illustrated portrait of Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett

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What are the themes in Samuel Beckett's Act Without Words I?

One of the themes of Act Without Words I is the difficulty of communication. The play is perfumed entirely in mime, without any verbal communication whatsoever. This hints at the difficulty involved in one individual communicating to another in any meaningful sense.

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That the sole character in Beckett’s Act Without Words I has been thrown into a desert is highly instructive. Alone in a desert without anyone or anything else around, communication of any kind—especially verbal communication—is difficult if not outright impossible.

The man’s chronic inability to communicate is undoubtedly a result...

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That the sole character in Beckett’s Act Without Words I has been thrown into a desert is highly instructive. Alone in a desert without anyone or anything else around, communication of any kind—especially verbal communication—is difficult if not outright impossible.

The man’s chronic inability to communicate is undoubtedly a result of his lack of self-knowledge. As the man doesn’t seem to know exactly who he is—note how he stares in bemusement at his hands—there’s really nothing much to communicate about himself. If he doesn’t know anything about himself, what is there to say?

Besides, the man is too preoccupied with surviving in such an inhospitable environment to even think about communicating. As the man is not really in a position to communicate to us, the audience, we must somehow impose meaning on his numerous gestures and mimes in an attempt to establish some kind of connection with what’s happening on stage. Even so, such communication is also resolutely nonverbal, returning us back to where we came from: the difficulty of meaningful communication.

At whatever level, communication is a two-way process; but as one of the parties in this particular discourse is unable to communicate effectively, it is left to us to supply his deficiencies as a communicator. In Act Without Words I, as with many of Beckett’s plays, we are effectively handed a bag of fragments and forced to put them together ourselves.

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The theme of the play is about acceptance of fate and one's own individualism.

The play begins with a man being thrown into existence. He is thrown into a place in which he has no control and cannot escape. The force that throws him into a barren desert also robs him of any way to ultimately escape through suicide or any relief that can be granted by the elements (water). Essentially, his suffering cannot be alleviated. All that he reaches for is mere illusion.

This is meant to symbolize the absurdity of endlessly pursuing the illusion that one may experience satisfaction, happiness, or peace by bargaining with the universe (or, as many believe, by pleasing those around you).

He ultimately gives up, no longer reaching for the objects dangled before him. He also stops reflecting. The man stops playing the illusory game being thrown at him. 

This action is meant to represent the man finally coming to terms with who he is and what he has. He will accept his own fate rather than trying to manipulate it through the use of external forces or beings.

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Throughout the short play Act Without Words I, Beckett examines the themes of Man's existence and desire to live on more than a physical level. Beckett also explores the theme of resignation and disobedience. The nameless protagonist struggles against his environment to not only survive but to live a meaningful life. As was mentioned in the previous post, the desire for the man to communicate, along with his desire to escape, drives him to reject the essential elements needed to survive in the barren desert (water and shade). The powerful external force that throws him into the desert removes the scissors and tree once the protagonist attempts to commit suicide. The man comes to terms with his meaningless existence and rebels against the external force by refusing to drink water or sit in the shade. This act of rebellion signifies a "second birth" of Man as he becomes an individual by willfully ignoring his elemental needs. The resignation of the man represents individuality and acceptance of his current existence. The man disobeys the external force by refusing to merely exist and accepts his fate.

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The sense of this short piece is that Man’s relationship to his earthly existence, represented by the physical objects just out of the protagonist’s reach, leaves him with no choices, just the illusion of choices he could make. First the man is unable to leave his existence, as witnessed by his inability to exit the stage after being "thrown" into the world. When various objects (scissors, rope, water, etc.) are dangled before him just out of reach, the audience becomes aware of the futility of human effort, either to amend or to exit his own facticity; all the objects have dual significances -- improving our state, or ending our life. The key to his dilemma is that language an illusion—an illusion that we can communicate with the universe in words (see Wittgenstein “Of that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent”). The universe is not explainable with words, thus communication is not an option because there is no one to communicate with. Beckett spent his life “effing the ineffable,” by which he meant trying to convey the futility of Man’s condition without using speech. This play, on the surface a “dance-piece for one dancer,” is thematically an encapsulation of the meaninglessness and hopelessness of human existence. So the title is not merely a description of the piece, but also a short expression of humanity's state in the physical world.

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