Saturday, December 4, 2010

Beckett as a Playwright

I
Beckett’s Total Theatre
Samuel Beckett was an innovator. He created a completely new kind of play, and in doing so he greatly enlarged the scope of the theatre. In order to get the best out of the experience of seeing his plays on the stage, an audience has to make an adjustment in themselves and their attitude.
In this connection an important point is that Beckett deliberately designed his plays to be performed by actors for an audience sitting in a theatre or beside a radio. He meant these plays to be experienced immediately, as the sounds came across the footlights or out of the loudspeaker. These plays are not intended to be read from the silent and stiff pages of a book. They are pieces of theatre, needing to be performed if they are to make their full impact. In fact, Beckett’s plays cry out to be acted on a stage, and this is a sure sign of authentic drama. They produce in an audience an effect peculiar to the theatre, an immediacy of something experienced directly as distinct from the more remote impact of something described. To secure this, Beckett makes use of every means at the disposal of the dramatist—words, movements, costumes, scenery, sound effects, lighting, and so on. But he goes on to blend and mix these ingredients into a new, complex unity. It is not the words, the movements, the sights, which separately produce the impact; it is the new experience which the audience undergoes from the combination of all these elements on the stage. This process involving the eyes, the ears, the intellect, the emotions, all at once, may be described as “total theatre”.
An Example of Beckett’s Art
As a rule, Beckett’s characters use ordinary words and short sentences. They do not indulge in philosophical or moral arguments; they seldom soliloquise: and they never preach. Movement as much as speech is one of the essentials of drama, and so Beckett keeps his characters busy. Their actions may not be spectacular, but every move is part of the total experience, as eloquent as any words. The dialogue in Act II (Pages 88—89) between Pozzo and Vladimir is a fair example of Beckett’s art. On stage are four characters, two friends called Vladimir and Estragon, a blind man Pozzo whom they have just helped to his feet and a servant Lucky still lying on the ground. In Act I, Pozzo, then in full possession of his sight, had talked to Vladimir and Estragon, and had made Lucky do some pathetic tricks, before taking him to a fair with the intention of selling him. Now twenty-four hours later, Pozzo is blind and no longer answers to his name though he responds to the names of both Cain and Abel. Vladimir and Estragon, always unsure of everything, begin to doubt whether the first meeting has ever taken place. Estragon aims a savage kick at Lucky, hurts his own toe, and howls with pain. Then follows the dialogue referred to. Behind the words of this dialogue is a progression, an ebb and flow of action reflected in the tempo of the speeches. Something is taking its course but we could never perceive it unless we were actually present at what is going on. Considered in isolation, the actions, the ideas, the speeches, the stage “business”, the scenery, are all commonplace and unexciting. When these elements are fused together in the theatre, however, we can experience the totality which Beckett has made from them, and we feel spell-bound. Such impact closely resembles that of music rather than that of language. Beckett himself spoke of his work as “a matter of fundamental sounds made as fully as possible.” He uses words not only as vehicles to convey ideas, but always for the effect they produce in a theatre during a performance. In his own phrase, they are one form of “dramatic ammunition”. Like music, Beckett’s work must be heard to be effective. The voice is as important as an orchestra; the silences are as important as the sounds, and the sounds as important as the meaning.
The Manifold Appeal of His Plays
It is pointless to look for a logical, universal “message” behind Beckett’s work. Beckett presents an experience not an argument, truth not a statement, and each spectator or listener must respond in his own terms. Thus, one critic described a performance of Waiting for Godot in the following words: “It was an expression, symbolic in order to avoid all personal error, by an author who expects each member of his audience to draw his own conclusions, make his own errors. It asked nothing in point, it forced no dramatised moral on the viewer, it held out no specific hope.” This is the essence of Beckett’s theatrical technique. Not only Waiting for Godot, but each of his plays is an experience from which Beckett expects every member of the audience to draw his own conclusions. As another critic remarked of Endgame: “The play contains whatever ideas we discern inside it; no idea contains the play.” Thus, one critic described Waiting for Godot as a statement in dramatic terms of the wretchedness of man without God; while another sees it as a “general expression of the futility of human existence when man pins his hope on a force outside of himself.” Both these interpretations, the first by a devout Roman Catholic, and the other by a firm Existentialist, are equally valid and equally irrelevant since Beckett is not concerned with any religious or philosophical beliefs. (“I’m not interested any system”, he once said). He is writing about waiting, about helplessness and about human frustration, all of which interest him deeply and all of which he makes us experience directly.
