Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 6)
Beckett, Samuel 1906–
Beckett, an Irish-born Nobel Laureate, lives in Paris and has written mainly in French since 1937. He is a major dramatist, as well as a poet, critic, novelist, essayist, translator, and short story writer. His plays, metaphysical enigmas, are generally regarded as prototypical of existential theater. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Waiting for Godot … is a poetic harlequinade—tragicomic as the traditional commedia dell'arte usually was: full of horseplay, high spirits, cruelty and a great wistfulness. Though the content is intellectual to a degree, the surface, which is at once terse, rapid and prolix in dialogue, is very much like a minstrel show or vaudeville turn.
The form is exactly right for what Beckett wishes to convey. Complete disenchantment is at the heart of the play, but Beckett refuses to honor this disenchantment by a serious demeanor. Since life is an incomprehensible nullity enveloped by colorful patterns of fundamentally absurd and futile activities (like a clown's habit clothing a corpse), it is proper that we pass our time laughing at the spectacle.
We pass the time, Beckett tells us, waiting for a meaning that will save us—save us from the pain, ugliness, emptiness of existence. Perhaps the meaning is God, but we do not know Him. He is always promised us but He never recognizably appears. Our life is thus a constant waiting, always essentially the same, till time itself ceases to have significance or substance. "I can't go on like this," man forever cries; to which the reply is, "That's what you think." "What'll we do? What'll we do?" man repeatedly wails. The only answer given—apart from suicide, which is reticently hinted at—is to wait: "In the meantime let us try to converse calmly, since we are incapable of keeping silent." (pp. 63-4)
[The] play may be said to be too long, too simple, too clear, too symmetrical a fairytale, because it is an abstraction. Abstract art, it often occurs to me, is far too logical and direct as compared to the more "realistic" art. Too soon we see through to its meaning. Hamlet is in many ways still a puzzle to us, because its abstract significance is part of the complex stuff of its material, which being humanly concrete must be somewhat elusive. In Waiting for Godot almost everything is named. When abstraction is so clear, our attention weakens. As soon as we perceive the play's design everything else appears supererogatory. (p. 64)
We all, at times, feel as Beckett does (so much, alas, in the contemporary world gives us reason to do so), but in the sum of everyday living we give this mood the lie. Beckett is what in modern times we call a genius: he has built a cosmos out of the awareness of a passing moment. But what saves humanity is its mediocrity: its persistence in becoming wholly involved in the trivia of day-to-day physical concerns out of which arise all our struggles and aspirations, even to the most exalted level. It is this "stupid" appetite for life, this crass identity with it, which is its glory, sometimes called divine. (pp. 64-5)
Harold Clurman, "Samuel Beckett" (1956), in his The Divine Pastime: Theatre Essays (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; copyright © 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1974 by Harold Clurman), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 63-5.
A pattern of uncertainties and questions, an action demonstrating the absence of action—here we have the essence of [Waiting for Godot]. And if we look at it a little more closely—and without any of the preconceived notions of what drama ought to be, we can see quite clearly what Beckett wants to express: human beings waiting for the arrival of someone or something with whom they may or may not have an appointment. Are we not all born into this world without knowing what our purpose is, are we not all, now that we are here, assuming that perhaps we have a purpose and that the next day will bring the moment of revelation—and then night falls and we are told to try again tomorrow and so on for ever after? Are we not all … trying to give our life some purpose, trying to while away the time in some fashion, knowing full well that without that final knowledge about what we are here for, all our activities are merely futile antics? And are we not all … subject to the most sudden reversals of our fortunes, hale and hearty one day, blind and helpless the next?… And are we not all, as social beings, irrevocably tied to each other, however much we might loathe each other's company, simply because one human being can never live in isolation and yet all contact between human beings inevitably produces friction….
These are only a few of the themes of Waiting for Godot which I am trying to pick out from the intricate pattern of images of the human condition which Beckett has here intertwined with great art and complexity in the same way in which the musical themes of a symphony are interwoven in an infinitely complex pattern of statement and counter-statement, consonance and contrast. Complex patterns of this kind are the hallmark of music and poetry. And here we have, in my opinion, the clue to the understanding of Waiting for Godot and of the other plays in this convention: these plays are not like the conventional well-made drama re-enacted stories, they are complex and extended poetic images brought to life before the eyes of the audience. If the drama of plot and character is akin to the narrative art, this type of play is essentially lyrical. If the conventional, well-made play unrolls before our eyes like a comic strip in which the action proceeds from point A to point B, in this type of drama, as in a poem, we are witnessing the unfolding of a static pattern as that of a flower which gradually opens and reveals a structure that, however, has been present from the beginning. The two types of drama consequently have a completely different kind of suspense. In the conventional play we ask: what is going to happen next? How is it going to end? In this kind of play we ask: what is happening? What is the nature of the pattern that is unfolding? (pp. 61-2)
If the theatre of plot and character involves the audience emotionally by enabling them to identify themselves with the heroes of its plays and thus to experience their emotions and triumphs vicariously, this kind of theatre which confronts its audience with a concrete pattern of poetic images demands a positive effort of interpretation, and appeals at the same time to a very deep layer of the subconscious mind. In this the Theatre of the Absurd is analogous to abstract painting and sculpture which also grip the spectator both on the level of the archetypal image that strikes chords in the deepest layers of the mind and on the level of a highly intellectual interpretative effort. The same is true of our response to poetry: the rhythm and colour of a poem, its tonal and associative qualities appeal to the deepest strata of the mind, while it can also appeal to the intellect through the precision and elegance of its expression, the depths of the thought it propounds. (p. 63)
The search for man's own identity—not the finding of the true nature of the self which for Beckett will remain ever elusive, but the raising of the problem of identity itself, the confrontation of the audience with the existence of its own problematical and mysterious condition; this, fundamentally, is the theme of Beckett's plays, novels, prose sketches, and poems. (p. 65)
Martin Esslin, "Godot and His Children: The Theatre of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter" (originally published in Experimental Drama, edited by W. A. Armstrong, G. Bell and Sons Ltd., 1963; copyright © 1963 by G. Bell and Sons Ltd.), in Modern British Dramatists: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Russell Brown, Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 58-70.
Understanding the variations in Beckett's prose style is essential to understanding and enjoying Beckett. (p. 354)
Beckett's stylish devices attract and detain us, but his style itself becomes content. Watt is therefore less familiar in tone than the novels in the trilogy. But Watt is the transitional novel between the not unusual fictional structure of Murphy and the incessant communication between narrator, if we may call him such, and reader to be found in Molloy. Stylistically, Watt represents but one way of demonstrating Beckett's anti-message.
In Murphy, Beckett is the magniloquent mocker. He chooses the most obscure words available in the English language to send the reader scurrying to his lexicon. And the unknowing reader thumbs those pages, adding indubitably invaluable words to his personal store, until he realizes that the nature of Beckett's method is mockery: once looked up, the unfamiliar words add virtually nothing to the reader's understanding of what is going on. Such deception represents one of two principal desertions Beckett makes of traditional narrative forms. But the simpler words would not have done, because only those which not only are but also function as obscure are appropriate to the clinical nature of the novel. (p. 355)
The other principal desertion Beckett began in Murphy, a desertion continued and made increasingly subtle in the later novels, is the appropriation of credibility from fiction as a form…. Insouciantly enough, the reader may continue to read on, having determined the nature of the author's foolery, until the time—and there will inevitably be that time—that he moons over Beckett's grander deception: his decption as author. In Watt, which is probably the novel, if the reader is following along chronologically, where he will discover it, the reader is confronted by Beckett's principal stylistic tool: every sentence in which Beckett establishes an idea or a fictional movement, either in action or in dialogue, is followed immediately by the evaporation of that idea or movement, if in dialogue then by antithetical description or dialogue, if in description then by antithetical dialogue or description. The deception is a stylistically more interesting author's comment than the "lies" in Murphy. Beckett allows no peace for the unfortunate—nay, naïve—reader who happens to stumble upon his novels.
Beckett may resist interpretation, and he may inevitably reduce critical efficiency to the point that his commentator finds himself using a number of words almost equal to the number of those he is describing, but Beckett also resists silence from any reader who has become familiar with him, even though the reader's words will habitually describe no more of a recognizable message than Beckett refuses to provide. (pp. 356-57)
There is vestigial use of classical devices in the trilogy: pure or, more often, lyrically altered forms of the periodic sentence, the parallel sentence, structural symmetry, antithetical ideas and opposing clauses that are sometimes many pages apart…. Although antithesis of concretes and symmetry of clauses or sentences functionally support the metaphors, the musical, or lyrical, rhythm is the paramount reason for the beauty of the prose. Rhythm and balance are constantly used together, and they seem to make Molloy's description of the moon one of the most beautiful passages in all of Beckett…. (pp. 359-60)
"'To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now,'" Beckett said in an interview in 1961. Asked by the interviewer if all art did not in fact do nothing to clarify the "mess," if all art isn't ambiguous, Beckett gestured toward the classical architecture of a cathedral and responded: "'Not this. This is clear. This does not allow the mystery to invade us. With classical art, all is settled.'" Beckett's use of elements from classical prose, modified to fit his needs in the twentieth century, seems to be what he means by classical art. The mess is life as Beckett views it, and what disturbs him most, perhaps, is the social and emotional stress found everywhere and accepted without opposition by everyone not afflicted by it or else not intelligent enough to recognize the sources of their affliction. (pp. 364-65)
Beckett defies the technocratic age and the despair of absurdity with his style, which at least in a way accommodates if not controls the distress and confusion man finds himself in and among. Man can see some order in the seemingly aimless things he allows himself to do, or to be a victim of. It seems a reasonable way to face "the big blooming buzzing confusion." The confusion cannot whirl so freely when it has classical lines imposed on it. With the mystery held off indeterminately, Beckettian man utters the risus purus, his quasi recognition of the meaninglessness of how it is, and feels the delight of being human without illusions of possession. Milton's diagram of the universe can even be considered derisively, for man still finds particulars bright and inviting long after he has found himself wrenched from the center of existence and control.
