Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Major Plays of Samuel Beckett

1. ENDGAME (1958)
Hamm and Clov
In a wheel-chair sits Hamm, who is blind. Hamm’s parents, Nell and Nagg, both legless as the result of a cycling accident are in two ashbins. The only character who can walk is Hamm’s servant Clov who, however, cannot sit down.
Clov is trying to leave Hamm who persistently bullies him, making him push his chair round, open and shut the ashbins, and look through the windows with a telescope. Hamm’s mother, Nell, probably dies but this is not made clear. Hamm continues a story, the one he has been telling himself all his days. Clov retires to change into travelling clothes while Hamm discards his possessions one by one and settles back in his chair, covering his face with a blood-stained handkerchief. Clov appears at the door, with umbrella and bag, ready to leave, but as the curtain falls he is still standing on the threshold watching Hamm.
Critical Comments
Clov’s First Action, a Metaphor For Waking Up
Endgame is played out in a single room. Of the four characters, only Clov can move. He has a stiff-legged gait and is unable to sit down. His master, Hamm, is blind and paralysed in a wheel-chair. Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, are legless and dumped in dust-bins. When the curtain rises both Hamm and the dust-bins are covered with dust-sheets and the curtains are drawn across the windows. Clov’s first act is to draw back the curtains, look mockingly at the world outside, and then take off the dust-sheets. This is so plainly a metaphor for waking up that we imagine the stage to be the inside of an immense skull.

A Tragi-Farce
In this play there is no mysterious Mr. Godot who might, if he ever turned up, solve the problems of the protagonists. There is, in fact, no one at all waiting in the wings; all the ingredients of the tragi-farce are present when the curtain goes up.
The Lost World of Feeling Versus the Devastated Present
Although all the four characters are even further gone along Beckett’s usual road to ultimate deprivation than Vladimir and Estragon, they remain in touch with what they have left behind. Vladimir and Estragon remembered almost nothing: even yesterday was too far off for Estragon. By comparison, Hamm and the others in this play are sharply aware of what they have already lost. Nell reminds Nagg of their amorous youth when they rowed on Lake Como. Nagg reminds his son of how he used to cry for him in the night. Clov recalls the livelier days when he used to plead with Hamm for a bicycle. Hamm himself remembers “all those I might have helped.” In short, they all remain vaguely in touch with the lost time when things still happened and when their emotions still stirred. The poignancy of the play depends on this continual tension between the lost world of feeling and the devastated present. Because of this, Endgame becomes, in its small way, genuinely tragic, in spite of its elements of farce, and in spite of its limitless negation.
The Reason for the Play’s Great Appeal
The play represents what goes on in the internal world of a man like Hamm suffering from chronic depression. That is why the work survives, on even less plot than we get in Waiting for Godot, It is simply a day in the life of a man at the end of his tether, a man with only his pain-killer to look forward to, and his memories to look back upon. Once again, Beckett has created an image of the apalled, motionless world of catatonia. What starts as solipsism ends with those vague intimations of nuclear disaster which add to everyone’s anxieties in our times. So Hamm speaks of his desolate room as a “shelter” and says, “Outside of here it’s death”, a statement which holds as true for a nuclear survivor as for a chronic sufferer from depression. Perhaps this is one reason why the play has exerted such a powerful grip on the imagination of large audiences.
A New Kind of Experience With Beckett’s Old Material
The title of the play suggests a game of chess and Hamm prefaces each development of what is a “non-plot” by announcing, “Me to play.” The play is an astonishing achievement, making use of elements the author has employed before in his work: the chess game, the man in the chair, the man telling himself a lifetime story, the master and servant relationship, the ritual cruelty on which no one comments because no one expects better. In spite of the similarities between this play and Beckett’s previous work, Endgame is something new, offering a new kind of experience.
“Endgame” as a Monodrama, and as a Morality Play
In a bare room with two small windows, a blind old man, Hamm, sits in a wheel-chair. Hamm is paralysed, and can no longer stand. His servant, Clov, is unable to sit down. In two ash cans by the wall are Hamm’s legless parents, Nagg and Nell. The world outside is dead. Some great catasirophe, of which the four characters in the play are, or believe themselves, to be the sole survivors, has killed all living beings. A suggestion has been made that Endgame may be a monodrama. There is much to support this suggestion. The dustbins that hold the suppressed and despised parents; Hamm, blind and emotional; Clov, performing the function of the senses for him—all these might well represent different aspects of a single personality, repressed memories in the sub-conscious mind, the emotional and the intellectual selves. Is Clov then the intellect, bound, to serve the emotions, instincts, and appetites, and trying to free himself from such disorderly and tyrannical masters, yet doomed to die when its connection with the animal side of the personality is cut off? Is the death of the outside world the gradual weakening of the links to reality that takes place in the process of ageing and dying? Is Endgame a monodrama depicting the dissolution of a personality in the hour of death? It is difficult to answer these questions with any certainty. The play was not, of course, planned as a sustained allegory of this kind. But there are indications that there is an element of monodrama in the play. Beckett’s plays can be interpreted on many levels. Endgame may well be a monodrama on one level, and a morality play about the death of a rich man on another level.

