How does political and aesthetic oppression interweve in Beckett's Catastophe?
We start with the occasion that prompted Beckett to write this piece. The occasion was the arrest and imprisonment of Vaclav Havel, 1982, a Czech playwright (who, incidentally, became president of Czechoslovakia) at the request of the Association Internationale de Defense des Artistes, as part of an international protest by artists (particularly because Havel was not allowed to write during his imprisonment).
The play takes shape as a rehearsal of some kind, in which the silent Protagonist is “re-arranged” by a Director through an Assistant. The relationship, then, of Director, Assistant, and Protagonist becomes an elaborate metaphor for the bureaucratic oppression, manipulation, and exploitation of the creative spirit – the didactorial tone the Director uses with the Assistant, and the object-like manipulation of the Protagonist, the remoteness and indifference toward the human being on stage (the international stage), (for example, when the Assistant obeys the Director’s instructions to disrobe the Protagonist and he shivers, both of them are indifferent). The control of, and the powerlessness of, the characters echo the bureaucratic inhumanity that Havel represented to the world.
This late play of Beckett’s bears some resemblance to Ohio Impromptu, another “requested” piece for a Beckett conference Ohio State University, in that the characters on stage are chastising the audience of professors and scholars, by imitating their lack of human contact.
It should also be noted that the film of the play, directed by David Mamet and putting John Gielgud in the role of the protagonist and Harold in the role as Director, altered the play destructively, according to many critics. Interestingly, when Beckett was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize, he responded “Quelle catastrophe!”