illustrated portrait of Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

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Michèle Praeger (essay date spring 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6870

SOURCE: Praeger, Michèle. “Self-Translation as Self-Confrontation: Beckett's Mercier et/and Camier.Mosaic 25, no. 2 (spring 1992): 91-105.

[In the following essay, Praeger explores Beckett's views on language and linguistics by studying the writer's translation of his own work Mercier et Camier.]

Until recently, Beckett's activity as a self-translator has largely been ignored equally by French and Anglo-Saxon critics, both of whom have tended, without feeling hampered, to overlook Beckett's production in the other tongue. Thus we have a farcical, New Novelist-like, Francophone Beckett and an existential, bleak, Anglophone Beckett. Ruby Cohn's 1962 study was an early exception to that state of Beckett studies. Currently, however, a whole new area is developing in Beckett studies which deals with the artist as self-translator, Brian Fitch being at the forefront with his Beckett and Babel. Fitch's study gives self-translating a central place in Beckett's oeuvre and opens up, at last, an interlingual and intercultural space within which his work can be appreciated to its fullest: synchronically in the sense that it involves a comparison of the French and the English “end products,” but also diachronically, with a focus on the way that the translation has resulted in a reworking of the “original.” This means not only that the French and the English can no longer be read in isolation but also that they have to be considered as forming what Fitch calls the “bilingual work.”

My purpose in the following essay is to illustrate concretely the dynamics of the “bilingual work” through an examination of Beckett's Mercier et Camier and Mercier and Camier. The former—the first full-fledged work that Beckett wrote entirely in French—was composed in 1946 (although not published until 1970); the latter, English version/translation was published in 1974. In exploring the connection between these two works, I will be building on the work of Steven Connor, but I also wish to go beyond his noting of their differences and interdependence by placing the “bilingual” issue in an “intergeneric” context—specifically, Beckett's switching from fiction to drama. Because my ultimate purpose is to suggest the logic that informs Beckett's generic and linguistic experiments, I will first begin by exploring the way that his attitudes toward self-translation and his initial decision to write in French are related to his general views of language and literary style.

According to letters he wrote, Beckett seemed to have loathed the task of self-translating. In a 1957 letter to Alan Schneider about the translation of Fin de Partie, he wrote: “I have not even begun the translation. I have until August to finish it and keep putting off the dreaded day. … It seems funny to be making plans for a text which does not yet exist and which, when it does, will inevitably be a poor substitute for the original (the loss will be much greater than from the French to the English ‘Godot’) … I have nothing but wastes and wilds of self-translation before me for many miserable months to come” (Disjecta 107-08). About the first draft of his translation of Watt, made with Ludovic and Agnès Janvier, he wrote to Ruby Cohn in 1967: “Sweating away at Watt. 3/4 done rough and about 1/2 of that revised. Hateful task.”1

To understand Beckett's distaste for translation, one needs to bear in mind that for him the process did not involve translation in the normal sense of the term. As Fitch has demonstrated, in a translation Beckett does not simply draw upon a final version of an original text but also on its earlier drafts (94); in other words, self-translation involves “not solely a relationship between two languages but also between texts” (35). Moreover, the “first versions” themselves were from the “very outset ‘intended’ as objects of translation” (191), and in this sense a work cannot be regarded as complete until the second version is published (131). According to Fitch, therefore, self-translation could not but be a part of Beckett's creative process, given that his stated aim was, as early as 1949, to write texts that tried to avoid expressing “something.” If writing is non-referential and instead involves mere intertextuality, then self-translating is one additional step in this direction.

What we also need to bear in mind is that self-translation was in Beckett's case linked to his choosing after World War II to write in French. In attempting to explain this choice, most critics have tended to stress the struggle and the pain inherent in writing in a foreign tongue and have interpreted his decision to do so in terms of his compulsion to abandon the riches of his Anglo-Irish heritage in order to live a life of adventurous hardship. Katharine Worth has also suggested that the shift to French may have been a consequence of Beckett's work in the French resistance (6-7) and Vivian Mercier sees his decision as a response to the dilemma of the Protestant Anglo-Irish writer who can never be wholly English nor wholly Irish, a dilemma he resolved by exiling himself from both and adopting French as a language (26-27).

To other critics, however, the decision was an esthetic one. According to Richard Coe: “To Herbert Blau, Beckett confided that French ‘had the right weakening effect’; to Niklauss Gessner that ‘in French it is easier to write without style’; to myself, ‘because you couldn't help writing poetry in it [English]’” (36). For Marjorie Perloff: “‘Without style’ means without, or rather, outside the style of his great English and Irish precursors: Joyce is the most obvious example, but by extension, the ‘style’ Beckett wants to be ‘without’ is also that of Milton or Coleridge, Keats or Swinburne. ‘The right weakening effect’ is one that ‘weakens’ or neutralizes the heavy weight of the Anglo-Irish tradition, which is to say the poetry memorized and recited, as Yeats puts it, ‘among school children’” (36-37).

In the words of Belacqua, the narrator of Beckett's 1932 Dream of Fair to Middling Women, to write “without style” means also to write like Racine and not like the stylist d'Annunzio whose “uniform, horizontal writing, flowing without accidence … never gives you the margarita” because “he denies you the pebbles and flints that reveal it.” In contrast, Belacqua notes, “the writing of, say, Racine or Malherbe, perpendicular, diamanté, is pitted, is it not, and sprigged with sparkles; the flints and pebbles are there, no end of humble tags and common places. They have no style, they write without style, do they not, they give you the phrase, the sparkle, the precious margaret. Perhaps only the French can do it. Perhaps only the French language can give you the thing you want” (Disjecta 47). Beckett's narrator thus echoes Jacques Lacan's distinctions between “besoin” and “demande”: he seems to respond toward English like an anorectic child who is smothered by a loving mother, whereas French, with its “pebbles and flints,” plays the role of the “good” mother, who understands her child's desire. (Lacan 628). Beckett's attitude toward French here is also not dissimilar to that of Nabokov in Speak Memory, who recalls that his elephantine Swiss governess seemed to take pleasure in punishing him, was shallow of culture, bitter in temper and had a banal mind, but that her French was “lovely”: “that pearly language of hers purled and scintillated, as innocent of sense as the alliterative sins of Racine's pious verse … something of her tongue's limpidity and luster has had a singularly bracing effect upon [him], like those sparkling salts that are used to purify the blood” (113).

In certain ways, Beckett's attitude toward “style” equally seems to anticipate Barthes's theories in Writing Degree Zero, wherein style is seen as an individual, almost biological force, devoid of choice, which “resides outside art, that is, outside the pact which binds the writer to society” (12). According to Barthes, “writing” or “écriture” (one recalls that he places “écriture” between the very social “langue” and the individual “style”) is the result of an esthetic and ethical choice. Beckett, choosing his “écriture,” dared to sever the bond that links a writer to his or her mother-tongue by starting to write in French. His concept of writing “without style” is akin to Barthes's notion of “colourless writing” (“écriture blanche”) or “neutral writing” (“écriture neutre”) wherein writing accords with the “instrumentality” of classical art. Yet in the case of “colourless writing,” as for example Camus' L'Etranger, or Beckett and later Robbe-Grillet, the formal apparatus of writing is not “at the service of a triumphant ideology” but is a way of designating a new situation for the writer, a way “a certain silence has of existing” (Barthes 77-78).

Although Beckett scholars have highlighted the negative elements of his switching to French, nowhere has Beckett expressed any sorrow or pain about his decision; on the contrary the anticipatory jubilation in his 1937 letter to Axel Kaun is obvious: “In the meantime I am doing nothing at all. Only from time to time I have the consolation, as now [Beckett is writing to a German friend in German], of sinning willy-nilly against a foreign language, as I should love to do with full knowledge and intent against my own—and as I shall do—Deo juvante” (Disjecta 173). Although one might argue that Beckett is here anticipating that by writing in a foreign tongue he might inadvertently lose his grip on English and start misusing it, the phrase “full knowledge and intent” seems to preclude such an interpretation. It seems more likely that he was already sensing the pains and throes of self-translation from French into English, a process which would involve subjecting his own language to a different, less “glamorous” process of creation, and which would oblige him to work with its inherent poverty and inadequacies but also with its “phrases,” “sparkles” and “margaritas.”

One reason Beckett gave for shifting to French is particularly interesting: “After the War, I could keep my apartment, I returned to it, and started to write again—in French—with the desire to become even poorer. That was the real motive” (qtd. in Janvier, Beckett 18). This desire for linguistic poverty may be seen in the search by Beckett for a French equivalent of the English title of his short piece Lessness; here he was confronted with “the metaphysical poverty of a preposition,” the French Sans which, according to the philosopher E. M. Cioran, is incapable of expressing “absence” in its purest state, whereas “lessness,” combining loss and the infinite, suggests a “vacuity” and an “apotheosis” (103). Raymond Federman thus wonders “how often in the process of translating himself, Beckett had to confront the poverty of certain French or English words in comparison with their equivalent in the other language” (11). Yet if translation is a way of realizing the inadequacy of language to express, the question that arises is: what and why it should express? Such is the aporia with which Beckett found himself confronted: to write because “there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express it, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express” (“Dialogues” 98).

Federman's theory that Beckett's fiction in French is more “abstract” than in English accords with the accepted idea that French itself is a more abstract language than English; according to Federman, “French is basically compatible with the expression of abstract ideas, tends explicitly toward the formulation of a substratum of meaning (that of essences rather than substances) whereas English is more appropriate to the expression of concrete facts, of common realities” (15). By writing in French, Beckett could, therefore, free himself from the realism which was the satiric basis of his preceding English novels, Murphy and Watt, and become one of the earliest and most important pioneers of what was to be called the New Novel.

This idea that the French language somewhat freed Beckett is corroborated by Ludovic Janvier who feels that writing in French was a way for Beckett to detach himself from his mother-tongue, simultaneously loved and hated, respected and rejected. He could then attempt to destroy language innocently and without fear” (“Traduire” 63). According to Janvier, Beckett was not so much escaping English, as Perloff suggests, but rather writing in French in order fully to “experience” language. I would agree, if instead of “writing” we substitute “self-translating.” To self-translate is to appreciate both the “wastes and wilds” of a language and its potential for “apotheosis.”

Beckett had been voicing complaints against the English language for a number of years before he started writing in French. In his letter to Kaun, he observed: “it is indeed becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English” (Disjecta 171). In contrast to Federman's view, Beckett complained, as early as 1929, that the English language is “abstracted to death,” and he found other languages such as German and Italian more appropriate to represent the concrete world of the senses and of the intellect: “Take the word ‘doubt’: it gives us hardly any sensuous suggestion of hesitancy, of the necessity for choice, of static irresolution. Whereas the German ‘Zweifel’ does, and, in lesser degree, the Italian ‘dubitare’” (“Dante” 15). Beckett's view of language here argues for its mimetic quality; he seems to believe in a “phonic symbolism” where sound is given a semantic value, where body and mind are not in a conflicting relationship. Such is the traditional poetical view of language, held by Plato's Cratylus for whom the word “spring” is green, or by Mallarmé who writes in Les Mots Anglais that onomatopoeias are admirable, inasmuch as the link between “meaning” and “form” is “so perfect” (920). This is, in a way, a somewhat “theatrical” notion of language, where words are alive, where they need to have, like silent actors, expressive faces and where they do not function as abstract concepts but as mimetic signifiers. In Shakespeare's plays, in Dickens's novels, in Joyce's works, writes Beckett, “words … are alive. They elbow their way on the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear” (“Dante” 26).

The attempt to identify unique qualities of the French and English language is probably as pointless as attempts to classify unique features of words themselves. It seems unlikely that some languages are more concrete or abstract than others, more musical, more suited to philosophy or poetry, more dynamic, more comic, etc. It is rather a matter of the user's ability to manipulate a language in such a way as sometimes to make it clash with its so-called inherent virtues. As Janvier points out, Joyce, contrary to common opinion, thought that English was much more musical than Italian and offered linguistic “proofs” to make his point (Pour Samuel Beckett 355).

Constituting a “bilingual” work, Mercier et Camier and Mercier and Camier provide an instructive pair of texts for exploring questions about the different qualities of two languages, and in particular about what is involved in the process of self-translation. Perhaps the first thing to be noted, therefore, is that the plot of the French “original” is basically the same as that of the English “translation,” which according to a review in the London Observer is as follows: “The two heroes meet and, after much hesitation, set off on a vague journey which only twice manages to get them briefly clear of town. They spend a good deal of time in bars and with a friendly prostitute called Helen. They kill a policeman. They curse God and their various ailments and indulge in a little metaphysics. Finally, they drift apart and are brought together again at the close by Watt, making a useful guest appearance” (qtd. by Seaver 159-60).

If translating Mercier et Camier into English did not change the basic plot, however, the process did result in a considerable amount of rewording and numerous deletions. Indeed, to the bilingual English poet and publisher John Crombie, these changes were so substantive that they deprived Anglophone readers of an important part of the original French text. Accordingly, in 1985 Crombie decided to translate into English the sentences or expressions that Beckett had excluded, which he then published—with Beckett's approval—in a limited edition with innovative typography, under the title of MAC.

On the whole, Mercier et Camier is written in a much more familiar style than the English version. Despite the fact that Beckett was writing in an “abstract language” which he claimed to have chosen out of his desire for “poverty,” Mercier et Camier does not manifest any “minimalist” qualities. Beckett, on the contrary, wrote it in a bawdy, exuberant French which does not shy from obscenities. Beckett makes use of the particular syntax of spoken French that Raymond Queneau has compared to the eskimo language, chinook, where the grammatical indications, what Queneau calls the “morphèmes,” are placed at the beginning of the sentence and the lexical ones, the “semantèmes,” at the end (56): for instance, in Mercier et Camier we have “Elle a de ces attentions, la nature” (208) which in Mercier and Camier has been reshuffled to eliminate the gallicism: “Nature at her most thoughtful” (120). Sometimes though, the English appears more colloquial and direct: for the somewhat bureaucratic French, “Le barman avait beaucoup de bonnes choses. Il les nomma” (68), we have the English: “The barman rattled off a list” (44). Although to Connor “the relish with which the barman [in the French version] … describes the food he has available is much diminished [in the English version]” (29), I find the English wording to be more economical and vibrant.

Indeed, it does seem difficult for the “native illusionist”—as Nabokov calls the writer who uses the mother-tongue—not to write poetry in English! Beckett's English at times appears more “earthy” than the French, especially in the narrative parts; for instance the English: “Their bodies rigid, drawn with fixed glare to face the common foe, they are stiller for a moment than the ground on which they graze” (81; emphasis mine) is a translation of “Les corps figés, les visages tendus et irrités qu'aimante la menace, ils sont un instant plus immobiles que la nature qui les emprisonne” (137). The French: “des gamins jouant aux billes, accroupis dans le ruisseau” (131) becomes “a group of urchins at marbles on their hunkers in the gutter” (78). In the narrative parts, the alliterations in French are, at times, less successful than in the English: “Les réflexions de Mercier avaient ceci de particulier qu'elles palpitaient partout d'une houle pareille” (48), is replaced by the more “fluid” English: “Mercier's reflections were peculiar in this, that the same swell and surge swept through” (32).

Writing in French, however, does have its compensations: in Mercier et Camier, Beckett comically juxtaposes written French (in the narrative parts) and spoken French (in the dialogues). For instance, after using the very fastidious subjunctive imperfect—“Le ciel était gris et bas, de quelque côté qu'il regardât”—he has Mercier remark that “Le ciel est uniformément pisseux” (43). Beckett is here mocking one of the rules of French novelistic writing—at least until Céline—which is to use “high” language in the narrative parts however “vulgar” the language of the characters may be, accentuating the schism between the act of narrating (and writing) and the characters. In Mercier et Camier, moreover, Beckett goes so far as to juxtapose a pedantic adverb and a gross adjective, ridiculing in one short sentence the two conventional techniques.

Beckett will, at times, use a very ancient French term such as “le vieil enueg” (191) which reminds one of two poems he published in 1935 in Echo's Bones and other Precipitates, “Enueg I” and “Enueg II.” As Lawrence Harvey has pointed out, “enueg” refers to a poetic form, a “ley d'amor” cultivated by the troubadours of Provence during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; the word, in provençal, means “vexation” or “that which is vexing” and “technically it designates a poem which treats the annoyances of life from mere trifles to serious insults, from improprieties at the table to serious misdemeanors …” (80). The corresponding English “wail” (109) cannot compare in richness of evocation.

In the English version, puns, allusions and what might be called “sound-games” are sometimes translated, sometimes cut. The self-conscious: “‘Quelque humble,’ dit Camier, ‘que cela sonne drôlement’” (21) has been omitted in the English version, as if Beckett were bestowing on the French language a certain amount of freedom by recognizing its so-called unique and untranslatable “génie,” a term used by Antoine Rivarol, the eighteenth-century author of a treatise on the universality of the French language. A neologism such as “anthropopseudomorphe” (186) has been left out in the English version as if, in this case, Beckett for some reason felt that the “génie” of the English language did not lend itself to this particular form of neologizing.

Sometimes Beckett does use equivalents which are less satisfactory:

“Tu as dit oui,” dit Camier. “A quoi acquiesces-tu?”
“A quoi à qui est-ce?” dit Mercier.


is rendered by a rather pale:

“You said yes,” said Camier.
“I said yes?” said Mercier.


In the French version, Beckett will create a portmanteau word such as in “Ce n'est que le revers de la panspermoconnerie” (184-85); according to dictionary definition, “panspermie” is a theory which states that “life exists and is distributed throughout the universe in the form of germs or spores that develop in the right environment”; “moconnerie” is close to “maçonnerie” (“masonry work”) or “ma connerie” (“my stupidity” in vulgar slang). The line has been translated by the flat “it's only the lid on the latrine” (105). Yet the English, “What would we do without women? We would explore other channels” (72) is “more subtle and playful” (Federman 12) than the French “Que ferions-nous sans les femmes? Nous prendrions un autre pli” (118). Certainly the English “‘Whence?’ said Camier—‘Hence’” (115) sounds more provocative than the French: “‘D'où?’ dit Camier. ‘D'ici’” (200).

As far as cultural or “atmospheric” elements are concerned, the French version seems, at times, strangely to include a deliberately literal translation of English. For example, in Mercier et Camier, Beckett uses the word “shilling” (24); he alludes to a certain “Sarsfield,” an Irish Jacobite general, and to “la langue gaélique … [le] raffermissement de sa foi et … [les] trésors d'un folklore unique” (18). Although such expressions clearly set this novel in Ireland, at other times there is an effort to distinguish between the French and the Anglo-Irish culture. For instance when the waiter uses foreign terms such as “cosy” or “gemütlich,” Mercier says: “Il nous prend pour des touristes” (66); in the English version we read: “He takes us for globe-trotters” (43). Mercier, as a “true” Frenchman should be, at least in the eyes of an Anglo-Saxon, is somewhat more cynical than his English counterpart. “Touriste” has negative connotations (a turkey to be plucked) that “globe-trotter” (worldly and polyglot) does not.

In accordance with Federman's view that Beckett's French fiction is more self-conscious than the English, in Mercier et Camier the presence of the writer-narrator seems to be much more obvious than in Mercier and Camier. The French narrator comments on how the book is being written; he is actor and spectator, artist and critic, simultaneously. He instructs himself to follow Mercier and Camier with great care and never to lose sight of them (96); he comments unfavorably upon Mercier and Camier's dialogue (127) or upon the grammatical tenses of the verbs he himself uses (182, 185). As Connor has demonstrated, however, with each English draft that Beckett wrote, the narrator increasingly despises his characters, comments depreciatively on the “story line” and seems to criticize the French version by mercilessly reshaping it. “The ‘final’ text,” writes Connor, “comes to seem less like an end-point than just a stage in a continuing process of self-division and self-modification” (34). In this sense, Beckett's self-translation would seem to provide an extreme example of the theory advanced by the Schlegel brothers in the eighteenth-century: that a translation provides an interpretation or a commentary on the original. The impatience of the narrator in this self-translation can also be seen as a reflection of Beckett's growing impatience toward the French version—which may in turn explain why he so long delayed its publication after Bordas, in 1948, withdrew its offer (see Bair 359-60).

Connor points to the fact that the two characters are much less earthy in the English version, that their friendship manifests itself in a cooler way and that, in general, the tone of the book is of “deepening pessimism and bitterness” (30-31). Although he initially associates the changes in the English version as fitting with the bleakness of the 60s and 70s texts (Le Dépeupleur, Bing, Imagination Morte Imaginez), he concludes that Mercier and Camier is not more “austere” than the original French; on the contrary, the English vocabulary and the dialogues are much more “archaic” and circumvolutory than the colloquial French of Mercier et Camier, being “drawn from much wide-spread and often incompatible sources, ranging from philosophical jargon to the fierce obscenity of the street” (37-43).

Because of the continual game of win and lose between the French and the English versions, it is difficult to refer to them in terms of an “original” and a “translation.” As Fitch has generally observed of Beckett's practice: “The dependence of the translation upon the original has been replaced by an interdependence between the two versions of Beckett's work” (107). Fitch goes on to observe that Beckett's “textual system” somehow “escapes the constraints of any linguistic system: it appears to bring two languages into a condition of reciprocal interference and interplay that has nothing to do with that mere contiguity of languages that obtains between translation and original” (134). This observation highlights my contention that in switching to French, Beckett entered “with full knowledge and intent,” albeit reluctantly, into a different realm of writing which might be called a poetics of self-translation.