But modern man cannot define or describe the reason (or lack of reason) for his presence, nor can he definitively question and find answers to the vagaries which all, or nearly all, or his daily individual actions must inevitably be called. They merely exist. Therefore are Beckett's characters alternately highly personal with and distrustful of others. The enigmatic appearance of the piano tuners in Watt's sphere of existence was … "in a sense" the principal incident, and "in a sense not." … Alone in the mess, devoid of pomposity or the illusion of control, Watt, always honest with his conscience (soul? mind? God?), is "relevantly" confused. Watt recalls Sartre's "man of good faith" to us, but he is far too capricious and indecisive to be called an existentialist creation; to that extent, though, Watt understands why he does not understand the typical absurd incident and why he, or Beckett, feels responsible to ride both sides of the seesaw pivoted on "perhaps." The continually self-perpetuating incident or its counterparts, their ramifications always echoing from ear to ear in Watt's head, "passing from silence to sound and from sound to silence," together describe, as adequately as Beckett seems yet to have described it, the constant balance and flux and flux and balance which the familiar particulars in the mess fall into and out of. The self-reviving echo in Watt's head is the mediator between the affirmedly capable voice and the human motions which offer themselves up for meaning. Call it memory, temporally preserved intuition, or whatever, it is not only mediator but motivator and controller as well. It expresses both the absurd mood and the ambivalent accommodating form: traditional form and content merge and emerge in the typical absurdity which the piano tuners incident represents: the combination, which for lack of a word and because of its relevant suggestiveness we might call Beckett's forment, with the "shifting detail of its march and ordinance, according to the irrevocable caprice of its taking place," does indeed develop, and develop into, "a purely plastic content." (pp. 366-68)
The two principal components of Beckett's "purely plastic content," or forment, are classical conventions of rhetoric that are adapted either to complement or to clash with the lyrical rhythm inherent in all Beckettian sentences, whether obviously stylish or not. Beckett has applied both to his absurd vision of the world. He relies on them, it is true, but he also achieves a kind of freedom through them. The merger of his greatest natural ability, his pleasing sense of verbal rhythm, with traditional concepts of form and content discernibly accommodates the mess, even if the newness of what forment is seems impossible to explain. Similarly, this forment is difficult to accomplish…. Beckett's combination [in Watt] of modified elements of classical style with his own lyrical sense is perhaps the most successful attempt at a fitting accommodation in all of his early and middle fiction. How much farther later works go toward a complete realization of the purely plastic would seem to be unanswerable until, and if, and perhaps even long after Beckett writes more fiction, or completes his literary career…. But perhaps … Beckett truly has written himself into a stylistic corner and his later fictions will add up only to imperfect attempts to create the purely plastic and to make of it a usable fictional form. Still brilliantly inventive, though, Beckett seems capable of completing his journey out of chaos.
Samuel Beckett has done much for literature, and for man. For our apparently chaotic age, he has produced an exploratory synthesis in prose that, while still new and as yet apparently incomplete itself, once again demonstrates that concerned man can control his mind, his viewpoint, and to that extent even his universe, although of course universes resist—defy—actual control. Absurdly speaking, then, an accommodation of sorts has been provided. (pp. 368-69)
Bruce Lorich, "The Accommodating Form of Samuel Beckett," in Southwest Review (© 1970 by Southern Methodist University Press), Autumn, 1970, pp. 354-69.
Waiting for Godot (1952), like Ionesco's The Chairs and other Absurd plays, has … often been linked to the tradition of film comedy…. [Martin] Esslin … compares Beckett's characters to such famous comedians as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy [in The New York Times, September 14, 1967]. Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot resemble Chaplin's tramp, says Esslin, because all three characters are outcasts of a highly mechanized society. Furthermore, like Chaplin's little man, Beckett's two bums embody indestructible courage in the face of a hostile environment. (p. 91)
Obviously, the pantomime in Waiting for Godot is not there for its own sake. It is not there to display Beckett's ability to imitate silent film action on the stage. Like the other elements in the play, the mute action underlines the playwright's vision of an absurd universe. As Esslin … points out: "the great archetypes of the silent film were naive creations; Beckett is a highly sophisticated, deeply learned, philosophically erudite artist."
Consequently, it would be imprudent to push the analogy between Beckett's work and the art of the film comedians too far. The reasons for this are both technical and thematic. The structure of Waiting for Godot, like the form of The Chairs, is very theatrical; if possible, though, there is even less plot in Beckett's play than in Ionesco's…. As Alain Robbe-Grillet, who has himself been strongly influenced by the movies, says: "Attempts doubtless already existed, for some time, which rejected the stage movement of the bourgeois theater. Waiting for Godot, however, marks in this realm a kind of finality." By "stage movement," Robbe-Grillet does not intend physical movement. "What does Waiting for Godot offer us?" he asks. "It is hardly enough to say that nothing happens in it. That there should be neither complications nor plot of any kind has already been the case on other stages. Here, it is less than nothing … a kind of regression beyond nothing." (pp. 92-3)
And it is here that comparisons between Chaplin and Beckett become strained; for whereas Waiting for Godot is almost wholly static, Chaplin's movies always contain a plot and sometimes even a subplot. The differences between the two artists, for all of Beckett's borrowings from the great movie comedian, are philosophically based. As Günther Anders observes, a metaphysic separates Chaplin's tramp and Beckett's characters. In order to create laughter, Chaplin's little man must be in constant motion; he must engage in conflict with the world without pause. But Estragon and Vladimir are "paralyzed clowns"; for them, the world does not even exist—"hence they renounce altogether any attempt to concern themselves with it."
When characters refuse "altogether" to struggle against their fate, the result is stasis. Thanks to Beckett's ontology his characters, or "paralyzed clowns," are abstract and two-dimensional. Through aesthetic distancing and theatrical stylization, it is true, such figures can be made to live on the stage; transported to the screen, however, they almost always lose their peculiar histrionic "reality." Furthermore, there remains a question of dialogue. In spite of his fondness for pantomime, Beckett depends on language to a much greater extent than does Ionesco. Indeed, the characters in Waiting for Godot seem to talk constantly. At first glance, Beckett's language (and, like his friend Joyce, he is a master of language) looks filmic; diction and syntactic structure, for example, are both equally simple. However, two things should be observed about this language: one, it has more of a musical quality than a conventional dramatic thrust (since "nothing happens" the usual employment of stage dialogue is unnecessary); and two, without speech the playwright could not make clear the absence of a functional relationship between language and movement. On the screen, the duets of Vladimir and Estragon would not only seem wordy, they would also lose whatever poetic beauty, or "magic," they possess on the stage. The screen medium (and one cannot repeat this truism too often) does not take kindly to such theatrical posturing and extreme formalization of speech. In a good motion picture the verbal is kept subordinate to the visual; silent action should, to a large extent, carry the essential action. In Waiting for Godot, Beckett's pantomime takes second place—as it should—to the language.
Yet, because Beckett's plays do possess a great amount of visual action, and because critics have emphasized the Chaplin-like and Keaton-like quality of his characters, it is not surprising that the dramatist has been encouraged to transfer his talents to the screen. Beckett's first scenario, entitled Film, was written in 1964. (pp. 93-5)
By eliminating dialogue and sound, and by concentrating solely on physical movement, camera movement and editing, Beckett seeks to achieve "pure cinema." Thus, gesture is made to carry heavy symbolic meanings. (pp. 97-8)
While Film cannot be said to be all bad, it cannot be said to be very good either. There is something a little too precious about the approach: a suggestion that deep things are being attempted, and that any member of the audience who admits to being bored is simply resisting "serious art." Like Beckett on the boards and Beckett on the page, Beckett on the screen tends toward redundancy…. To have relied solely on visual "action" in the sixties seems perversely archaic—much like a modern dramatist who would express the "essence of theater" by a return to Greek hexameters (or like Artaud and his followers who would have playwrights regress even further and ditch language altogether). (p. 98)
Edward Murray, in his The Cinematic Imagination: Writers and the Motion Pictures (copyright © 1972 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1972.
In Three Dialogues Beckett himself declared that "to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail". But there are different kinds and levels of failure. The Unnamable trilogy was a failure on the grand scale; like Arsene, Beckett could not utter or eff the unutterable and ineffable but his endeavours illuminated the nature of its unutterability and ineffability. Since 1961, however, the year of Comment c'est and Happy Days, the failures have been of a different order of magnitude, or the fragmentary remains of failures. Beckett is a writer of such power and invention that even his fragments are moving and brilliant: nevertheless they are incomplete "failures"…. The dramatic pieces since 1961 … are hardly more than elaborations of details in the major writings and would be incomprehensible outside the context of thought and manner supplied by those writings. Having set out on his course, Beckett will not step backwards, yet seems unable to proceed—except, perhaps, for the "one step more" dreamt of in Lessness.
Some of the recent pieces, especially The Lost Ones and Lessness, are clearly attempts to break new ground, but others seem somewhat repetitive. It is not only on "the plane of the feasible" that an artist may go on "doing a little better the same old thing,… going a little further along a dreary road"…. The audience's response to Not I, for instance, may have included a sense of comfortable familiarity. The Voice, unable to stop, not knowing what it wants to tell, denying that the story it utters is its own, is the voice of the Unnamable; the narrative, such as it is, might be one of those glimpses of the life up there which occur in How It Is; such ironies as "tender mercies … new every morning" could have been spoken by Winnie. More disturbing are familiar turns of phrase, amusing in the theatre but, by Beckett's standards, facile, as when the Voice says of the deserted child "so no love … spared that", or speaks of childish belief "in a merciful … (brief laugh) … God … (good laugh)". Such verbal patterns, though intended to upset the expectations of habit, can themselves become habitual, an anaesthetic. Similarly, after a little surprise at the brevity of Breath, an audience may feel, "Ah, yes, that's Beckett at it again", and, in that acceptance, all power to hurt evaporates. The old liveliness and originality of phrasing is still present in all the recent work…. But there are also repetitions and mannerisms to which readers of Beckett have become hardened.