Past Experiences Recalled by Playing the Tape-Recorder
Krapp is an old man, grey-haired-, short-sighted, hard of hearing, and has a cracked voice. He begins by eating two bananas and drinking some liquor. Then he plays a tape on a tape-recorder, this tape having been recorded when he was thirty-nine. He omits certain passages, replays others and, finally, after another drink, starts recording another tape on this, his sixty-ninth, birthday. He begins briskly enough, but soon tires of the task, and sinks back into memories of the past. In fact, three tapes are involved in the play: Tape I is not played but is mentioned as having been made when Krapp was twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old. In this tape, there is a reference to an unhappy love-affair and to certain resolutions such as drinking less and leading a less engrossing sexual life. This tape also contains a description of Krapp’s father’s last illness, Krapp’s constipation, and his magnum opus which was yet to come. Tape II is played on the stage by Krapp (who is now sixty-nine) and it was made thirty years before when he was sound as a bell, except for his constipation, and when intellectually he was most alert. On this tape we hear an account of how Krapp waited for his mother’s death, of a love scene in a boat, and the termination of another love-affair. Tape III, which Krapp now attempts to make, tells us about the past one year of Krapp’s life.
Critical Comments
The Old Misery, and “The Suffering Of Being,”
By the time Beckett came to write Krapp’s Last Tape, his only themes were memory and the contrast between a lost past and the sour present. The stage and the action in this play are, therefore, correspondingly bare. We find an old man, sitting alone, listening to a tape of himself talking thirty years before. It is a tape he had recorded when he was thirty-nine. The tape is a retrospect of a year just past and records the death of Krapp’s mother, mixed with memories of a dutiful nursemaid, a dog and a rubber ball. There is also a moment of revelation at night by the seashore during a storm, the storm and darkness apparently reflecting some truth of Krapp’s inner life. But what that “never to be forgotten” vision was we are not told. The old man keeps skipping the tape forward in an effort to find a scene which he has described in his ledger as “Farewell to Love.’“ Having found it, the old man then goes on to record his latest retrospect of the year that has just ended. His present style of recording lacks the fluency and precision of his youth, and befits a life failing to bits with old age and failure. In place of the young man’s vision, he reports a bleaker, deprived reality: “What’s a year now? The sour cud and the iron stool.” He now lives a life of total obscurity. Only seventeen copies of his book, his “opus magnum”, have been sold and he scarcely leaves his darkened room. As for his love-life, an old sweet-heart did come in a couple of times but he could not do, much. His only comfort is to lie in bed and dream about his remote past: “Be again, be again. All that old misery. Once wasn’t enough for you.” He sounds like the voices perpetually rustling in the ears of Vladimir and Estragon:
Vladimir. What do they say?
Estragon. They talk about their lives.
Vladimir. To have lived is not enough for them.
Estragon. They have to talk about it.
Vladimir. To be dead is not enough for them.
Estragon. It is not sufficient.
(Waiting for Godot, Page 63)
Apparently, one really was not enough for Krapp, for he then plays again the portion of the tape which he has described as “Farewell to Love”, picking it up in the middle of the account of his girl and himself drifting in a boat on a summer’s day. Near the end of this account he hears the following words with which the incident closes: “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.” The play ends there, with Krapp sitting motionless staring before him, and the tape running on in silence. The last sentence of the tape is the key to the play. For the young man who made the recording it is an affirmation of strength: he has had his vision, the fire is in him, and he knows what he must do even if it involves a farewell to love. But for the old man listening motionless in the darkness it is an ambiguous echo of his own past renunciation: “Once wasn’t enough for you.” In the end, “all that old misery” is in fact too much for him; it is again “the suffering of being.”
Comparatively a More Human Play
This play shows a new direction for Beckett’s writing. All his earlier work was about depression in its various manifestations, from mere boredom to near catatonia, with appropriate attendant symptoms. In comparison, Krapp’s Last Tape is far more human. Its subject is not depression but grief and it shows precisely what has been lost. Here Beckett for once put aside the defences of habitt and allows memory its due, becoming vulnerable to the malignant disease of Time.
The Elusiveness of the Human Personality
In Krapp’s Last Tape, a one-act play, Beckett makes use of the tape-recorder to show the elusiveness of the human personality. Krapp is a very old man who throughout his adult life has annually recorded an account of the past year’s impressions and events on a tape. We see him old, decrepit, and a failure as a writer (only seventeen copies of his book have been sold in the current year), listening to his own voice recorded thirty years earlier. But his voice has become the voice of a stranger to him. Through the brilliant device of the autobiographical library of annual recorded statements, Beckett has found a graphic expression for the problem of the ever-changing identity of the self, which he had already described in his essay on Proust. In Krapp’s Last Tape, the self at one moment in time is confronted with its earlier incarnation only to find it utterly strange.
