. It lessens with each recurrence till scarcely perceptible at third. There is just enough pause to contain it as MOUTH recovers from vehement refusal to relinquish third person.

So two people are onstage, a woman about 8 feet above the stage to the right and a tall figure standing 4 feet above the stage on the left.

In my review of Breath I wrote about the importance of exact stage directions in Beckett’s plays and the sense you often have that the staging and the stage directions virtually overshadow the actual content of the plays. Not I is a classic example of this, in that there is content, the mouth does say thing of consequence and import – but it is all dwarfed by the intensity of the conception and of the extremely precise and very vivid stage directions.

Content

So what is this voice ceasely reciting at such high speed? Well, like so many other Beckett texts it is built out of the repetition of key phrases, pretty banal in themselves, which quickly accumulate a freight of meaning, ominous overtones, and which are told in a high voltage, jerky panic. The opening few lines give a complete flavour:

out… into this world… this world… tiny little thing… before its time… in a god for- … what?… girl?… yes… tiny little girl… into this… out into this… before her time… godforsaken hole called… called… no matter… parents unknown… unheard of…

It sounds like yet another deranged Beckett consciousness, an Alzheimer’s victim, feverishly piecing together fragments of memory, torn by incessant questions she addresses to herself, who? why? what? and moments of panic:

… what?… who?… no !.. she !..

There is a passage about punishment and sin, and the fact she’d been brought up to believe in ‘a merciful God’.

… thing she understood perfectly … that notion of punishment … which had first occurred to her … brought up as she had been to believe .. . with the other waifs … in a merciful . . . [Brief laugh. ] .. . God … [Good laugh. ]

She sounds like one of the old ladies from Beckett’s childhood in rural Ireland, except with a thoroughly modern hysteria, complaining about the sounds in her skull, the relentless buzzing, and then… a passage about how she couldn’t scream, some problem with screaming, screaming, which leads up to her harrowing actual screams:

… never got the message… or powerless to respond… like numbed… couldn’t make the sound… not any sound… no sound of any kind… no screaming for help for example… should she feel so inclined… scream… [Screams. ]… then listen… [Silence. ]… scream again… [Screams again.]

The frenzy of the ceaseless wording leading up to the four movements from the AUDITOR, which occur during the silences after the woman works herself up to a frenzy or short, staccato, terrified words, almost as if she’s having a seizure, a fit:

.. the buzzing?.. yes… all dead still but for the buzzing… when suddenly she realized… words were – … what ?.. who?.. no !.. she!..

She appears to be sent shopping as a girl but stands dumb and terrified giving her bag to a man who does it all for her, it takes a while to realise that this is one of about four scenarios which the flood of fragmented memories seem to be reconstructing.

But specific memories tend to be eclipsed by descriptions of the voice itself, of the experience of being hag-ridden and driven by the voice by the mouth, no  idea what she’s saying but can’t stop:

just the mouth… lips… cheeks… jaws… never-… what?.. tongue?.. yes… lips… cheeks… jaws… tongue… never still a second… mouth on fire… stream of words… in her ear… practically in her ear… not catching the half… not the quarter… no idea what she’s saying… imagine!.. no idea what she ‘s saying!.. and can’t stop… no stopping it… she who but a moment before… but a moment!.. could not make a sound… no sound of any kind… now can’t stop… imagine!.. can’t stop the stream… and the whole brain begging… something begging in the brain… begging the mouth to stop… pause a moment… if only for a moment… and no response… as if it hadn’t heard… or couldn’t… couldn’t pause a second… like maddened… all that together… straining to hear… piece it together… and the brain… raving away on its own… trying to make sense of it… or make it stop…

God, it’s a vision of intense horror, despair, astonishing intensity, a soul driven, endlessly driven on, by what she keeps describing as a buzzing inside her skull, very much the motive of Beckett’s many monologuists since The Unnameable who hear a voice compelling them to speak, think, make sense of the endless voice compelling words within their skulls, the motive force behind so many of Beckett’s skullscapes. One critic, Vivian Mercier, suggests that Not I is, in effect, a placing on stage of the prose experience of The Unnameable a dramatisation of the same terrible compulsion.

… something she had to -… what?… the buzzing?… yes… all the time the buzzing… dull roar… in the skull…

Another important element is the way MOUTH appears, in these fragmentary memories or anecdotes, to be talking about herself and describing herself in the third person, a common symptom of mental illness, observing memories of their own lives with detachment as if they happened to someone else.