This is a danger in all minimal art: there is less difference between minima than between maxima, and nothing is gained by surrendering the varied representation of the boredom of ordinary existence in exchange for repetitious representations of "the suffering of being". Not that Beckett is ever boring; his handling of language is enough to prevent that. But nothing that has succeeded How It Is has approached the exciting originality of that novel or of the trilogy. One recognizes and admires Beckett's progressive elimination of all that in his view is factitious or illusory: yet, if all that is not factitious or illusory is unutterable, the choice is not between illusion and reality but between varieties of illusion. Few words are no nearer to silence than many…. Beckett's aims, imagination and methods, like fiction itself, seem adapted to process rather than static conditions or images. His problem is not that his powers are drying up, but that, unwilling to do "a little better the same old thing", he seems unable to conceive of anything worth persisting with, and, consequently, the failures become less significant failures….
In the "Residua" (Enough is a partial exception), personality, like so much else, has been abandoned, and the emotions which persist do so mainly through intensities of language and imagery breaking through a precise and formal manner…. The emotions, now, however, are those of an author contemplating with compassion the human predicament, rather than those of a man deeply involved in it and sharing its agonies. (p. 1217)
"The Residual Beckett," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 12, 1973, pp. 1217-18.
The title Waiting for Godot and its entire action—or lack of action—reveals its concern with a mythical prototype. It hardly matters whether one prefers the common view that Godot is a "diminutive" of God or the suggestion first made by Eric Bentley that he is based on the fabulous character Godeau in Balzac's Le faiseur, or some other interpretation of his name. The point is that Godot is a mythical invention created by Beckett for the purpose of exposing the process of mythmaking itself as it takes place within man's consciousness. Unlike traditional deities, Godot has no concrete form in the drama that centers around him. The fact that he never appears literally conveys his existence as a mythical projection. He exists as a mythical conception in the minds of Estragon and Vladimir, who are also mythical prototypes enacting man's inner response to his own mortality and his habitual conflict between awareness and evasion of his own limitations of vision, knowledge and control.
Adapting the material of dream and fantasy, and the primitive artistry of music-hall comedy, Beckett creates a contemporary mythical quest; its narrative structure is similar in essential respects to that of authentic ancient myth, and its departures from this structure only make more explicit the intrinsic revelatory properties of myth itself. Thus, the inner turbulence and anxiety of man's yearning for an omnipotent savior, traditionally projected in complicated heroic action, are here reduced to their barest and most essential form: the turbulent and anxious waiting of the soul for evidence that its fantasy of omnipotence is not vain.
Even as they wait, Beckett's characters express their views on the traditional mythical struggle for omnipotence: "No use struggling," says Estragon; "One is what one is," replies Vladimir. "No use wriggling," Estragon continues, to which Vladimir responds, "The essential does not change." Try as they will to evade understanding the meaning of their own experience—reduced to an elemental psychic quest for purpose and continuity; warning each other, "You don't have to look," or "Don't tell me," or "What is terrible is to have thought," they admit: "You think all the same"; "You can't help looking." Again and again, announcing that they are waiting for Godot, they know he will not come….
The purity of Estragon's and Vladimir's exposure of their need and their awareness that it will not be fulfilled are contrasted with the conduct of Lucky and Pozzo, who still engage in traditional mythical and ritual action. With contempt for such subterfuges, Estragon calls Lucky's dance "The Scapegoat's Agony," to which Vladimir adds, "The Hard Stool." Pozzo explains: "The Net. He thinks he's entangled in a net," which Vladimir responds to with mock imitation, "squirming like an aesthete." Lucky and Pozzo may be Cain and Abel, as Estragon suggests; at first they are arrogant and somewhat violent, but as Pozzo becomes blind and possibly prophetic, like an ancient seer, and Lucky becomes dumb, we know that their mythical struggle has led only to an awareness of death. Vladimir and Estragon attempt only one really significant act—suicide—and in their inevitable failure to accomplish it lies as much hope as in their painful acceptance of the fact that Godot is their own mythical invention. The "hope" that Beckett claimed exists in Waiting for Godot lies in the continuance of life without subterfuge: the myth's capacity to expose itself, the heroism of the inner quest which leads nowhere except to a deeper apprehension of mortality. (pp. 9-10)
Lillian Feder, in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 1, Winter, 1974.
With increasing spareness and economy, [Beckett] has reduced his prose to the point, in Lessness, where a few words are entered on the page, then repeated in various orders or identical phrases until their possible meanings have been exhausted. In his plays, we are asked to observe a stage littered with garbage, while an 'instant of recorded vagitus' (in the O.E.D., the word is obsolete, 'a cry, lamentation, or wail') punctuates the sound of breathing, or listen to a disembodied voice hectoring a hooded, silent auditor (Not I, 1973). What we are witnessing is the termination of an oeuvre designed to die with its author; the trope of immortality, of a work surviving its creator, has been suspended. Beckett would rather dismantle his own fictions than claim their endurance through time. (p. 106)
Beckett's impulse to make of his work an autonomous tradition resembles in its strategies no one more than Joyce and Proust…. In light of his … decision to write in both English and French, composing two separate literatures, the convergence of Joyce and Proust becomes crucial. (pp. 106-07)
Flaubert once expressed the desire to write 'a book about nothing, a book without external support which would sustain itself by the internal power of its style as the earth is suspended in the air'. Beckett later detected this ambition in Joyce, whose 'writing is not about something; it is that something itself'. And Beckett's own writings in French after 1945 owe a great deal to this legacy of pure style, which achieves its finest expression in Mallarmé. Beckett once said that he wrote in French 'parce qu'en français c'est plus facile d'ecrire sans style' [because in French it is easier to write without style]. Such a remark would seem at first to counter the Flaubertian obsession with style, but what Beckett implies here is a writing in which all traces of 'literature' have disappeared. (p. 107)
What Beckett struggles to situate after the trilogy [Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable] is 'a new no', since, 'were the voice to cease quite at last, the old ceasing voice, it would not be true'. (p. 114)
The 'new no' that becomes clarified in the later texts corresponds to Adorno's gloss: 'To Beckett, as to the Gnostics, the created world is radically evil, and its negation is the chance of another world that is not yet' (Negative Dialectics). Ironically enough, then, it's possible to consider the shreds of discourse, the rude, unfinished soliloquys that are Beckett's tactic now, utopian, in that writing promises a way out of the impasse created by modern life, which is, after all, a 'concentration camp' (in Adorno's view). And this is what occupies the disembodied voices of From an Abandoned Work, Enough, Ping, Imagination Dead Imagine, Lessness, and The Lost Ones: the activity of escape.
Even the thin appearance of these works implies the transience of a condition which poses no hope of respite in this world; there is nothing to be done except survive, always with Kafka's admonition in mind, that 'There is Infinite Hope, but not for us'. These texts disclose the dwindling store of experience that can still be validated and made other than random. Literature is discontinuous, a set of images that exist only to be repudiated…. The voice still manages to achieve moments of lyrical utterance, though, before lapsing into repetition. (pp. 114-15)
It could be said that Beckett has worked out the consequences of Modernism, producing the companion to Rauschenberg's white canvases. To wish that he had continued to write in the verbal, anecdotal tradition of Irish literature, or embroidered Proust, would be nostalgic; both Finnegans Wake and A La Recherche du Temps Perdu were the last comprehensive works in their respective literatures, when the totality of lived experience could be deposited in a book. Mallarmé had conceived a similar project, proposing that Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre. Beckett's recent work constitutes the residuum of this Livre. There were moments, though, when I read these texts with the hope that, like Borges' Funes the Memorious, who devised a system in which all numbers were given special titles, he would provide us, not simply with ciphers, but with names to revive and enhance their value. (pp. 116-17)
James Atlas, "The Prose of Samuel Beckett: Notes from the Terminal Ward," in Poetry Nation (© Poetry Nation 1974), No. 2, 1974, pp. 106-17.
While in no way detracting from his later great grim laughs, ["First Love,"] the title novella [of First Love and Other Shorts], … is absolutely vintage Beckett; tinged with his peculiar acid, yes, but still fruity, not entirely the vinegar of his most extreme distillations of the human pickle.
It was written at the very spin of the author into the linguistic trapeze act (1945) that was to distinguish his topsy-turvy mastery of literature in the decade since World War II; to compose his books in French and then, almost as by-blow, to do them into his native English. Critics will point out that this handspring was responsible for a spare, supple style, in contrast to the muscle-bound rhetoric of his earlier work. I must confess a weakness for the outrageous sound of Beckett before his revolution into French—Murphy, More Pricks Than Kicks—and one can still hear the Irish echoes in his translation of "First Love."
First love? An acrid tear wets the eye at the monstrous comedy of what Samuel Beckett has done to Arcadian romance. (p. 1)
This tale of misanthropy—the cow-like docility of the woman, the ill-natured high-strung temper of the man, the crafty way she overrides his objections to their mating, the ambiguity of the final lines in which he hears the cries of the baby imputed to his seed as he flees the house and can not get its sound out of his head, all suggest the animal fable. Despite shrill disclaimers of pleasure, the narrator has delved into mysteries. These two monsters have made a marriage. "I could have done with other loves perhaps," he exclaims at the end. "But there it is, either you love or you don't." In grotesque lineaments, we see our own foolishness enlarged. (p. 1-2)
["Enough," which] I prize as second only to "First Love" in the present collection, also answers to the catalogue title of bestiary. It is a much later story (1966) and the Irish savor is gone from the voice, Dublin localism inappropriate. Two human beings, stooped like four-footed ruminants, wander over a deserted landscape browsing, nose deep in its grasses and flowers, eyes meeting the sky only as they ascend a slope or stare occasionally into a mirror for sight of it, stiffened by habit into a drop-necked bovine posture.
Despite frequent allusions to sex, it is unclear whether the speaker is male or female. Perhaps this is purposeful for though a pen is scribbling anonymously in the background, the shadows of prehistory infold Beckett's creatures. They speak not out of despair or exhaustion (fashionable cliches of Beckett criticism) but such awful simplicity, such unsentimental directness, that one sees the dilemma of an existence rooted only in the animal certainties of the present, one sure fact, our body dying. Memory alone comforts us in this predicament….