One Long Monologue
Happy Days has only two characters, a middle-aged couple called Winnie and Willie. Winnie is buried in sand and is unable to move; Willie does not appear fully until the end. Willie has very little to say and, as a result, Winnie has to hold the audience on her own, by her voice and her facial expressions, in one long wandering monolgue.
Winnie, Not a Dissatisfied or Grumbling Person
The play is intended to give us a sour view of a cosy marriage. We are introduced to a monosyllablic, gently bullied husband, with his straw hat, newspaper, and dirty postcard and a wife who wakes and sleeps to order, prays, and speaks ceaselessly about the happy days she has known. The woman consoles herself, while she still has the use of her arms, by searching her shopping bag which is full of miscellaneous articles, from a tooth-brush to a revolver. Her favourite phrase is “That’s what I find so wonderful”. She is the opposite of all those dissatisfied and grumbling characters on whom Beckett elsewhere lavishes so much sympathy.
Winnie, an Optimistic and Talkative Person
As though to prove that cheerfulness is no better rewarded than despair, Beckett gives Winnie the full standard treatment to which we are accustomed in his work. In Act I she is buried to the waist in earth. By Act II she gets buried up to the neck, unable to move her head in any direction. Yet she remains, to the bitterest end, firmly optimistic and talkative. We have here a comic version of the final anguish of the Unnamable who had said: “I can’t go on, I must go on, I’ll go on”. Winnie does not, till the end, find anything to complain of and she sees no reason for ceasing to talk. She too hears voices but her reaction to them is different: “Sometimes I hear sounds. But not often. They are a boon, sounds are a boon, they help me. Yes, those are happy days, when there are sounds”. In spite of Winnie’s cheerfulness, Beckett here seems to be telling us that “blessed are the optimists for they shall be buried alive”.
A Tragic and Funny Situation
In Happy Days, Beckett portrays the human condition in the image of a cheerful, plump woman, Winnie, who is slowly sinking into a mound of earth. On the one hand it is tragic that Winnie should be so cheerful in her terrible and hopeless predicament; on the other hand it is funny. In one sense her cheerfulness is sheer folly and the author seems to make a deeply pessimistic comment on human life; in another sense, however, Winnie’s cheerfulness in the face of death and nothingness is an expression of man’s courage and nobility, and thus the play provide a kind of catharsis. Winnie’s life does consist of happy days because she refuses to be dismayed.
PLAY (1963)
The Torment of the Characters
On one level, Play is a dramatic version of Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable. The story is set in some kind of after-life where the characters— a man, his wife, and his mistress—are encased in urns, their heads fixed immovably, their faces “so lost to age and aspect as to seem almost apart of urns”. As usual all they can do is talk, and what the characters say constitutes their torment. If they were allowed to stop talking, they would find the silence and the darkness they long for. But they are compelled to tell their sordid little story endlessly and literally so, because the play is repeated a second time without variation. Most likely, all the three characters are expiating without end the guilt of having lived.
The Theme of Adultery
The plot itself is conventional. Adultery, after all, has been the great theme of the European novel from La Princesse de Cleves and Adolphe, through Le Rouge et le Noir, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina down to Le Diable au Corps and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In Play, Beckett used that tradition and extends it into his own particular preoccupation with hell and despair. The mixture of angry contempt and disgusting sexuality is the real, substance and theme of the play which is one of Beckett’s most powerful pieces of writing. The first of all Beckett’s heroes was named Belacqua, after an amiable and passive inhabitant of Dante’s purgatory. In contrast, the characters in Play are in real hell: their sin is lust and hatred, not sloth, and their torment is proportionately agonising.
Characters in Urns
The characters in Play are placed in urns because they are shown to us after they have died and departed from this earth. The neck of each of these characters is “held, fast in the urn’s mouth” so that there can be no change of position and no movement which might bring relaxation to the actors or distraction to the audience. Their faces seem “almost part of urns” and therefore make it impossible for us to imagine any definite identity regarding them. On these three faces the entire attention of the audience is to be fixed throughout the play since, apart from the urns, there is nothing else for the audience to look at. By a complete sacrifice of movement and change, Beckett achieves a fantastic degree of concentration inducing a heightened awareness, which is the very essence of the dramatic experience.
The Shifting Beam of Light
The speeches of these three characters are provoked by a spotlight moving from one face to the other. The source of light is single but the stage directions specified by Beckett make it clear that he is using the spotlight not just to illumine the faces of the actors; the spotlight is a character as much as those whom it illumines. In performance this device is tremendously effective, even though the audience is never tempted to try to find any explanation for the light. The constantly shifting beam of light produces the sense of movement which the actors in their urns cannot produce; at the same time the beam intensifies the concentration, giving rise to a strong sense of claustrophobia.