According to Fitch the second “versions” of Beckett's texts must be considered as part of the “intra-intertextuality” of his work and should be seen as participating in an interaction with all his other texts (23). Mercier and Camier is not only the self-translation of Mercier et Camier; it is part of this “intra-intertextuality” which involves all of Beckett's works, written and translated and/or performed between 1946 and 1973. Even if Beckett had written a word-for-word translation, as faithful as possible to the original, there would be light years between them, in the same fashion as Cervantes's Don Quixote differs from Pierre Mesnard's.

Another important aspect that has to be taken into account when one considers the relationship between Mercier et Camier and the English translation is the way their differences reflect Beckett's first try at another genre, the theater. The most important change between the French and English versions has to do with the dialogue. Large chunks of direct speech have been mercilessly removed and disposed of in Mercier and Camier, especially the redundant dialogue by which the two “compères” articulate their existence. For instance, passages like the following have been deleted:

          “Comment te sens-tu aujourd'hui?” dit Camier. “Je ne te l'ai pas encore demandé.”
          “Je me sens débile,” dit Mercier mais plus résolu que jamais. “Et toi?”
          “Pour le moment ça va,” dit Camier. “M'être débarrassé de toute cette saleté m'a fait du bien. Je me sens plus léger.” Il écouta.
          “Je dis que je me sens plus léger,” dit-il. Mais décidément cette phrase laissait Mercier indifférent.
          “Dire que je me sens d'attaque, non,” dit Camier. “Il me serait impossible par exemple de repasser où je suis repassé hier.”


It seems that the two characters had to play for a while with the concepts of how one's body and mind feel, how they sound on a certain morning. These are useless pieces of dialogue in the sense that they do not result in any movement; on the contrary they impede it. This is not to say that Beckett has tried in the English version to make Mercier and Camier more practical, but that he has done away with a lot of the “bavardage” that would endear them to the French. Such “bavardage” leads Camier to address his rain-coat and fills numerous pages of the French text when the two heroes wonder what to do with their umbrella, or their bicycle, or their bag. In this way, the “bavardage” and the redundancies also threatened to invade the narrative parts of the book.

Beckett, in the French version, seems so enamored of words (he has not yet reached the stage of his “literature of the unword”) that he even bursts into Italian—the Italian of Dante's Inferno, Canto I, verse 87:

“Lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore,” dit Mercier, “est-ce une citation?”
“Lo bello quoi?” dit Camier.
“Lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore,” dit Mercier.


In the English version, not only did Beckett cut such passages, but he also did away with part of the “rubato” and operatic qualities of the French, what might be called the arbitrariness of the “interpretation” whereby the characters linger over a certain theme. In English their “interpretation” is much more terse, and numerous Italian cultural allusions are cut, as if they were too sensuous for the English text.

From the French to the English version an effort has been made to eliminate “psychological” passages reminiscent of the French “roman d'analyse”: “A peine l'eut-il dit qu'il se mit à le regretter, en tremblant. Que craignait-il? Que regrettait-il? Il craignait que cette balle, Camier ne la lui renvoyât, l'obligeant ainsi à comprendre et à répondre, ou “un silence inconvenant, et il regrettait de s'être exposé “un tel dilemme” (176). Blatantly obscene passages have also been eliminated, such as Mercier and Camier's conversation about Camier's amorous exploits with Hélène (171-72).

In Mercier and Camier a considerable amount of dialogue has been replaced by longer or shorter forms of indirect speech: “‘Assassins’ dit-il” (29) becomes “He cursed them on their way” (20). The venerable and very obscene “enculé” (38) becomes the watered down and ironical (for those who have read and remember vividly the French version): “he used another nasty expression.” Where Camier matter-of-factly, and incorrectly, “corrects” Mercier's “Nous allons nous faire saucer comme des rats” with his “Tu veux dire comme des chiens” (43-44), the English comments indirectly in academic diction: “Camier criticized this simile” (29).

Janvier considers Mercier et Camier to be Beckett's most “theatrical novel” with its “superb,” “ping-pong”-like dialogue (“Roman” 46). One could also describe it as the scene of a battle between two genres: dialogue and narrative are constantly in a state of unbalance, narrative discourse is always on the point of being defeated, direct speech is threatened by self-reflection and commentary. In the theater, however empty or absurd, language has the very concrete function of being there, in a “simulacrum of orality,” of never being “meta-language” (“Roman” 50). Mercier and Camier is prospectively haunted by En attendant Godot, Mercier and Camier by Vladimir and Estragon. In other words, if theater is, according to Aristotle, a mimetic art, the dialogic nature of Mercier et Camier makes the novel constantly in danger of being too representational.

As he was composing Mercier et Camier Beckett was also writing his first play, the still unpublished Eleuthéria, written in French. The switching to another language was contemporary with the switching to another genre, a situation which could, in part, explain Mercier et Camier's hybrid form. Janvier notes that writing for the theater probably had a cathartic, antimonadic effect on Beckett; in his fiction, Beckett's characters are “centripetal” in the sense that they always return to themselves, whereas in his plays characters who try to escape from themselves are “centrifugal” (“Roman” 45). For a writer who was searching for “more poverty,” turning to theater might seem a strange move, for however “poor” it might be, theater always has a certain amount of sumptuousness and presence. Yet theatrical writing, perhaps more than the French language, allowed Beckett the freedom to write less self-consciously and without “style.” The theater is the art of dialogue, of the “you” and the “I”; it allowed Beckett the luxury of dividing the “I” and of making fun of this division, of making this intellectual gesture present in a very material way, of offering a sort of outlet to the growing suffocation and solipsism of his novels. As Beckett probably realized as he was composing his trilogy, however “immediate” the novel tries to be, it always has a certain amount of self-reflection, of “metalanguage,” whereas the theater's language has the very concrete function of being there, without commentary (“Roman” 50). As Alfred Simon has observed, the posterity of Mercier et Camier is double: on the one hand, the “wandering” novels, the trilogy, on the other hand the theater (72).

Mercier et Camier was also Beckett's last text—until Le Dépeupleur (1970)—to be written in the third person.2 In the trilogy an extremely subjective “I” fills the pages with words. It is as if when writing in English Beckett had not dared, except in his poems, to write “I,” as Janvier has remarked (“Traduire” 63). The switching to a foreign tongue, an extreme form of exile, was accompanied by the most intense subjectivity. Having begun to write only in French, from 1953 to 1959 Beckett composed solely for the theater. The theatrical dialogue was a way to make intellectual gestures and metalanguage concrete, to annihilate them in the “physicality” of the theater; in a parallel vein, the very act of narrating became, in the later fictional works, the narrative—that is, a theater where language is the sole character.

One could speculate that, for Beckett, translating Mercier et Camier was comparable to the response of one of his characters to an old tape: “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that” (Krapp [Krapp's Last Tape] 24). Mercier et Camier was also “old” material written by Beckett's presumptuous “French self”; in that work Beckett had not only written in a language with which he was less familiar but he also tried to make his characters as “French” as his Anglo-Irish stereotypes allowed—that is, “bon-vivants,” wordy and cynical. As Connor has shown, translating and revising the text thirty years later, in accordance with his evolution as a “minimalist” writer, Beckett made the characters more detached from their bodily needs and less wordy. As he sees it, however, the effect was not to bring Mercier and Camier in line with the fictional texts he was composing in the 60s and 70s but rather to bring it closer to his early, more “traditional” novels such as Murphy and Watt from which his later novels and texts markedly differ (43).

By comparing Mercier et Camier and Mercier and Camier, because of the unusual time factor that characterizes this “bilingual work” in Beckett's corpus, one can appreciate the two crucial choices that Beckett made at the time he was composing Mercier et Camier: to write in French and for the theater; one can also sense, when he was writing Mercier and Camier, the impatience he may have felt toward the hybrid earlier version and toward the certain type of garrulous theater that he had composed in the interval with En attendant Godot. Indeed, Janvier reports that upon listening to Roger Blin's radio reading of L'Expulsé—composed, as was Mercier et Camier, in 1946—Beckett exclaimed: “Qu'est-ce que c'est bavard!” He also spoke of his works of that time as belonging to the “temps de la faconde” (“Roman” 54).

Mercier et/and Camier's intertextual dependence is not only due to its “bilinguality” but also to the “intergeneric” concerns that were affecting Beckett at the time he wrote Mercier et Camier. These concerns became ever more apparent with Mercier and Camier, which is, almost thirty years later, somewhat of a disavowal of the “theatrical” French novel and shows Beckett's desire to give the English version a more “novelistic,” albeit traditional, appearance. Perhaps it is because of the way he had worked out these generic oppositions in Mercier et/and Camier that Beckett's later texts do not display such a marked difference between “fiction” and “drama”: the prose texts of Bing (1966)/Ping (1974) and the pieces for stage Not I (1973)/Pas Moi (1975), apart from the few “didascalia” of the latter, do not seem generically “different” and, characteristically, they appeared in the United States within a collection of texts entitled, First Love and Other Shorts. Furthermore, a considerable number of his non-dramatic texts, including Mercier et Camier, have been “shown” on the stage, although in his later works the short dramatic texts seem to come closer to the short pieces of fiction, rather than the reverse.

Henri Meschonnic has described translation as production not reproduction, as a process of “working within the resources of language through the displacement towards the other” (355; trans. Fitch 34). In the case of Beckett, the question that arises in turn is who is the “other” when he translates from French into English and who is the “self” of the self-translator? Mercier and Camier seems to comment unfavorably upon Mercier et Camier, but the writing of the later “translation” has obviously been affected by the earlier “original.” The Self (the “English” Beckett) distances himself from his Other (the “French” Beckett) but is at the same time “infiltrated” by this Other who has the advantage of being chronologically the “first”; this process of distancing and interpenetration—which in the English text is notably obvious in the form of intentional “imperfectly digested Gallicisms” (Connor 41)—thus deconstructs the very binary notion of Self versus Other and places these categories within what Victor Segalen has called “l'Exotique” which is not “la compréhension parfaite d'un hors-soi-même qu'on étreindrait en soi, mais la perception aiguë et immédiate d'une imcompréhensibilité” (38).

The first words of Beckett's Unnamable, the third book of his trilogy and originally written in French, are the questions: “Where now? Who now? When now?” Such questions are esthetic and metaphysical. Addressing fundamental issues, possibly they would not have been posed by Beckett without the feeling of “unhousedness” (Steiner 47) which comes with the (dis)possession of at least two tongues and two genres. Thus I would agree and disagree with Linda Ben-Zvi when she observes: “It is apparent that Beckett's presentation of the duality between the mind and the body and between the self and the ‘not self’ … places the dilemma clearly in the area of linguistics. His characters struggle, not with metaphysical ideas but with language itself” (185). I would argue that the struggle involved not merely language but also two distinct linguistic domains, and that through the process of self-translation the issue became a profoundly philosophical one.


  1. I am indebted to Ruby Cohn for letting me read excerpts of Beckett's correspondence to her from 1966 to 1989. The extract quoted is part of a letter he wrote to her on 29 October 1967.

  2. Bing (written in 1966 and published in Têtes-Mortes) and Sans (published in 1969) are two short texts that can also be said to have been written in the third person.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Disjecta. Miscelleanous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. Ed. Ruby Cohn. New York: Grove, 1984.

———. Krapp's Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces. New York: Grove, 1970.

———. Mercier et Camier. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1970.

———. Mercier and Camier. New York: Grove, 1974.

———. “Three Dialogues—Samuel Beckett and Georges Duthuit.” Transition 5 (1949): 97-103.

———. “Dante … Bruno. Vico … Joyce.” Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress. Paris: Shakespeare, 1929. 1-22.

Bair, Deidre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, 1978.

Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. Trans. A. Lavers and C. Smith. 1968. New York: Noonday, 1988.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. “Samuel Beckett, Fritz Mauthner and the Limits of Language.” PMLA 95.2 (1980): 183-200.

Bishop, Tom, and Raymond Federman, eds. Beckett. Paris: Editions de l'Herne, 1976.

Cioran, E. M. “Quelques rencontres.” Bishop 101-05.

Coe, Richard N. Samuel Beckett. Edinburgh: Oliver, 1964.

Cohn, Ruby. Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1962.

Connor, Steven. “‘Traduttore, traditore’: Samuel Beckett's Translation of Mercier et Camier.Journal of Beckett Studies 11-12 (1989): 27-46.

Crombie, John. MAC. Paris: Kickshaws, 1987.

Federman, Raymond. “The Writer as Self-Translator.” Friedman 7-16.

Friedman, Alan Warren, Charles Rossman and Dina Sherzer, eds. Beckett Translating/Translating Beckett. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1987.

Fitch, Brian T. Beckett and Babel: An Investigation into the Status of the Bilingual Work. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1988.

Harvey, Lawrence E. Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

Janvier, Ludovic. Beckett par lui-même. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1969.

———. Pour Samuel Beckett. 1966. Paris: Union Générale des Editions, 1973.

———. “Roman et théàtre.Samuel Beckett. Special issue of Revue d'esthétique (1986): 45-54.

———, and Agnès Vaquin-Janvier. “Traduire Watt avec Beckett.Samuel Beckett. Special issue of Revue d'esthétique (1986): 57-64.

Jones, Anthony. “The French Murphy: From ‘Rare Bird’ to ‘Cancre’.” Journal of Beckett Studies 6 (1980): 37-50.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966.

Mallarmé, Stéphane. Les Mots anglais. Oeuvres complètes. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1945. 889-1053.

Meschonnic, Henri. Pour la Poétique II. Paris: Gallimard, 1973.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Speak, Memory. 1966. New York: Putnam, 1979.

Ostrovsky, Erica. “Le silence de Babel.” Bishop 206-11.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Une voix pas la mienne: French/English Beckett and the French/English Reader.” Friedman 36-48.

Queneau, Raymond. Bàtons, chiffres et lettres. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1965.

Seaver, Richard W. I can't go on, I'll go on: A Selection from Samuel Beckett's Work. New York: Grove, 1976.

Simon, Alfred. “Du théàtre de l'écriture à l'écriture de la scène.Samuel Beckett. Special issue of Revue d'Esthétique (1986): 71-83.

Steiner, George. After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.

Worth, Katharine, ed. Beckett, the Shape Changer. London: Routledge, 1975.


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Samuel Beckett 1906-1989

(Full name Samuel Barclay Beckett) Irish-born French playwright, novelist, essayist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Beckett's works from 1992 through 2003. For criticism prior to 1992, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18, 29, and 59; for discussion of his play En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot), see CLC, Volume 57; and for discussion of his play Fin de Partie (1957; Endgame), see CLC, Volume 83.

One of the most celebrated authors in world literature, Beckett is especially recognized for his significant impact on modern drama. His play En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot) is a seminal work of the Theater of the Absurd, a post-World War II trend in drama characterized by experimental techniques and philosophical nihilism. In his works, Beckett expounds a philosophy of negation through characters who face a meaningless existence without the comforts of religion, myth, or philosophical absolutes.

Biographical Information

Beckett was born on April 13, 1906, and raised in Ireland. He traveled to Paris in the late 1920s and became associated with James Joyce, whom he regarded as a consummate literary artist. Beckett's first volume of fiction, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), won modest critical attention. This book, which can be considered a novel or a collection of interrelated stories, reflects Joyce's influence in its embellished prose and in retrospect is considered atypical of Beckett's work. The novel Murphy (1938) initiated the spare prose style that has since come to be identified with Beckett's fictional works. During World War II, Becket worked with the French Resistance and had to flee Paris in order to avoid capture by the Nazis. In the years immediately following the war, he returned to Paris and created what many consider his finest prose achievements. The novels Molloy (1951), Malone meurte (1951; Malone Dies), and L'innommable (1953; The Unnamable), introduced into Beckett's writing two important developments: he began writing French rather than English, finding that he could write with greater austerity in that language, and the novels are narrated as first-person monologues. Dissatisfied with the progress he was making as a prose writer, Beckett experimented with drama. He wrote Waiting for Godot in the late 1940s, but the text of the play was not published until 1953. First performed in Paris, Waiting for Godot became an immediate success. Beckett produced several more acclaimed dramatic and prose works throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including the plays Fin de partie (1957; Endgame), Krapp's Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1961), and the novel Comment c'est (1961; How It Is). In 1969 Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for creating, as a representative of the prize committee declared, a “body of work that, in new forms of fiction and the theater, has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exultation.” Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Beckett continued to be productive both as a playwright and a prose writer, focusing on short and densely complex works in both genres. Since his death in 1989, two significant early works by Beckett—the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992) and the play Eleuthéria (1995)—have been published for the first time.

Major Works

Beckett's major prose works are three novels that are often considered as a trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Each of these novels is narrated by a different character who may be viewed as a variation of a single individual. All three of the novels feature either narrators or characters with names that begin with the letter “M,” and it has been suggested by critics that this is a cipher for “Man.” The narrators suffer rapid physical decay while their minds reassure them of their continued existence. In The Unnamable this decay culminates in a being composed only of a mind and a mouth. This being, like many of Beckett's characters, creates stories and contrives a long, rambling monologue as a means of counteracting the pervasiveness of silence and nothingness. Beckett's prose work since the trilogy is marked by the omission of various elements of conventional sentence structure, including conjunctions and punctuation, the result being what appears to be an accumulation of verbal fragments. The most important instance of this tendency is How It Is, in which Beckett abandons all punctuation. Several of Beckett's later prose works are either collections of short “texts” or “novels” that are the length of a chapbook. In these works, Beckett projects intense, often painful images through rhythmic language that stresses and repeats individual words or phrases. One of the most acclaimed examples of Beckett's later prose is Companie (1979; Company), which concerns a voice telling its life's story to a being lying alone in the dark.

Among his dramatic works, Beckett's first produced play, Waiting for Godot, has received the most critical analysis of his entire output as a writer and is one of the most celebrated works in modern literature. The play concerns two down-and-out characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who await the arrival of a Mr. Godot, with whom they apparently have a meeting planned for some unspecified purpose. While waiting for Godot, these characters for the most part pass the time by engaging in conspicuously trivial conversation and activities and occasionally reflecting on weightier issues of human existence. Their attempts to amuse themselves are played out against a bare stage setting. While the actions, gestures, and words of the characters are usually taken to illuminate the predicament of humanity in general, Waiting for Godot has also been subject to various interpretations that include viewing the work as a parable of Christian aspirations for salvation to a depiction of the absence of meaning in human life. Such interpretations, however, are often considered to limit the full implications of the play. In its deemphasis of plot, scenery, dramatic action, and character psychology, Waiting for Godot defies conventional forms of drama as well as conventional critical readings.

Beckett's next play, Endgame, like Waiting for Godot, focuses on a pair of characters faced with nothingness as they attempt to find meaning in their existence. Critics have noted that the characters of this play resemble chess pieces playing an “endgame” in which the outcome has already been determined. The black humor and pathetic circumstances of these players is grimmer and more intense than the plight of Vladimir and Estragon. In Endgame and subsequent plays, Beckett further develops innovative theatrical techniques and philosophical concerns. Krapp's Last Tape depicts a single character who, with the aid of a tape recorder, relives the past that has led to his present, alienated state. Winnie, the central figure of Happy Days, continues to perform her daily rituals while sinking into the earth. Beckett's later drama becomes even more minimalistic, often displaying great technical virtuosity by forcing the audience to concentrate on a single image, such as the raving, disembodied mouth in Not I (1972). Many critics consider Rockaby (1981) one of the most striking achievements of Beckett's minimalization of drama. Rockaby is structured on the image of an old woman in a rocking chair while listening to a recording of what seems to be her life story. Most critics praise the mixture of poetic language and dramatic image as contributing to the power of this work. While some commentators judge these minimal dramas as a whole to be a waste of Beckett's talent, many others find his work to be continually fresh and innovative, applauding him for realizing forceful dramatic statements with increasingly less material.

Critical Reception

Although Beckett's works are darkly comic, his characters often grotesque, and his themes evocative of the absurdity and meaninglessness of human existence, he is not generally considered a nihilistic writer. Instead, he is widely recognized as having a keen sense of the condition of modern life, especially the impotence and ignorance of a world that has purportedly reached an advanced stage of technological and intellectual sophistication.

Rupert Wood (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Wood, Rupert. “An Endgame of Aesthetics: Beckett as Essayist.” In The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, edited by John Pilling, pp. 1-16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Wood analyzes Beckett's essays as lying on a continuum between systematic philosophy on one end and self-deconstruction on the other.]

Whilst it is easy to see where Beckett's discursive writing begins, it is difficult to see where, or how, it ends. It is possible to outline the loose assemblage of aesthetic theories and philosophical ideas that form their point of departure, but it is extremely difficult to see what happens to these ideas and where they end up. Beckett's two major early essays, ‘Dante … Bruno.Vico..Joyce’ (1929) and Proust (1931) are founded upon fairly coherent systems of philosophy and aesthetics. The rest of his pre-war discursive writing, which consists mainly of short literary reviews, can with care be unpicked to reveal developments of the same ideas. After the war, Beckett's critical attention switched to painting. Despite their highly stylized manner and ironic tone, his first two essays are in many respects logical extensions of his pre-war ideas, and they can readily be labelled ‘discursive’. Yet these pieces represent the start of a deconstructive process whose logical conclusion is not to be found in recognizably discursive writing at all, but in dramatized dialogue and in the condensed lyricism of the témoignages and later prose.

There are several totally different ways in which the reader can tackle Beckett's discursive writings. Perhaps the most obvious strategy is to attempt to tease out an aesthetic which may then serve to elucidate Beckett's other works. In this way, his discursive writings are read as if they contained an aesthetic theory or even a philosophical doctrine which underpins his drama, fiction and verse. Much critical attention has been devoted to uncovering these supposed theories or doctrines. Given Beckett's reluctance to discuss his work in these terms, and given the elusiveness of any kind of systematic thought in his literary output, it is easy to see why one might wish to claim the discursive writings as some kind of critical key. It is particularly tempting to see Beckett's discursive writing occupying a clearly demarcated position; like the key to a map, it sits aloof in the margins, yet remains indispensable for deciphering the map itself.