For me, the third pleasure of the collection was the page-and-a-half riddle, "Imagination Dead Imagine" (1965). The persona, two white bodies suspended in a burial vault. As in the 30-second play "Breath" (also included in the present book) one feels the fragility of our bare suspiration, this mocking image out of a horror movie. What do these two bodies await? Death? "… They are not sleeping. Only murmur ah, no more, in this silence and at the same instant for the eye of prey the infinitesimal shudder instantaneously suppressed. Leave them there, sweating and icy, there is better elsewhere. No, life ends and no, there is nothing elsewhere…." Is that our life, bleak, hardly breathing, linked to a partner yet motionless on a marble slab? The breath tightens in my chest and I can not even smile at the simile. The farthest look of our contemporary genius incloses us in a medieval urn where we leer at skull and bones. (p. 2)
Mark Jay Mirsky, "Human Pickle," in Book. World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 25, 1974, pp. 1-2.
"All creativity consists in making something out of nothing…." (Toute l'invention consiste à faire quelque chose de rien….) This quotation from Racine's preface to his tragedy Bérénice, in which nothing happens for five acts, could also serve as a defense of, say, Waiting for Godot, "the play in which nothing happens—twice" [Mercier is quoting himself from an earlier essay]. Every Beckett critic would profit by reading the entire preface and also Racine's first preface to Britannicus, in which he denounces his critics for not being satisfied with "a simple action, not overloaded with matter…."…. They had apparently been complaining, like Estragon in Waiting for Godot and many in that play's first American audience, "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful!" Racine went on to jeer at them for expecting him to cram into "an action that takes place in a single day" a quantity of incidents that would take a month to happen….
I think it's no accident that Racine's arguments provide such a strong defense of Beckett's dramaturgy. On the one hand, Beckett's supposedly avant-garde plays observe many of the rules for neo-classical tragedy; on the other hand, Beckett has studied the work of Racine more closely than that of any other dramatist, Shakespeare included. He may not have taken the French poet to his heart as he did Dante, whose cosmogony and characters—especially Belacqua, of course—permeate the Beckett world, but Racine's tragedies were an inescapable fact of his education, as of mine. Nobody who took the French honors course at Trinity College, Dublin, under Prof. T. B. Rudmose-Brown could safely avoid reading not merely all the eleven tragedies of Racine but also his only comedy, Les Plaideurs. As a great admirer of "Ruddy," Beckett would have wanted to share both his admiration for Racine and his distaste for Corneille: we needn't be surprised that Beckett's first dramatic work to be performed in any language was Le Kid (1931), a parody of Corneille's Le Cid, written in French in collaboration with Georges Pelorson. At the time when it was performed …, Beckett was Assistant in French at Trinity. Rudmose-Brown thought so highly of his assistant that he allowed him to lecture on Racine, a pleasure that he normally reserved for himself….
The critics have paid surprisingly little attention to Beckett's neo-classicism, though Wallace Fowlie noted in 1959 that Godot possesses an "utter simplicity" in the classical French tradition. Still, one French critic, Georges Belmont, … remarked that "the three unities are not so much observed in [Godot] as pitilessly present."… Not only is the unity of place rigorously observed in all Beckett's stage plays but, true to the rules of Racinian tragedy, the scene is always a lieu vague, neither here nor there: "A country road. A tree."…
[Like Beckett's] Racine's characters too come in pairs…. Racine finds the device of the confident indispensable for his kind of psychological drama: without it, his plays would consist almost entire of soliloquies…. Beckett employs his paired characters for a similar purpose, though he is not afraid to create short works like Not I and Eh Joe that consist entirely of monologue; Krapp's Last Tape is a special case, since we hear the 39-year-old Krapp on tape as well as seeing and hearing his present self, thirty years older…. [It] was not until Happy Days that Beckett discovered how to write a longish play consisting almost entirely of monologue. By establishing the taciturn Willie from the start as a virtually unseen and unheard confident, he made Winnie's constant stream of chatter plausible.
Why did Beckett employ these archaic conventions so consistently? I think the answer must be that they were the only conventions he knew for a nonrealistic drama…. Given a different education, he might have turned to Shakespeare for help, but instead, perhaps quite unconsciously, he turned to Racine….
Early in Murphy (1938) there occurs a sort of parody of a Racine plot…. Apart from the parody, Murphy [also] contains a fairly serious Racine-style plot.
[As] Play is Beckett at his most Racinian, Bérénice is Racine at his most Beckettian: as I have said, he makes something out of nothing for five acts, while keeping a sympathetic audience riveted to their seats. The chief reason why one says that nothing happens in Bérénice or Endgame or Waiting for Godot is that the situation at the end remains exactly the same as at the beginning. Possible resolutions of the deadlock are suggested, but by the end of the play all of them have been rejected….
[In his Racine, Lucien] Goldmann connects Racine's four true tragedies with the doctrine of "extremist Jansenism," according to which God is hidden, "so hidden that it is impossible to know his will" or to have "the slightest indication of whether we are damned or saved." This, according to one interpretation, is the theme of Waiting for Godot. The related question, "What must we do to be saved?" of course becomes unanswerable: it is dramatized in Play as the three characters try to discover what will save them from the pitiless interrogation of the spotlight. Willy-nilly, Beckett is the Racine of today, our closest approximation to a Jansenist classical tragedian. (pp. 149-51)
Vivian Mercier, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), August 31, 1974.
Shorts indeed—the play "Breath" takes barely half a page [of First Love And Other Shorts]—but length is not always a value in shorts, which are also a nourishing by-product of wheat milling, as well as refuse discarded during manufacturing. "Words are all we have," Beckett has said, and he is economical with them, as befits the son of a quantity surveyor….
Any sense of coherence among the parts is not to be trusted—an assertion with widespread validity in Beckett's world—but they all demonstrate Beckett's dazzling virtuosity with words and voices and his equally strong determination to flagellate and mortify that virtuosity. One would like to quote at enormous length, supporting, refuting, divagating….
There's joy in [his early] words, if not the easy cleverness of Neil Simon, but it was all too facile for Beckett, who had abandoned English in order to discipline his style. These pieces trace that disciplining; by 1972 his English was beaten down to gasps and fragments with which a frightened old woman describes and evades herself in "Not I": "tiny little thing … before its time … godforsaken hole no love … spared that … speechless all her days … practically speechless … how she survived! …" Such writing is beyond simple praise; such subject matter is, as always, bitter.
Yet the author of these dour works is not an old sourpuss foisting his dissatisfaction upon an otherwise charming world. John Keats, who understood Beckett's situation, puzzled over the fact that his sister-in-law could be unself-centered and yet happy. "The most pleasant and extraordinary thing in the world," he thought it, since he assumed that any unselfish person would naturally be weighed down by the sorrows around him. He decided, tentatively, that "women must want Imagination and they may thank God for it." But Beckett has no lack of imagination, and his sufficiently happy personal life has not kept him from being one of those artists for whom the miseries of the world are misery, and will not let them rest. (p. 46)
J. D. O'Hara, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1974.
Samuel Beckett is one of the world's foremost unread authors. Many people find his works impenetrable; others call them profound statements of existential anguish (a more polite way of saying that they didn't like them). To some, his work is an old-fashioned relic of Joycean experimentalism; others find it too avant-garde. His novels are among the finest written in this century, but he is known mainly as the author of a single play, "Waiting for Godot."…
If Beckett never courted fame, his fame never served him particularly well. His reticence with interviewers, together with the strangeness of his works, gave rise to the myth that he was a misanthropic recluse. His reputation as an intellectual inspired guilt in those who never looked into his works, and a sense of martyrdom in those who did. He became for literature what Einstein had been for science, an important innovator whom only a handful of experts could hope to understand.
Some commentators even insisted that he was not to be understood at all; his works, they said, were written in a meaningless language meant to represent the emptiness of existence. Behind this claim one can detect a confession of bewilderment universalized: for it is when Beckett's writing is dense with meaning that it is most obscure. It requires no great talent, as any publisher's reader knows, to write books with meaningless language; but to articulate the emptiness of existence takes genius.
Other critics have tried to show that Beckett's works are best understood as vehicles for religious or philosophical doctrines. But, as Beckett has indicated, if ideas were his main concern, he would be writing essays instead of plays and novels. It is true that he often refers to religious or philosophical ideas, but these are satirized as often as they are endorsed. Even a casual reading of his works will show that, for Beckett, artistic endeavors take precedence over intellectual questions. (p. 46)
There is a great deal of delight in Beckett's works, though it may take time to discover it. If at first glance they seem indecipherable, with careful reading their meanings emerge. Beckett's books are meant to be read slowly—and then reread; they have nothing in common with the glossy entertainments whose attractions cloy after a single evening. This should deter only confirmed speedreaders; others will relish rereading Beckett's works, and find it an unexpected economy in days of paper shortages and inflated book prices. (p. 47)
Rubin Rabinovitz, "Books About Beckett," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 15, 1974, pp. 46-7.
What does a new reader need from a primer on Beckett? Most likely, he will want help first with those elusive narratives abstracted beyond all likelihood, tales of "formal brilliance and indeterminable purport." Beckett himself has consistently forsworn hidden meanings and claims never to have heard the harmonies perceived by Joyce. But doubts persist. If Beckett is not an allegorist, his novels and plays move teasingly towards generalizations. Which ones, and how do we know?
On first acquaintance the disparity between style and subject matter is another source of trouble: "a bow tie about a throat cancer," Beckett once said. Not even Swift was more poised in treating cruelty and decomposition; and Beckett's elegant savagery is devoid of indignation….