Difficult to State his Meaning in a few Words
If we seek some non-existent meaning in Beckett’s plays, we are likely to miss the experience that is actually there. In approaching Beckett we must give up asking what any of his plays is intended to mean. The only possible reply to such a question would be that it means what it says Beckett himself, when asked what a play of his meant, replied: “If I could tell you in a sentence I wouldn’t have written the play.” When asked what Godot represented, Beckett answered quite simply, “If I knew, I would have said so in the play.” Had he done so, the play would have been something absolutely different.
Avoidance of Definition
To insist on interpreting Waiting for Godot in allegorical or symbolical terms is a wrong approach to this play because it is a play which strives all the time to avoid definition. Its avoidance of definition is implicit in Beckett’s work. Each member of an audience has to respond to his plays out of himself, and so he must not be arbitrarily inhibited or restricted by the dramatist. For instance, had Beckett specifically said that the scene in Waiting for Godot is a deserted country road in the County of Dublin, he would have been restricting us by making us think of one particular place. A Frenchman, knowing nothing of Ireland, might become uneasy, fearing that he was missing some vital allusion, while a man from the County of Dublin might concentrate excessively on the accuracy of Beckett’s local colour. In each of these men, the freedom of response would have been restricted. In fact, it makes no difference where the action is set and, therefore, Beckett merely says: “A country road.” What matters is not the setting but the waiting. The place could be anywhere. Thus Beckett leaves us complete freedom of reaction.
The Minimum of Plot and Characterisation
By their very nature, Beckett’s plays have no single, definite meaning. He reduces the specific to a minimum. His plays also have the minimum of plot and characterisation. When a dramatist tells us what happens next, he is inhibiting our response in exactly the same way as he does when he specifies the setting. While the conventional dramatist shows us a sequence of events or the resolution of some problem, Beckett presents us with situations as static as he can make them. It is vain to look for any story in his work just as it is vain to expect any specific message from him. As Winnie says in Happy Days: “Yes, something seems to have occurred, something has seemed to occur, and nothing has occurred, nothing at all.” Waiting for Godot begins and ends with two men waiting for nightfall or for Godot to come. The utmost we can say of the action is that time has moved imperceptibly forward. In Endgame there is waiting also: a blind tyrant, Hamm, spins an endless story as he waits, perhaps, for death or for his servant, Clov, to leave him. When the play ends, the tyrant is still alive while the servant stands watching him from the threshold which he has not crossed. With Hamm and Clov, as with Vladimir and Estragon, tomorrow may well be this same day. Krapp‘s Last Tape shows us an old man failing to achieve a statement, or to be more precise, failing to make a tape-recording; we leave him motionless staring in front of him as the tape runs on in silence. In Happy Days Winnie is trying to pass the time between waking and sleeping as pleasantly as possible in a world where the opportunities for physical movement are steadily diminishing. In Play the characters, two women and a man, each imprisoned up to the neck in an urn, soliloquise in a dim light.
Changes Between the Acts
Occasionally we may discover some obvious change on the stage. In Waiting for Godot, for example, a tree sprouts leaves overnight and, in Happy Days, Winnie, at first buried to her waist, is later found embedded to her neck. These changes take place between the Acts and no explanation for them is ever offered. They do not produce a new situation; they simply emphasise the old one. The tree may sprout but Godot has not come although he has promised to do so tonight. Winnie can no longer count on external objects to help her pass the time; she must draw more and more upon herself. The changes are stage facts, important only in the way in which the characters react to them. Of themselves they have no other meaning or significance, and Beckett has no other interest in them. We shall be wrong if we try to read into them anything more than we are told.
Characters Without a Past
Another distinctive feature of Beckett’s plays is that his characters exist and can exist only for as long as the play lasts, indeed only for as long as they are before our eyes. Beckett gives us no hint as to how they have come to the situation in which we find them. They have no past except for what they may tell us, and no future. At the end of the play, they will be practically unchanged.