Widely Differing Reactions to the Play
It has been said that the situations presented by Play exist at such a level of simplicity that there is nothing which leaves the slightest margin for argument over its interpretation. Yet, for all its simplicity, Play has been known to produce widely differing reactions among spectators and critics. To one critic, it brought an agony of heightening awareness, accompanied by a heightened understanding. Another critic thus commented on it: “These three suffering heads conjure up not only three whole lives, but also awaken the reverberations that transform them from the trivial to the universal. Here are people in all their funny, disgraceful, pitiable fragility, and all the touchingness, in spite of everything, of their efforts to love one another, and endure.” Yet another critic pointed out that Play “invited an audience to undergo an experience”. This experience might be a strange one, an unusual one, even a nerve-racking one, but it was a dramatic one. The comments of one more critic deserve notice: “Each time a Samuel Beckett play has a world premiere, the world turns a deeper shade of black. Once his people were hopeful, waiting for Godot; later they crouched in garbage cans in Endgame; Krapp was moribund while listening to his last tape; then, in Happy Days, the female lead kept sinking deeper and deeper into a mound. Now Beckett’s characters have gone all the way to hell in a play called Play. Only the heads of the three actors could be seen. Their bodies were inside giant clay urns. Spotlights kept picking out the appropriate urn as the dialogue developed...... The second half of the play is a verbatim recapitulation of the first half.” Such would be the reaction of the large majority of theatre-goers also. Until Beckett’s dramatic methods and purposes are clearly understood, until an audience makes the necessary mental adjustment to see his plays performed on the stage or even to read his plays, the audience is likely to experience bewilderment, incredulity, anger, or contempt.
Release From Consciousness
The attainment of the release from consciousness, from the need to tell oneself the tale of one’s own life, seems impossible. For the true release would lie in one’s knowing that one is no longer conscious. Yet with death consciousness ceases, so we can never know that we no longer exist. Hence the last moment of a dying man’s consciousness can be imagined as remaining suspended for ever in the limbo of an eternal unawareness of its cessation. This is the situation dramatised by Beckett in Play. Here are the three dead characters—the husband, the wife and the mistress, unaware of one another’s presence, only dimly aware that they are dead, endlessly repeating the contents of their last moments of consciousness. How can eternity itself be put on to the stage within the confines of a text that runs to barely half an hour? Beckett has attempted to achieve the impossible by having the entire text of Play spoken twice, identically, except that the words become faster and softer.
5. ALL THAT FALL (1956)
Mrs. Rooney’s Journey to the Railway Station
Maddy Rooney, a fat, talkative, old woman, is going to a country railway station to meet her blind husband, Dan, who is returning from his office in the city. On the way she meets her old admirer, Mr. Slocum, who offers her a lift in his car. It is with great difficulty that she gets into the car because of her huge bulk. On her arrival at the station, she has an equal difficulty in getting out of the vehicle. She is assisted up the steps to the station by a woman called Miss Fill. The train is late, though the station-master is unable to say why.
The Reason for the Train’s Late Arrival
On the way home, Maddy asks her husband why the train was late. Dan gives a dramatised account of the journey but does not explain the reason for the late arrival of the train. His account is interspersed with all kinds of talk about various matters, including a recollection by Maddy of a psychology lecture. At one point, Dan admits to a desire to murder a child, confessing that he had often contemplated attacking Jerry, the boy who usually leads him home from the station. Presently Jerry comes running with an object like a ball, which Dan had dropped. Dan takes it, without explaining what it is beyond saying that it is a thing which he carries about him. Jerry also tells Maddy that the train was late because a child had fallen from it under the wheels and been killed.
The Characters in the Play
All That Fall was Beckett’s first radio play, and it shows his obvious boredom and impatience with the demands of conventional narrative and plot. There are, besides Mr. and Mrs. quite a number of characters in this play—Christy, a carter; Tyler, a retired bill-broker; Slocum, a clerk in the race-course; Tommy, a porter at the railway station; Barrel, the station-master; Miss Fill, a lady in her thirties. All these persons serve, in their different ways, as foils to Mrs. Maddy Rooney’s grumbling. Mrs. Rooney is hardly in a condition to travel, being in her seventies and being too fat; and Mr. Rooney, in turn, is decrepit and also blind. Mrs. Rooney is portrayed as a woman whose only satisfaction lies in the sickness, operations, and bereavements she has endured. Her talk is expressive of a death-wish: “It is suicide to be abroad. But what is it to be at home. Mr. Tyler, what is it to be at home? A lingering dissolution”. In their different ways, both husband and wife are still mourning the loss of their daughter, Minnie, who died as a child. For both of them, that first death has changed their lives into nothing more than a long day’s dying. However, at its start the play is a delectable comedy.
Cause of Depression in Beckett’s Plays.
All Beckett’s characters are depressed not for any particular reason but because they are alive, which, in turn, means that they will eventually die. If the human psyche be regarded as a battleground for a ceaseless struggle between the pleasure-principle and the death-instinct, in Beckett’s work the death-instinct wins.
“Christ What a Planet”!
The play ends with Jerry’s explanation to Maddy about the train’s late arrival. The boy’s explanation shows that grief is springing up in another part of this universe for another couple much like the Rooneys. Earlier in the play Mrs. Mooney had cried out in despair, when finding it difficult to climb up the station-steps: “Christ what a planet!” At that time it was just another exaggeration which had a comic effect on us. By the end of the play it seems the only appropriate response. Did Dan Rooney push the child down the train ? We are not sure but the possibility is there because this man is a killer at heart.