John Updike once called him "a proud priest perfecting his forlorn ritual," and new readers will want some assessment of this most unlikely divine, his canonical books, and his inexhaustible faculty of negation. What about the shifts back and forth from English to French and from fiction to drama? How does one compare and evaluate different pieces of his ruthlessly minimal art? When is the art of limited means governed by the law of diminishing returns, and why? (p. 622)
That Beckett is still inventing new rules and asking us to attend to old orders is evident in his most recent extended work, The Lost Ones …, [which] describes life inside a flattened cylinder fifty metres round and eighteen metres high. Two hundred and five naked bodies roam about searching in vain for something lost but indeterminate. (p. 624)
Although Dante appears once with his "rare, wan smile," and mention is made of Milton's pandemonium, the notion of hell in The Lost Ones is all Beckett's—blanched, pitiless, described from an enormous height by a voice with ancient and desperate knowledge. As always, the voice is the thing: at first, clipped, dry, incantatory, but notational; low, dull, faintly humming. Gradually, as we attend to the words cut and then positioned as if each were a precious stone, we hear surprising modulations not apparent at the start. The voice begins to doubt, qualify, and contradict its earlier observations; and from behind the screen of detachment comes the torment of the searching creatures condemned to ardent life in the press and gloom of the cylinder.
Phantasmagorical, but—as often in Beckett—firmly linked to ordinary life. Time and again, the alien events inside the cylinder (the mysterious law-making, the mechanical questing, the sudden explosions of violence) send chills of recognition out to more familiar spheres. Beckett's hell has always been here and now: a place of precise geography, obscure origins, and uncertain purpose, inhabited by creatures who seek, suffer, fail to find, and cannot stop seeking. The earlier versions (The Trilogy, Godot, Endgame, and others) are richer, more various and densely populated than The Lost Ones, but this miniature has its own desolate power. (p. 625)
Lawrence Graver, "Guides to the Ruins," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 4, 1974, pp. 622-25.
Endgame, although a play that incorporates humor and absurdities, is ultimately a tragedy which involves the demise of its hero, Hamm, who like Hamlet, though often not likeable, still manages to steal the show and capture our imaginations while seizing our empathy and even our admiration. But how, we protest, can such a sadistic, hypochondriacal, game-obsessed, ugly leading man as Hamm involve us in his incomprehensible fate? Isn't Endgame really a put-on by an artist who is more interested in technique than meaning? How, within Beckett's postholocaustic vision of an entropied world, do we, who live in high-rise apartments and are swamped by our own artifacts, manage to find a catharsis and meaning where Beckett warns us there is none? (p. 217)
Ironically, Hamm is the larger than life figure who is the descendant of Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth…. From the overwhelming evidence, there can be no doubt that Hamm is meant to be the central, tragic hero. Although it is ironic that a blind, crippled, sadistic figure is the hero of Endgame, it does not lessen the potential nobility of the hero but rather comments on the environment that has so often reduced mankind that Hamm is, perhaps, the best that the world can offer; surely, he is more magnificent than Clov, Nagg, and Nell. (p. 218)
In Aristotle-cum Bradley's interpretation of classical tragedy, the fall of the hero is often a result of hamartia…. [When] we come to Endgame, it is not so easy to isolate a main flaw that leads to our hero's downfall. In fact, although he is plagued with numberless flaws, there is no particular one that is connected with his fate. And, indeed, in an indifferent environment that is ravaged with chaos, it is impossible to imagine the hero's flaw or hamartia letting loose the terrors of chaos which are already sufficiently present. We could almost forget hamartia as an explanatory principle in Endgame if it were not for one fatal flaw that happened before we met the characters on stage; that flaw is, of course, Hamm's birth…. Birth is the flaw because it brings one into the chaotic world…. However, what is unfair is that we are brought into the world convicted and ready to be punished before we have had a chance to be responsible enough to commit a sin. It can be protested that in pure hamartia the hero has a choice whereas in Endgame no one has a choice whether or not to be born…. [If] Endgame does some injustice to hamartia by punishing the hero for a birth that he is not responsible for, it also does, on the plus side, do away with the naïve view of poetic justice in which a hero is punished because of his mistakes. Shakespeare never intended this, and Beckett mocks the idea that there is a score card in the heavens that balances out our rewards and punishments by assuming that the innocent act of birth leads to suffering, which in Beckett's world is unpleasant rather than noble, and that, in Calvinistic fashion, our good deeds cannot save us. (p. 218-20)
The humor within the play is indicative of Hamm's confusion; in a world he is not wholly part of, it is difficult for him to understand the difference between laughter and tears which are, after all, both reduceable to chemical explosions within the blood stream. The comedy deepens the pathos of the tragedy rather than relieves the sustained pain, which is the function of comic relief. (pp. 221-22)
[The] villain within the play [is] the entropic universe…. Without the cruelty of the environment, we would not have a tragic hero but rather a cruel, insane, murderous leading man. Therefore, Hamm is explicable only in terms of what he has suffered in his cosmos. (p. 222)
David Henry Lowenkron, "A Case for 'The Tragicall Historie of Hamm'," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1974 by the Arizona Quarterly), Vol. 30, No. 3, Autumn, 1974, pp. 217-28.
In Beckett's works the characterization is weakened so that the reader may directly experience events which are described. Though he may identify to some extent with Beckett's characters, the reader is himself forced to struggle with the work in a manner which subtly duplicates the ordeal of the characters. In this fashion, Beckett can transmit the emotional quality of fictional events without relying on intermediary figures alone. Form and content have been united; the pretense that fictional characters have material existence has been abandoned; and as the reader experiences events in the book with this immediacy, he himself takes on the role of a character in the work.
When he begins to participate in the action, the reader often finds that Beckett's characters are expressing emotions similar to those evoked in him by the work. Hackett and Kelly [in Watt], when they demand characterizations, give voice to a desire the reader accustomed to traditional novelistic devices would feel. In Beckett's drama, when characters like Vladimir and Estragon speak of their boredom while waiting for Godot, they anticipate the audience's reaction to the lack of action in the play. In Watt, the hero's need to learn about Knott and the anguish he feels when he is frustrated are duplicated when the reader's intense curiosity about Knott is never satisfied.
This is a reason why Beckett cannot tell his audience who Godot is or what Knott represents. If the reader takes it upon himself to assign an arbitrary meaning to these characters, an important dimension of Beckett's art is lost when the frustration involved in waiting for Godot, or in attempting to define the ineffable Knott, is diminished. In this fashion, Beckett uses obscurity to confront his readers with emotions like those his characters feel when they encounter obscurity in their search for ultimate reality. (pp. 405-06)
Beckett, especially in his later fiction, attempted to avoid this sort of obscurity. In Watt and the works that came after it, he began to use a simpler vocabulary and a less allusive style. In the later works, when the reader is forced to struggle with obscure passages, it is usually because of innovative techniques or the difficulty of representing ineffable reality. Beckett similarly struggles with subjects that are no less difficult to describe than they are to read about. Ultimately, reader, author, and characters all confront the same obscurity, the obscurity of reality; and all eventually feel the same despair when they are unable to penetrate it. (p. 406)
Rubin Rabinovitz, "Style and Obscurity in Samuel Beckett's Early Fiction," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Autumn, 1974, pp. 399-406.
To try to find meaning in the narrator's adventure [in Comment c'est] is a vain task. Despite his analytical and philosophical pretensions, the novel is neither analytical nor philosophical. It is a purely descriptive vision of "how it is." Beckett has his creature in the mud present interminable hypotheses of existence, not as a consistent philosophical argument, but rather as a demonstration of the working of a mind in a universe which may or may not be related to ours. The novel explores a vision of life in the Beckettian universe, complete with many of the familiar motifs of that universe, namely absurdity, physical and mental decadence, solitude, sadism, a desire to die, an inability to communicate, a need to communicate, and through all the frustrations of this existence a certain contentment with life, a satisfaction with life's small pleasures, such as moldy food, a comforting sack, and a partner.
If at the end of the novel a creature escapes, breaking the bonds of his muddy universe and finding freedom in death, it is not because he has outwitted the voice which dictates his universe, but rather because the voice itself has willed the contrived escape. The creature's reasoning, his analyses, his postulations, all come to nothing; they cancel one another out. Each successive hypothesis negates a preceding conclusion or exists simultaneously with its contrary. Reason, logic, philosophy, theology, and mathematics fail to find order and a way out. The muddy universe encourages these activities which lead to nothing except perhaps to an illusion of order which makes life bearable. Reason entertains him, keeps him from perceiving accurately his own misery, keeps him alive, until the voice, defying logic ("aussi invraisemblable que cela puisse paraître" p. 174), dictates the creature's death. As he dies, he annihilates along with himself his false formulations, and nothing remains in his wake. (p. 48)
Paul J. Schwartz, "Life and Death in the Mud: A Study of Beckett's 'Comment c'est'," in The International Fiction Review, January, 1975, pp. 43-8.
Eliot made the fatal mistake of trying to join the theatre as he found it. Beckett took all its elements, dead language, blinkered outlook, stereotyped relationships, artificial structure and tricked them into fighting one another to death. His most obvious stratagem, in Waiting for Godot and Endgame, was to dwell on the fact that everyone in the theatre was only waiting to get out of it again, but by one means or another he reversed Eliot's process and made "the musical order" and "the unsayable" swallow "the dialect of the tribe." Unlike the lesser "modernists" or so-called "absurdists" whose work was little more than a direct parody of domestic comedy and has not therefore survived the demise of what it fed on, Beckett's demolition was so radical as to entail a fresh start: forward movement became stasis or cyclic recurrence, dialogue became monologue, rhetoric became abstract rhythm, dead language became a new poetry of cliché.
Above all, Beckett reopened the subjective possibilities of the theatre. After him characters could again be made to speak into themselves to the limit of their authors' emotional and psychological understanding instead of merely to the limit of what an audience might consider proper to a person sitting on a sofa with a drink in one hand. (p. 64)
John Spurling, in Encounter (© 1974–1975 by Encounter Ltd.), January, 1975.
With the publication of Mercier and Camier Beckett offers us a missing link in the chain of walk-talkers traveling in duo throughout his work, a "gallery of moribunds" who can hardly be said to be going places. For the Beckett enthusiast, Joyce's ideal reader suffering an ideal insomnia, the appearance of this volume is like the discovery of some rich archeological find. Though critics have been busy excavating the original French manuscript for years now, it is refreshing to circumvent paraphrase by encountering the novel in Beckett's own strange English.