A completely different strategy—one which is often ignored in the rush to locate a system—is to judge these texts according to the criteria by which we conventionally judge introductions to texts or pieces of literary journalism.1 After all, however self-revealing we imagine them to be, Beckett's critical works are not about his own work, and they are often not even about writing at all. Proust was intended, ostensibly at least, to serve as an introduction to A la recherche du temps perdu, and its informativeness in this respect is often overlooked. Indeed, one should overlook neither the fact that Beckett dismissed most of his discursive writing as the result of friendly obligation or economic need, nor the fact that the work of some of his friends seems to provide unlikely objects for Beckett's high-flown praise. Beckett's long resistance to the republication of these articles, and his eventual choice of the title Disjecta for the collection that contains these various discursive writings, might suggest that these pieces are of rather marginal importance. Yet this ‘throwaway’ status would hardly put Disjecta (1983) in a unique position within Beckett's work, littered as it is with abandoned texts, fragments, ‘têtes-mortes’ and fizzles. Like his heroes' bodies, the Beckettian corpus is dismembered; in its wake this particular body leaves behind the disjecti membra poetae.

Whilst it is possible to find within Beckett's discursive writings a logical development of aesthetic theory (and much else to interest students of the various branches of philosophy), that is not a sufficient reason to marginalize them as keys to Beckett's work. Too often these pieces are regarded as philosophical or aesthetic credos which give meaning to the rest of his work. Beckett's discursive works, like his prose works, chart a course of contraction and the abandonment of various possible ways of expressing. Beckett's work is negatively defined; he described it as the work of a ‘non-knower, a non-can-er’.2 In the discursive pieces, Beckett toys with, and eventually tries to abandon, those very things which, as critic or as writer, he cannot do, say, or know. The most obvious of the things that it turns out he cannot do are philosophy and aesthetics, at least in any systematic or serious sense. However, in later pieces Beckett undermines the foundations upon which anything serious can be written by the critic. The increasing difficulty Beckett has in being ‘serious’ means that the artists he chooses to write about begin to resemble, in terms of their function within the texts, characters in his fiction. Thus, as I hope to demonstrate, Beckett's discursive writings lie on a continuum with at one end relatively stable and systematic philosophy, and at the other a continuously self-deconstructing and self-consciously fictive residue of philosophizing.

‘Dante … Bruno.Vico..Joyce’, which traces James Joyce's indebtedness in his ‘Work in progress’ (the future Finnegans wake) to Dante, Giordano Bruno and Giambattista Vico, is perhaps rather unrepresentative of Beckett's ideas and interests for two reasons: the philosophical angles were in fact Joyce's idea, and the essay was written at Joyce's behest in order to publicize his forthcoming work. The essay nevertheless prefigures some tendencies in Beckett's own critical writing, perhaps most interestingly in the way that Beckett uses Vico to elaborate his own concerns with the relation between content and form. Vico's empirical investigation of the development of religious language into poetic and philosophical language temporalizes philosophy by relegating it to a stage in the historical development of natural languages. Thus philosophy is robbed of its transcendent status, and form and content become inseparable. Beckett then goes on to apply Vico's insight to Joyce's work: ‘Here form is content, content is form […] His writing is not about something; it is that something itself’ (D [Disjecta], 27). These statements can, no doubt, be applied to tendencies in Beckett's literary output, yet they also prefigure tendencies in his critical writing. The privileged position that philosophy assumes for itself will gradually disappear in Beckett's later discursive texts. Moreover, it will become clear that the philosopher's untenable position is also that of the critic who sees himself as writing about something. Philosophy and criticism share the same assumed perspective, and both imply the same distance between the writer and what he writes about. The direction that Beckett's critical writings take gradually serves to demonstrate the untenability of the metatextual status they have apparently assumed for themselves, and which the Beckett scholar may be tempted to claim for them.

Beckett sets about his introduction to Proust by attempting to outline the quite formal philosophical considerations (aesthetic, ethical and metaphysical) that he regards as the foundation of Proust's novel. Proust himself considered A la recherche to be ‘un ouvrage dogmatique’,3 and Beckett clearly considers it to be founded upon quite clear conceptions about the status of art, habit, memory and time, as well as about the value of existence itself. Yet the origins of the ideas that Beckett plays with are never made clear in Proust. Much of the material that Beckett uses in order to create an account of Proust's aesthetic comes from the wealth of comments made by Proust in his novel. However, in addition to this, Beckett draws heavily, throughout Proust, on the writings of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer; Schopenhauer's name, though, is mentioned only four times. The result is that Proust often reads like an encounter between Beckett and Schopenhauer, with Proust's novel supplying pertinent material for a philosophical essay. A la recherche is filtered first through Proust's own comments, but, more significantly, through Schopenhauer's most important work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The world as will and representation). Beckett's use of quotation marks and page references is decidedly unscholarly, and by blurring the distinction between quotation, paraphrase and his own material, Beckett gives the impression that he sees the aesthetic and ethical systems of Proust and Schopenhauer as virtually identical.

The broadly Schopenhauerian filter that Beckett uses to sift A la recherche, while far from arbitrary (Proust does undoubtedly make use of Schopenhauer), is only one of several plausible philosophical filters he might have used. For the Beckett critic, the choice of filter is of greater interest than the matter to be filtered, and it is perhaps methodologically dangerous to dwell too long on the ‘treasury of nutshell phrases’ (PTD [Proust], 29) he has gleaned from the novel itself. There is an obvious pitfall in seeking affinities between a critic and his subject; Beckett's admiration for many of the artists he writes on does not necessarily mean that their concerns are the same. The Schopenhauerian filter that Beckett uses is a well-structured combination of pessimism and a tragic view of existence. The Schopenhauerian system, moreover, offers a convenient epistemological ‘geometry’. It offers, through artistic contemplation, the possibility of an aloof and stable perspective from which things can be seen in their true essence (in their Ideal form, as Schopenhauer puts it), and ultimately from which the sheer awfulness of the life of the body on earth can be seen. Artistic contemplation is, then, the sole redeeming feature of our existence, because in the disinterested aesthetic experience, we step outside our existence, and outside the futile and endless cycles of willing that characterize it. This heady mixture of idealism and pessimism provides the starting-point to much of Beckett's subsequent discursive writing.

Beckett's analysis of the Proustian aesthetic is centred around an account of the workings of habit upon memory, and the consequences these have for the subjective experience of time. The (Proustian) individual is afflicted by time, for in effect the ‘individual’ is nothing but a series of individuals. Thus, Beckett states, the desire of an individual at time A cannot be satisfied at time B, for the individual at time B will no longer be the same individual. These individuals are, moreover, afflicted by habit, which, among other things, packages the sensory impressions that the individual receives as motives. The habit-determined mental ‘attention’4 which the subject pays to the object means that his perceptions are ordered in time and space, and assigned a place in a causal chain. The purity of the thoughtless, motiveless impression is thus reduced to the baseness of a utilitarian concept. Indeed, according to Beckett's analysis, voluntary memory, direct perception, conception and even imagination provide nothing but façades which disguise the object. Beckett correctly points out that the only exit that the Proustian subject has from this habit-bound existence is one over which the subject has no control: involuntary memory. For the Proustian subject, the moment of involuntary memory is a moment when, through some external stimulus, circumferential phenomena, stored away in the back of the memory in unconceptualized form, rush back to engulf the subject in their pure and timeless essence. During these miraculous moments, when habit's spell is broken, the subject, too, is liberated from the order of time.

Beckett, more of a Schopenhauerian than a Proustian, filters the whole of Proust's theorizings on time, memory and habit through the aesthetic system of his favourite philosopher. Schopenhauer calls the basic unit of the subject's consciousness eine Vorstellung (a representation). Representations, the sum of which constitute the subject's experience of the world, are objects as they are for the subject. In virtually all cases, claims Schopenhauer, representations are given shape by the ‘principle of sufficient reason’; it is through this principle that the subject's representations are assigned a particular place in time and space, and in chains of cause and effect. To this extent, Schopenhauer is a Kantian. Through this individuating principle, representations are served up as motives. It is in the subject's interest to order things in this way; hence the ordinary way that we see things is in the thrall of the will-to-live. The analogy to Proust is clear, and Beckett recognizes this. He identifies Proustian habit with Schopenhauerian will-to-live. For Schopenhauer, the only way of escaping from this futile force which controls our lives lies in the aesthetic experience, the moment of will-less contemplation when the veil which disguises the object is thrown aside. In these all too rare moments, the subject can contemplate the pure timeless essences of the world, the Platonic Ideas, independently of the principle of sufficient reason. (Although, according to Schopenhauer, works of art are not necessary for an aesthetic experience, works of genius do provide the clearest window onto the Ideas.) Once again, the analogy to Proust is not lost on Beckett; Proustian involuntary memory becomes Schopenhauerian aesthetic experience. Yet here the analogy is not particularly accurate. For Proust, time in its pure state is regained through involuntary memory, whereas for Schopenhauer time is merely obliterated in the rapture of the aesthetic experience. Beckett, therefore, admits that he cannot understand the title of Proust's final book, Le temps retrouvé (PTD, 75). Here, as in a few other places, a little conceptual residue betrays the presence of Beckett's discreet Schopenhauerian filter.

From the lofty disinterested heights of aesthetic experience Schopenhauer sees the world as a veritable vale of tears. The world of the ordinary subject, slave as he is of the will-to-live, is one of infinitely frustrated longing. Beckett, seemingly seduced by the power of this world-picture, understands Proust to be a pessimist, an interpretation he was later to regard as ‘overstated’.5 Beckett maintains that music, for the Proustian narrator, reveals life to be a punishment, a pensum, a duty that has to be discharged (PTD, 93). He even goes so far as to relate Proust's novel to ‘the wisdom of all the sages, from Brahma to Leopardi, the wisdom that consists not in the satisfaction but in the ablation of desire’ (PTD, 18). The observation that Proust is detached from all moral principles turns into a reworking of Schopenhauer's point that the tragic figure represents the expiation of the sin of having been born. In this connection, he even borrows the Calderón quotation that Schopenhauer uses: ‘Pues el delito mayor del hombre es haber nacido’. Half-remembered snippets of these expressions of pessimism, all taken from Schopenhauer, reappear with some regularity in Beckett's later drama and prose.

Beckett's ‘filter’ has a strong philosophical structure. But what does he find praiseworthy in the way that Proust writes? Perhaps realizing how dogmatic his own analysis has become, Beckett insists, near the end of the essay, that ‘for Proust the quality of language is more important than any system of ethics or aesthetics’ (PTD, 88). For Beckett, Proust does not evade the implications of the way that those ecstatic moments of involuntary memory have been revealed to him. Proust pursues the Idea rather than the concept. He is not content merely to describe, in the form of notations, surface phenomena. Although apparently analytic, Proust's explanations are experimental; they go in search of the elusive Ideal beneath the surface of concept. His writing is therefore excavatory. In a later short review, ‘Proust in pieces’ (1934), Beckett writes that A la recherche is not the analytic statement of the search, with all its ‘plausible frills’, but is the search itself. Proust, he writes, ‘communicates as he can, in dribs and drabs’ (D, 65). The result is described in Proust as a sort of literary impressionism (PTD, 86).

Beckett takes sideswipes at contemporary realism and naturalism (which ‘worship the offal of experience’ (PTD, 78)), and at what he sees as the over-conceptualized writing of certain Symbolists. Paraphrasing another critic, Arnaud Dandieu,6 he contrasts Proust to the classical writer who raises himself artificially out of time to give order to his work. Proust, he claims, has a strong Romantic strain, and thus writes in time. It is during those moments of involuntary memory that Proust discovers himself as an artist. As a writer he merely attempts to translate those experiences. Proust himself maintains that as a writer, he is not an artist, but an artisan (PTD, 84). Hence, whilst a way out of habit-bound perception is possible in involuntary memory, the images of involuntary memory cannot be recalled and put into words without a loss. Therefore Proust's writing has to remain ‘the indirect and comparative expression of indirect and comparative perception’ (PTD, 88). This is, perhaps, for Beckett, the central problematic of the writer, and it remains, of course, a major theme in his work right through to the ‘ill seen ill said’ of his late prose. It is the eventual abandonment of even the possibility of the kind of exit provided by involuntary memory, the possibility of access to another space, which determines the direction that his later discursive writing takes.

‘Humanistic quietism’ (1934), a review of a collection of poems by Thomas MacGreevy, represents, if anything, a more idealist account of literature than Proust. There is, it must be said, something rather artificial or even pretentious about the extravagant claims Beckett makes for his friend's poetry. Yet this element of pretence is significant, for the structures which Beckett uses are of the kind that are dismantled in his later writings on aesthetics. According to Beckett, what distinguishes poetry from other literary forms is that it represents the only way out of the prison formed by ordinary or non-poetic language. MacGreevy's poetry, a kind of ‘prayer’, simultaneously opens up a space beyond language and condemns ordinary language, ‘the tongue-tied profanity’ (D, 68), to a secondary and impotent status. The article is constructed on the same philosophical ‘geometry’ as Proust. It consists of a first space which is the conceptual prison of language, and a second space, arrived at almost miraculously through the power of poetry, which is like that of the Schopenhauerian aesthetic experience. This second space is not only one which affords a sort of clarity of vision, but one which condemns ordinary language to an enfeebled status.

This geometry is developed much further in the highly revealing letter Beckett wrote (in German) in 1937 to Axel Kaun. In this letter, Beckett sets out what he thinks ought now to be the aims of writing: he wishes to see a kind of writing—a ‘Literatur des Unworts’ (a ‘literature of the unword’) (D, 54)—that can penetrate the veil of words. Beckett's ideas, which here have an apparently Modernist edge, still derive their shape from the Schopenhauerian aesthetic of Proust. Ordinary language, like any form of representation, is but a veil, but poetic language should be able to tear aside the veil and point to a space beyond representation, thus revealing words for what they are: merely a veil. What lies beyond this veil, though, remains unknown. It may be nothingness, and art in general may only be able to point to the opaque nature of representation rather than to any real object beyond it. Beckett is now noticeably more reserved about the kinds of art that can escape the impositions of representation. Music, he claims, is able to penetrate its own surface: he cites Beethoven's Seventh Symphony as an example. Literature, however, has been unsuccessful, although he does believe that Gertrude Stein's ‘logographs’ have revealed a certain ‘porous’ nature in language. Beckett suggests that ironically drawing attention to this closed nature of language might be a necessary stage in undermining old forms of writing. This may not be enough, though, and he wonders whether the irredeemably corrupted game should be given up altogether. The tension between making the game work and giving up, with its ethical overtones, reappears both in later discursive writings and in his later literary output, most noticeably in L'Innommable/The Unnamable.

The Axel Kaun letter is ostensibly a programme for a future mode of writing, and it marks a break with earlier, more optimistic, views about the power of poetry. Yet despite that break, Beckett's views are still dogmatically sceptical with regard to language; his philosophical vision still encompasses spaces both inside and outside the prison of words. What bars us from the second space seems almost impenetrable, yet the more impenetrable it becomes, the more Beckett blocks off his own justification for using the picture in the first place. If the subject can have no conception of anywhere else, how can it know it is trapped? Hence his position seems somewhat ironic, for the aesthetician is assuming for himself the very powers he has denied the artist. This position, which had seemed unproblematic when there was a means of access from the first space to the second, now begins to look a little shaky. Up until the Axel Kaun letter, Beckett's discursive writing focuses almost exclusively on the expressive possibilities of art, and in particular literary language. His increasing pessimism in this respect means that a second dimension to his discursive writing has to develop. This will, in post-war articles, take the form of a steady ironization of the critical perspective itself, and an undermining of the possibility of saying anything serious about art.

Meanwhile, the definition of an art more restricted in its scope continues in journalistic reviews. In ‘Intercessions by Denis Devlin’ (1938), Beckett identifies qualities in Devlin's poetry that he sees in A la recherche: he praises Devlin's highly imaged writing, and the minimal interference of the rational. The suggestion that any form of art has a privileged position is now firmly rebuffed. ‘The time,’ he writes, ‘is perhaps not altogether too green for the vile suggestion that art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear’ (D, 94). Art is now trapped in the world, and is no longer an alternative space. Exits to a space where the subject can have complete access to the object have disappeared. There is no way out for the artist, and, since art represented the only way out of the conceptual prison short of total silence, the human condition possesses no way out either. This sense of being trapped is articulated in ‘MacGreevy on Yeats’ (1945), a review of MacGreevy's study of the painter Jack B. Yeats (W. B. Yeats' brother), where Beckett describes Yeats as bringing light to the ‘issueless predicament of existence’ (D, 97). The predicaments of the artist and the human being are thus the same: both issueless, they are without exit, solution or outcome.

On a less abstract level, ‘MacGreevy on Yeats’ demonstrates Beckett's rejection of the nationalistic side of much contemporary Irish writing. He denies that Yeats' true importance lies in his supposed position as ‘the national painter’ of Ireland. An earlier article, ‘Recent Irish poetry’, pseudonymously published in 1934, contains a diatribe against the ‘antiquarian’ Celtic twilighter tendency of many of his contemporaries in the Irish Free State; Beckett rounds on these poets for ignoring the twentieth-century ‘breakdown of the object’ and for ‘delivering with the altitudinous complacency of the Victorian Gael the Ossianic goods’ (D, 70). That Beckett believed politicians should not interfere in art is undeniable; he praises Proust's detachment from moral considerations, but rounds on him for occasionally raising his voice with ‘the plebs, mob, rabble, canaille’ (PTD, 66f.). That is not to say, however, that Beckett's discursive writing never has a direct political edge, for he launches a scathing attack on the parochialism and philistinism of Ireland's censorship laws in a commissioned yet unpublished article ‘Censorship in the Saorstat’ (1935)—now available in Disjecta.

‘MacGreevy on Yeats’ marks several points of change and departure in Beckett's discursive writing. First, most of the subsequent texts are written, initially at least, in French, Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit (1949) being a notable exception. Second, it is perhaps the last piece where the critical voice stands aloof from the aesthetic problematic, before being caught up in its own inexorable deconstructive logic. Third, Beckett switches his attention, in this and subsequent essays, away from literature and towards painting. The initial aim of these pieces is to give an account of particular explorations of the expressive limitations of painting. However, they also explore language's impotence in the face of visual images, and the instability of the philosophical foundations upon which art-criticism of this kind is built. The result is that whilst the logical centre of the essays may be the painters and their paintings, these can seem curiously absent. Just as Mr Knott's world—the logical centre of Watt—becomes a sort of hidden vehicle for an exploration of the communicative failings of language, so painting gives way to the word in essays that are ostensibly about painting. Once again, we can see that Beckett's works are not really about something; they are that something themselves.

Beckett's next two essays, ‘La peinture des van Velde ou le monde et le pantalon’ (1945) and ‘Peintres de l'empêchement’ (1948), are written on his friends the brothers Geer and Bram van Velde, two Dutch painters working in Paris during the post-war period. The first of these essays is a long and uncomfortable mixture of disparate elements: an anti-intellectual defence of the art-world's petit peuple, obscurantist sideswipes at critics and criticism, and a highly ironic piece of speculative aesthetics. At least Beckett recognizes this, calling it ‘un bavardage désagréable et confus’ (D, 119). It is nevertheless possible to discern that the essay revolves around the discussion of two subject-object relations: that between the viewer (or critic) and the painting, and that between the painter and his object.

Beckett starts from the premise that the painting is a pure object, which, as it were, waits to be disfigured by human attention. It is, in its pristine state, ‘un non-sens’. The disfigurement is ‘un double massacre’ perpetrated by perception and conception; the ‘risible impreinte cérébrale’ is disfigured even further by the ‘assassinat verbal’ (D, 124). The object is ill seen, the image ill said. Beckett holds out the faint hope of a pure subject, for he praises the simple amateur who might wander into the gallery off the street, and who is ignorant of the advice given by legions of aestheticians, art-historians and critics. This, however, is hardly a convincing model for the disinterested subject of aesthetic perception, and further scattered comments throughout the essay suggest that Beckett is not convinced either. What he seems to be after is less a simple art-lover than a will-less deaf-mute with an incapacity to differentiate time: a sort of ascetic simpleton.

The van Veldes, Beckett claims, realize the impossibility of representation. In the irreparable breakdown of subject and object, he goes on to claim, Geer's paintings somehow escape from the condition of space, and Bram's from the condition of time. By exploring the boundaries of art, they are exploring the boundaries of the human condition, which interests them more than painting. How, though, can Beckett as critic, know this, say this, write this? He, like the loquacious amateurs he describes, cannot leave the art-object alone. He too must drag it into ‘une sorte de ronde syntaxique’ (D, 125). So the essay struggles frantically with the illegitimacy of its own philosophical conceptualization, which allows the critic the transcendent perspective that it has disallowed everyone; everyone, that is, except perhaps for Bram, who, far from being ‘un cochon d'intellectual’, has no idea about what he has done in painting until about ten years after the event.

