A. Alvarez has described Words and Music as “a brilliant, witty, and utterly original dramatization of the labor and frustrations of creation, the poet alternately bullying and despairing, his instruments inept, unwieldy; then the final letdown when there is nothing more to be done. It also illustrates vividly that split between the music the poet hears in his head and the leaden words at his command, and the slow, unwilling process of disciplining and refining these two elements until they finally chime together in a single work of art.” This is a plausible, even perceptive, and in a way remarkably comprehensive reading of Beckett’s brief but puzzling play, but it is also decidedly partial, for although Words and Music may be read as an allegorical representation of the creative process, as Alvarez, a poet as well as a critic, maintains, it cannot be said to be only that.
Despite its brevity, Words and Music is, as all Beckett’s imaginative writings are, to be thought of less as the means by which the author expresses or transmits a certain content than as a machine for generating meanings, for provoking responses from its bewildered audience of listeners and readers. Something surely happens in Words and Music—or at least seems to happen—but exactly what it is is impossible to say. Like its characters, its audience may well prefer that “something” not be “nothing.” Meaning nothing itself, Words and Music can mean anything and everything; it can accommodate those partial readings it invites yet resists.
This multiplicity of interpretive possibilities derives in large measure from Beckett’s willingness to divorce form from content, emphasizing the one while very nearly eliminating the other altogether. “It is the shape that matters,”...
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