In this mood she seems to be referring to herself when she talks about the tiny little thing, the wee bairn, the tiny mite, born into a world of woe, illegitimate and rejected… and then jumps to herself as an old lady, surprised at her own age:

coming up to sixty when – … what?.. seventy?.. good God !.. coming up to seventy…

An old lady, her mind completely gone, fragments of memories, trying to make sense, driven on by the incessant buzzing in her skull.

This alienation from herself rises to a terrifying climax at each of the punctuation points when she pauses a moment and the other figure on the stage makes its strange hieratic gesture. Each time the crisis is signalled by a formula of the same four words, the last of which is ‘she’, as if MOUTH is seized with panic-horror by it, the Other, herself as other, her maenad voice.

… what?.. who ?.. no!.. she !..

The final section gives a bit more biography, how she was always a silent child, almost a mute, but just occasionally experienced the sudden urge to speak and had to rush outside, rushed into the outdoors lavatory, spewed it all up. That was the root, the precursor of the plight she is in now:

… now this… this… quicker and quicker… the words… the brain… flickering away like mad… quick grab and on… nothing there… on somewhere else… try somewhere else… all the time something begging… something in her begging… begging it all to stop…

God, the horror. Beckett told the American actress Jessica Tandy he hoped that the piece would ‘work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect’ and it certainly sets my nerves jangling.

Not I

… what?.. who ?.. no!.. she !..

This is the rationale for the title, Not I. On one level the piece is not exactly a systematic ‘investigation’ but a terrifying dramatisation of the way all of us are aware not only of our ‘selves’, but of other elements in our minds which we, on the whole, manage or reject, the host of alternative suggestions, the way we are inside ourselves and yet, at various moments, are also capable of seeing ourselves as if from the outside.

This is busy territory, and over the past two and a half thousand years a host of philosophers and, more recently, psychologists, have developed all manner of theories about how the mind develops and, in particular, manages the dichotomy of being an I which perceives but also developing the awareness that this I exists in a world which is mostly Not I. In its entry of Not I the Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett refers to the theories of:

  • Schopenhauer, for whom perception of the external world was always accompanied by a sense that it is not I
  • Nordau‘s theory of the development of the psyche which first defines itself but as it conceptualises and understands the external world, the I retreats behind the Not I
  • St Paul Corinthians 15:10: ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.’
  • Jakob Böhme, asked by what authority he wrote, replied: ‘Not I, the I that I am, knows these things, but God knows them in me’ (page 412)

Of these, I like the St Paul quote. If it bears any relation to this play it is the notion that I am that I am but I am not I, I am only I by virtue of another, of the Not I. Hence the shadowy Other sharing the stage.

But there’s no end to the concordances and echoes of these two words which can be found in the world’s literature and theology and philosophy – but most people are aware of there being levels of their selves, or of it being fragmented into peripheral, casual elements which we can easily dismiss, spectruming through to core elements of our selves which we cling on to and consider essential.

The Mouth’s monologue dramatises a set of four big moments which come back to her in fragments after some kind of epiphany or trigger moment in a field full of cowslips to the sound of larks. They are:

  1. being born a little thing
  2. crying on her hands one summer day in Croker’s acre
  3. being sent to do the shopping in some shopping centre
  4. in court

But really these moments serve to bring out the troubled relationship between the core being, whatever you want to call it, and those other moments, those other aspects of our personalities, everything which is ‘Not I’.

Of course in the play as conceived there is a physical embodiment of Not I onstage, namely the other figure. The way it raises its arms ‘in a gesture of helpless compassion’ at the four moments when Mouth stutters to a horrified silence, suggests they are linked. Is the figure Death, a Guardian Angel, the speaker’s Id or Superego? You pays your money and you takes your choice, but there’s no doubting the importance of the dynamic relationship between the two figures, an I and a Not I. Or maybe two Is which both possess Not Is. Or maybe they are two parts of the same I…

The Billie Whitelaw production

Beckett’s muse, the actress Billie Whitelaw, didn’t give the piece’s premiere, but starred in its first London performance in 1973. This was then recreated in order to be filmed in 1975 and can be found on YouTube.

I think this is spectacular, what a spectacular, amazing performance, what an experience, how disorientating, how revolting the way that, after a while the mouth seems to morph into some disgusting animal, and the endless mad demented drivel, the breathless haste in Whitelaw’s voice rising to the recurrent shout of SHE!! God, the horror.

Although very sexy and feminine when she wanted to be, Whitelaw also had a no-nonsense, working class toughness about her, a strong northern accent (she grew up in a working class area of Bradford) which slips out throughout the recitation.