The problem Beckett faces now is how to find any stable background against which to write about art. In ‘Peintres de l'empêchement’, Beckett tries a different approach. Instead of continuing the impossible search for a philosophical justification, he suggests that the critic might attempt to create one. By affirming something, and remaining faithful to it through constant repetition, one can hold a solid opinion on just about anything, he claims, tongue half in cheek. Beckett seems to be asking whether a conscious forgetting of the necessarily self-undermining element in any adopted system of aesthetics might be possible in order to get on with the business of describing modern paintings. Thus Beckett's attempts to describe the subject-object relation dissolve into an attempt to create a definition of the crisis inherent in modern art: philosophical statement becomes a declaratory speech-act aimed at creating a philosophical stability. The single constative gives way to the reiterated performative. The creation of a stable background, though, has no more truth-value than any piece of fiction. Yet, Beckett suggests, philosophical foundations are not, and never have been, anything more than this anyway. So what is undermined in ‘Peintres de l'empêchement’ is not merely the philosophical structure Beckett has been using, but the last possibility of any seriousness of philosophical intent. The philosopher, it seems, cannot be serious, because the language he uses is unstable. Under the old certainties of the Schopenhauerian system, it was art that provided access to a stable position which made things clear and guaranteed seriousness. That channel (or door, or issue, or borehole, or any other metaphor Beckett uses in his philosophical geometry) is now closed as much for the philosopher/aesthetician as for the artist himself. This does not mean, however, that the essay is reduced to the level of a joke. Despite the apparently fatal blow to seriousness, the essay seems to cling to the hope of stability, and desperately struggles to remain upright. So the serious aesthetician in Beckett's discursive writings finds himself in that familiar Beckettian position of ‘I can't go on, I'll go on’. He is once again left in an essentially ethical dilemma, torn between the hopeless desire to bring the philosophical game to an end and the equally hopeless desire to make the game work, and once again all that is left in his wake is an accumulation of words.

What Beckett puts forward in this half-serious manner in ‘Peintres de l'empêchement’ is an attractively symmetrical piece of idealist aesthetics. His ‘argument’ is as follows. The essence of the object of representation in art is its unrepresentability. The van Veldes, he maintains, are resigned to this. Nevertheless, they do end up representing something as if by chance. The new object of Geer's painting consists in those qualities of the object (‘l'empêchement-objet’) that prevent him from seeing it. The new object of Bram's painting consists in the subjective conditions of representation (‘l'empêchement-œil’) that prevent him from seeing the object. Beckett suggests that there are now three routes open to art: to return to an old and discredited naïvety and to ignore the subject-object problematic; to continue to struggle with the old subject-object relation; or the van Veldes' way, which admits defeat but finds a new object in the conditions of unrepresentability. In this respect, something is salvaged from the old subject-object crisis, and so the paintings of Geer and Bram van Velde might be described as successes. The description of total capitulation and its conditions is left until Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit.

Beckett remarked to the critic Martin Esslin that he had written the Three dialogues up rather than down (D, 14). He described them as a very free reflection of the conversations he had had with Georges Duthuit, the then editor of the Parisian review transition (D, 14). This dramatization makes the simple identification of the two interlocutors B and D as Beckett and Duthuit problematic. The title of course means that on one level this identification is possible, but the reduction of names to initials also implies that the aesthetic theory is held at arm's length: it becomes less serious, more fictionalized. By distancing himself from B, Beckett can avoid some of the deconstructive irony of the two previous essays, and avoid the implosions inherent in trying to write from the point of view of the serious philosopher. So the Three dialogues enjoy a status somewhere between philosophical aesthetics and dramatized repartee. The dialogue form leaves no space for ‘serious’ authorial intervention, either to come to the aid of or to ironize B's theorizing. In the less confined space of the dialogue form, the contradictions and lacunae of B's theorizing can be highlighted.

Overall, what has happened in Beckett's aesthetic theorizing looks like a sort of Derridean manoeuvre. The deconstructive logic that undermines the marginal space within Beckett's theory (the space of the aesthetic experience) has been turned inside out to undermine the marginal space that Beckett himself occupies outside his own theory. Its clarity and seriousness are undermined, but not destroyed. So the drama we are presented with in the Three dialogues is a kind of endgame of aesthetic theorizing; it is a drama which is neither entirely serious nor entirely playful, but one where playfulness and seriousness continuously infect one another.

The Three dialogues represent something of a terminus in Beckett's discursive writing. They are a recapitulation on the failings of modern art, but unlike his earlier essays, they no longer point a way forward, however limited, for Western art; instead they appear to recommend total capitulation. In the first dialogue, B rejects the view, held by D and most commentators, that painters such as the early Matisse and the Breton Tal-Coat (Pierre Jacob) deviate from the path so far taken by Western art. B sees Tal-Coat's painting as ‘thrusting towards a more adequate expression of natural experience’. According to B, all Western artists have struggled, in one way or another, to make representation work and thereby to ‘gain’ something. Their concerns have been with the possibilities of art. Some, like Tal-Coat, may have ‘disturbed a certain order on the plane of the feasible’, but they have never ‘stirred from the field of the possible’. B speaks of a new (and apparently logically impossible) art, which has finally abandoned feasibility, ‘an art turning from it in disgust, weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road’ (D, 138-9). Whilst Tal-Coat and the early Matisse cling to a belief in the possibilities of art, André Masson, according to B, tries to salvage something from the wreck of the subject-object relation. He does not try to make representation work, but attempts instead to operate from the occasion of its impossibility. Even Masson, says B, ‘continues to wriggle’ (D, 140).

Bram van Velde (Geer having been jettisoned) represents a totally new direction for B: so different, in fact, that his work has taken him into waters that are not so much uncharted as logically unchartable. B's view of Bram van Velde's work has gone beyond the views expressed in Beckett's earlier essays, where both van Veldes were pushing the subject-object relation to its limits. Bram van Velde has, according to B, accepted, apparently unknowingly, the impossibility of any degree of adequacy of expression in art. Yet his paintings are not about that impossibility either: he does not even possess the certitude that expression is impossible. As an artist, Bram van Velde simply fails. In a clear example of that ambiguously playful quality, B comes to the logically absurd conclusion, only after a fortnight's deliberation, that van Velde's paintings are inexpressive. B's only means of justifying this self-falsifying claim is that van Velde's paintings are just very different from any paintings that precede them.

From what B says in the dialogues, van Velde comes over as a species of total ascetic, who lives in an impenetrable world, and whose paintings are wholly inexpressive. Like a hermit, or a Schopenhauerian ‘saint’ wearily abandoning the will-to-live, he turns his back in disgust on the world, which, in his case, consists in nothing more than the endless strivings of modern art. In these dialogues, painting is van Velde's whole way of being. As a painter, he is obliged to paint as much, and as little, as a human is obliged to live. Yet his painting is impossible; ‘can't’ meets ‘must’ head on, and the inevitable result is failure. Van Velde is, according to B, the only artist brave enough to admit, albeit apparently unknowingly, that ‘to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail’ (D, 145). Thus his whole way of being is as much in his failing as in his painting.

There is, of course, an almost overwhelming temptation, especially since Beckett once stated ‘I'm working with impotence, ignorance’,7 to read what B says about van Velde as a literary credo on Beckett's part. It is not; brush-strokes are not words, and words, even Beckett's words, are not inexpressive in that sort of way, nor could they be. Beckett's works bear tribute to the fact that words can never undo themselves and turn into a ‘literature of the unword’, however desirable this may seem. Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit is not simply a metatext. The world of the Bram van Velde of the dialogues (rather than the real-life person) is a totally closed world, and because of this, he plays the same role in the Three dialogues as do, for example, Mr Endon in Murphy and Mr Knott in Watt. Bram van Velde is perhaps the last in the series of total ascetics whose world is unsuccessfully transmitted through the mediating figures of reporters, narrators and critics.

The total inaccessibility of Bram van Velde's vision (as portrayed by B) completes the separation (started, perhaps unwittingly, back in the Axel Kaun letter) of the artist's and the critic's zones. Communication between one and the other has become impossible. B cannot understand van Velde ultimately because he is not van Velde. B can offer no more than a picture of what he is ‘pleased to fancy he [van Velde] does’ (D, 144). He admits that what van Velde is and does is more than likely quite otherwise. Thus we come to the unhappy conclusion that the Three dialogues are not about van Velde (or Tal-Coat, or Masson) at all, but are merely a statement of B's fancy. The critic cannot step outside his own prison of words. Art, in the earlier essays, had provided access to a common ground where subjectivity could negate itself and step outside itself. The transformation could not be more total, for now every subject is trapped inside its own world.

How van Velde sees the world is inaccessible to B; so, too, is how B sees the world to D who, like the psychiatric nurses at Murphy's mental hospital, functions as a ‘sane eye’. B's views neither make sense to D, nor, ultimately to a reader looking for a stable argument. When B does attempt to outline the philosophical framework that he uses, it collapses into a jokey nonseriousness. Even in a quasi-dramatic form, Beckett fails to draw up stable, coherent ground-rules for discussing the subject-object relation. We are shown the impossibility of foundation; there is nowhere to start, for as B's admission that he cannot properly say anything about van Velde shows, the real discussion never got started anyway. What van Velde in fact is and does was never really on the agenda, and so the whole text has been circling around an absent centre.

However deconstructive the logic of his philosophizing may be, Beckett can never quite stop playing the game; he cannot bring himself to turn from it in disgust. That sense of having to go on, whatever the odds, continues beyond the Three dialogues, which is as much an acceptance of the contradictions of systematization as a signal of its end. A tone of weary acceptance creeps into ‘Henri Hayden, homme-peintre’ (1952), when Beckett writes, ‘elle n'est pas au bout de ses beaux jours, la crise sujet-objet’ (D, 146). Traces of Beckett's earlier idealist ‘geometry’ reappear in témoignages such as ‘Hommage à Jack B. Yeats’ (1954) and in ‘Pour Avigdor Arikha’ (1966). In these témoignages and in the later short prose texts, the narrating voice struggles to capture evanescent images, yet underneath these assaults on the image, the voice makes desperate attempts to provide the text with a solid enough basis to last for a paragraph or the space of a sentence. (An example of this compulsion can be found in ‘Se voir’, written in the 1960s, which opens ‘Tout ce qu'il faut savoir pour dire est su’, a phrase reduced to its desperate minimum in the opening phrase of Bing, ‘tout su’.8) In the later prose, snatches of philosophical/aesthetic discourse reappear as paragraphs, sentences or short phrases in almost neurotic attempts to provide the text with a stable self-containment. The following paragraph from Worstward Ho (1983) can be read as an attempt to create or reaffirm foundations for the text. Yet it is also a passage which retraces, from the writing subject's eventual isolated position inside the first space, the course, both described and enacted in Beckett's discursive writing, of the gradual abandonment of the second space, that of the philosophical/aesthetic/critical perspective:

A place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now. Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none. Whither once whence no return. No. No place but the one. None but the one where none. Whence never once in. Somehow in. Beyondless. Thenceless there. Thitherless there. Thenceless thitherless there.

(NO, 104)


  1. This was John Fletcher's warning, in 1964, in ‘Beckett et Proust’, 90.

  2. Israel Shenker, ‘An interview with Beckett’, New York Times, 5 May 1956, reprinted in Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman (eds.), Samuel Beckett: the critical heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 148.

  3. Letter to Jacques Rivière, 7 February 1914, in Philippe Kolb (ed.), Correspondance de Marcel Proust (Paris: Plon, 1970- ), vol. XIII, 98f.

  4. Beckett's use of the word ‘attention’ seems to owe something to his reading of the nominalist philosopher Fritz Mauthner. ‘Attention’ seems to correspond to Mauthner's use of the term ‘Aufmerksamkeit’, which distorts perceptions and turns them into motives, in his most important work, of 1901-2, Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1967-9).

  5. See John Pilling, ‘Beckett's Proust’ in Journal of Beckett Studies, I (1976), 24.

  6. As John Fletcher points out in ‘Beckett et Proust’, Beckett paraphrases material he has taken from Arnaud Dandieu, Marcel Proust, sa révélation psychologique (Paris: Librairie de Paris, 1930).

  7. Shenker interview in Graver and Federman (eds.), Samuel Beckett: the critical heritage, 148.

  8. ‘Se voir’ in Pour finir encore et autres foirades (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1976), 51, and ‘Bing’ in Têtes-mortes (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1967), 61. (English versions: ‘Closed space’, 199, and ‘Ping’, 149, in CSP.)

Recommended Reading

Acheson, James, ‘Schopenhauer, Proust and Beckett’, Contemporary Literature, 19 (1978), 165-79.

Fletcher, John, ‘Beckett et Proust’, Caliban, 1, Toulouse: Université de Toulouse le Mirail (January 1964), 89-100.

Harvey, Lawrence, Samuel Beckett: poet and critic, Princeton University Press, 1970, chapter 10.

Karátson, André, ‘Le Nirvana comme supplice de Tantale: note sur Beckett et Schopenhauer’, Roman 20-50, 6 (December 1988), 117-23.

Miller, Lawrence, Samuel Beckett: the expressive dilemma, London: Macmillan, 1992, chapter 2.

Morse, J. Mitchell, ‘“The ideal core of the onion”: Samuel Beckett's criticism’, French Review, 38.1 (October 1964), 23-9.

Pilling, John, ‘A poetics of indigence’, in James Knowlson and John Pilling, Frescoes of the skull: the later prose and drama of Samuel Beckett, London: John Calder, 1979, 241-56.

Pothast, Ulrich, Die eigentliche metaphysiche Tätigkeit: über Schopenhauers Ästhetik und ihre Anwendung durch Samuel Beckett, Frankfurt-am-Main: Suhrkamp, 1983.

Read, David, ‘Artistic theory in the work of Samuel Beckett’, Journal of Beckett Studies, 8 (1982), 7-22.

Rosen, Steven, Samuel Beckett and the pessimistic tradition, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1976, 123-230.

Zurbrugg, Nicholas, Beckett and Proust, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1988.

Principal Works

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Whoroscope (poetry) 1930

Proust (essay) 1931

More Pricks than Kicks (short stories) 1934

Echo's Bones, and Other Precipitates (prose) 1935

Murphy (novel) 1938

Malone meurte [Malone Dies] (novel) 1951

Molloy (novel) 1951

En attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (play) 1953

L'innommable [The Unnamable] (novel) 1953

Watt (novel) 1953

Nouvelles et texts pour rien [Stories and Texts for Nothing] (short stories) 1955

Actes sans paroles I (play) 1957

All that Fall (play) 1957

Fin de Partie [Endgame] (play) 1957

Krapp's Last Tape (play) 1958

Actes sans paroles II (play) 1960

Comment c'est [How It Is] (novel) 1961

Happy Days (play) 1961

Poems in English (poetry) 1961

Comédie [Play] (play) 1964

Imagination morte imaginez [Imagination Dead Imagine] (prose) 1965

Va et vient [Come and Go] (play) 1966

Eh Joe, and Other Writings (play and screenplay) 1967

No's Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1945-1966 (plays and short stories) 1967

Film (screenplay) 1969

Breath (play) 1970

Le dépeupleur [The Lost Ones] (play) 1970

Mercier et Camier [Mercier and Camier] (novel) 1970

Premier amour [First Love] (short story) 1970

Not I (play) 1972

First Love, and Other Shorts (short stories) 1974

All Strange Away (prose) 1976

Ends and Odds (plays and radio plays) 1976

Fizzles (prose) 1976

Foot Falls (play) 1976

That Time (play) 1976

Companie [Company] (novel) 1979

A Piece of Monologue (play) 1979

Mal vu mal dit [Ill Seen Ill Said (poetry) 1981

Ohio Impromptu (play) 1981

Rockaby (play) 1981

Texts for Nothing (play) 1981

Catastrophe (play) 1982

Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (criticism, interview, and play) 1983

Worstward Ho (novel) 1983

The Complete Dramatic Works (plays) 1986

Stirrings Still (novella) 1988

Dream of Fair to Middling Women (novel) 1992

Eleuthéria (play) 1995

Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 (prose) 1995

Collected Poems (poetry) 1999

Graham Fraser (essay date fall-winter 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6063

SOURCE: Fraser, Graham. “The Pornographic Imagination in All Strange Away.Modern Fiction Studies 41, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1995): 515-30.

[In the following essay, Fraser discusses the differences between “imagination” and “fancy” as they relate to the pornographic elements of All Strange Away.]

On first looking into All Strange Away, one is struck by the change in tone between this and Beckett's other texts of the period. Rather than the measured rhythms of Imagination Dead Imagine, the dispassionate pseudo-empiricism of The Lost Ones, or the abstract patternings of Ping and Lessness, the reader is confronted with an intrusive, hasty, and humorless narrative imagination—and with a narrative which contains surprising passages of a coarsely sexual nature. This unusual quality has been located by critics in the voyeuristic or sexual concerns of the narrator and has on occasion been termed “pornographic” (Murphy 86, Pilling 139). And indeed, All Strange Away creates a climate of sexual tension and fascination which does not inform Beckett's other works. But the presence of naked, sweating bodies (common to all the “rotunda works”1 of the '60s) and the occasional passage of crude sexual reverie are alone not enough to account for the unusual texture of this work. The sexual theme is not uppermost in All Strange Away, and the pornographic imagination which informs it is essentially asexual, or rather, its sexual component is secondary to its other concerns. All Strange Away, like the other rotunda texts of the '60s, is a reflexive assessment of the imagining narrator's own imagination. The box or rotunda is a projection of the narrator's own skull, a displacement of his own imaginative space, which he can use to explore the dynamics of his own imagination.2 Thus the climate and goings-on within the rotunda illustrate (and occasionally subvert) the imaginative aesthetics which inform their very narration. In doing this, however, the narrator's imagination functions in a manner formally similar to the pornographic narrative imagination. If there is a pornographic sexual element, it is because there is a pornographic imaginative dynamic to the text. The sexual elements are not privileged, but all aspects of “a place” and the “someone in it” (117) are considered in a manner “conventional” pornography usually reserves for the erotic.

The mental function which dominates All Strange Away is not Imagination but Fancy. Although “fancy” is apparently used in the text as synonym for “imagination,” viewing Fancy and Imagination in light of the distinction drawn between them by the Romantics suggests that Beckett is actually using the term to indicate the specific mode of mental activity which underlies the narration. Coleridge defined Fancy as a permutative power which “has no other counters to play with but fixities and definites,” contrasting with the higher power of Imagination, which takes the units of experience organized by Fancy and “dissolves, diffuses, and dissipates [them] in order to re-create” poetically or metaphorically (Barfield 86).

Pornography, as a visual or narrative genre, makes heavy use of repetition and permutation. De Sade provides the quintessential example, assembling a cast of characters and running them through a gamut of sexual conjunctions until the combinations, if not the sexual energies of the characters, are exhausted. Roland Barthes, in his essay on Bataille's Story of the Eye, notes that this permutative drive is “the beginning and end of Sadean narrative. In Sade there is no appeal to the metaphorical or metonymical imagination, his eroticism being purely combinatory” (126). De Sade's is an eroticism of Fancy, then, rather than of the Imagination. More astutely still, Barthes notes that in Sade the permutative drive is as prominent as the sexual: “[Sade's] eroticism is encyclopedic, sharing the same accounting spirit as prompted Newton and Fourier. For Sade it is a question of tallying erotic combinations, an undertaking that (technically) does not involve any transgression of the sexual” (126). The permutative impulse is equally strong in All Strange Away, where it functions as an end—a need—in itself, a principle which holds for the narrator the urgency of a sexual obsession.

The play of Fancy in All Strange Away is expressed in the narrator's obsessive manipulation of his material—repeatedly returning to an ever-diminishing pool of “fixities and definites.” Repetition has always been a vital narrative strategy for Beckett, and there are more extreme instances of it in his work both before and after All Strange Away. But repetition is used differently in this text, and isolating the differences provides a clue to the pornographic effect of the work as a whole. The narrator opens with two concerns, which he admits repeat earlier narrations: “A place, then someone in it, that again” (117). These elements—the box-like space, the figure within it, and the relative positions and dimensions of both constitute his “fixities and definites,” the poles between which his imagination oscillates as he provides and eliminates “details.” Since the narrator's intent is to contract his imaginative scenario by ushering “all strange away” (121), his inventory of images and phrases diminishes as the narrative advances.

From the outset, the narrator's repetition indicates he is fixated on certain ideas, struggling to work beyond them: “Stool, bare walls when the light comes on, women's faces on the walls when the light comes on. In a corner when the light comes on tattered syntaxes of Jolly and Draeger Praeger Draeger” (117). Despite his attempts to clarify what happens “when the light comes on” (and the permutative canter of “Draeger Praeger Draeger”), the narrator can only say “[l]ight off and let him be” (117). In the darkness, the narrator then attempts to imagine the figure “[s]itting, standing, walking, kneeling, crawling, lying, creeping, in the dark and in the light, try all” (117). “Try all” is the oft-repeated motto of the narrator's permutative mind, and the sexual reveries follow a similar verbal escalation. Likewise, the narrator's attempt to re-illuminate the box—“Imagine light. Imagine light.” (117)—features the same stalled repetition as his imaginative detailing of Emma, later: “[I]magine hands. Imagine hands” (120).

The narrator's interest in the “place” is as pornographically permutative as his interest in the contortions of the figure. Indeed, the place holds more obsessive interest than the “someone in it.” After an initial series of spatial contractions and consequent reposturings of the figure inside, the narrator declares, “[p]lace then most clear so far but of him nothing and perhaps never save jointed segments variously disposed white when light at full” (120). Although the narrator then goes on to detail the figure (first changing the sex from the male Emmo to the female Emma), his real interest remains the confining space. This is most apparent when, after a passage which erases Emma's hair, the narrator opens a parenthesis, saying “[c]ease here from face a space to note how place no longer cube but rotunda three foot diameter … all right, resume face” (123). But the narrator does not resume a description of her face. Rather, he continues to work out the rotunda's new dimensions, pausing only to mention that Emma “still might be mathematically speaking more than seven foot long” (124). If Emma's dimensions are contingent upon those of the “place,” then it comes as no surprise when the narrator declares, in terms which could apply as well to the architecture of the rotunda as to the figure inside it, his weariness of “all this poking and prying about for cracks holes and appendages” (125).