Beckett wrote Mercier and Camier in 1946: the date is important, for the novel directly prefigures Waiting for Godot and the trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. Mercier and Camier is ripe with "traces blurs signs" of things to come: Gogo and Didi's delightful "little canters," the mathematical computations and time schedules of Molloy, the inventories, agendas and endless lists of Malone Dies, Zeno's millet grains in Endgame, the flowers, stargazing and mucous membrane of Enough, the "quincunxes" of The Lost Ones, the "arsy-versy" of All That Fall and Imagination Dead Imagine. But Beckett's self-imposed mythological framework rarely interferes with the spontaneity of each new work. Though his repertory presents us with links in a chain, each link, like the roadside chains Mercier sets dancing, has a rhythm and integrity of its own.
Mercier and Camier are on a journey…. Like the nameless narrator in From an Abandoned Work, Beckett's couple is not on its way anywhere, but simply on its way. The journey, not the arrival, matters, a work-in-process, not progress. As the voyage pushes forward in its vivid discontinuity, no incident of plot is elaborated and no psychological motivation is probed. The journey, in fact, is in words.
Beckett conceived this piece in French, his first novel in an adopted tongue…. He disenfranchizes the mechanical coupling of words and the deterministic linkage of image and idea ("solution clapped on problem like snuffer on a candle") by writing first in a French notebook, then translating back into his native tongue. The result, a prolonged exile in words, recaptures, as he said Joyce did, "all the inevitable clarity of old inarticulation" in a "savage economy of hieroglyphics."
Beckett is a biologist in words. "Grammar and style!," he wrote … in 1937. "They appear to me to have become just as obsolete as a Beidermeier bathing suit or the imperturbability of a gentleman. A mask." There is a danger at any moment of rising up into rhetoric: "Speak it even and pride comes." Worn-out words, Yeats' "old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, old iron, old bones, old rags," are a form of complacency. Beckett therefore manipulates language the way T. S. Eliot said it was necessary to approach English: with animosity.
But Mercier and Camier are hardly the same inarticulate murmurers in the mud we encounter in those recent minimalist constructions Beckett calls "residua." Francis Xavier Camier, a Soul-of-Discretion detective like Jacques Moran, has a rendezvous with a Mr. Conaire, "hors d'oeuvre" in the French. Mercier is his Watson, prénom indeterminable, a delicate and hypersensitive soul unhappily married to the nonappearing Toffana, a very tough Anna Livia Plurabelle indeed. (p. 25)
Mercier and Camier is a series of sudden encounters dictated by the laws of chance, that terrorist tactic preached as a Dada-surrealist esthetic…. Orchestrating the laws of chance, but never obeying the strictures of chance itself, is Beckett's narrator, the "I" we encounter on the first page who passes in and out of his characters' consciousness with alarming surrealist fluidity.
The sudden shifts effected by chance move us on from one vaudeville routine to the next. The summaries at the end of every two chapters, resembling the Addenda to Watt and the "Work Points and Consequential Data" in The Alexandria Quartet, name the music-hall skits we have previously experienced, lists of slapstick fare to preserve in the attic with our other playbills. Camier, "small and fat, red face, scant hair, four chins, protruding paunch, bandy legs, beady pig eyes," is Oliver Hardy; Mercier, "a big bony hunk … hardly able to stand, wicked expression," is Stan Laurel. Together their comic antics piece together the same "hardy laurel" we have previously met in Watt. (pp. 25-6)
Mercier and Camier finally gives us two more "high-class nuts to crack," in that great tradition of Pozzo and Lucky, Vladimir and Estragon, Hamm and Clov, Winnie and Willie, Moran and Molloy, Mouth and Auditor, and those sexual athletes Hairy Mac and Sucky Moll. Yet another stimulant enabling "the kitten to catch its tail," this recycled experiment in words presents us with a long-awaited novel in which Beckett's language falls once again on its feet, like a cat. (p. 26)
Enoch Brater, "Not Going Places," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 8, 1975, pp. 25-6.
Written in 1946, "Mercier and Camier" was Samuel Beckett's first postwar novel and his first in French….
In 1935, on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Beckett ended two depressing years in London where he had tried unsuccessfully to shape a literary career…. He wrote little during the next two years, and for most of this time was solitary and depressed…. By October, 1937, after two years of vacillation, trying first to come to terms with life in Ireland and then to escape from it, Beckett made the final break and went to Paris. Angered by his decision, which had been two years in the making, his mother went off into secret seclusion and forbade his brother to tell Beckett where she had gone. He was forced to make his final departure from Ireland engulfed in guilt for the pain he had inflicted on his family. But he went knowing that he could do no productive work if he stayed.
"Mercier and Camier" captures this time of depression and indecision in Beckett's life. It continues the line of vagabond heroes which begins with Belacqua in 'More Pricks Than Kicks" and continues with "Murphy" and "Watt." They are the first of his vaudevillian couples, and this novel is in many ways the precursor of "Waiting for Godot." If there is a chronological line of development in his writing, "Mercier and Camier" surely marks the first tentative approach toward what Beckett calls the "mature" fiction of "Molloy," "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable." In the trilogy, Beckett relentlessly reduces his characters from pitiful creatures with few possessions—a hat, a pot, a stub of pencil—to voices, who have only the inner torments of their past life to sustain their present existence, doomed to repeat themselves until finally, even the voice, their last vestige of humanity, is stilled. There is no discernible setting, no tie with any real existence, and seemingly, no plot.
In "Mercier and Camier," the journey shapes the plot as the two men parade on an endless quest. Despite its somberness, it is in some ways a warm and funny book, occasionally tinged with stinging sarcasm. There are secondary characters, skillfully and swiftly delineated, so bizarre that even the two oddities of the title are struck by their madness. Mercier and Camier are other worldly figures themselves, but they need the trappings of the real world in order to give their story coherence, and this is no doubt part of the reason why Beckett chose to abandon them and go on to the Malones and Molloys of his later fiction….
"Mercier and Camier" is about voluntary exile, much like Beckett's own. While it can be read as the odyssey of Beckett and the other young Irishmen who went to Paris in the 1930's hoping to gain the same success as their countryman of an older generation, James Joyce, it can also be read as two aspects of the personality of Beckett himself. Before his departure, he had been easily recognizable in Dublin by his shapeless, dirty raincoat, several sizes too large….
It is the raincoat … which best symbolizes the final division of his first 30 years from the rest of his life, as well as this novel's place in his canon: when he left Dublin, Beckett threw his raincoat away, just as Mercier and Camier, after throwing theirs away, walk off into their own uncertain future, looking back now and again at the heap on the ground—unwilling to go on with it, but hesitant to abandon it. (p. 19)
Deirdre Bair, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 9, 1975.
Happy Days, an undoubted masterpiece, is an expression of a feeling which lies just under all we say and do: it represents the slow sensation, not just of growing old, but of becoming gently buried by habits and memories. Dramatically, it depends upon two astonishing effects, one visual, with the monstrous pile of earth in which Winnie is encased up to her waist and then to her neck, and the other emotional, her continual cheerfulness…. It is, apart from all the other qualities, a continually amusing study, thus adding weight to Beckett's dry observation that this play is 'not nearly boring enough'. The theme requires a sense of drab monotony, and … Beckett can [never] quite allow [himself] to be dull. (p. 391)
John Elsom, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of John Elsom), March 20, 1975.
Happy Days is a work fifteen years old or so. Beckett has progressed since then, via pieces in which the actors were allowed to have only their heads visible, protruding from dustbins or urns (Endgame and Play), another played in total darkness (Cascando), and yet another in which only the lips of the solitary speaker are seen (Not 1), to his masterwork (Breath) which has neither dialogue nor players and consists only of the cry of a new-born baby followed by the gasp of a dying man, issuing from a stage loaded with "miscellaneous rubbish." Worse? Or better? At least Breath got his view of life, not to say drama, stripped right down to the irreducible minimum. In Happy Days we have to sit there miserably listening to its elaboration in the form of a monologue from the unfortunate actress [in the role of Winnie] … as she sinks, eventually, chin-deep into the mound, her head resting there like a bunkered golf-ball, rabbiting away banally. It is a formidable feat of memory …, for the sporadic interruptions by her partner … are scarcely intelligible enough to be called cues and her own lines have roughly the dramatic impetus and continuity of a column of classified advertisements…. [As] far as I know [she] gets all the words in the right order, although the importance of that is arguable. (p. 252)
Kenneth Hurren, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), March 22, 1975.
Beckett completed [the] terse comic novel [Mercier and Camier] (in French) in 1946, then shelved it, perhaps because it retained too much luggage from traditional fiction: plot, ambulatory characters, glimmers of recognizable settings and human haunts. In Waiting for Godot, which he wrote soon after, Beckett said good riddance to such trappings and began the task that has occupied him ever since: willfully writing himself into a corner where there is only room enough for the mind to contemplate itself. He is the king of solipsists.
Mercier and Camier was finally published in France in 1970, and Beckett then translated it into English. In the light of all he has written since, this early novel seems positively pastoral. Two seedy stumblebums named Mercier and Camier, forerunners of Estragon and Vladimir in Godot, set out on a mysterious journey through vaguely Irish scenery. Mercier is "a big bony hank with a beard," and Camier has a "red face, scant hair, four chins, protruding paunch, bandy legs, beady pig eyes." Naturally their amblings attract attention. A policeman who sees them warns: "This is a sidewalk, not a circus ring."
But not in this novel. The universe here is the biggest of all big tops. Mercier and Camier are unwilling clowns in a performance they do not understand. They are saddled with props—a reluctant umbrella, a sack, a raincoat and a bicycle—and trip helplessly into Alphonse-Gaston stage routines. They are the butt of exquisitely timed malfunctions. Their umbrella refuses to open just as the rain, "acting on behalf of the universal malignity," comes down in buckets.