Beckett’s Drama of the Non-Specific
It is thus obvious that an audience, new to Beckett’s plays, has to make a certain adjustment in its attitude to the performance in order to be able to appreciate a play. Many people complain that Beckett’s plays are sordid, repetitive, meaningless, have no story, have none of the glitter which is associated with the word “theatrical”, and above all that they have no relation to life as we know it. This last objection is to a certain extent justified. We do not normally come across people in real life who keep their parents in dust­bins as in Endgame, nor do we find in real life ladies buried to their waists or to their necks in mounds of earth under a blazing sky as in Happy Days. But we must not forget the essential point that Beckett is not concerned with reproducing life as we know it. Beckett’s effort is ‘to chart a whole zone of being in the individual, hitherto left absolutely alone by the artist. To conduct these explorations, as Beckett calls them, he has evolved his special kind of play, based on impact not argument, striving all the time to avoid definition, a kind of play which may be described as “the drama of the non-specific.”
II
A Revolutionary Play
Samuel Beckett is an artist of great originality and even greater purity who has always refused to make any concessions whatsoever to his public. He is the man who wrote a play (Waiting for Godot) which changed the whole of the contemporary theatre: this play was about two tramps waiting nowhere in particular for someone who never turns up.
A Unique Author
Beckett’s plays, Waiting for Godot and Endgame, have become standard theatre classics. His works include not only plays for the theatre but for the radio and television. He has also written a number of novels and some poetry. His writings have provoked an enormous amount of literary criticism. The publisher John Calder is reported to have remarked: “More books have been written on Christ, Napoleon, and Wagner, in that order, than on anyone else. I predict that by 2000 A.D., Beckett may well rank fourth if the present flood of Beckett literature keeps up.” Most readers acquainted with Beckett’s work are aware of the fact that he has written plays without actors, acts without words, and novels without plot or punctuation. His play called Breath staged just before his Nobel Prize requires no actors and lasts for 35 seconds; his novel, called Lessness, runs to 14 small pages of bold print and presents one immobile figure in a landscape of ruins. But, although he is one of the world’s famous writers, he is not the most successful from the commercial point of view. Plays by more popular dramatists whom he has influenced, like Harold Pinter, have done better at the box-office. But Beckett’s importance has never been denied. For everyone, including the Nobel Prize Committee, Beckett is the artist of deprivation and terminal depression, and he has expressed his vision of desolation with unique power. He has pushed all the way through to the end logically, emotionally, artistically.
Beckett and Ionesco
Samuel Beckett has often been regarded, like lonesco, as a dramatist of the Absurd. The comparison between Beckett and lonesco is, however, misleading. lonesco was the Grand Master of the Theatre of the Absurd, the word “absurdity” meaning what it usually means: raging hilarious farce. But Beckett is an Absurdist in the sense in which Camus talked of the “Absurd”. By the “Absurd” Camus meant a life lived solely for its own sake in a universe which no longer made sense because there was no God to resolve the contradictions. In other words, what Camus called “Absurd”, Kierkegaard (who was more Christian and even less optimistic) had called Despair. Beckett has created a world in which Godot never comes, in which Mr. Knott lives up to his name, in which it seems perfectly natural, to pass one’s time in an urn or a dustbin, up to the neck in sand or face down in the mud, a world which, seen from the skull-like room of Endgame, is devastated, post-atomic, and so empty that even a solitary human being seems like a monstrous intrusion. Absurdity in lonesco’s more obvious sense appears in Beckett only to a small and limited extent.
The Nature of Beckett’s World
Ionesco’s dream-world is unpredictable, irrational, and abrupt. Beckett’s is the opposite of all that: it is the world of chess, meticulous, and utterly rational. Appropriately, one of his finest plays is called Endgame and the hero begins each stage of the play’s development by announcing. “Me to play”. It is also a world of such acute self-consciousness that the characters are continually puncturing the illusion of art. “This is what is called making an exit,” says Clov. After a particularly tedious interchange, Hamm appropriates the audience’s response by remarking: “This is deadly.” Malone4 writing in bed becomes indistinguishable from Beckett writing in his study, for ever breaking off to ensure that the reader is aware that the words he is reading are those that Malone is writing. And so on.