The pornographic imagination is clearly evident in the narrator's schematic, geometric impulses. Dividing the floor and ceiling angles into points a, b, c, d, etc., the narrator provides himself with fodder for his permutative obsession. The text constantly returns to such passages as “arse to knees say diagonal ac, feet say at d, head on left cheek at b” (119). The goal of such geometry is not to fix the figures but to provide “fixities” for the narrator—he relishes the permutative possibilities of the system: “Arse to knees, say bd, feet say at c, head on right cheek at a. Then arse to knees say again ac, but feet at b and head on left cheek at d. Then arse to knees say again bd, but feet at a and head on right cheek at c. So on other four possibilities when begin again” (119-120). The instruction to “begin again” indicates that the point of the permutation is not to exhaust the possibilities but to repeat them endlessly. The geometric insistence of the text recalls Susan Sontag's belief that Sade's “descriptions are too schematic to be sensuous. The fictional actions are illustrations, rather, of his relentlessly repeated ideas” (99). Each shrinkage of the confining rotunda and consequent re-positioning of the figure requires—or rather allows—the narrator to run through his permutations again, to “try all” in his desire for an elusive “best” position (119). Although the text ultimately settles into positions which are “maintained,” the “best” position is not particularly desired, as it would entail the end of the permutative series, and hence of the imaginative activity. When the narrator speculates on this stable point he says: “and this again and again till final renouncement with faint sweet relief, faint disappointment will have been here too” (127). The narrator, then, is himself a victim of his fanciful compulsion. Unable to transcend his images and propositions through the metaphorical power of imagination, and compelled to reconfigure endlessly the same “counters,” the narrator does not use his repetitive images but is encircled by them.

Crucially, in All Strange Away these repetitions and permutations are not undercut by humor. The permutations of Watt, while much more obsessive, are subverted by the comedy of exhaustive listing which is quite missing from the abbreviated, but endlessly recurring, repetitions of All Strange Away. Likewise, the “sucking stones” episode of Molloy, while testifying to Molloy's “mania for symmetry” is comically undercut by the revelation that the stones “all tasted exactly the same” (Molloy 90, 79), thus allowing the narrator to rise above the obsession of the text and dissipate the tension generated by the repetition. The pornographic imagination, however, provides no such comic relief, and instead seeks to heighten the tension. In his study of repetition in Beckett, Steven Connor notes, via the “pot” crisis in Watt, that “repetition can sometimes involve the attempt to efface the signifier, so as to collapse the distinction between it and the signified. The compulsive repetitions of the child's demands for food, or of the language of pornography, both testify to the desire to make of the sign a substance, identical with what it signifies” (33; emphasis added). Connor further notes that “[r]epetition can often be read as an attempt to close the gap between word and thing, even though it is repetition which insistently opens up that gap” (33). Just as the sexual imagination of the pornographic spectator attempts, through repetition of imagery and words, to bring the desired object into “reality” (or to suspend disbelief, to return to a Coleridgean operation), so does the narrator of All Strange Away seek to deny his own authorship of the rotunda as an image of his skull. He seeks to maintain the image as a discrete, objective, yet possessable and knowable “reality” through the incantatory repetitions of its salient points. Annette Kuhn, in her study of photographic pornography, notes that the suspension of disbelief before the pornographic image must ultimately break down, and that one's awareness of the artificiality of the image ensures the spectator's “desire remains ungratified” (31). As a result, Kuhn argues, the spectator is “condemned to endless investigation” (31). The awareness of his own authorship of the rotunda and figure, and of their imaginary condition, has precisely the same effect on the narrator of All Strange Away, condemning him to endless repetition, as he seeks to actualize his virtual images: “Say again though no real image puckered tip of left breast, leave right a mere name” (121). Here, the reflexive decision to repeat—to “say again”—is clearly an attempt to overcome the “unreality” of the image. The decision to leave Emma's other breast “a mere name” suggests that, despite the pornographic desire to conjure things from words, the right breast must, for now at least, remain unrepeated and thus only a signifier—a “mere name.”

Although the narrator returns to his “fixities and definites” throughout the text, these returns are irregular, fragmented, and abbreviated. Whereas the narrators of Watt or Molloy painstakingly work through their permutations, here the narrator is as hasty as he is obsessed. He exhibits a pornographic haste when, in his hurry to consummate his imaginative desire, he provides only sketches of repeated formulations and promises “details later” (which of course allows him further room for repetition to “maintain” his imaginary discourse). The narrator's hasty description of murmurs provides an excellent example: “Imagine other murmurs, Mother mother, Mother in heaven, Mother of God, God in heaven, combinations with Christ and Jesus, other proper names in great numbers say of loved ones for the most part and cherished haunts, imagine as needed” (122). This is later repeated in still more abbreviated form: “Mother mother, Mother in heaven and of God, God in heaven, Christ and Jesus all combinations, loved ones and places” (127). Another striking example is the word “Diagram,” inserted as a page break in the text. Here the narrator substitutes the word for the thing (and even a diagram of the rotunda would only stand in as a signifier for the “actual” construction). Not only is this doubly “no real image,” but it underlines the need (or desire) for a diagram generated by the narrator's schematic imagination. Although the narrator's fumbling rush is not a form suited to generating erotic response (the way lingering description might be), it aptly communicates the pornographic mood by suggesting the heat of imaginative desire within the possibilities of cool combination, when “ohs and ahs copulate cold” (122). This fragmentation then, in concert with repetition, creates a more pornographic imaginative atmosphere than in Watt or Molloy (or in later rotunda works) in which repetition is more systematically worked through.

In this obsessive environment of pornographic Fancy, the human figures are treated primarily as objects for manipulation rather than as sites of erotic possibility. Although Emma and Emmo have a definite sexual aspect, it is brought out by their objectification—by their treatment as little more than “jointed segments variously disposed” (120) and ripe for “refolding” (124). Contrary to the belief expressed in Enough, “anatomy” is not a “whole” here (140). Human forms are discussed as fragments, anatomical “fixities and definites” which rarely add up to a whole. Initially, the box is inhabited by Emmo, seated on a stool and surrounded by “women's faces on the walls when the light comes on” (117). Following the reduction of the space from closet to steamer trunk dimensions, the narrator announces, “[f]aces now naked bodies, eye level, two per wall, eight in all, all right, details later” (119), which recalls Hamm's sarcastic insinuation in Endgame that Clov's desire to return to his kitchen is semi-erotic: “What do you see on your wall? … Naked bodies?” (12). These naked bodies are shortly changed again: “eight no more, one per wall, four in all, say all of Emma” (119). This coalescence of disparate “bodies” into the single, named, female Emma might seem to be a unifying gesture, were it not that Emma, as an image on the wall, exists only as a series of bodily fragments: “First face alone, lovely beyond words, leave it at that, then deasil breasts alone, then thighs and cunt alone, then arse and hole alone, all lovely beyond words” (119). The repetition of “alone” isolates the fragments; Emma does not exist in nude panorama, but as a collage of dissected images, sawn apart like the magician's “lovely” assistant. Fragmentation of the body is of course a key code of both visual and narrative pornography. “In pornography,” Annette Kuhn notes, “photographs are often composed in such a way that a particular bodily part is greatly emphasised. Or it may even fill the whole of the picture, in which case the body is fragmented, cut up, by the frame” (36). This is clearly Emma's condition at this point in All Strange Away. Kuhn goes on to write, however, that “porn's attention to bits of bodies is never random. Pornography is preoccupied with what it regards as the signifiers of sexual difference and sexuality: genitals, breasts, buttocks …” (37). It is undeniable that these “parts”—imagined in pornographic kaleidoscope—fire the erotic imagination of the narrator. Viewing the images of Emma's body induces Emmo's erotic reverie: “say deasil first from face through hole then back through face, murmuring, Imagine him kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking and buggering all this stuff, no sound” (119). This sentence is a startlingly sexual intrusion, although the groundwork for it has been laid by the play of Fancy and anatomical fragmentation. The “Imagine” which starts this reverie of course emphasizes the imaginary context of the eroticism, a pornographic fancy within a pornographic fancy. It is unclear whose imagination is said to have these thoughts. The discourses of the figures in All Strange Away are couched in the third person, which suggests that the reverie is Emmo's. This is supported by the structure of the sentence, the capitalized “Imagine” indicating, as it does throughout this text, a piece of “speech.” However, the narrator's imagination embraces the world of his rotunda and the figures in it, and so clearly he shares in the reverie, even as he displaces responsibility for it onto Emmo's hunched shoulders.

Emmo's reverie (and Emma's, too, when she repeats the fantasy) is a strange mixture of the fevered and the bland. While it lasts, the narrator follows the reverie with much more erotic interest than in other Beckett texts, such as the confused grapplings of Molloy and Ruth (Molloy 59-62), the repulsive descriptions of “making unmakable love” in the cylinder of The Lost Ones (160), or the nostalgic yet ambivalent “penis licking” episode in Enough (139). This sexual intensity is evident in the rising eroticism of the progression of “kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking and buggering.” Yet the catalogue of sexual acts is run through too quickly to be sensual, and the erotic mood is quickly damped with the dismissive “this stuff” and the abrupt shift to a description of Emmo's posture: “Then halt and up to position of rest, back of head touching ceiling …” (119). But this abandonment of the sexual is not an abandonment of the pornographic—the narrator's real obsession is not erotic, but with the manipulation of the human forms in the space.

While the images of Emma's body are fragmented and eroticized, we are told little of Emmo. He moves about the box collecting paper and pins and then is himself pinioned as the narrator tightens the space around him. The narrator initially seems reluctant to denude him: “take off his coat, no, naked, all right, leave it for the moment” (117) although the narrator then has the coat rot away into “flitters” (118). The narrator, however, is unwilling, or unable, to describe Emmo's body and instead returns to a description of the box: “Physique, flesh and fell, nail him to that while still tender, nothing clear, place again” (118). After contracting the space still further and initiating his geometric descriptions of it, the narrator remarks, “[p]lace then most clear so far but of him nothing and perhaps never save jointed segments variously disposed” (120). The narrator takes advantage of Emmo's ambiguous “physique” to switch his position with Emma's: “no life or dying here but his, a speck of dirt. Or hers since sex not seen so far, say Emma standing, turning, sitting, kneeling, lying” (120). This switch is telling, since even if Emmo's sex has not been seen, he has been referred to as “he” and he has been naked since the disintegration of his coat. This narrator seems to feel towards his characters the way Clov feels towards his toy-dog-in-progress, namely, that “the sex goes on at the end” (Endgame 40). But the switch in the figure's gender is more important than this in terms of the pornographic functioning of the narrator's imagination. Sontag writes that “the pornographic imagination tends to make one person interchangeable with another and all people interchangeable with things” (100); this allows greater repetitive and permutative range. This is indeed the case in All Strange Away, since now it is Emma who undergoes the narrator's manipulations and repeats many of the actions earlier undergone by Emmo. However, this interchangeability is not, as Sontag implies, without consequence. As Annette Kuhn writes, regarding the fragmentation of the body in the pornographic image, “the process of fragmentation is by no means disinterested as regards gender. Although it is not difficult to find examples of fetishized representations of the male body, it is much more often the female body and its representation which receives this kind of treatment” (37). Thus, while the fragmentary images on the walls are now of Emmo, the narrator is less interested in maintaining them. The earlier scene of erotic reverie is repeated, but in abbreviated form: “Emmo on the walls, first the face, handsome beyond words, then deasil details later. And how crouching down and back she turns murmuring, Fancy her being all kissed, licked, sucked, fucked and so on by all that” (120). This sentence is cast in the passive, making Emma less the source than the object of desire. There is a tension in the word “Fancy” which introduces the reverie, since if it is attributed to Emma the reverie becomes an expression of her desire (although since Emma is a projection of the narrator's own imagination, this desire is actually embedded within his own). If the “fancy” is the narrator's, then it underlines his erotic interest in Emma, an interest previously filtered through Emmo. The abbreviated description of Emmo's body and the attenuated sexual reverie suggest that this is the case, and now that Emma is the figure within the box, Emmo is no longer needed as a lens through which to observe her. Consequently, Emmo is erased from the scenario entirely: “no Emmo, no need, never was” (120). Although upon cutting short Emma's sexual reverie the narrator returns to a delectation of her geometrical position and dimensions, his descriptions of Emma's “physique” become much more detailed than they were of Emmo's, and assume a more sexual tone.

Although he manipulates the geometry of Emma's various “joints and segments” (120), the narrator rarely lingers over areas of sexual interest. He nevertheless provides details of Emma's “physique”: “Highest point from ground top of swell of right haunch, say twenty inches, slim woman” (120) or later “small woman scarce five foot fully extended” (124). The narrator re-describes parts of her body with a pornographic fixity. Several times he mentions the “left breast puckered in the dust” (120, 121), as well as Emma's long dark hair and eyelashes (indicators of femininity in Beckett's work, although subsequently erased from Emma). The narrator's imagination is particularly fixed on Emma's hands: “hands, imagine hands. Imagine hands” (120). These hands are both objects of geometrical obsession and emblems of femininity. Shortly after the “Diagram” break, the narrator says, “[g]lare now on hands most womanly clear and womanly especially right still loosely clenched as before but no longer on ground since corrected pose but now on outer of right knee just where it swells to thighs while left still loosely hitched to right shoulder ball as before. All that most clear” (124). Even the clenching of Emma's fist is feminized: “crush down most womanly straining knuckles” (125). The narrator's description of Emma's neck reveals his sexual assessment of her: “healthy natural neck with even hint of jugular and cords suggesting perhaps past her best” (125). But any possible tenderness or sympathy between narrator and figure which might be implied by this feminizing of Emma's “physique” is brutally forestalled when the narrator continues “and thence on down to other meat” (125). As “meat” Emma's body is both sexually objectified and abstracted, meeting the Sadean condition of person as thing, a series of “cracks holes and appendages” (125) used less as an object of sexual pleasure than as a set of “fixities and definites” for manipulation and arrangement.

Bodies in Beckett's post-Trilogy prose (particularly those of the rotunda group) are often viewed in terms of their parts and fragments. Leslie Hill writes that in these works Beckett presents the body as “a series of undifferentiated parts of limbs and scraps of flesh which in themselves have no identity or essential being” (147), while Mary Bryden argues that “the viewed bodies are not apprehended as sexual presences: indeed their gender is scarcely recuperable” (147). In All Strange Away, however, these “scraps of flesh” are given an unusual sexual edge, less dependent on the gender of the figure than on the display of bodily fragments in a geometrical fantasy which is experienced in pornographic—if not strictly sexual—terms. It is one thing to fragment or “geometrize” the body by saying “[l]egs side by side broken right angles at the knees” as Still does (183), but it is quite another to refer to “thighs and cunt alone” or the “cracks holes and appendages” which constitute the “other meat.”

The introduction of Emma as the object of such “prying about,” and the link between inspection and erotic reverie (on the part of both the figures and the narrator) indicate a key element in the pornographic imagination operant in this text—the gaze. There is a metaphorical equivalence in Beckett's writing between the eye and the imagination, a metaphor which dominates the “rotunda” works of the '60s. The visual inspection of the rotunda is a metaphor for the narrator's imagination of it, and “seeing,” “imagining,” and “fancying” are often used interchangeably. When the narrator's (or figure's) gaze operates voyeuristically, then, it is evidence of an imagination acting pornographically as well.

Sontag notes that “there is no personal consciousness, except that of the author, in Sade's books” (99), which is very much the case for All Strange Away—indeed, in so far as the rotunda is a displaced model of the narrator's own imagination, there is nothing else in the text but the narrator's consciousness. This consciousness, however, is divided into two imaginative tiers, apparent in the construction of the gazes in the text. The narrator views the rotunda and figures from his own perspective, while those figures also see images of each other “projected” on the walls. As constructions of the narrator's imagination, the figures are subject to his gaze, and thus the narrator shares in their inspection of the images on the walls. Their gaze—and desires—are embedded in his own. This predatory gaze—which Beckett later calls the “eye of prey” in Imagination Dead Imagine (147)—is a voyeuristic gaze. Kuhn writes that “[t]he voyeur's pleasure depends on the object of this look being unable to see him: to this extent, it is a pleasure of power, and the look a controlling one” (28). This is very much the case in All Strange Away, in which the narrator's imagination, expressed as his gaze, manipulates the figure and her environment. The power relationship inherent in the gaze puts a pornographic edge on that already existing in the hierarchy of imaginer and imagined. But whereas in the writings of Sade such power is extreme and violent (and sadomasochistic pornography complements, if not replaces, sexual difference with differences in power [Kuhn 46]), in All Strange Away this power is expressed in fussy obsessions and manipulations, and in the control inherent in the narrator's contraction of the figure's world. Ironically, the narrator is not in complete control of his imaginative construction, as he is subject to those obsessions himself which cause him to return to his “fixities and definites,” as well as to the need to explore their new permutations.

Within pornography, voyeurism provides not only a mode of looking but also a genre. Discussing the conventions of the voyeuristic image-narrative, Kuhn notes that while the spectator remains unseen, “the bodies and parts of bodies in the pictures are obligingly composed so that the spectator can get a good look at what pornography says are the really important things” (32-33). The voyeuristic gaze is evident in the fragmented projections of sexual images on the walls of the box, relished by both the narrator and the inhabitants. But if conventional pornography says the “really important things” are limited to these sexual fragments and fantasies, the pornographic imagination in Beckett's text is equally if not more interested in the rotunda itself and the composition of the figure within it. Nothing is hidden from the narrator's gaze: the place and the “someone in it” are obligingly displayed and rearranged to gratify his imaginative desires. Kuhn identifies this desire to penetrate or know the image (and both terms have a sexual connotation): “The image addresses the spectator as desiring—desiring specifically to penetrate this mystery …—and says that knowledge is to be secured through looking” (40). This recalls works such as The Lost Ones, in which the narrator declares, “[f]or in the cylinder alone are certitudes to be found and without nothing but mystery” (171) or the white expanses which surround the containers of Imagination Dead Imagine and Ping. Kuhn goes on to note that “the desire to understand implies that the spectator is in some sense set apart from the object of his look. … The object of enquiry is objectified” (40). Establishing a clear subject-object divide is exactly what the narrator of All Strange Away wishes to do, in order that he may explore this model of his own mind without being aware of its origins within his own imagination. However, this project is undercut, as is the illusory reality of the pornographic image, by the inescapable awareness that this is “no real image.” Or rather, that it is not real and all image.

This voyeurism is reversed in Imagination Dead Imagine and in many subsequent Beckett texts in which the voyeuristic gaze of the narrator is met by that of the object of his scrutiny. This reading may also explain the horror which accompanies the meeting of the gaze in Beckett's fiction. While this horror is usually read as an existentialist take on the “Esse est percipi” motto of Film (163), there may also be a pornographic reading available, particularly in the rotunda works and Ill Seen Ill Said, in which the voyeuristic narrator is caught out by his own object or creation. In All Strange Away the narrator narrowly avoids such eye contact by cutting away when the eyelids open: “without hesitation hell gaping they part and the black eye appears leave now this face for the moment” (124). The lack of such eye contact in All Strange Away only enhances the pornographic climate of its informing imagination.

Voyeurism, Kuhn notes, can induce guilt and stress in the pornographic spectator, a guilt which is conventionally circumvented by introducing an exhibitionistic or inviting note to the observed object (43-44). There is none of this in All Strange Away (or other Beckett fictions), although the audience is invited to participate in the voyeurism through such phrases as “[s]ee how he crouches down to see [the sexual fragments of Emma]” (119) or to participate imaginatively (which amounts to the same thing) by the imperative possibility of the verb introducing the “Imagine him kissing, caressing, sucking …” passages. (Beckett develops this tactic of reader implication much more fully in Imagination Dead Imagine with its introductory second-person pronoun which lends an imperative mood to the subsequent verbs). Although the voyeuristic narrative of All Strange Away generates little (if any) erotic arousal, there is certainly a good deal of claustrophobic anxiety created as the reader imagines the figure in the tightening box. Although this de-eroticizes the text (if it needs de-eroticizing) by alienating the reader from the narrator, it confirms the narrator's voyeuristic, pornographic intentions. The gaze is the pornographic element which Beckett most often employs in his subsequent fiction. With the exception of Enough, a few Fizzles, and Company, every text after All Strange Away is informed much more by the inspection theme than by self-conscious “telling.” But it is in the extremely voyeuristic context of the rotundas (particularly All Strange Away, where the gaze is not returned) where, enhanced by permutation, fragmentation, and manipulation, the gaze takes on a controlling, pornographic texture—a metaphor for the pornographic imagination.

It only remains, then, to ask why Beckett chooses this pornographic mode for All Strange Away. A recuperative argument could be made which says that Beckett is intentionally exploring this imaginative mode—the sexualizing, obsessive effects of Fancy without Imagination. This argument would suggest that, like the narrative of the obnoxious Moran, the text is intentionally repetitive; an accurate portrayal of an unimaginative imagination. Unlike Moran's tale, however, in which Beckett transcends Moran's limitations through irony, humor, and a retrospective framework, All Strange Away is not a success. It is circular, repetitive, and at times irritating or tedious. All Strange Away is in fact an accurate depiction of Beckett's own confusion and limitations at the time. Beckett's suppression of the work for twelve years in favor of other rotunda texts attests to this.3All Strange Away reflects Beckett's own attempt—and failure—to transcend the “fixities and definites” of the rotunda scenario, at least at this initial stage of its conception, and to find the imaginative or narrative tone he will adopt for subsequent works (a similar aura of frustration attaches to The Lost Ones, Beckett's other great aborted work of the '60s). All Strange Away is not a failure because it is pornographic, but rather it fails pornographically, reverting to the non-culminating energies of Fanciful repetition in conjunction with the pornographic conventions of fragmentation, a (minimal) eroticism, and the voyeuristic gaze. All Strange Away, while constituting a watershed for Beckett's future use of these elements in less “pornographic” settings, illustrates not only a pornographic imagination, but, in this case unfortunately, a failure of that imagination.