To their credit, the voyagers treat their predicament with the contempt it deserves. While describing the weather to Mercier, who cannot bear to look, Camier insults it in the careful cadences of French primer prose: "A pale raw blotch has appeared in the east, the sun presumably. Happily it is intermittent, thanks to a murk of tattered wrack driving from the west before its face." (pp. 78-9)
It is axiomatic in Beckett's work that the concept of purpose is beyond comprehension. This may not be true, but if granted only for the sake of argument, everything tumbles into place. Waiting for Godot was after all the critical knuckle cracking, simply a play about waiting. Mercier and Camier are waiting under the illusion that they have some place to go, though they do not know where or why…. Beckett's acknowledgement of free will frames the novel's anticlimax. The two men have the option of spending the night in a moldering, deserted house or falling down from exhaustion: "Now we must choose, said Mercier. Between what? said Camier. Ruin and collapse, said Mercier."
Beckett's peculiar genius is to set up such Hobson's choices while squeezing them for all the farce they will yield. His is a Buster Keaton, deadpan humor that shrivels in the explaining. Mercier and Camier is as hilarious, in gasps, as anything he has written. The novel's coolly mannered prose disguises outrageous statements until the instant they land. There is also cruelty in Beckett's method (Mercier is comforted briefly by the sight of a dead and bleeding woman) and surprising moments of compassion. When Mercier and Camier part, they lose the small comforts of their mutual buffoonery—supporting hands and shoulders, conversational noise, animal warmth. That loss, as the book ends, is no laughing matter. (p. 79)
Paul Gray, "Preparing for Godot," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), March 24, 1975, pp. 78-9.
Samuel Beckett's work for broadcasting—four radio plays and one television play—is a highly significant part of his oeuvre and far less fully discussed in the mounting literature on Beckett than his other output, far less readily available also in performance which alone can bring out its full flavour. But beyond that, Beckett's experience with broad-casting, and above all radio, has played a significant and little-known part in his development as an artist.
It has become a kind of cliché of the Beckett literature that the BBC commissioned radio plays from Beckett…. Beckett himself has always strenuously denied that he writes plays on commission from anyone. And the truth is that he was indeed never commissioned to write anything by the BBC. (p. 38)
[It] is remarkable to what extent Beckett had, in his first attempt at a radio play [All That Fall], intuitively grasped the specific qualities and capabilities of the medium, and how brilliantly he had seized those aspects of radio which were most germane to his own thematic and formal preoccupations.
Thematically All That Fall clearly links up with Beckett's last previous work in English, Watt. The cast of seedy genteel Irish types, the provincial milieu, even the railway station clearly belong to the same world. But whereas Watt is still narrated in a clinically cool objective manner, the action of All That Fall is experienced by the listener subjectively from Maddy Rooney's point of view. It is precisely the nature of the radio medium which makes possible the fusion of an external dramatic action (as distinct from the wholly internalised monologues of the narrative trilogy which followed Watt) with its refraction and distortion in the mirror of a wholly subjective experience. In radio the dramatic action is directly placed in the listener's mind and imagination. The microphone becomes the listener's own ears. And these ears can be directed either to the outside world, or inwards to pick up an internal monologue; indeed, they can enable the listener to experience the external world subjectively with the ears of the character in the play. (p. 40)
Another aspect of the sound medium grasped by Beckett was its need for strict formal patterning. Because they are totally immaterial, aural art forms are in danger of becoming amorphous, formless, and demand great clarity of structure and pattern. Rhythm and rhyme, strophic forms, the patterning of music in movements, all these are devices designed to impose form on the formless. Not only is All That Fall very clearly a three-movement structure (Maddy Rooney's anabasis, her wait at the station, her and Dan's katabasis), but it has also a very complex pattern of small-scale rhythms…. All That Fall was acclaimed as a radio masterpiece; it received an enormous amount of critical attention and has established itself as one of the classics of radio drama. (p. 41)
Krapp's Last Tape owes its existence both to Beckett's discovery of the fascinations of tape recording in the wake of the production of All That Fall … and to his discovery of Magee as an ideal embodiment of characters like Molloy. Yet this play, directly inspired by Beckett's contacts with radio, is by its very nature incapable of being performed on radio. The effect of the play depends, above all, on the counterpoint of the powerful visual image of a man listening to his own recorded voice with his reactions to his past personality registering on his features. On radio it would be difficult to differentiate Krapp's recorded voice from his unrecorded utterance: both would be on tape, and to distort the recorded voice would be unrealistic, as tape recording only slightly distorts human speech. (p. 42)
In Embers Beckett has moved further away from objective reality, closer to radio's unique ability to present an inner, wholly subjective reality. The background—a background of sound, the sea, Henry's boots on the shingle—is still real, but the voices are all internal…. (p. 42)
Beckett's preoccupation with the process of human consciousness as an incessant verbal flow (on which the whole of his trilogy as well as Texts for Nothing was based) found its logical culmination [in Words and Music], and one which only radio could provide. For, after all, human consciousness—the self's awareness of its own existence—does not only consist of a constant stream of language. It has a non-verbal component as well, the parallel and no less unbroken stream of wordless consciousness of being, made up of body-sensations, inner tensions, the awareness of body-temperature, aches, pains, the throbbings of the flow of one's own blood: all are the multiple facets of non-verbal consciousness summed up in the overall concept of emotion. In the arts, as perhaps Schopenhauer first showed, this stream of non-verbal life-awareness, of life-force or Will, is the subject matter of music which portrays and represents the ebb and flow of the emotions. To give an adequate representation of the Beckettian exploration of the self's experience of itself, music therefore had to be added to the verbal stream of consciousness. This is precisely what Beckett attempts in his two later radio plays [Words and Music and Cascando]. (p. 43)
It is almost impossible to find, in the vast literature of television drama, another play which is as totally conceived in terms of the small television screen and its intimate audience psychology as Eh Joe. Other television plays could be enlarged to the proportions of the cinema screen without too great a loss of impact. Many of them can even be effectively broadcast on radio, so much are they principally verbal rather than visual. As a demonstration of what is specifically televisual Eh Joe is unique and a masterpiece.
Beckett's profound understanding of the highly technical electronic media springs ultimately, I think, from the meticulous craftsmanship which forms his basic attitude to his work. His contributions to a production process are always characterised by humility towards the technical side of the work, combined with a respect towards the craftsmanship involved which seems to derive from an approach similar to that of the medieval craftsmen who regarded accurate workmanship as a form of religious worship. There is an intimate connection between the highest reaches of intuitive insight (inspiration in its truest sense, the inner voice) and the need for complete mastery of the techniques—of whatever order they may be—through which that inspiration is shaped, ordered, and communicated to listeners, readers, audiences. That combination of inspiration and craftsmanship characterises the work of a true master. (p. 46)
Martin Esslin, "Samuel Beckett & the Art of Broadcasting," in Encounter (copyright © 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), September, 1975, pp. 38-46.
That Beckett has worked in isolation and obscurity, in a drastic privacy highlighted rather than relieved by the international success of "Waiting for Godot" and the Nobel Prize in 1969; that he has published parsimoniously; that his works get smaller and smaller ("the expression that there is nothing to express," as he put it in one of his rare interviews)—all this better consorts with our sense of what a writer should be than any Victorian exuberance and heedless pride of creatorship. Beckett's books feel honorably eked out on the edge of agony and silence; their pain is their integrity and their music….
Now a new work ["Mercier and Camier"] is slipped into the canon…. Like Nabokov, Beckett seems to be cleaning up his desk; as his imagination drives him ever closer to the terminal minimum (the fourteen-hundred-word opus "Lessness," the thirty-five-second play "Breath"), he releases some relatively youthful and expansive works. "Mercier and Camier," though in itself frivolous, brittle, and less than cathartic, occupies a pivotal place in the canon: it is the first of Beckett's prose works to be originally written in French. Indeed, it seems to be the first motion of that remarkable postwar exertion whereby Beckett, casting off his native tongue and perhaps thereby moving out from under the shadow of his mentor Joyce, transformed himself, in a five-year siege of writing in his Paris apartment, from a slothful dilettante into a master…. Though steeped in Beckettian futility and gloom, ["Mercier and Camier"] does have a holiday air; a sense of lifted nightmare hangs over its ambiguously located city, and its heroes, in their aimless wandering, seem to be hesitantly exploring a new freedom, as the author is exploring a new language.
Why Beckett initially refused to publish—why he "jettisoned," as he described it—a work that secretes so much humor and beauty in its little wasteland invites speculation. Just as its mise-en-scène is a French city with Irish manners, canals, and references ("the great Sarsfield," "the Gaelic dialect"), so "Mercier and Camier" is a kind of hybrid, too, holding within it the two divergent trends of the author's future production. Until the late, diagrammatic stories, of which the ninety-five-hundred-word "The Lost Ones" is the longest, Beckett would not again write fiction in the third person. His novels became first-person monologues. Dialogue and objectivity he relocated on the stage, and, indeed, "Mercier and Camier" has the feel of a play, even to the "curtains" that come every two chapters, in the form of placard-like summations of the previous action. Had this been published, "Waiting for Godot" might have seemed less of a revelation, and even redundant. In his novels, beginning with "Molloy," the mind alone, revolving in solipsism, sinking in upon its doubts, relishing the precisions of its imprecisions, became Beckett's home and his voice. Thus he released himself from the "chloroformed world" of Balzacian fiction, as he had diagnosed it in 1931: "[Balzac] can write the end of his book before he has finished the first paragraph, because he has turned all his creatures into clockwork cabbages and can rely on their staying put…. The whole thing, from beginning to end, takes place in a spellbound backwash." How curiously well this description fits the fictional world Beckett evolved on opposed principles! (pp. 64-5)
John Updike, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), September 1, 1975.