The Title
The title of the play is taken from the text of a sermon that was to be preached at the village church. “The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down”. According to the stage directions, the Rooneys’ reaction to this text was an outburst of “wild laughter”.
The Unanswered Questions
All That Fall shows a very fat Irish woman, Maddy Rooney, on her way to the railway station of Boghill to meet her blind husband, Dan Rooney, who is due to arrive by the 12-30 train. She meets a number of people with whom she wants to establish contact but fails. “I estrange them all”, she says. Mrs. Rooney lost a daughter more than forty years ago. The train arrives late. On the way home Dan Rooney tells his wife that often in winter he is tempted to attack the boy who leads him home from the station. When they are almost home, the same little boy runs after them; he is carrying an object Mr. Rooney is believed to have left in his compartment on the train. It is a child’s ball. The boy also knows why the train had to stop on the way: a child had fallen out of the train and been killed on the tracks. Did Dan Rooney push the child out of the train? Did his impulse to destroy young lives overcome him during the journey? And has his hatred of children something to do with Maddy’s childlessness? Maddy Rooney stands for the forces of life and procreation, Dan for the death wish. Does the Biblical quotation of the title support Dan Rooney’s point of view? Was the child who was killed and redeemed from existence saved the troubles of life and old age and thus upheld by the Lord? When the text from the psalm is mentioned as the subject of next Sunday’s sermon, both Maddy and Dan break out in wild laughter. All That Fall touches many of the chords that are sounded in Waiting for Godot and Endgame, but in a somewhat lighter and less searching manner.
6. EMBERS (1959)
The Hero’s Compulsive Need to Talk
The radio-play Embers resembles Krapp’s Last Tape in that its hero is also an old man musing on the past. The old man, Henry, resembles the heroes of Beckett’s later novels in his recall of memories in the form of “stories” and in his compulsive need to talk. As the voice of his (dead) wife tells him: “You should see a doctor about your talking. What must it be like for Addie (the daughter)? Do you know what she said to me once, when she was quite small? She said, Mummy, why does Daddy keep on talking all the time? She heard you in the lavatory. I didn’t know what to answer.”
The Hero’s Defence Against the Intolerable Reality of Other People and of the Sea
Embers takes the first necessary leap into a thorough-going solipsism. It concerns a man called Henry wandering alone on a beach, talking and talking, to drown out the impossible sound of the sea. He summons up ghosts—of his father who does not speak, of his wife who does. He tells stories, commands sounds (for instance, the noise of hooves which begin and end at his wish), listens to brief flashbacks from the bullied life of his daughter whom he never liked. In short, he tries everything to suppress the sea’s eternal complaint. As his wife points out in the course of their imaginary conversation, this is an old obsession of his. He has spent a life­time talking, loudly and like a maniac, to himself. Like many of Beckett’s heroes, Henry’s main defence against the intolerable reality of other people and of the sea is to tell stories. One Story that he tells on and off concerns the old man, Bolton, and his doctor-friend, Holloway, both standing before the fading embers of a fire in a darkened house.
Beckett’s Devotion to the Principle of Contraction
Beckett, who had been writing stories about men shut in their rooms writing stories, has reached, with this play, a point of contraction where solitude and the inner spiritual depths are no longer bearable. Beckett’s devotion to the principle of contraction had been unwavering. Each work was stripped more and more of its inessentials until all that remains is a kind of shorthand expressing despair. Henry, however, remains a solipsist, beyond friendship and help; the people he summons, like the hooves, have no existence outside his own head. The only external reality is the sound of the sea, which he can neither tolerate nor escape, and which is a tormenting accompaniment to his deprived life burning, like the fire in Bolton’s house, down to its embers.
Difficulties of Being a Writer
Embers is a condensed dramatic statement of the difficulties of being a writer. Two subsequent radio plays deal with a similar subject, though from a different angle. They deal, not with the enormous human cost of creating a work of art, but with the process of creation.
The Process of Composition
In Words and Music there are three characters—Croak, a poet; and his two servants. Words and Music, whom he calls Joe and Bob. One evening, while waiting to perform for him, Joe rehearses a piece of prose composition on the subject of “sloth”. When Croak arrives, he announces that the theme for the evening is “love”. Joe recites his composition, substituting the word “love” for “sloth”, but not always even remembering to do that. Croak feels distressed, and calls upon Bob to try something more appropriate. Bob’s efforts are equally disappointing. Croak suggests another theme, “age”, but feels even more distressed by the paltry attempts of his two servants. Gradually, however, the efforts of Joe and Bob lead to the emergence of two lyrics which are sung rather badly by Joe, Finally, Croak can stand no more of it and goes away, leaving the other two still unreconciled.
The Labour and Frustration of Creation
Words and Music is a brilliant, witty, entirely original dramatisation of the labour and frustrations of creation—the poet alternately bullying and despairing, with his instruments inept, unwieldy, and only slowly becoming usable. The play also illustrates vividly the distance between the music which a poet hears in his head and the words at his command, and the slow, unwilling process of controlling these two elements until they finally unite in a single work of art. Many poets have described the different ways in which they build up poems line by line, and Beckett’s play represents one such attempt.
