Study Guide

Words and Music

by Samuel Beckett

Words and Music Analysis

The Play (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The plot of Samuel Beckett’s radio play Words and Music is at once dismayingly simple in its minimalist reductiveness and disturbingly complex in the ways in which the play’s basic components are combined. The play opens with only two of its three characters present. While Music (comprising a small orchestra) tunes up, Words breaks in rather peremptorily to rehearse his speech on one of Beckett’s favorite subjects, Sloth. As soon becomes clear, the relationship between Words and Music is antagonistic; each implores, loathes, interrupts, and seeks to gain ascendancy over the other until they hear the sound of Croak, in his bedroom slippers, approaching from the distance. Croak arrives as lord and peacemaker, addressing Words and Music as “my comforts,” “my balms,” and more familiarly, and comically, as Joe and Bob, whom he advises to be “friends.”

After rhetorically begging their forgiveness for his being late and then offering some vague fragments of explanation (“on stairs,” “in tower”), Croak considers their theme for the evening. After some thought, he decides on love. With only one exception, Croak expresses himself elliptically by means of sighs, groans, single words, short (usually two-word) phrases, and by thumping his club. Called on first, Words responds by repeating the same speech he had been rehearsing at the very beginning of the play, substituting “love” for “sloth” wherever necessary. Neither Croak’s sigh nor his thumping dissuades Words from continuing until Croak thumps his club a second time and calls for Bob (Music). Even then Words only falters; he does not stop until Croak summons Music more forcefully: “Bob!” Only then does Words cease, and Music begin, playing “as before.” Croak, perhaps displeased by Words’s incessant protestations and pleadings, demands that Music play more loudly, which Music does, thereby drowning out Words but also losing his own earlier expressiveness.

At this point there is a pause which signals that the play’s first cycle is over and the next about to begin, repeating the first in general outline though not in all particulars. Croak’s gentle summons, “Joe sweet,” evokes more words from Words, which in turn...

(The entire section is 916 words.)

Words and Music Dramatic Devices (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Words and Music belongs to the Theater of the Absurd. Its preoccupation with the existentialist theme of the pain and anguish of having to live in an absurd world is reinforced by the manner in which Beckett presents his material: the isolation and cartoonishness of the characters, the antirealism of the setting, the nonrational language and the circular plot. The play’s characters simply “are.” They have no past and no future; they exist in an endlessly repeatable present and solely in terms of the words by which they are designated. The play’s setting is similarly rendered: placeless, timeless, and meaningless—a nonplace or, given Croak’s slippers, a dreamscape, the perfect setting for Beckett’s existential nightmare.

The dialogue is equally barren, a collection of croaks, groans, individual words, and brief verbal and musical phrases (the latter composed by John Beckett, the author’s cousin). The pauses do not so much punctuate or even interrupt the play’s various sounds as call attention to that overwhelming silence or void against and within which Croak, Words, and Music play their parts. This existential silence, figured in the pause, becomes a character in its own right, a palpable and disconcerting presence. Beckett treats words and music in similar fashion: They are not so much allegorized as foregrounded, treated not as the means to meaning but as an object in space, not as tools used by the characters but as...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Words and Music Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Abbot, H. Porter. Beckett Writing Beckett: The Author in the Autograph. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Alvarez, A. Samuel Beckett. New York: Viking, 1973.

Andonian, Cathleen. The Critical Response to Samuel Beckett. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Astro, Alan. Understanding Samuel Beckett. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. Samuel Beckett. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

Cohn, Ruby. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Esslin, Martin. “Samuel Beckett and the Art of Broadcasting.” Encounter 45 (September, 1975): 38-46.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. 3d ed. London: Methuen, 2001.

Gordon, Lois. The World of Samuel Beckett. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

Gussow, Mel. Conversations with and About Beckett. New York: Grove-Atlantic, 1996.

Homan, Sidney, ed. Beckett’s Theaters: Interpretations for Performance. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1984.

Kenner, Hugh. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

McCarthy, Patrick A., ed. Critical Essays on Samuel Beckett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.