Beckett has only written two mimes proper—Act Without Words I and II (1957, 1960)—but the pressure of mime against words can be felt in all the plays: from the silent-cinema acts of Godot, and the long mime-opening of Krapp's Last Tape, to the image of Winnie, in Happy Days, buried first to the waist, then to the neck, an extreme counterpoint to speech. It is as if Beckett's dialogue had to pass through the medium of silent action before it can emerge as dialogue; even the famous pauses gain their power from the implicit feeling that they might never end. There is a radical conception of mime at work in Beckett's drama, which goes with a quasi-mystical reaching out towards new creation out of silence, to counteract the limitations of syntax and vocabulary as mere reflexes. (pp. 11-12)
It was Eliot who in his early criticism had stressed the importance of 'abstraction from actual life', of a dramatic language that concentrates or compresses expression; it was Eliot who wanted to create a verbal rhythm that would have the power of primitive—pre-rational—drama. (Sweeney Agonistes came perhaps nearest to embodying these aesthetic aims.) It is Beckett who seems to have written all his plays, with all their differences, from a primary expressive urge tending to abstraction, to compression, and to the rhythms of a primitive—not just pre-rational but seemingly counter-rational—dramatic language. It is, further, Beckett who has pushed his dramatic language back to that 'still point'—the world of perpetual solitude—which Eliot expressed only in his non-dramatic poetry. Eliot took pains to avoid, or to counterbalance, the pull towards subjectivity; his whole development as a dramatist might be seen as a conscious and progressive effort to 'objectify' his dramatic language, in terms of situation and character; he was prepared to sacrifice expressive power for the sake of deliverance from a private language and the attendant danger of stasis. (pp. 130-31)
By contrast, Beckett starts from an acceptance of that solipsistic condition. For him language is irredeemably private: words germinate in the skull of the speaker, at an inestimable distance from things and other persons, motive and argument, local time and place. 'Art is the apotheosis of solitude' wrote Beckett in his early work on Proust; and this 'creed' was not abandoned when he came to drama. From the start Beckett accepts the paradox of dramatic stasis; movement in his plays is nearly always a succession of still points or a cyclic recurrence of verbal occasions. His dialogue … is a quasi-dialogue, composed of counterpointed or subtly doubled monologues. (p. 131)
We need to understand, first of all, the extent of Beckett's dependence on words as a primary element in drama, despite his undisputed mastery of gesture, movement and setting—the art of visual counterpoint. (The dustbins, the sand-mound and the urns are containers for human voices—visual equivalents for Krapp's tapes.) In asserting the primacy of language Beckett equates language and 'content' and, ultimately, language and 'reality'. This amounts to something that might be called Beckett's verbalism—though one is not eager to add to the world's glut of 'isms'. (p. 133)
[Beckett's position is that] language is perhaps the only reality, but words cannot be trusted—they can neither communicate nor express, they can only fail. Verbal expression may be a compulsive need, but it is self-defeating—in saying anything the potentially sayable becomes unsayable. (p. 134)
[The] idea of the failure of language has served Beckett as a myth for creation. It is a 'negative' myth which, as a source of creative energy, is comparable to the familiar power of certain negative emotions as motives to action, and to 'the negative way' as a source of spiritual life. (To deny is to affirm implicitly.) The whole texture of Beckett's language is created out of his ever-renewed sense of the failure of language. Going beyond Eliot's 'intolerable wrestle with words' and his relatively non-central notion that a language can be exhausted, for Beckett the creation of words against the wreck of words becomes the central act. The ideas implicit in Beckett's language myth are barely tenable as ideas; the progressive deterioration of language—as if language were an organism—is at best an ambiguous hypothesis; and there can be no such thing as a language of the inner self cut off from the community, from at least implicit communication: a 'private language' is parasitical on a 'public language'. But the myth of a failing language springs from one of the central myths of modern art: the writer is present at Genesis, creating words out of inert matter and chaos. The myth serves to intensify Beckett's own need to recreate words out of a struggle with a 'dead language'….
Each play is a cyclic rundown, and the plays taken together can be seen to move towards a minimal language. The language of drama is itself taken by Beckett to an extreme point, towards the zero point which—as in the third law of thermodynamics—can only be approached asymptotically: getting ever closer to it without ever reaching it….
Above all, Beckett's work has deepened the split in certain quite fundamental uses of language in modern drama (inwardness/externality; reduction/extension); and the cultural price to be paid for Beckett's unique achievement in 'making it new' may be an arrest of growth towards convergence or wholeness. It is probable, further, that Beckett's own intense consciousness of 'the burden of the past'—the museum of styles as a mausoleum—will intensify the stylistic self-consciousness of other dramatists in search of new ways of expression. The burden of Beckett is that in a little more than a decade he has pre-empted so many modes of expression in drama—including the art about to be examined, the re-creation of language through seeming decomposition, and the creation of dialogue through seeming monologue. For Beckett has all but exhausted what he has perfected. (pp. 135-37)
[It] is not the validity of the ideas in themselves, but their creative use that we need to question. How does Beckett dramatise what amounts to a drama of language: decay and 'abstraction to death'? And how does he, nevertheless, achieve a 'quintessential extraction of language' where the words are 'alive'? Such questions offer at least one point of entry into Beckett's dramatic language.
In the texture of each play a particular literary language is isolated or parodied: set in a dramatic frame wherein the process of decay may be perceived. (The words decay with their speakers, through deadly over-use or habit, the linguistic portion of human decrepitude.) From Lucky in Waiting for Godot to Winnie in Happy Days (and the disembodied voices of the later plays) the decay of words—words from an 'old style'—becomes part of the action; yet, in the play as a whole the used language is made new. The 'language cycle'—which Beckett invokes in the passage quoted—is enacted in a paradoxical direction: out of 'putrefaction' comes 'endless verbal germination'. Or, to put it another way, the rundown of language towards a dead end, in a seemingly mechanical replay of the once-living-now-dead verbal formulae, is so controlled that the language gains 'new life' within the context of the play.
We may start at an extreme point, with the violent movement from rationalist articulateness to final aphasia in Lucky's speech. Here the rundown in the cycle of language is clearly irreversible. But even here there emerges, from the wreckage of syntax, the lost or potential beauty of human utterance. The speech is placed and organised in such a way that the pathological breakdown in language—the agony of lost meaning—becomes a source of creative energy in the play. (pp. 138-39)
In Lucky's speech we witness the final movement in a language cycle: from the hyper-articulate (and atrophied) stage to that relapse into primal babble. Though Lucky is destructively silenced his language works creatively within the play. Against this is set Pozzo's old rhetoric and around it the dialogue of Estragon and Vladimir, seemingly ever-new and yet also running down. (p. 140)
[Beckett] falls back on lyricism to create a consciously poetic intensity. It has not, I think, been seen that Beckett's lyricism works best when it is playful or parodistic; and that in itself it is an ornate 'old style', and can be an indulgence. (p. 141)
Waiting for Godot, above all, but also Endgame and All that Fall create a richly 'polyphonic' dramatic language, a formal dialogue; Krapp's Last Tape, Embers and Happy Days are subtle transformations of an interior monologue into the semblance of dialogue; while Play and the later radio plays—Words and Music, Cascando—explore the rhythm of voices and then return to the univocal monologue. This pattern of development … becomes even more interesting when we consider that Beckett may have turned to the theatre from the novel partly because 'dramatic projection offered relief from monologue'. And within the cycle of novels themselves there is a movement from patches of quasi-naturalistic dialogue to a purely self-mirroring or self-quoting monologue. (p. 154)
[The] solipsistic monologue in search of its own extinction in silence creates a permanent pull in Beckett's drama. The tension between the monologue-possessed writer, and drama as a dialogue-directed art, runs through all the plays.
What, then, is the specifically dramatic gift that has gone into resolving this tension—whether through stage figures brought to personal encounter or through the shadowy impersonations of the isolated self in monodrama?
[In] Waiting for Godot and Endgame … Beckett has stylised the dialogue for and through two pairs of couples, adding to the richness of these plays the counterpoint of sharply contrasted sytles of dramatic speech. In Godot this counterpoint has the clarity of great art, and the voices of Lucky and Pozzo are triumphantly individualised for all time, while the quasi-monologues of these two stage figures interact with the otherwise so separate world and language of the two tramps. Since the texture of the whole play is both varied and clear, it does not matter that the tramps themselves are not clearly differentiated in their style of speech, that their lines can be swapped around or re-arranged in different sequences, and that their 'idiom' is not individual. Listening to Vladimir and Estragon we respond to the words in dialogue, and we do not ask: are these split-off segments of an ultimate monologue?
Yet this is just what we do ask about the quasi-dialogue of Hamm and Clov in Endgame. We remember these figures through what they say about their putative father-son, tyrant-slave relationship—and, of course, through the unique violence of contrast in their physical state, the visual impact of permanent sitting against ceaseless running—but we cannot differentiate their way of speaking. For example, Clov's opening speech not only uses one of Hamm's key images—Zeno's paradox of the infinite heap of millet—but speaks in Hamm's rhythms; and Clov's last soliloquy sounds like something split off from Hamm's last soliloquy…. In their style of speech Hamm and Clov lack the dramatic counterpoint we experience when Pozzo confronts Lucky (or Lear the Fool). And even if the two figures are intended to be psychic projections—in Martin Esslin's words, 'different aspects of a single personality'—we may object that Hamm and Clov are not autonomous enough, while, at the same time, there is nothing in the structure of the dialogue that would make us experience their exchanges as split monologue…. The counterpoint comes from the comic-pathetic exchanges of Nagg and Nell. (pp. 155-57)
Beckett's transformations of the monologue in both Krapp's Last Tape and Happy Days offer the perfect fusion of a particular human predicament and a particular dramatic language. In this respect Beckett accomplishes something that neither Naturalist nor Expressionist dramatists have been able to accomplish before him…. One may add that naturalistically motivated monodramas are relatively slight works like Cocteau's La voix humaine (a woman's last telephone 'conversation' with the lover who does not answer) or O'Neill's Hughie, the instant confessional to the night porter. Beckett's soliloquies work both on the surface and in depth, have personal and universal resonances. They are unique in modern drama. (pp. 162-63)
Andrew K. Kennedy, in his Six Dramatists in Search of a Language: Studies in Dramatic Language (© Cambridge University Press 1975), Cambridge University Press, 1975.