8. CASCANDO (1963)
Drowning the Voice of Verbal Consciousness
The compulsion to talk, to tell oneself stories, which is the thread that runs through the three novels of Beckett’s great trilogy, also forms the subject of his radio play Cascando. Here the drowning of the voice, of verbal consciousness, which is for ever compelled to fill the void with words, i.e. compelled to tell itself stories, is accompanied by surges of non-verbal consciousness, the swell of emotion expressed in the music. The play ends inconclusively. As in Endgame, as in Waiting for Godot, we are left uncertain whether the final consummation, the attainment of salvation, of the cessation of suffering through consciousness has in fact been, or can ever be, reached. In the radio play Words and Music we find a tyrannical master: Croak, issuing orders to his two servants. Words and Music, to fill the time, with improvisations on such subjects as Sloth, Age, and Love. Always unsatisfied, he savagely clouts his servants and calls for more. The parallel between Croak and the “Opener” of Cascando is thus quite clear. And so is the yearning for peace from consciousness which emerges from Words’s final improvisation. In the Film, the same flight from self-perception is put into a visual form. The flight from self-perception in an attempt to reach the positive nothingness of non-being is an important theme of all Beckett’s work. In Film this theme is concretized as the flight of the hero from a pursuer, who eventually is revealed to be none other than himself.
The Opener and the Voice
Cascando deals with the same theme as Words and Music, though from a slightly different point of view. Instead of Croak, we have an Opener; instead of Words or Joe, there is the Voice, striving to tell a story. If he can tell the right story, then the Voice will be allowed to rest in silence for ever. The Opener can bring in the Voice and the Music separately or together. The Opener denies that the sounds are, as some say, in his head. “It’s my life,” he says, “I live on that.” And he adds, “There is nothing in my head.” Sometimes Voice describes the movements and actions of a man called Woburn. Woburn, a derelict, staggers on his motiveless way to the sea, continually collapsing in the mud and raising himself up again, till he finally drifts out to sea in an open boat. The Voice stumbles on like Woburn, sustained by Music, gradually weakening, urged violently on by the Opener: “Come on! Come on!” The Opener himself ponders on why he bothers, what makes him blunder on opening and closing stories which are never quite what he is after.
The Artist’s “Fidelity to Failure”
Cascando is a dramatization of the artist’s ‘fidelity to failure”. So the Opener, driven on by the hope of resting after a last “right” story, is faithful in the end not to his inner voices, but simply to his function, “I open and close.”
9. FILM (1964)
Film begins with a human eye opening very slowly. Then with the camera we pursue a man who enters a house and then a room in the house. Here, the man draws the curtains, puts out the dog and cat, tears down from the wall a picture of a god with protruding eyes, covers a cage containing a watchful parrot, and a bowl in which swims a staring goldfish. Settling himself in a rocking chair he looks through a number of photographs of himself from infancy to middle age. He tears these up one by one and then rocks himself into a sleep or oblivion. When he wakes up, he is brought face to face with his tireless pursuer—now seen to be himself. Confronted with this self-perception, he sinks back into the chair, with his head between his hands.
Film, Samuel Beckett’s only venture into the medium of the cinema, was made in New York, directed by Alan Schneider, and starring Buster Keaton.
The subject of Imagination Dead Imagine is precisely what its title says: imagine a world in which the imagination is dead. The narrowness of Beckett’s range, the way the same themes are repeated, transfigured, from work to work until the whole thing seems like a single block of marble, is unusual in a writer of his stature. He began depressed, worked his way through to an art which expressed that depression poignantly and in a multitude of ways, and he rarely deviated from his logic of denial. He began depressed and has been true to his depression. It took unusual courage and determination, as well as great talent, to follow this logic of denial through to its desolate end.
11. COME AND GO (1965)
In Come and Go, three women sit in a circle of light on a dark stage. Their ages are “undeterminable”. They are joined by a shared, distant past. But between past and present a life-time of desolation has intervened and death now is imminent for all the three. When each in turn moves out of the circle of light, the remaining two come together on their bench:
Flo. Ru.
Flo. What do you think of Vi?
Ru. I see little change. (Flo moves to centre seat, whispers in Ru’s ear. Appalled). Oh ! (They look at each other. Flo puts her anger to her lips). Does she not realise?
Flo. God grant not.
This dialogue is repeated with variations three times, as each of the three women comes and goes from the light to the shadows. All are doomed, but each is determined to protect the others from the destructive knowledge. So they sit unspeaking, “dreaming of love”, “of the old days”, and “of what came after”. Silence is the one means of preserving the illusions by which they all survive. In the end, they join hands, all three linked together as in a childhood game.
In Come and Go we have the opposite of the vicious circle of Play, where each of the three protagonists was tormented by thoughts of the others’ secret pleasures. Here we have only a remote protectiveness and mutual illusion, a ritual coming and going from light to dark and a mutually tender suppression of the knowledge of evil, the pang for what is lost and gone, excluding the dread of what is to come.