  1. These “rotunda works” are All Strange Away, Imagination Dead Imagine, Ping, Lessness, and The Lost Ones. All written in the '60s, they share a theme of a geometric container (called a “rotunda” in both All Strange Away and Imagination Dead Imagine) enclosing figures who are subject to fluctuations of heat and light (motifs of imaginative activity for Beckett).

  2. This reading of the rotunda as an imaginative projection of the narrator's mind, as well as the narrator's desire to “forget” his own authorship of it, is adapted from James Hansford.

  3. Although written in 1963-1964, All Strange Away was not published until 1976, and then only in a Gotham Book Mart limited edition of 226 copies. Republished in the Journal of Beckett Studies 3 (Summer 1978), it was republished separately in 1979, and anthologized in Beckett's Collected Shorter Prose by John Calder. Its American publication was in Rockaby and Other Short Pieces published by Grove Press in 1981.

Works Cited

Barfield, Owen. What Coleridge Thought. London: Oxford UP, 1971.

Barthes, Roland. “The Metaphor of the Eye.” 1963. Trans. J. A. Underwood. Appendix to Bataille. 119-27.

Bataille, Georges. Story of the Eye. 1928. Trans. Joachim Neugroschal. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

Beckett, Samuel. “All Strange Away.” 1976. Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980. London: John Calder, 1986. 117-28.

———. Company. London: John Calder, 1980.

———. Endgame. New York: Grove P, 1958.

———. “Enough.” 1967. Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980. London: John Calder, 1986. 139-44.

———. “Film.” 1964. Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett. London: Faber, 1984. 162-74.

———. For to End Yet Again and Other Fizzles. London: John Calder, 1976.

———. Ill Seen Ill Said. 1981. London: John Calder, 1982.

———. “Imagination Dead Imagine.” 1966. Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980. London: John Calder, 1986. 145-47.

———. “Lessness.” 1970. Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980. London: John Calder, 1986. 153-57.

———. “The Lost Ones.” 1972. Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980. London: John Calder, 1986. 159-78.

———. Molloy. 1955. London: John Calder, 1976.

———. “Ping.” 1967. Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980. London: John Calder, 1986. 149-51.

———. Rockaby and Other Short Pieces. New York: Grove P, 1981.

———. “Still.” 1974. Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1980. London: John Calder, 1986. 183-85.

———. Watt. 1953. London: John Calder, 1976.

Bryden, Mary. Women in Samuel Beckett's Prose and Drama: Her Own Other. London: Macmillan, 1993.

Connor, Steven. Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Hansford, James. “Imagination Dead Imagine: The Imagination and its Context.” Journal of Beckett Studies 7 (Spring 1982): 49-70.

Hill, Leslie. Beckett's Fiction: In Different Words. Cambridge Studies in French. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Kuhn, Annette. The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Murphy, Peter J. Reconstructing Beckett: Language for Being in Samuel Beckett's Fiction. U of Toronto Romance Series 62. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990.

Pilling, John. “Ends and Odds in Prose.” Frescoes of the Skull: The Later Prose and Drama of Samuel Beckett. Ed. James Knowlson and John Pilling. London: John Calder, 1979. 131-91.

Sontag, Susan. “The Pornographic Imagination.” 1967. Appendix to Bataille 83-118.

Mary Catanzaro (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Catanzaro, Mary. “Disconnected Voices, Displaced Bodies: The Dismembered Couple in Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days, and Play.” In Literature and the Grotesque, edited by Michael J. Meyer, pp. 31-51. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1995.

[In the following essay, Catanzaro argues that the dismembered bodies of couples in Beckett's works are metaphors for the failure of communication in relationships.]

Beckett's plays of the late 1950's and the 1960's can be read as grotesque commentaries on unsatisfying personal relationships caused by failure in communication. Krapp's Last Tape,1Happy Days,2 and Play3 address the full range of separateness and otherness which undermine accord in intimate relationships. Within the scaffolding of failure in speech, the physical impediments and emotional ruptures reveal the subjects as subverted, segregated, and grotesque selves.

One of the complications arising from speech is that the subjects become aware of a need for an other whose presence might offer some comfort to the multitude of their changing selves. The impasse, however, is never removed. In Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days, and Play, the subjects most often fail to work through prior experiences with others that can be felt, but that cannot be fully articulated. Here, the voice's structure demonstrates finite time within infinity; what it says in effect is that to live is to repeat the fragments of one's past.

Beckett's interest in faulty communication in relationships, whatever its sources, was no doubt prompted by his fascination with the pathological, stemming perhaps from originary faults in language itself. When the spoken word shifts toward vacuous absurdity, as it does in Happy Days, confinement and minimal movement intensify bizarre speech. At other times, a text's sequences may be deliberately incomprehensible, as is evident in Play. One sees the significance of the grotesque in Krapp's cryptic words and idiosyncratic behaviors.

When trapped, and all else fails, the subjects tell themselves stories, marked by ambiguities. The texts do not follow the sequence of lived time; refusing forward movement, they contain little plot and less chronology. Rather, they interrupt rational habits of mind, breaking traditional responses and logical assumptions. An obsessive need to talk points to regression as part of the source of this relapse. To speak is to lie, and as a result, Krapp, Winnie, and the figures in Play echo a doctrine of guilt and suffering, all the while realizing the insufficiency of words. Winnie's speech is like a grave in the air as much as the earthen grave that buries her; her “lines” hint at incidents that are never clarified, producing even odder statements, such as, “What a curse, mobility!” (46). The figures in Play speak in clichés—a kind of cartoon language, excrescence of speech, in short, a jeremiad against married love. Krapp repeats himself in fits and starts, obsessed with hearing his voice on tape. He can confess only his seething sense of regret at his incapacity to master himself. Like those endowed with perfect pitch, he is gifted with a tormentingly acute sensibility—undisciplined, violent, fiendishly remorseful. Skulking around his den like a jackal, Krapp appears a hectoring crank who manages to produce both the masochistic harangues on his tapes and the biting acuity of an awareness in the present of his plight that is telltale of an enduring hatred of his own self-consciousness.

Happy Days portrays a couple who have apparently been married for quite some time. The play consists almost entirely of domestic banalities exchanged between the two—he reads ads aloud from the newspaper and mumbles vaguely when questioned or addressed. She in turn does her toilette, recites sentimental poetry, and rambles aimlessly about her prior youthful “romances.” Willie is hidden from the spectator's view until the end of the play; only his head or an occasional hand seen. In the first act, Winnie is able to see him if she cranes her neck and torso. The opening tableau, accordingly, focuses on a separated couple. Buried in an earthen mound to the waist in the first act, Winnie seems to compensate for her husband's absence—living as he does in a hole behind her—by rummaging through her pocketbook and examining its contents, which become for her fetish pieces. At the play's end when she is buried to her neck and is no longer able to manipulate her objects or turn round, Willie appears from behind the mound in the play's cryptic ending.

In Krapp's Last Tape, the lonely and alcoholic Krapp also manipulates objects in unconventional ways, most notably a tape recorder and a reel, which allow him to listen to and to record new material about his past. The information on the tape exposes his past affairs with women—his mother and her nurse, his former lovers, even his favorite female fictional heroine. In this play Krapp lives through his voice on the tape, and the taped voice constitutes his other self. By conventional standards, both Krapp and Winnie are not successful as lovers, but their failures there do not diminish their longing for love's continuance.

Play offers an even more ominous version of grotesque couples, who repeat in excruciating detail a sordid account of marital infidelity. They desperately seek to enunciate the formulas that will enable them to escape the menacing tensions of existing with each other. Physically cut off from each other, buried to the neck in urns, they are decayed almost beyond recognition as human beings. The distinct sense of not only broken couples, but of cut-off bodies that are hardly figures at all, is altogether apparent.

Krapp's Last Tape, Happy Days, and Play communicate both mental and physical pain, which is centered on the various guises of love: domestic life, romance, but particularly in sexual love, where people are most sensitive, where the greatest damage can be done, and where the pain of living is felt most strongly. As a consequence, pain, excruciating and undiminishing pain, for which there is no remedy or alleviation, is one of the inescapable liabilities of human relations that these plays make obvious. They demonstrate how unexpressed griefs and anxieties can suddenly explode in inappropriate behavior or silently haunt the subjects, causing them to hide within emotional (and indeed physical) cocoons, or else to escape in a kind of psychic Lear-like flight to avoid their problems. Of course, with even the most cautious acceptance of change comes the shadow side, the fear of being cornered, of being inextricably redefined. With choice also comes entrapment. There is a closing off of certain avenues when one moves forward in time; the arena in which to play out one's fate may not necessarily get easier when firm decisions are elected about one's position in life, but it undeniably takes on a different form. And then there is the other specter: individuals all make new choices in the hope that they're for the better, but what if they prove to be for the worse?

One crucial question arises concerning the grotesque in these plays: why does Beckett portray couples whose relationships are awry? Part of the quandary no doubt stems from the peculiar anonymity of love itself. Those who are mentally stable can consciously choose to “forget” traumas and disappointments and come to terms with their past. By contrast, the rhythmic racket in Play suggests a grotesque “score” in three-quarter time. Similarly, the validity of Krapp's “reporting” is often denied by his habits of re-recording, of self-selecting in his memories. Winnie's eccentric text paints a moving—if quirky—portrait of an unsatisfied and aging woman. Moreover, her strategy to maintain security is situated in denial.

The contents of Krapp's tapes, Winnie's monologues, and the “reports” in Play are not of such immediate interest as the modes of interchange that determine the style of their voiced expressions. In irritation they feel a need to bare themselves continuously; they are, at best and in spite of everything, exotic aliens who astonish their hearers like strange beasts. The respective drives and dodges of each rely on a variety of groundings in their past experiences. Krapp's Last Tape is a series of more or less free-standing narratives, framed by opening and concluding scenes in which Krapp declares certain large themes about his past that are only developed by contrast or indirection in the intervening narratives on the tape. The language is often infused with an intense energy, but the form the play takes makes it difficult to know what these energies arise from or tend toward. One hears of Krapp's reference to his unfinished masterpiece and of his “fire,” for instance, and yet remains skeptical about his fervor because his dramatic solemnity has been witnessed, along with the tragic framing of his humanity in the citational mode of his re-contextualizing himself on his tape. Plus, of course, Krapp's speech betrays his fear of time, lest it run out on him, counterpoised with reason, lest he act unseasonably out of such fear.

The figures in these plays are deeply disturbing as they dissect their pasts. The inability to communicate meaningfully is the fundamental fault line in each play, the gap that no connection can ever close. Every viewer, every reader, every critic, is cornered into feeling the awkwardness and alienation of being surrounded by subjects talking, trying to come to terms with change. Likewise, the sexual is not evaded; rather, it is related in an essential way to the subjects' need to control the isolation and physical deterioration that they feel. Indeed, the literally confined spaces and decaying bodies make this point even clearer, and in this manner, the intricate and subtle deployment of the grotesque depicts the profundity of frustration in intimate relationships. The critical problem here is not so much an interpretation of voiced memories as what the grotesque may yield to the readers' understanding of the subjects and why their voices are adrift. Over against this is posited the reality of suffering within partnerships. The deadly repetitiousness of a subject's phrases say one thing only: that loss is violent, especially as it surfaces in language.

Emotionally destitute, the non-consecutive form of talking puts usual notions of communication in question, a strategy appropriate to disrupting conventional responses in partnership. Winnie is one of the legions of women who for generations have married with the thought of being heard and listened to, and even enlightened through mutual sharing. The emptiness at the core of these plays, however, is not so much isolation; it is, rather, a circumscribed, thoroughly contemporary malaise preoccupied with the muted deaths of minor and guarded hopes, uncomfortably endured in bizarre and provocative landscapes. The vertiginous cant appears to be the subjects' sole means to break the round of humiliations and defeat on their way to extinction.

Clearly, the emphasis in these plays is dysfunctional relationships, emblematized above all by saturnine taunting. It is the absence of the other—either physical or emotional—that accounts for Krapp's and Winnie's need to substitute for an inadequate relationship the relationship of speech, at the same time that they manipulate objects for the more desired object—the other person. Hence the dramatic need for the tape and pocketbook routines. Winnie and Krapp transfer upon their objects feelings which originally applied to a beloved; thus she kisses her revolver and he calls his tape by name—“rascal” and “scoundrel” (12). They cling to objects whose real nature is less attractive than their actual value, and such objects are cherished as last-resort methods to master stability as they flounder in helplessness. As fetish pieces, the value of their objects is overdetermined, of course. Winnie's bag is invested with multiple significations, ones which are foregrounded in Act 2 because of her inability to use any object. The bag thus signifies constancy and even after Willie is gone, she speculates, “there will always be the bag” (27). And yet while her spouse is within her view in Act 1, like the compulsive binger, she cannot resist the urge to fish through the bag and “enumerate its contents” (32). Even looking at it brings on another urge to dive into it: “Perhaps just one quick dip” (32). In one of her forays she finds the revolver, and, like Krapp, calls her object by name: “You again. … Brownie” (33). She realizes, however, that when “words fail” (24), as they inevitably do, she must “not overdo the bag” (32).

No less important in the implications of the grotesque is gender. A striking evidence is Winnie's attire and Beckett's description of her as “well-preserved blonde for preference, plump, arms and shoulders bare, low bodice, big bosom, pearl necklet” (7). Why this bareness, this partial nudity? Perhaps more significant is Winnie's acceptance of outward attractiveness, as evidenced by her reliance upon beauty “aids.” Her incessant primping highlights all the more the contradictory and inconsistent nature of her speech, stuck as she is in a pathetically unsatisfactory relationship, as the mound seems to symbolize. Aside from the grammar of violence that sometimes punctuates her speech, Winnie seems to feel a certain pain in love that is too intensely personal and private to communicate adequately to Willie, as though sexual desire guaranteed emotional pain.4

An examination of the plays one at a time will provide examples of how speech functions between men and women when juxtaposed with their personal memories. The subjects carefully balance fantasy and fact as a condition of being constantly pulled, usually off balance, sometimes teetering wildly, and almost always tense. Indeed, the very desire to find a way to relax the tension is avoided, for neither fantasy nor genuine interchange is surrendered. In these works, togetherness is sought by very quizzical means, yet the yearning for an other is evident. The centrality of human relationships is so plain that the plays speak to those who wonder whether life without some bond to another is bound to lack some dimension.

Krapp's Last Tape asserts that perhaps the most haunting and painful qualities of partnership are estrangement and loneliness arising from unfulfilled physical and emotional needs. The play focuses on an aging man who struggles with the anger and frustration that attend his deepening awareness of mortality. Although Krapp is involved with another woman, Fanny, at 69 he still yearns for deeper gratification, something more. His obsessional routines with his tape recorder specifically demonstrate those of separation. Krapp is often touching in his vulnerability, in the way he remembers his former lovers in terms of the beauty of their eyes (“Incomparable!” [16]) and in the way their eyes stirred and unsettled him.

Although Krapp is not physically bound, his life nevertheless is confined to the space of his tape, for it is on the tape that he experiences regret, self-hatred and sexual passion. Such mixed emotions, canceling each other out and resulting in emotional paralysis, characterize his behavior. One wonders if this confinement indicates self-indulgence, or if it indicates a need for independence and self-assertion.5 From what is heard on the tape, it appears as if Krapp's idea of love consists in alternately rehashing romantic memories and anticipating a horrible future. In itself, the absence or unavailability of a partner, of course, may explain why Krapp clings to objects. His manipulation of his spool and the machine's forward and rewind, as well as his own disappearance behind the drapes and reemergence, is a paradigm of Freud's notion of the repetition compulsion as developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle.6 The taped voice says in effect: to be transitory is what we are. There is no new story to tell, nothing new to report. But to want it is to be separate, to be apart.

The tape recorder creates a curious vocal and perceptual condition, for the open microphone, like the open camera, creates not so much a frame as a window. The tape fuses various levels of voicing, linking the voice on the tape with the other voice at the microphone. Here, where the audience is eager for some action to get under way, Krapp's lingering over something seemingly formulaic and predictable (such as locating a spool and winding it around the tape heads) becomes irritating. At the same time, it primes the viewer for closer attentiveness to a work whose action will take place in minute particulars, nuances, overtones that are symptomatic of upheavals in the depths of the memory.

The narrative movement of the story on the spool is organized by a series of time disruptions. When one considers to what degree Krapp switches the controls to fast forward, then to play, then to fast rewind; when one realizes how much his attempt to re-arrange time expresses his thwarted sexual desire and yearning for fulfillment, one senses the depth of his impairment. Krapp's amplified voice, replaying lost loves, suggests his failure more emphatically than dialogue between pairs.

Krapp's teetering gait, disheveled appearance, caricatured speech, and his fumbling with his keys and bottles is woven in with his inability to set up the tape expeditiously. To be sure, such idiosyncratic deportment parallels the nature of his voice when it speaks of desire for an other. Krapp does not listen to his tapes to take a realistic stock of himself; it is a mechanical habit, a ritual, a reason to obsessively brood. Little wonder, then, that Krapp's tape only strengthens the huge gulf between the past and the present. He confronts his various selves by means of the mechanical device, and the audience eavesdrops on his sexual regrets and confides not his satisfactions.

By way of crooked trails, Krapp resists the present through the past anterior, the having done. In this discordant tense, he communicates to a beloved through the tape, which he has preserved intact, for thirty years, his unfulfilled passion for another. If time cannot close those wounds, can memory do any better? Krapp apparently wants to keep the wound gaping, for at any moment he can simply reach for the tape and recycle a lost passion. The punt sequence illustrates Krapp's aberrant nature; it is all a subdued hysterical outburst, a scene that must be played in three ways: backward, to identify himself with his former self; forward, to anticipate his present, disappointed self; and in real time, to comment on his past and present selves. Apparently, Krapp can read himself only backwards. But does he ever modify himself from all his re-plays?

Krapp's incessant returns to the punt sequence stress the two-fold grotesqueness of his speech. By feverishly switching the tape controls to forward and rewind, Krapp reinforces the voice of the not-heard. The painfully not-heard exists, yet he is unable to put his finger on it, just as an amputee experiences real, yet phantom pain. Contradictory by nature, Krapp's retrospects on tape are distinctly I-centered. When he reads aloud from his ledger, which speaks of lost love, and then plays the tape that describes a love scene, Krapp's self and that on the tape are exchanged. One sequence begins, “Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing” (20). If it is never to be forgotten, why is there this great need to record and preserve it? If anything, Krapp's stage voice reveals his lack of will power, an indifference towards the somersaults of his inner life. The voice on the tape, by contrast, behaves with quiet skepticism, both towards his reasonings and the raving imperatives of his desires whenever it speaks of his memories of women. His asides, curses, and commentaries serve to conceal the ambivalent emotions that his present self feels. As he tapes, Krapp's voice is intense, linear, tough, angry, and, in its terrier-like way, impassioned—far removed from the warmer, grander, more magisterial voice that prevailed earlier on the tape when he was 39.7

The plot on the tape, on the other hand, seems to be a trauma manifesting itself, with its lightening-like intermittencies, and this voicing provides the only opportunity for Krapp to reincarnate himself in the repetitive scheme of the infinite possibilities that the recorder presents—if not a real world, at least a world filtered through the device of the plastic tape. In this way, Krapp's inner life is forced to yield his secret, which turns out to be a recurrent one in all his machinations: the illusory nature of aspirations to authentic action or living with another person—a real woman—in the here and now. One hears in the taped, voiced memory of Krapp as a young adult the neediness of the forgotten child curled within the psyche of the grown, and—for all one knows—once successful adult.

Krapp attempts to formulate a repository for his love in doubling himself on tape, but the tape resists, replaying a self-enclosed reality. In one sense, his fissured voices serve to salvage loss, for, combined with his intellect and a rare ability to remember events from the past is also a driving will, a determination to welcome sorrow. In this manner, Krapp unites in his person both inexorable self-will and the capacity for deep attachment, both appalling ruthlessness towards his former trivial errors and unswerving fidelity to a beloved who “agreed, without opening her eyes” that their relationship “was hopeless” (22, 27). In calling forth his other selves from the machine, Krapp's speech and memory, edited with mercurial commentary, conceal the corrosive emotions that his present self feels. Krapp is a divided metaphor: for all his self-scrutinizing, his exculpations are over-processed, unsatisfying—a craven business. Rather, he prefers his solitary den than risk the inevitable in commitment—an other who may not always be available.

In Happy Days, Winnie drones on endlessly about past memories—her first ball and kiss, a lake romance, her wedding, Willie's proposal, and, curiously, Willie's suicide threats. Her most dependable strategies involve her husband Willie, the contents of the sack he gave her, associative memories, sporadic quotations, and the composition of her “story,” all of which are as useless as Krapp's bottle to bolster her up. Like Krapp and his tape, she wants to compartmentalize her experience, and the mound and the handbag reflect this desire for containment. The texts of both plays confirm that meaning is not like that, that one cannot separate or parcel out experience.

Winnie protests: “There is so little one can do” (22). Yet her pseudo-ceremonial ejaculations exacerbate her already threadbare association with her spouse. True, she speaks to Willie, but she rejects him as an individual, much less as her spouse. Buffoon-like, she pokes him with her parasol and cracks his head with her carelessly tossed empty medicine bottle. Winnie indiscriminately clings to objects (such as her toothbrush and especially her revolver) and invests power and authority in them through her verbal relations with Willie. Willie seems willing enough, as his name and sexual puns suggest. The couple's peculiar relationship expresses that togetherness need not be hindered by confinement, for intimacy is primarily mental.8 Winnie feels that her spouse's physical urges are unimportant, but his obscene postcard, however, signifies that his head is no less critical than hers. That his head is visible lends significance, moreover, to the fact that Winnie's sexual parts are buried, and their absence makes a crucial point.

