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The power of this play, a metaphor for any reduction of a human being into an object, extends the theatrical metaphor (a Director manipulating an actor through the Assistant) out to political manipulation, state suppression of the artist (the play was written as part of a protest against the imprisonment and silencing of Vaclav Havel), slavery, or even spouse abuse. By his indifference to the Protagonist’s discomfort on being disrobed, to the indignities of ordering body positions (unclenching fists, baring body parts, etc.), and by the Assistant’s ready obedience to the Director’s orders (as she takes notes to whiten parts, as though the Protagonist were a canvas or a specimen), the (real) audience is shocked and dismayed–what makes the piece so shocking is that at that very moment, the actor playing the Protagonist is undergoing the same indignities, while the audience watches paralysed and does not act! It is a demonstration of how, in a controlled social environment, the common man is frozen by conventions imposed by those in power (the performance of a play follows many social unwritten rules, the most ubiquitous being the “fourth wall” of the proscenium stage.) When the Protagonist finally lifts his head at play’s end, the only appropriate look is a grimace. In the film version (flawed by many departures from Beckett’s intentions), it is John Gielgud’s face we see, made even more striking by our familiarity with it from a lifetime of being manipulated by Directors, while we sat silent.
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