Beckett’s Revolutionary Drama
Beckett may be said to have assassinated both the novel and the drama in their received conventional forms. Of course, Beckett’s experiments like Ionesco’s are finally a matter of temperament. Ionesco developed his special form of anti-theatre, because like many intellectuals, he was contemptuous of the stage: “I started writing for the theatre,” he once remarked, “because I hated it”. Beckett’s peculiar revolution seems rooted even deeper. The whole of his writing-career seems to have been a search for an adequate artistic expression for his depression and his distaste for art. His literary career has been a slow but inevitable progress from manic high style through obsessionality to the latest minimal works, which are as close to silence as a man can get while still remaining a practising author. He himself summed up his attitude in a 1949 dialogue when he described the fate of the artist as being resigned to “the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” It is like the last words of novel The Unnamable: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
III
His Work, a Closed Circuit
Beckett stated at the outset of his career that the only possible spiritual development could take place was in depth and that “the artistic tendency is not expansive but a contraction”. This belief supports his recurrent endeavour in an apparently limited area of experience. His novels and plays form a closed circuit, each one being an attempt to descend to a slightly deeper level than the one before. His works can be seen as a series of which each is a continuation and a growth from its predecessors. There is a beginning, and then each successive book is a fresh development. His works represent an urge to remove all that is extraneous. From the bustle and sterility of More Pricks than Kicks they descend to the mathematical conclusion of Imagination Dead Imagine. They revolve round certain given objects-bicycles, boots, stub-ends of pencils—and a limited group of memories. Just as the hero may decay from a reluctantly active young Dubliner to a legless and anonymous figure confined to a pot, so the memories become briefer and the bicycles disappear, leaving behind only a rusty bell to be regarded with a nostalgic feeling. A character from an earlier work may reappear in one of the later books, and each individual, whether he be Watt, Molloy, or the Unnamable, can call upon the experiences of his predecessors. Malone, as he lies waiting for death, is aware of this kinship. He even wonders if he may not be the last: “Then it will be all over with the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans, and Malones, unless it goes on beyond the grave.” They form a gallery of moribunds involved in Beckett’s writing of stories.
The Hero in Beckett’s Novels
The narrative which these books successfully tell is that of a rootless, detached, and ineffectual young man at Trinity College who, after failing miserably in human intercourse (in the stories) turns his back on his place of birth (Echo’s Bones). He wanders for some time on the continent and in London (Murphy), and looking back on Ireland, discovers within himself a series of mental preoccupations which are to concern him for the rest of his days (Watt). He travels for a while with a friend (Mercier et Camier), but leaves him to go in search of his mother (Molloy). He does not find her but makes his way, in a condition of ever-increasing decay, to a room where he settles down to die (Malone Dies). Shortly after arriving at the impasse of a death which his consciousness survives (The Unnamable) he discovers a need for companionship, and there is a slight shift in the direction of the writing towards the plays and How it is. All these different works offer to us a study of a journey in contraction.
IV
His Books Not Tracts
To try to extract some general philosophy from the works of Beckett is not only impossible but an affront to the works themselves. His books are not tracts: they are a testimony to the integrity of Beckett’s vision, and his vision is one that has spared itself nothing in the attempt to state what it sees and not what it thinks it ought to see. This is the source of the remarkable unity of Beckett’s works, and also of the aesthetic cause of any “pleasure” we may receive from them.
Beckett’s Pessimism and his Complexity
Beckett is generally attacked on two grounds: (i) that he is a perverse messenger of gloom, and (ii) that he writes only of the extra-ordinary in terms of unnecessary complexity. To these attacks one may reply by asking why Beckett should be cheerful and reassuring, and why he should be easy. Beckett himself asked, in his essay on Joyce, why art should be without difficulty. Art, according to Beckett, has nothing to do with clarity; it does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear. The purpose of his art is not to explain but to contemplate. This art does not attempt to solve and to make plain but to discover, and perhaps to comprehend—by perception and intuition, not by the intelligence. And if the subject of this art does not yield a meaning then the duty of this art is to remain in doubt and not impose a meaning. Arriving at a solution amounts to believing that all is well with the world, which obviously is not the case. Beckett cannot accept either the dogmas of belief or the reasons of science. Denied a certainty he refuses to take an irrational leap into faith. He refuses, in fact, to commit what Camus called “philosophical suicide”. In Beckett we remain with an ignorance that does not pretend to be anything else, and it is this which is generally taken for obscurity and which irritates some readers.