But her real toughness comes over in those four big cries of SHE!!, delivered much deeper and ballsier than softer actresses, and so giving it a real terror.

Once you get over the sheer thrill of the performance there is an obvious feature about it which is that it largely ignores Beckett’s stage directions. In the piece as conceived there is a dynamic tension between the speaking woman on the right of the stage and the androgynous cloaked figure to the left who responds to the four big hysterical climaxes of the monologue with the mysterious, slow-motion raising and lowering of the arms gesture.

The oddity is that Whitelaw’s performance benefited from extensive coaching from Beckett. So why did he completely jettison a key part of the initial concept? Did he realise it was distracting from the core idea of the spotlight on a ceaselessly talking mouth? Apparently so because, according to the Wikipedia article:

When Beckett came to be involved in staging the play, he found that he was unable to place the Auditor in a stage position that pleased him, and consequently allowed the character to be omitted from those productions. However, he chose not to cut the character from the published script, and whether or not the character is used in production seems to be at the discretion of individual producers. As he wrote to two American directors in 1986: “He is very difficult to stage (light–position) and may well be of more harm than good. For me the play needs him but I can do without him. I have never seen him function effectively.”

Staging the production presented extreme difficulties for the leading lady.

Initially Billie Whitelaw wanted to stand on a dais but she found this didn’t work for her so she allowed herself to be strapped in a chair called an ‘artist’s rest’ on which a film actor wearing armour rests because he cannot sit down. Her entire body was draped in black; her face covered with black gauze with a black transparent slip for her eyes and her head was clamped between two pieces of sponge rubber so that her mouth would remain fixed in the spotlight. Finally a bar was fixed which she could cling to and on to which she could direct her tension. She was unable to use a visual aid and so memorised the text.

Regarding selves and unselves, it is a maybe a profound insight that, although Whitelaw found is a desperately difficult role and was, after the initial rehearsals, seriously disorientated, she came to regard it as one of her most powerful performances because it unlocked something inside her,

She heard in Mouth’s outpourings her own ‘inner scream’: ‘I found so much of my self in Not I.’

Maybe we all do. Maybe that’s one function of art, allowing us to discover the Not I in all of us.

A touch of autobiography

I grew up above the village grocery shop and sub-post office my parents ran, and across the road and through some woodland was a priory which had been turned into an old people’s home which was still run by nuns, old nuns, very old nuns, in fact most of the nuns were too old and infirm to make it the couple of hundred yards through the trees up to the road they had to cross to get to the shop and some of the nuns and old ladies who could make it up weren’t too confident crossing the road, not least Miss Luck (real name) who was very short-sighted, almost blind, who would arrive at the road and just set out across it regardless of traffic, so that the first thing all the new staff in the shop were taught was, ‘If you see Miss Luck arrive at the gate from the Priory, drop everything and run across the road to help her walk across without being run over’.

And so I watch this amazing work of art, and I’m aware of the multiple meanings it can be given, from the characteristic sex obsession of many literary critics who see the mouth a vagina trying to give birth to the self (given that Whitelaw has a set of 32 immaculate-looking sharp teeth, these critics must have been hanging round some very odd vaginas); to the many invocations of philosophers and psychologists to extrapolate umpteen different theories of the self and not-self; through to the more purely literary notion that the endless repetition of the voice’s obsessive moments, insights, anxieties are a further iteration of the struggle of the narrator in The Unnamable to fulfil the compulsion, the order, the directive to talk talk talk he doesn’t know why, because he must, because they say so.

So I am aware of many types of interpretation the piece is susceptible to. But I also understand what Beckett meant when he said in an interview that:

I knew that woman in Ireland. I knew who she was — not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, besides the hedgerows.

Because there were so many old, old ladies pottering across the road from the Priory or from other parts of my village, talking talking talking, babbling their way around the place in a continual stream of undertones and monologue, throughout my boyhood.

It is at the same time an artfully contrived work of avant-garde art, but also an unnervingly realistic depiction of how some people actually are. And not just some – nearly 9 million people in the UK are aged over 70, and Alzheimer’s disease has gone from being a condition few of us had heard about 20 years ago, to now being the leading cause of death in the UK.


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

Breath by Samuel Beckett (1969)

In 1969 Kenneth Tynan wrote to Beckett asking for a contribution to his hit stage revue, Oh! Calcutta!, which made headlines because of the extensive use of full-frontal nudity.