Winnie's self-congratulatory speech confirms her insensitivity toward her spouse's presence. Early in the play she declares pompously, “Ah yes, if only I could bear to be alone, I mean prattle away with not a soul to hear” (20-21), and yet a few minutes later she pleads, “I beseech you, Willie, just yes or no, can you hear me, just yes or nothing” to which he answers, “Yes” (25). Following this interchange, she shifts to self-pity and sarcasm when Willie does not respond to her when she comments: “Well I don't blame you, no, it would ill become me, who cannot move, to blame my Willie because he cannot speak” (36 [my italics]). Like many women who lead extremely rigid lives, she is liable to grandiose soliloquies as she mutters abuse for Willie's supposed shortcomings. Such talk taxes their companionship and further isolates her. That she suffers because he is absent stems from a need to be witnessed; thus she creates companionship for herself through her voice. Winnie's conduct is based on a voiced narrative, a means at once of denying intolerable contradictions that lie hidden beneath the surface of her marriage, and of constructing substitute truths on the very ground cleared by such a denial. She reminisces aimlessly to pass the time, but her memory sometimes fails her—“what are those wonderful lines” (10). Doubtless, those wonderful lines are a cover-up for something else; namely the cries: “No no, my head was always full of cries” (56). She does not have the words to express her pain, but she has “cries.” Expressed here is the truth that trouble with expressing pain is one of the hallmarks of couples who aren't in tune with each other.

What is less well appreciated is how Winnie's preoccupation with rehearsing her past frequently results in her complicated use of the future perfect tense rather than the simple present. The audience is first introduced to Winnie and then to her memories. The title ironically implies this; they were happy days and they have a voice—two voices actually: Winnie's personal, private one and other enigmatic ones—the “cries” in her head—closely embedded in the text of the first, and mute without them. If, in fact, the “cries” had not offered her new subjects, she would have nothing to recount and would probably never have emerged into words.

The play is peppered with verbal glimpses of her past: little Mildred's “rape” by the mouse, the Shower-Cooker couple observing her, and her talk of her breasts. These reminiscences demonstrate the conflicted nature of Winnie's sexuality. Using language as the principal means to suppress herself, Winnie seems to adhere to a strict code of feminine behavior according to turn-of-the century conventions, conventions in which physical contact was to be endured, not cherished. Her unyielding forbearance, however, occasionally gives way to moments of grim humor. Indeed she is a likable survivor, yet she is a woman who vacillates between sympathy and ambivalence as she relates to her spouse. She laughs at Willie's pun on the emmet's “formication,” yet she berates him later about his explicit postcard. Whether her confinement is purposeful or is the result of fate is not stated, yet one is tempted to think that the mound represents a symbolic move into a separate bedroom, given her behaviors and speech mannerisms. In her distress, Winnie is given to disparage Willie's diversions. In contrast to her own array of paraphernalia, Willie has few objects—a hat and handkerchief, a newspaper, and a lewd card which he appears to take pleasure in and “relish,” as he gazes at it from varying angles.

The business with Willie's postcard is a minuscule scene, yet it leads Winnie further along toward the loss of her connection with her mate. She takes issue with its contents:

Heavens what are they up to! (She looks for spectacles, puts them on and examines card.) No but this is just genuine pure filth! (Examines card.) Make any nice-minded person want to vomit! … What does that creature in the background think he's doing? (Looks closer.) Oh no really!


Winnie's protestations indicate her ambivalent attitude toward sexual behavior; she paradoxically desires physical closeness and yet places it in abeyance. If the material on the card is “pure filth,” why does she examine it so very closely? Why is it necessary that she take up her spectacles and bother to take one “(Last long look)” since its contents are fairly obvious at a glance? Indeed, she appears to show intense interest in such matters; otherwise, she would not have asked her spouse to hand it over for inspection. After poring over its contents, to Willie's impatience, she finally deems it unworthy of touch (returning it between forefinger and thumb), sight (averting her head), smell (pinching her nose in disgust) and speech (dropping it with a final “Pah! … Take it away!” [19]).

Further, Winnie's torrent of words reveals her difficulty with love as she continually steers between monologues and haranguing her mate. That is not to say that her need for Willie never existed, yet she treats him as some sort of pariah by nagging him. Although it could be argued that Willie sometimes provokes Winnie, her invectives reveal her passive-aggressive interaction with him. For example, she belittles his intelligence as though he were a child or small pet with simple-minded directions and name-calling:

go back into your hole … Go on now, Willie … That's the man … Not head first, stupid, … That's it … right round … now … back in. … Oh I know it is not easy, dear, crawling backwards, but it is rewarding in the end.


When Willie hides behind his newspaper, Winnie behaves petulantly; she fusses with her appearance—does her nails, hair. Nothing. She wants to generate chitchat and so inquires about her toothbrush. Winnie rattles on about nothing; she has nothing to say, but she voices on another level in order to tell Willie that she is speaking to him, in order to say: I am speaking to you, you exist for me, I want to exist for you. She wants that reciprocality of which Sartre speaks: “To speak is to pass over words in silence. But this invisibility of the Word obviously implies a deep understanding between those who are communicating.”9 Winnie's nothing has a multiple function: her rattling is her means to escape her unending present; it also permits the discourse to stand without saying anything (by saying nothing); and it lays bare the incontrovertible banality of her life.

More importantly, Winnie's nothing exposes her penchant toward cruelty. For example, when she says, “so much to be thankful for—” (11); or, “That is what I find so wonderful, that not a day goes by—(smile)—…—smile off)—hardly a day, without some addition to one's knowledge however trifling …” (18), all that talk also reveals a deep-seated anger directed at Willie. During the climax of her story about Little Milly's “rape” by the mouse, she feels that Willie is not listening, and so projects her irritation onto him in a fresh outburst: “Willie! (Pause. Mild reproach.) I sometimes find your attitude a little strange, Willie, all this time, it is not like you to be wantonly cruel” (55-56). Winnie's verbal abuse reveals her as the physical embodiment of Congreve's aphorism that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.10 Her cloaked taunting damages her marital relationship more than if she were to assert her dejection openly. Already Willie has affirmed her by simply being there. Clearly, Winnie ardently yearns for companionship with Willie, yet she runs the risk of losing him altogether in failing to recognize that her mate's standoff behind a wall of newspaper is his way of quietly ignoring her tyrannical talking at him. One leaves the play pondering if Winnie ever sees that dishonesty about feeling arises from concern with image—that striving to impress is based on insecurity. Profoundly ironic, Happy Days is a darkly comic satire on marriage, and about couples whose communication is severely depleted of meaning.

Play is a daring drama whose language is even more violent than that of Happy Days. Here, where the subjects are unrecognizable, speech, repetition, and musical structure bridge the gap between the masked figures, forming the discursive frame for the grotesquely visible. Saint Augustine's famous motto, first used in Waiting for Godot: “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved; do not presume, one of the thieves was damned,” is the dialectic upon which Play is built. It generates the symmetry of despair and hope that characterizes the trio's misshapen language. After all that they suffer, they find themselves still confronted with perils not less but far more formidable than those through which they have so narrowly made their way. Prior to their present purgatorial anguish, the subjects emerge from a scene of ruin and moral havoc the like of which had never darkened their imaginations.

The choric structure of Play is the linchpin by which the subjects recount terrifying impressions from their former existence. The threesome are drawn together by their experiences of having everything come to nothing; of finding that even the simplest routines become acts of will, self-created bulwarks against a sense of isolation and futility. They have no dreams for the future; it is all they can do to live in their present purgatory of unremitting torment. To appreciate the grotesqueness of this work, one must explore the aleatory roles of pain and mental anguish that constitute the detached communication among them. Play probes the individual's dark interior, its disturbing nether-world. Secluded, occluded, and excluded, the subjects extend the limits of discourse, regardless of whatever anxieties it may produce. This drama discloses how a subject's disconnected existence and identity is dependent upon a voice whose nature is ambivalent and problematic; how the structure of their delirium is the manifestation of social isolation and marginalization, or, even possibly, madness. In the fragmented codes of their speech, shattered forms of everyday communication are laid bare. Play explores the pathological in language and how it may be the prime agent of danger in communication; how a middle course in language adopted from a desire for safety may be found to lead directly to the bull's-eye of disaster; it shows how absolute is the need for clear communication to maintain partnership, irrespective of the ebb and flow of personal whims. If two people run away from each other, it is surely not to separate utterly but to flee the watching self.

Using the fragmentary form, Play challenges the boundaries between how a subject speaks words and how words “frame” the other. Gregory Bateson11 first developed the concept of “framing” to indicate how fleeting misunderstandings disrupt what individuals mean to say and how they understand what others mean to say. The “frame” form thus questions the limits between the literal and the implied. With the obsessive rigor that has always marked his writing, Beckett returns to the themes that have haunted his work since the beginning: writing, death, and the grotesque body, but here the figures around whom his discussion turns are the chimeric voice and the insular self.

The metaphor with which Beckett employs the frame in Play is gaming, or, as the title implies, playing with words. Fragmentary speech is a play of limits, a play of ever-multiplied words in which no one word ever takes precedence. Through the randomness of the fragmentary, the relation of speaking to the spoken, the displacement of the self, the temporality of life, and, specifically, sexual transgressions of the self towards oneself or others is explored. In a world without past or future, the lack of hope removes urgency from the usual verbal games the voice plays with itself to fill linguistic voids. Where nothing is certain, language itself begins to dissolve. Not only does the voice contradict itself, but it also repeats its words. So it is that the adulterous affair of m and w 2 had all “been … just play” (54). That w 2 suffers because her lover retreats in his wooing stems from her need to be seen; hence, she whines to her companions: “Is anyone listening to me? … They might even feel sorry for me, if they could see me” (55-6).

Play's text is grounded in erroneous perceptions of speech to emphasize the problems incurred by individuals whenever their language veers towards corroded images of the past. On the one hand, the gap between the real and the grotesque is linked by memory, “accounts” of the past, verbal abuse, cynicism, and repetition. On the other hand, the demonic neutrality of the subjects' speech enables them to project onto each other the image of the grotesque. The voice is marked in Play by diatribes and gossip to which they cleave relentlessly. As the light bathes each figure locked in a purgatorial urn, it forces them to rehearse, in hyperbolic expressions, a life gone sour. In addition, the “hellish half-light” is not consoling; rather, it hardens the subjects' features and emphasizes their isolation. Play contains no memorable characters, no great scenes. People, in its view, are puppets engaged in bizarre, unordered scenes, most containing no more than repetitions of jagged dialogue as they chronicle their frantic destinies. These marginal subjects are secondary to the atmosphere: the silences suddenly descend upon conversations of the waking dead. Only the most primal emotions crack the Novocained facades of these vagabonds, blind to everything but their own sense of self-importance.

Love is the other, contrapuntal theme in Play about souls who cannot wrest themselves free of pervasive ennui, botched opportunities and the right truth uttered at the wrong time. In a remarkable scene, Beckett translates the uncanny into homely, even physical, terms, as w 1 says: “Judge then of my astoundment when one fine morning, as I was sitting stricken in the morning room, he slunk in, fell on his knees before me, buried his face in my lap and … confessed” (48). A passage like this gets down to a kind of bedrock, an irreducible affiliation, between people. It is not the tale of infidelity that matters nearly so much as the manner of its telling, and, more precisely, the inability of these anatomized souls to keep from speaking, to express themselves, to account for their torment.

Then too, the spotlight, instrument of publicity, conjurer of presence, coercer of the expressible, holds the three in their rehearsal of what their lives came to, of what life comes to. What is happening in Play is a curious phenomenon in which the non-linguistic mediums of thought are mental images that differ from the verbal sequences in that they are triggered. The subjects “picture” their former love-triangle, and then recount the ensuing visual images as they advance into language when provoked by the spotlight. Each account indicates that the progression of images is directed not only by the subject matter entertained but also by specific contingent properties of the particular image—the “smell” (48) of w 2 by w 1 for example, or w 2's image of herself “doing [her] nails” (49) just as m's wife comes calling. The shape of the image then initiates the image of another object or event sharing that form or color. One can envision a sequence of a subject first verbalizing the “affair,” then proceeding to ideations of shame, revenge, or passive-aggressive maneuvers: “Give up that whore … or I'll cut my throat”, quotes m of his suicidal wife (47). M further recounts his wife's desperation, reporting that she “had a razor in her vanity-bag” (49-50). The image of the affair then fades into guilt and self-pity; when the original “thought” returns to the verbal medium, it follows with something quite self-conscious, such as one's appearance, as its next topic.

Similar patterns have been noted in sequences of frames in animated movies, hence the cartoon-like presentation and text built around clichés in this play. Often such sequences progress not so much in the narrative content as in commonalities in the graphic form. Stripped of its content and reinterpreted, they lead to a new, unrelated content. The form in Play becomes the grotesque. Elisheva Rosen explains that “the first episode in the history of the Grotesque [is] linked to the appearance of the word “grotesca” from the Italian grotta—cave.”12 This neologism was used metonymically for the ornamentations on ancient graves. As Grotesques existing in death-urns, they emerge as imitations of something prior. The question Rosen raises is:

Where and how can the Grotesque be placed? … what place can be accorded to something concrete, a recognizable phenomenon with no ascribed place of its own? One can guess the answer: the dream or the nightmare, the fantasy or the delirium; the Grotesque can only belong to the shadows of night.


In obscurity, a no-place, Grotesques receive a new life and space—a topos of Purgatory. In a darkness interspersed with blinks of the terrifying beam, light serves not only as a powerful lens for self-perception, but it also exposes dying relationships—scenes of attrition between people. The Grotesques embody both a promise of freedom (an eventual way out through speech and confession) and a foreshadowing of chaos—since they repeat themselves, since they cannot “settle down,” since they interrupt each other. There is also the way in which the very structure of the Grotesque calls attention to them; as ornaments, they are both too noticeable and too expressive. They upset the organization of a figurative system and the hierarchy on which it is based. In employing subjects as Grotesques, the emphasis is that humans go astray when they talk, so there is a built-in noncommunication.

Play has a violent edge with its theme of sexual encounters that are at odds. The play's technical brilliance captures the formal elements of light and the compositional form of the chorus to create an emotional battle in which the sorting out of guilt, relief, longing and pleasure is visualized as part of the process of grief. It appears that the figures find no comfort in finding a fellow sufferer, a companion in abandonment. Insinuating charm, capriciousness, and wily femininity characterize w 1 and 2, while m exudes a strong sense of self-loathing.

Given the muted palette of the atmosphere, and the flour-white, ghoulishly impassive faces, these “masks” intone stony hymns of suffering and deprivation that elicit no visible reaction. When the light resumes, and the subjects in crypts revert to verbal spasms and twitches, Play possesses the magnificent, yet horrifying, grandeur of a Greek frieze. Yet it also seems to have been plucked out of time and place, and signifies damnation without end. Consequently, this double perspective produces a stunning dual effect. The incantations are hopeful rituals summoned up to restore a faith in speech and to visualize their prior lives, while the recitals of the past recur not so much for specific details as for a slavish security they now provide in their present derangement. The past offers a view of measurable, wrapped up order, marred though it was. Life had its place, once upon a time, and its own clear rules. That they broke those rules is quite another matter. Now, it is all confusion. Small wonder, then, in their perplexing environment, that they should be drawn to repetitive, verbal battering. For however tenuous or conditioned it may appear, their voices indicate that they endure two contrary miseries: to suffer the others' visibility, and to suffer the others' invisibility. They are doubly wretched, yet they never seem to weary of provoking one another.

Is there a purpose in this seamless flurry of activity between light and voice? Is one to assign to light and voice a duplicity to their visualizations? In a crucible of grief and mourning, dark and luminous effects are calculated to heighten the suggestion of a fine anguish, of people aloof and enigmatic and set apart. Among the countless factors that contribute to the speakers' negative perceptions of themselves are the visual images that they conjure up. All the clandestine emotions of rejection and jealousy imprint themselves on their textual, verbal “faces,” until they accuse each other of bad faith. Cliché as truth enables them to withstand their desolate present, but the fact is that many couples act out love-hate relationships. When m's first utterance exposes the love triangle—“We were not long together when she smelled the rat” (47)13, a reverse fairy tale is recited, barbarously at odds with their present horror. It is in the cruel remarks, those thrust upon the story by w 1, for instance, (“Pudding face, puffy, spots, blubber mouth, jowls, no neck” [50]) that strike viewers as most urgent. Also, audiences sense that they participate as accomplices, in collusion with the subjects' violence and cold-bloodedness.

At its strongest, Play clarifies the subjects' states of mind; the dreamlike images remain in their imaginations as symbols of their inner struggles. At times, the figures are overtly melodramatic, and, with melodrama, as in dreams, one always flirts with the disparity between appearance and reality. W 1's statements are replete not only with melodramatic overtones that dramatize that the parts are more important than the sum, but also with the recurring motifs that deal with the way people submit to each other: “Then I forgave him. To what will love not stoop!” (49); and yet, a few lines later, w 1 states, “When I was satisfied it was all over I went to have a gloat. Just a common tart. What he could have found in her when he had me—” (50). The frightening thing echoed in these lines is that ordinary people do terrible things. W 1 alternately threatens to kill herself or passively indulges in self-pity—she takes to her bed—“stricken for weeks” (52) rather than express her anger openly. Afterwards, she transforms her verbal wrath into overtly aggressive behavior. She drives over to “her place. It was all bolted and barred. … I made a bundle of his things and burnt them. … All night I smelt them smoldering” (52). Although the images are modified by the different contexts in which they are seen, the subject of this work remains the violence of the spirit.

Shock and blunted feeling suffuse the figures in the urns, as, one might argue, they do in terrorist occupied camps. Strangely, it is in the violent episodes—even the gratuitous ones—that they seem most at home. The cruelest remarks are the most vigorous, as m's comment, “God what vermin women” (51); or w 2's lewd retort to the light, “Go away and start pecking at someone else”; and w 1's coarseness, “Get off me! (53).

Play can be understood as a polyphony of pathological sex refined down to a skeletal framework. The theme of adultery is not presented straight away. Instead, one hears its outline in the form of its bass line (the opening Chorus), first by itself, and then decorated in a three-part texture. At last the theme appears, when m explains his wife's protestations followed by five or so variations of diverse incidents, the most being melancholy and quite somber. The fugue style of the Chorus is succeeded by two final repetitions of the main theme and a final cadential phrase by m, as he began, “We were not long together—”closed finally by the Blackout (61). The space surrounding the expressionless faces consists of drabness, offsetting their sense of futility. The simplest diction is everywhere employed, and this laconic declamation is organized into blocked-out set-speeches and choruses. The play is small in scale, violent in density and intensity of character, and strongly involved in the re-creation of the act of speaking. The “ultimate reality” of the piece is to be found in the solution, the da capo (no solution of course). The chorus is characterized by its direct engagement of each figure's relationship to speech, stripped of everything but its immediate impact as sound, or, more precisely, “percussive-white-noise.” The texture of the voices is polyphonic, composed of three voices. The “soul” of the work is in a severe declension of light and dark which gives rhythm and terrifying structure to their speech. The notion that one can act on another but not exact anything from him or her is posited through language, which commands the subjects' speech into a dependency with that of their fellow subjects.

During the second running of Play, the spectator hears and visualizes yet another linguistic version in the da capo. The da capo results in a new vision of the play, as described by Alec Reid: “The words themselves remain exactly the same; it is we who change.”14 When the subjects' moral fiber is shaken by physical deterioration and confinement, they turn their gaze and language in on themselves—their lowered voices become substantially more brutal; they alone inflict suffering on themselves with malice towards what lies ahead, perhaps an endless da capo, more painful, of course, than a cessation of the ability to speak, or see. Like Giacometti's trio of walking figures, they look straight ahead. Nearly touching, they remain, however, apart.

Play exposes a complicity between confessional voicings and the tedium of an unending future. It speculates on persons who are appallingly unable to refrain from speaking, who are doomed to rehearse their tales of sexual disappointments for the drama's main purpose: to manipulate the voice in all possible permutations. The text that their lives have become never allow them to find a solution through language. And the circular movement of the da capo distinguishes itself even more thoroughly than the recited confessions as a device through which one visualizes the tainted scene of the trio's basic needs; that is, compromised sexuality mirrors the whole of existence, but it is hardly ever acknowledged. These thematics of unspoken desires and ill-expressed disappointments posit a new view of insecurities intrinsic and even necessary in human relations. What remains in the voices is the “thrust toward the truth about our condition: that it consists in enactment, presence, the painful necessity to remain visible.15 The Grotesque reinforces an attentiveness to the voice to comprehend human existence, for beyond speech are words with their traces of truth, se body lies elsewhere.


  1. Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape and other Dramatic Pieces (New York: Grove, 1958). Citations will be made in the text.

  2. Samuel Beckett, Happy Days (New York: Grove, 1961). Citations will be made in the text.

  3. Samuel Beckett, Play in Cascando and Other Short Dramatic Pieces (New York: Grove, 1964). Citations will be made in the text.

  4. S. E. Gontraski, The Intent of Undoing In Samuel Beckett's Dramatic Texts (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985) observes that “the system of human attraction, sexual desire, is also the system of emotional pain, the contingency of sexual desire” (93). Cf. A. Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin, 1970): … “sexuality becomes for man a source of brief pleasure and protracted suffering” (45).