His Concern with Cruelty and Helplessness in the World
If Beckett’s art does not apparently concern itself with the social or political circumstances of the time, it does not mean that his art is irresponsible; Beckett sees that the destructive forces of the 20th century have given the lie to progress, reason, stability, perfectibility, and simplicity. He does not write of the hydrogen bomb but he does portray with a unique truthfulness the cruelty, suffering, and helplessness which is the human climate of a world in which the bomb exists.
His Realism
The one fundamental behind all of Beckett’s work is the ancient tragic knowledge of man’s solitude, imprisonment, and pain in an intolerable universe which is indifferent to his suffering. Beckett is a pessimist, which means that he writes what he considers to be true and not what he knows is diverting. The world in which Beckett begins to write is one without unity, clarity, rationality, or hope, and where man feels himself alone and a stranger in a place which itself will one day cease to exist. From this confrontation between the unreasonable silence of the universe and the human need to be, there arises that futile revolt against existence; the painful rebellion of the spirit against three necessities—the abject necessity of being born, the hard necessity of living, and the sharp necessity of dying—which is constant throughout Beckett’s works.
His Persistence
The man who, like Beckett, continues to create despite his awareness of these conditions is, as Camus writes. “the most absurd character.” The conflict between the world’s irrationality and man’s hopeless desire for unity is most acute in the artist who, having once believed in his near-omnipotence, is now forced to recognise his almost total impotence. Yet there remains, Beckett is almost alone in recognising, the right to fail. If he persists in his endeavours, which he knows to be futile, he will have sustained his consciousness in the face of the universe and its absurdity. For the artist his perseverance is his dignity, and his failure the symbol of his unextinguished revolt. For Beckett, it is the writing, not the writer or reader, that ultimately matters.
Beckett’s Chief Concern
Samuel Beckett has confessed his special concern with human impotence. His early discipleship of James Joyce left him, artistically, with a vast over-shadowing literary achievement against which he had to assert himself. He had to break away from the Joycean abundance and the Joycean omniscience, and he sought out the extreme limits of economy, ignorance, and inhibition. From the packed world of Ulysses he turned to create the bare world of Waiting for Godot. Beckett takes away man’s property, family, place in society, function in society, and then begins to strip him of the normal human equipment (legs and mobility, for instance). At the same time his characters go through the motions of reasoning and planning and use the vocabulary of experiencing the emotions of failure and success. It is not just that Estragon and Vladimir, the two tramps in Waiting for Godot, have no home and no locale; but they seem unaware that they have no home and no locale. They do not expect the normally expectable. Just as their continuing bewilderment and uncertainty are punctuated by moments of comic confidence, so, in the case of Pozzo, the pantomimic representative of power and possessions, continuing confidence and assurance are punctuated by moments in which the sense of precariousness intrudes. The servitude of his roped, human beast of burden, Lucky, is grotesquely unreal and idiotic; yet the idiocy is the basis of Pozzo’s “security”. Moreover Pozzo’s assurance is related to a vocabulary that pre-supposes a civilisation and a placing in it: such a vocabulary is irrelevant in the “world” which the idiom of the tramps has established and into which Pozzo intrudes.
The Issue in Beckett’s Plays
Man’s identity, his limitations, and his place in the universe are at issue in Beckett’s plays. In Happy Days we find a woman, Winnie, buried waist-deep in sand against a background that suggests the aftermath of an atomic holocaust. Her companion, Willie, is barely visible behind the mound. The conversation of the two (which is mostly a monologue by Winnie) is outrageously out of keeping with their situation. Our familiar postures and verbal habits, the standard poses of human wisdom and consolation, are subjected to a ruthless scrutiny in being adopted by the half-buried woman. The counters of contemporary discourse—pretentious and unpretentious—are employed in a situation of impotence and near-total negation in which they bear the weight of sheer tragedy and comedy at the same time. Krapp‘s Last Tape and Endgame continue the same pre-occupations, the latter with Nagg and Nell in dustbins and their blind son chair-bound. Against paralysis and powerlessness of this kind, Beckett brilliantly employs, a dialogue that is at once tragically and farcically at loggerheads with the immediate. It moves to tears and to laughter, yet compassion persists through nightmares of negation and absurdity.

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