Beckett replied with the stage directions for what must be one of the shortest plays ever written. Some versions barely last a minute. Longer ones stretch it out to two minutes. Here are the directions:

Curtain.
1. Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold for about five seconds.
2. Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration and slow increase of light together reaching maximum together in about ten seconds. Silence and hold about five seconds.
3. Expiration and slow decrease of light together reaching minimum together (light as in 1.) in about ten seconds and immediately cry as before. Silence and hold for about five seconds.

Rubbish No verticals, all scattered and lying.
Cry Instant of recorded vagitus. Important that two cries be identical, switching on and off strictly synchronized light and breath.
Breath Amplified recording.
Maximum light Not bright. If 0 = dark and 10 = bright, light should move from about 3 to 6 and back.

That’s the full text in its entirety. In other words, the stage lighting comes up on a pile of rubbish for a few seconds, there is the distant sound of the cry of a newborn baby followed by a big breath in accompanied by the light growing, followed by a big breath out as the light fades, a repeat of the cry of a newborn baby, then fade to black.

There are quite a few versions on YouTube and one of the funny things about them, taken as a group, is how few of them adhere strictly to Beckett’s directions, but feel the need to add and elaborate and embroider the bleak simplicity of the original.

Absurdist joke

On one level it’s clearly a sort of joke, in the same sort of absurdist spirit as John Cage’s 4’33” or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal – a reduction of theatre to almost its minimal possible components in order to see what the bare bones look like, to see what the most reduced idea of a theatrical piece can be. And yet at the same time be a work which is interesting in its own right – just like John Cage’s 4’33” or Marcel Duchamp’s urinal.

The unsustainability of a nihilistic attitude

At the same time it’s also a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the nihilistic attitude (I hesitate to use the word ‘philosophy’ because although Beckett likes to refer to canonical philosophers and difficult philosophical ideas in his works, he is not a philosopher and doesn’t propound a philosophy) expressed in the famous line from Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

In other words, we are born into a heap of rubbish, cry at our entrance, our entire existence can be summarised as a couple of breaths, and then there is the second cry of our death. Here’s another version, clearly inspired by Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi.

But as I remarked of that line in my review of Waiting For Godot, this nihilistic worldview is simply not true and everyone knows it’s not true. Lots of people live long, complex and fulfilling lives. People play computer games and chess, make discoveries, run theatres, write plays, go to art festivals and galleries and football matches, go scuba diving and skiing, build houses and cars, drive across America, join the army, join the navy, go to school, go to church, have children, grandchildren and quite a bit more.

It takes a special kind of imagination to see human life as simply a matter of two cries of pain and a handful of breaths set against a pile of rubbish, and a special kind of mindset to think this could possibly be true. It takes quite a bit of education to be quite this self-deluded.

Of course as a simplified allegory of human existence, as a symbol of a particular worldview, then fine. Paint what you like, draw what you like, write what you like. But as a depiction of the so-called ‘human condition’, it is profoundly untrue.

The unstoppable human instinct to tinker

And this is exactly the point driven home when you watch the half dozen or so short productions of Breath on YouTube – not one of them does it straight, just films Beckett’s simple directions; almost all of them feel compelled to add and embroider and elaborate in all kinds of ways, whether it’s bringing in the music of Philip Glass or a load of slides about the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Now there is where you have the real human spirit or experience – the endless urge to tell stories, tell anecdotes and jokes, harrow with horror, set to music, hum, sing, dance, plunge into grief, gossip about work colleagues, keep a diary, share instagram photos.

The multiplicity of productions which betray Beckett’s simple spartan and crystal clear stage directions, they’re the ones which tell you about ‘the human spirit’, the spirit which can’t stop itself adding, embroidering, inventing, yakking on, adding a new bit, what about some music, hey let’s project some slides, shall we add wheels, how about a flashing light on top and a siren. Humans: incorrigibly gabby.

In fact this betrayal of Beckett’s vision occurred right at the start, when the creator of Oh Calcutta, Kenneth Tynan, gratefully received Beckett’s contribution but thought, ‘Well, that’s a bit boring, let’s adapt it to suit the vibe of our bravely nude stage show’ and added a number of naked men and women to the production. As Beckett’s biographer, Deirdre Blair put it:

‘In one of his few displays of public anger, Beckett called Tynan a “liar” and a “cheat”, prompting Tynan to send a formal notice through his lawyers that he was not responsible for the travesty, which he claimed was due to others … Beckett decided the incident wasn’t worth the argument and dropped it.’

When you think about it it’s a delicious irony, because lovely naked young men and nubile young women, powerful symbols of fertility and sex and the Life Force are pretty much the exact opposite of the nihilistic and bleak ‘philosophy’ the piece supposedly exemplifies.