The miniature playlet Come and Go also deals with the theme of our reluctance to face our own predicament, while we are only too eager to gossip about that of our fellow men. We are confronted with three female characters each of whom leaves in turn, allowing the two others to inform each other of some impending disaster (perhaps death) which is about to descend on the absent woman.
12. EH JOE (1966)
            The same economy and terseness characterise Beckett’s first television play, Eh Joe. Here a lonely, elderly man listens, without speaking and with increasing horror, to a woman’s voice reproaching him with his hardness of heart towards her which drove her to suicide. This is a theme, Beckett has often dealt with before—regret about love not given, love refused in the past. What is astonishing is his mastery of the new medium. This is a television play which could not exist in any other medium. In a sense the woman’s voice which Joe hears is his own voice; it is his compulsion to tell himself his own story. For to be alive is to be aware of oneself; to be aware of oneself is to hear one’s thoughts, the endless, relentless stream of words. (In the radio plays Embers and All that Fall, this compulsive talking blends into a background of natural sound—the sound of the sea in Embers, the sound of the road in All that Fall.
In Eh Joe, a television play, a man called Joe is assailed by a woman’s voice. Voices have assailed this man before, and he has vanquished them all: his father’s, for instance, and his mother’s. But this woman persists. The woman reminds Joe of the other voices he has heard in his head and his method of strangling them, “mental thuggee”, as he calls the process. The woman’s voice goes on to describe in great detail the suicide of a girl whom Joe had loved and rejected. The special poignancy is that the girl died not out of rage but out of loneliness, not turned away from a memory of Joe but toward it.
Eh Joe has the bare bones of a narrative and employs a language reduced to its essentials, each detail working precisely in its place. It is Krapp’s Last Tape turned inside out, telling a similar story but from the girl’s point of view. It is also a dramatic version of all those voices which so haunted Beckett’s other heroes, the voices described by Vladimir and Estragon, but never before heard speaking for themselves. Joe himself does not speak. Indeed, after the opening moments, he does not even move. We just hear a woman’s voice, low, distinct, remote, relentlessly accusing Joe. The theme of her, speech is Joe’s guilt, and perhaps what she says is a clue to the negation and depression of Beckett’s other works. The woman’s voice reminds Joe of how he had killed all those who loved him once. Now, as it were, he kills them a second time, this time in his head. There is no escape from the sense of guilt. This play is Beckett’s most intimate and precise image of the anguish which is the theme of his work; it shows a man shut off on his own in a sealed room, tortured by a multitude of painful memories.
Come and Go has a duration of about three minutes on the stage, and it employs just 121 spoken words. Obviously, even this seemed excessive to Beckett. The play called Breath lasts precisely thirty-five seconds and dispenses altogether with actors and words. This reduction seems inevitable in the context of what Beckett had been trying to do all his life. Beckett had been writing throughout his career about deprivation in all its forms—material and emotional. It was therefore only consistent that he should ultimately create a work of art deprived of art. Perhaps Beckett in this play is saying: “Beware, have no illusions; life is only a breath between the birth-cry and the death-cry. But he may also be saying that life is simply a cosmic yawn. After all, he laboured devotedly to express his depression in a multitude of ways and the one symptom of depression he never shirked was boredom—chronic, paralysing boredom, engulfing everything, particularly the weary profession of writing. From the beginning, Beckett had created characters who, in their different ways and at different intensities, had been at their last gasp. Breath is, literally, that last grasp.
14. NOT I
Not I focuses in one final, unanswerable image all Beckett’s life-long obsessions. In a way it is the final dramatic expression of the Unnamable’s last words and Beckett’s own pessimistic statement of his vocation as a writer:
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.
But with this difference: instead of will-power and obligation there is now an absolute, immediate, irresistible need to express.
Not 1 perhaps states the predicament of Beckett himself as an artist who has gone on telling stories despite his distaste, disinterest, and minimal gift for narrative, forced both by the nature of the forms he employs and by his own unwavering preference for anonymity to continue with the fiction of making fictions out of what is, in fact, personal anguish. In a way, the whole gallery of his invented characters, from Belacqua Shuah through all the heroes of his novels and plays, are variations of his own “vehement refusal to relinquish third person”; they are ways of affirming in the teeth of experience the two words which will keep the anguish at bay “Not I”.