Drop it, Sam. Walk away. It’s just people, Sam, doing what they do, adding bells and whistles and go-faster stripes. I know you intended it as a searing indictment of the human condition, but the producer wanted boobs and bums.

Beckett as writer not ‘philosopher’

I am interested in Beckett, I am reading my way through his complete works, because I think he is an extraordinary writer – he conceives of language and the scenarios language can conjure and the tension between what can barely be called its ‘subject’ and the wrecked tatters of language it is conveyed in, with extraordinary originality. He repeatedly takes language to entirely new places, creating a kind of powerful and original dynamic interplay between form and content which is unparalleled.

But I don’t think his subject matter is true, good grief, what an idea. It is merely the subject matter he needs to create in order to develop the linguistic effects he is interested in. The white boxes which the narrative finds its protagonists stuck inside in the so-called ‘skullscapes’ or the people crawling through the mud in How It Is are objective correlatives or symbols or scenarios or setups which justify the extreme linguistic experimentation, the phenomenally strange and eerie way he handles the language.

The producers of the Beckett On Film project asked artist Damian Hirst to film it but even though part of an attempt to produce canonical versions, Hirst’s version simply omits the baby’s cry, the vagitus at beginning and end. It’s almost as if the text’s brevity and simplicity taunts producers to over-ride it.

The triumph of stage directions

And, quite obviously, this micro-drama also represents the triumph of stage directions over content. It’s easy to find critics and commentators lauding Beckett as among the greatest prose explorers of the 20th century, and I would whole-heartedly agree. But not so many people make the just-as-obvious point, that he was one of the greatest writers of stage directions.

All of the plays contain very, very detailed stage instructions specifying every aspect of the set, of props, what the characters are wearing, the kind of lighting, exactly how they move, how they speak or whisper or pause.

There’s the story of the hapless Americans who had the bright idea of staging Endgame but setting it in a disused New York subway station. Oops. It is comic and instructive to read the outraged response this prompted from Beckett himself, who tried to get the production stopped and, when that failed, got his lawyers to ensure that the following note was inserted into the programmes for the production:

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this.
(quoted in the Wikipedia article)

What I’m driving at is that many of the later plays can be seen as the triumph of stage directions over prose content. Thus the short work Come And Go really consists of the tightly choreographed movements of the three women. The two Acts Without Words cease to have any dialogue at all, and are what they say on the tin, mimes. Similarly, Quad consists of the wordless movement of four humans dressed in shrouds through a complex series of positions on a stage set conceived as a mathematical quadrant, not really resembling anything we associate with the word ‘play’.

Even some of Beckett’s most famous works can be seen as the triumph of mise-en-scène over content. The only thing most people know or remember about Happy Days is that it’s about a woman trapped up to her waist in a mound of sand trying to look on the bright side of the situation.

Similarly, it’s not really necessary to understand any the text spoken in Not I to be dazzled by the beautiful simplicity of having the stage (or camera) focused entirely and only on a disconcerting close-up of the yammering mouth.

And Krapp’s Last Tape can be summed up as a knackered old man listening in anguish to tape recordings of his much younger, more confident self.

Prose there might have to be, language might be required, to make plays go, to allow a production to go ahead. I’m just suggesting that the stage setups and the fantastically detailed stage directions Beckett supplied to all his dramatic works is at least as, and sometimes maybe more, important than the supposed semantic content of the texts, their so-called ‘philosophy’ and so on. The setup and the actions are the play.

So, to repeat, a minute-long work in which we simply hear the cry of a newborn baby set against a rubbish dump, is brilliantly minimalistic, reduces Beckett’s so-called philosophy of life to one piercing image – but is also a kind of epitome of his theatrical practice.

The law of unintended adaptations

Last point. I suppose there is a cheeky connection between Beckett’s minimalism and the way so many of the interpreters on YouTube and elsewhere have felt free to embroider it. Maybe Beckett’s work survives and his reputation endures precisely because, contrary to his emphatic and repeated directions, the very minimalism, especially of the later plays, allows directors and producers a surprising amount of creative freedom.

More, as I hinted earlier, it’s almost as if the super-precise stage directions are tempting producers to ignore this or that aspect of them, and to improve on Beckett’s vision – to make it contemporary, make it diverse, bring it up to date, make it relevant to the age of social media, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and so on.

There’s some kind of perverse law of human nature at play, almost as if the more precise Beckett’s directions became, the more free later generations of producers have felt to bugger about with them,


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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