Miscellaneous Comments on the Plays
“Beckett’s plays stay in the bones. They haunt me sleeping and waking, coming upon me when I am least aware. Sometimes a stray bit of conversation heard by accident on a bus or in a restaurant brings home one of Vladimir’s and Estragon’s little canters. Sometimes I find myself actually reacting like Clov or like Hamm or, more often, like both simultaneously. Sam’s characters seem to me always more alive and more truly lasting than those in the slice-of-life realistic dramas with which our stages today abound.”       (Alan Schneider)
            “The farther he goes the more good it does me. I don’t want philosophy, tracts, dogmas, creeds, way-outs, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous remorseless writer going........             (Harold Printer)
            “I do not know what Beckett thinks of women, but I know that he understands them profoundly from the inside. If his plays manage to affect us and move us, it is because Beckett, inspite of his modesty, manages to express his immense compassion for all human life and because he is one of those exceptional men to whom love and lucidity are on the same level.”            (Madeleine Renaud)
            “For everyone 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; one does not need to read every word he has written to admire the courage and purity of his effort, to identify with it, and to recognise the cost.”        (A. Alvarez)
            Waiting for Godot, according to Beckett, is a “play that is striving all the time to avoid definition”. Beckett also said about this play: “One Act would have been too little and three Acts would have been too much.” Vivian Mercier thus commented upon this play: A play in which nothing happens, twice.
            “It is the peculiar richness of a play like Waiting for Godot that it opens vistas on so many different perspectives. It is open to philosophical, religious, and psychological interpretations, yet above all it is a poem on time, evanescence, and the mysteriousness of existence, the paradox of change and stability, necessity and absurdity. In watching Waiting for Godot we feel like Watt contemplating the organization of Mr. Knott’s world: ‘But he had hardly felt the absurdity of those things, on the one hand, and the necessity of those others, on the other, (for it is rare that the feeling of absurdity is not followed by the feeling of necessity), when he felt the absurdity of those things of which he had just felt the necessity (for it is rare that the feeling of necessity is not followed by the feeling of absurdity).’” (Martin Esslin)
Beckett made the following comments on his Endgame:
            (1) “Rather difficult and elliptical, mostly depending on the power of the text to claw, more inhuman than Waiting for Godot”
            (2) “In Waiting for Godot, the audience wonders if Godot will ever come, in Endgame it wonders if Clov will ever leave.”
            Michael Robinson expressed the following opinion about Endgame: “It has a lautness and power which makes its brevity as exhausting as many three-act dramas. A masterpiece of contraction it is probably Beckelt’s most individual work; it is also his finest play.”
            Says Martin Esslin: “If Waiting for Godot shows its two heroes whiling away the time in a succession of desultory and never-ending games, Beckett’s second play deals with an ‘endgame’, the final game in the hour of death. Waiting for Godot takes place on a terrifyingly empty open road. Endgame in a claustrophobic interior. Waiting for Godot consists of two symmetrical movements that balance each other; Endgame has only one Act that shows the running down of a mechanism until it comes to a stop. Yet Endgame, like Waiting for Godot, groups its characters in symmetrical pairs.”
            “In Krapp’s Last Tape the soliloquy has found, for the first and .probably the last time, a form which combines the immobile mask and the mobile face, mime and speech, monologue and dialogue, and offers all their various resources to one performer.”
(Roy Walker)
            “In Act I, buried to her waist in the exact centre of the mound stands Winnie, a woman of about fifty, well preserved, blonde for preference. In Act II, she is embedded to the neck and cannot even move her head.”    (Alec Reid on Happy Days)
            “The actress moreover is given a hundred chances to show what a voice can do, to transform simple words into poetry. It’s a splendid virtuoso part, though an immobilized one like Hamm’s, and her (Winnie’s) simple love, largely unrequited, for Willie, lifts the tedium to crescendos of chirpy pathos.”                    
                                                    (Hugh Kenner on
Happy Days).
            “The three characters of Play are fixed in three identical grey urns about one yard high, their necks held fast by the mouth of the urn. Unable to turn their heads they stare into the auditorium throughout the play, their aged faces almost part of the urns, expressionless like their faint, toneless voices. The three voices speak their separate versions of a mutual obsession as mechanically as a fugue, each impervious to the presence of the other two. They have no names, simply the designations M, W1 and W2 which aim at anonymity but also stand for all men and women who have, like them, been caught in a three part love-affair.”                                                                                          (Michael Robinson)
            Alec Reid thus introduces us to Beckett’s Embers, Words and Music, and Cascando: “These three works, a play written especially for broadcasting and two short pieces for radio, are conceived in terms of sound without sight. No certain line divides the exterior world from that within the skulls of the characters. In Embers, for example, we hear the voice of a woman, Ada, Henry’s wife. We are not told, however, whether she is actually present sitting beside Henry, or whether she is an abstraction in his mind like his dead father whom he also imagines sitting beside him, but whose voice is never heard. Ambiguity, abstraction, these are the possibilities peculiar to sound radio which Beckett is exploiting here to the full. Thus, we have impact, not argument.”
            “Embers may be taken as the paradigm, for once explicit, of everything Beckett has done since the last 1950s. It is unusual in presenting so explicitly, albeit enigmatically, the elements of the past situation, the past happenings, from which the present agony is a recoiling, of which it is a product, and around which it obsessively revolves.......Words and Music and Cascando differ radically from all these other works in having no realistic content whatever. Abandoning the order of “plot” which makes Embers so difficult, they open themselves to the unspecifying quality of broadcast sound, to the documentary uses of which they are related as to a newspaper report a Symbolist poem......Words and Music is the most profound, the most original use to which Beckett has put radio.”                                                           (Hugh Kenner)

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