  5. See Gabrielle Schwab, “Genesis of Subject, Imaginary Functions, and Poetic Language” New Literary History 15.3 (Spring, 1984): 453-73. Schwab contends that the body image resembles the transitional object as defined by D. W. Winnicott in that it helps a child overcome anxiety and gain independence. Krapp's tape seems to function in a similar manner, but, of course, his image of himself differs dramatically on the tape.

  6. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: Liveright, 1950) 17. Freud explains the play of children in their play offort/da, where the child imitates with a toy its mother's disappearance and return.

  7. Ruby Cohn “Beckett Directs,” in Just Play: Beckett's Theater (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980). Beckett eliminated Krapp's clown make-up and endowed him with worn-out rather than farcical clothes in 1969 (245) to make the character more human. Other humanizing efforts was the avoidance of “the high-pitched quaver of the conventional stage old man …” (248).

  8. See Leo Bersani, “The Pleasure of Repetition” in The Freudian Body (New York: Columbia UP, 1986), 51-78. Bersani states: “the identity between pleasure and pain, and the profound link between sexuality and destruction, are hidden, we might say, by the analogy with an opposition, an analogy which reduces sexuality to yet another manifestation of the impulse to stasis” (63).

  9. Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Pantheon, 1963) 43.

  10. In many ways Happy Days employs devices from restoration comedies of manners: Winnie's name suggests innocence; her speech is punctuated with sentimental memories and snippets of literature; she is obsessed with her appearance; the items in her purse are beloved fetish pieces, used not for their use value as much as the prestige she confers upon them. Coquetry and slyness are blended together—“Was I once lovely?”; “Am I so much as being seen?” Her behaviors are not so much manners as mannerisms: her smile goes on and off, her piety is automatic.

  11. Gregory Bateson, Steps to An Ecology of the Mind (New York: Ballantine, 1972) 82.

  12. Elisheva Rosen, “Innovation and Its Reception: The Grotesque in Aesthetic Thought” SubStance 62/63, Vol. XIX: 2/3 (1990) 126. Beckett did not imagine the subjects in Play as dramatic “characters”; rather, diverse ideas and experiences for which they are emblems run through the plays: song, praise, surrender, transformation, suffering, death. Sometimes the point of view is startling with love/hate co-existing. As a musical piece, Play is improvisatory: rhythmless bars are voiced by themselves, without a rhythmic impulse.

  13. Note the use of the mouse and rat images in both Happy Days and Play. For an extended comment on the at as psychic image, see C. G. Jung, “The Functions of the Unconscious” in The Symbolic Life in The Collected Works, 18 trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1976) 106.

  14. Alec Reid, “From Beginning to Date: Some Thoughts on the Plays of Samuel Beckett,” in Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Criticisms, ed. Ruby Cohn (New York: McGraw, 1975) 71.

  15. Richard Gilman, “Beckett,” Partisan Review, Volume XL 1: 1 (1974) 76.

Further Reading

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Bernstein, Stephen. “The Gothicism of Beckett's Murphy.Notes on Modern Irish Literature 6 (1994): 25-30.

Considers Murphy as an example of “gothic revisionism,” arguing that in this novel “Beckett dismantles the scenario of middle class married bliss positively envisioned in the endings of such earlier gothics as The Castle of Otronto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk, and The Italian and suggests instead that such an existence is where horror truly resides.”

Caselli, Daniela. “Beckett's Intertextual Modalities of Appropriation: The Case of Leopardi.” Journal of Beckett Studies 6, no. 1 (autumn 1996): 1-24.

Uses the critical concept of “intertextuality” to discern the “presence” in Beckett's works of the writings of the nineteenth-century Italian author Giacomo Leopardi.

Cook, Albert. “Minimalism, Silence, and the Representation of Passion and Power: Beckett in Context.” Centennial Review 38, no. 3 (fall 1994:) 579-88.

Discusses Beckett's increasing use of minimalism throughout his writing career in relation to the “maximalist” traditions of James Joyce and Marcel Proust.

Davies, Paul. “Three Novels and Four Nouvelles: Giving Up the Ghost Be Born at Last.” In The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, edited by John Pilling, pp. 43-66. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Explores the tension between Cartesian empiricism and Jungian mysticism in several of Beckett's works.

Gordon, Lois. The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, 250 p.

Studies how the events of “the world from 1906 to 1946 formed the man who would create the definitive literary forms of our time.”

Miller, Tyrus. “Improved Out of All Knowledge.” In Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars, pp. 169-203. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Views Beckett's works from More Pricks Than Kicks to How It Is as examples of “late modernism,” which, Miller explains, “no longer found the redemptive pretenses of modernist art credible.”

O'Hara, J. D. “Proust.” In Samuel Beckett's Hidden Drives: Structural Uses of Depth Psychology, pp. 13-33. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

Discusses Beckett's major early influences and their effect on his essay Proust.

Oppenheim, Lois. Directing Beckett. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994, 320 p.

Comprises interviews with directors of Beckett's plays and essays on various productions of these works.

Rabinovitz, Rubin. “Samuel Beckett's Revised Aphorisms.” Contemporary Literature 36, no. 2 (summer 1995): 203-26.

Considers multiple meanings in the aphorisms that appear in Beckett's works.

Additional coverage of Beckett's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 1; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography, 1945-1960; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 130; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 61; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18, 29, 57, 59, 83; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 13, 15; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1990; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors, and Novelists; Drama for Students, Vols. 2, 7, 18; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Guide to French Literature 1789 to the Present; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 15; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 16; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism.

David D. Green (essay date autumn-winter 1995-96)

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SOURCE: Green, David D. “Beckett's Dream: More Niente than Bel.” Journal of Beckett Studies 5, nos. 1-2 (autumn-winter 1995-96): 67-80.

[In the following essay, Green presents Dream of Fair to Middling Women as a critique of the novel form.]

Written in the summer of 1932, Dream of Fair to Middling Women entered the world inauspiciously as a hastily produced work by a young Irish poet and translator living in the Trianon Hotel in Paris. For thirty years the novel, unpublished and unnoticed, languished as a quarry for more successful endeavors. During the next thirty it became accessible to the curious in the libraries of Dartmouth College and Reading University, and as a consequence, received occasional attention in critical studies. In recent years, however, it has appeared in prominent stacks on the display tables of bookstores in suburban shopping malls, where it has more likely bewildered than delighted the unsuspecting customer. And this remains, even after sixty years, the point. For the excesses and anomalies of Dream [Dream of Fair to Middling Women]—the flippant disregard for orderly transition, the effusive, self-conscious interjections of theory—all proceed either directly or indirectly from Beckett's intention to use this novel to critique the novel, to put forward, in Lyotard's phrase, “the unpresentable in presentation itself.”

This attack on the conventions of fiction principally consists of an ironic treatment of the paradoxical nature of an art form whose content is unchangeable yet dependent on the illusions of progressive time, particularly, the spontaneous freedom of the narrator and his characters. We are introduced to this strategy early in the novel when the authority of the narrator to determine the outcome of the story is brought into question by his inability to exert control over his characters, who exhibit an uncooperative desire to create their own destinies. In responding to this rebellion within the ranks, he imagines an ideal situation where his characters could be blended as agreeably as the notes of musical harmony:

If all our characters were like that—liŭ-liū-minded—we could write a little book that would be purely melodic; think how nice that would be, linear, a lovely Pythagorean chain-chant solo of cause and effect, a one-fingered teleophony that would be a pleasure to hear (which is more or less, if we may say so, what one gets from one's favorite novelist). But what can you do with a person like Nemo who will not for any consideration be condensed into a liŭ, who is not a note at all but the most regrettable simultaneity of notes.1

(Dream, 10-11)

Since the Chinese and Pythagorean notions of harmony were based on numerical ratios discovered through the observation and measurement of the cosmos, this comparison between the order of the characters and the harmony of the notes indicates a correspondence between the order of the novel and the order of nature. The connection is reinforced by the phrase “chain-chant solo of cause and effect, a one-fingered teleophony.” The use and probable coinage of the word “teleophony” (derived from the Greek télos, which means “end” or “fulfillment”) suggests that ideally the characters would be synchronized according to a causal design, a complete and discernible order of creation. Their anarchic exercise of independent wills therefore calls into question not only the individual instance of the narrator's ability to create a harmonious work of art, but less directly the possibility of any correspondence with, or even the existence of, an intelligible universe.

Yet we know that on another level the anarchy of Dream is also an illusion. The narrator's lack of control is not the author's lack of control. And as a character under Beckett's control, the narrator is established as an acolyte of conventional expectations only to be reformed. His early hope that “some at least of our characters can be cast for parts in a liŭ-liū,” gives way to disillusionment as he confesses “we are neither Deus enough nor ex machina enough to go in for that class of hyperbolical exornation” [to cause two characters to come together to reproduce]. And he is soon turned into a skeptic of the very control he had desired to wield:

To read Balzac is to receive the impression of a chloroformed world. He is absolute master of his material, he can do what he likes with it, he can foresee and calculate its least vicissitude, he 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 wherever needed or staying going at whatever speed in whatever direction he chooses. The whole thing, from beginning to end, takes place in a spellbound backwash. We all love and lick up Balzac, we lap it up and say it is wonderful, but why call a distillation of Euclid and Perrault Scenes from Life? Why human comedy?

(Dream, 119-20)

For Beckett's narrator the “spellbound backwash” is an artificial recess where freedom and unpredictability are arrested, the so-called “reality” that is represented by geometry and mimetic art. In place of Balzac's “clockwork cabbages,” wound up by an omnipotent author, he offers his own “refractory constituents” as something chaotic, incapable of being apprehended, and described as “a stew of disruption and flux,” with a tendency “not to combine, but like heavenly bodies, to scatter and stampede, astral straws on a time-strom, grit in the mistral. And not only to shrink from all that is not they, from all that is without and in its turn shrinks from them, but also to strain away from themselves” (Dream, 119).

This criticism of Balzac's authority is, like the internal parody of the liu-lius, a criticism of the metaphysical conception of the universe behind it, in this case, a mechanism or system set in motion by a master clockmaker. By endowing his characters with a willful defiance of the authority that gives them presence, Beckett shifts the emphasis from both the authority and presence of an eternal order to the appearance of an unfettered potentiality marked by the deferral of presence alluded to in the difference between the characters and themselves in the final line of the passage above.

What emerges from this picture is essentially that, when called on “for a little strenuous collaboration,” the characters of Dream, the Alba, the Polar Bear, Chas, Nemo and Belacqua prefer to forsake their roles as “permanent lius.” They refuse to be pieces in the grand puzzle, statues in an eternal tableau. But more positive descriptions of them prove difficult, for in straining away from themselves they strain away from the categories of presence. The only character we get to know in any depth is Belacqua and in one of the more enlightening of the sporadic discussions devoted to the hero we find him contemplating his “modus vivendi” vis-à-vis the challenges of sensitive love. Fully identifying with neither term in a series of contraries, he chooses rather the neutral differences between them: “That was the modus vivendi, poised between God and Devil, Justine and Juliette, at the dead point, in a tranquil living at the neutral point, a living dead to love-God and love-Devil …” Belacqua defies not only the determination of a narrative authority, but also the narrow exclusivity of the terms by which he would be defined. “For me,” he continues,

the one real thing is to be found in the relation: the dumbbell's bar, the silence between my eyes, between you and me, all the silences between you and me. I can only know the real poise at the crest of the relation rooted in the unreal postulates, God-Devil, Masoch-Sade (he might have spared us that hoary old binary), me-you, one-minus one. On the crown of the passional relation I live, dead to oneness, nonentity and unalone, untouched by the pulls of the solitudes …

(Dream, 27-28)

By refusing to be associated with either term of these oppositions Belacqua is undermining the facile but deeply rooted divisions of experience into “unreal postulates,” the conceptual assumptions that order metaphysics. The relation between things, the neither-nor, is not a thing, neither God nor the Devil, neither good nor evil, neither self nor other, but an uncharted interval that differs and defers indefinitely.

Midway through Dream we find a more complete description of Belacqua presented as a pastiche of philosophical ideas not unlike the description of Murphy occurring midway through Beckett's next novel. This extended portrait begins with a simultaneous affirmation and denial of the character's fundamental (and opposing) tendencies regarding love, but the denial, rather than canceling these tendencies in a logical fashion, is added to them: “At his simplest he was trine. Just think of that. A trine man! Centripetal, centrifugal and … not. Phoebus chasing Daphne, Narcissus flying from Echo and … neither” (Dream, 120). Consistent with the paradoxical nature of human affection, Belacqua is split between the lure of an outward love and the peace of an inward love. Phoebus, or Apollo, is the active, extroverted god associated with the enlightening powers of the sun and described by Ovid as an aggressive suitor of Daphne. Narcissus is the unattainable object of Echo's love. But lying an ellipsis away, like a sting in the tail, is the negation of these personae.

This alternative to opposition, personified as the “third being” and later as the “third Belacqua,” is first presented as a “dark gulf” of unbroken indolence free from the “glare of the will” as well as from the conflicts involving Eros and Anteros. And though alive and capable of “quiet cerebration” he is also without the “pull and goading” of identity. Nor is he measurable in physical terms, being “without axis or contour,” and having a “centre everywhere and periphery nowhere.” Just when the length and detail of this description would convince us of the priority of this person, we are told that he is no more real than his counterparts, that in fact “there is no real Belacqua.”

When seeking to return to this blissful state beyond the will, Belacqua discovers it to be less accessible than he would like, and he is put in the paradoxical situation of having to call upon his will to effect some relief from the influence of his will. But after forcing “the lids of the little brain down against the flaring bric-a-brac,” and attempting to move his “coanaesthesis to enwomb him,” he comes to the conclusion that it is “impossible to switch off the inward glare, wilfully to suppress the bureaucratic mind.” How, he asks, can he “mechanise what was a dispensation,” how can the will “be abolished in its own tension?” There is no solution. Belacqua must remain

for all his grand fidgeting and shuffling, bird or fish, or, worse still, a horrible border-creature, a submarine bird, flapping its wings under a press of water. The will and nill cannot suicide, they are not free to suicide … And that is his wretchedness, that he seeks a means whereby the will and nill may be enabled to suicide and refuses to understand that they cannot do it …

(Dream, 123-24)

Because the willful aspect of Belacqua can neither command nor subsume the will-less aspect of Belacqua, and because the will-less cannot prevail over the willful—because the two are too distinct to merge and cancel each other—Belacqua cannot escape a heterogeneous border existence. Appreciated in an earlier context as a modus of choice, the middle ground is now presented as a terrifying hybrid. The irony of this latest twist is that the willless state had promised a union of being beyond the oscillation between Phoebus and Narcissus (“here names only, anything else would do as well, for the extremes of the pendulum”) and in the end proved to be nothing more than another element in oscillation with an opposite of its own.

The obvious structural similarities between these oscillations and the progressive cycles described in “Dante … Bruno.Vico..Joyce” suggest Beckett's continued interest in the creative ways these four authors dealt with the intractable oppositions of metaphysics. The essay begins with an account of Vico's idea of society moving forward through a process of cyclic evolution. And this idea, responsible for the dynamic of Work in Progress, was itself indebted to Giordano Bruno's notion of the coincidence of extremes, which allowed, for example, the maximum of corruption to be identified with the minimum of generation. As the last figure in this particular sequence, Joyce contributed the example of a literary artist who applied the philosophic and historic schemata of his predecessors to the structure and content of his fiction. To illustrate this achievement Beckett cites the description of the character H. C. Earwicker (“Earwigger” in the essay), who, like Belacqua's company, “is not content to be mentioned like a shilling-shocker villain, and then dropped until the exigencies of the narrative require that he be again referred to.”2 His eruption in a transgressive demand for narrative presence, marked by an “elemental vitality and corruption of expression,” determines the form of the novel by lending it a “furious restlessness.” Beckett commends this organic conjunction of form and contents as “admirably suited to the purgatorial aspect of the work,”3 which is another way of saying that this union of classical incompatibles and the vitality it produces contribute to what he sees as a defining pattern of generative conflict in the novel. Whether the terms were the antinomic elements embodied by Earwicker's twin sons Shem and Shaun, or simply “large contrary human factors,” Joyce had developed a means of presenting his narrative in a way that avoided the static conventions produced by a formal deference to the fixed order of an imitable presence.

The originality of Beckett's own response to the philosophical, historical and aesthetic contraries of this tradition becomes clearer as we consider the use he makes of particular ideas in the writings of Bruno and Dante. Most often recognized in Beckettian circles for his theory of the coincidence of contraries, Bruno's reputation as a philosopher principally rests on his opposition to Aristotle's separation of matter and form and the associated notion of a transcendent, rather than immanent, design in nature. For Bruno content and form were different aspects of one substance and the final cause was to be found in matter and not in something external to it. In the fifth dialogue of Cause, Principle and Unity he expands on the ramifications of this monistic view of reality in what has been described as an “exaltation of the unitary principal, asserting that all aspects and contradictions are merged and resolved in it: part and whole, century and instant, point and body, center and circumference, maximum and minimum.”4 It is significant that the phrase “its centre everywhere and periphery nowhere,” which Beckett uses to describe the third being of Belacqua, is borrowed without alteration from the monadic description of the universe in this dialogue.5 By juxtaposing this precise expression of unitary being with the oscillations between internal and external manners of being, Beckett would appear to be describing Belacqua in terms of a metaphysical dialectic. On one hand he is presented as a duality of the Platonic/Aristotelian tradition, while on the other, as a monad of the tradition that sprang up in opposition to the divisions of the Greeks.

But, as Beckett pointed out in “Dante … Bruno.Vico..Joyce,” there is danger in the “neatness of identifications.” The problem, diagnosed by Belacqua early in the novel, lies in the “unreal postulates” that force our thoughts into artificial dichotomies. Like Derrida's trace, this character cannot be circumscribed by the logic of either/or. In fact the Derridean ‘undecidable,’ as described by Richard Kearney, shares a number of points in common with Beckett's depiction of Belacqua:

In order to wrench the concept of the trace from the classical scheme that would derive it from an originary presence, Derrida declares it an ‘undecidable’ irreducible to the either/or logic of Western metaphysics. This logic was based on the logocentric practice of binary opposition and functioned according to three main principles: (1) the principle of identity (A is A); (2) the principle of non-contradiction (A cannot be non-A); and (3) the principle of the excluded middle (truth is either A or non-A). Derrida subverts this binary logic of either/or into a deconstructive logic of both/and—or to be more exact, of neither/nor. In this manner, he deconstructs decidable concepts into undecidable traces that are never identical with themselves, which harbor meanings other than themselves within themselves, thus contradicting themselves, differing from themselves, operating under erasure.6

The narrator's claims that there is no real Belacqua, that Belacqua is both Phoebus and Narcissus and neither, that Belacqua is in fact a “horrible border-creature” flout each of these fundamental principles in the logic of metaphysics. And this is precisely why the description of Belacqua in Dream is so elusive. He is both the “purgatorial” and the “limbese,” and is neither the “purgatorial” nor the “limbese.” From the character's point of view both have their advantages and disadvantages; though he may prefer to escape from the importunities and calamities of his inward and outward desires, his identity depends upon his eventual return to the willful aspect of his being.

The description of Belacqua as unfaithful to his indolent self when “squatting in the heart of his store, sculpting with great care and chiseling the heads and necks of lutes and zithers …” (Dream, 121-22) is meant to remind us that Beckett's hero is modeled on the sedentary maker of musical instruments in the Divine Comedy. Together with the references to Beatrice, this identification is perhaps the most unmistakable evidence of Dante's presence in Dream. But there are other, less obvious, connections. In the middle cantos of the middle volume of the Divine Comedy—at the very center of the poet's carefully constructed realm—Beckett would have discovered Dante's poetic interpretation of the arguments used by the Scholastics to justify the ways of God in an Aristotelian universe divided into primary and secondary causes. That this interpretation is rendered through a treatment of free will, the sin of sloth, the three general categories of love, and the dream of the siren leads us to examine Beckett's own handling of these subjects as a similar attempt to come to grips with the conflict between transcendent and individual wills, and ultimately with the problem of individual presence in a world governed by a preeminent power.

For anyone writing a poetic treatise on the theme of perdition and salvation, the question of free will is of critical importance. How, for example, can a person be punished or rewarded for actions that are ultimately determined by a pre-established order? Or in what way can a person be said to exist if his or her actions are inextricably bound to a universal impetus? On cornice three of purgatory Dante asks the spirit of Marco Lombardo whether the cause of the iniquity of the world is to be found in the heavens or on earth, and after gentle remonstrance is told that though physical causes may initiate our movements, our understanding of good and evil allows us to exercise our freedom within “the greater power” that has created all things (Purgatorio XVI:58ff.).7 True freedom, which Dante refers to elsewhere as the “yoke of liberty,”8 therefore does not involve the emancipation of the individual will from the direction of God, but consists rather in obedience to the higher law of His righteousness. Because such obedience requires both willingness and understanding, Virgil attempts to clarify these conditions when prompted by Dante's inquiries concerning the sin of sloth. In an extended discourse on the relationship between sin and love, he argues, essentially, that there are two types of love, natural and elective and that the latter, by offering the individual choice, is the source of every good and evil action. It is good when it is directed toward God or secondary goods in “right measure,” and it errs when directed toward either an object of evil or of good with “too much or too little vigor” (Purgatorio XVII:82ff.). Purgatory, we learn, is organized according to the various ways elective love is inappropriately applied, which are generally characterized as love perverted, love defective, and love excessive. The first of these includes pride, envy, and wrath, the second, sloth (which Beckett, unlike Dante, associates with indolence), and the third, avarice, greed, and lust. So when our elective love, in the exercise of free choice, is directed too much towards ourselves, not enough towards our God, or too much towards secondary objects, we err, and are responsible for our error.

In the opening lines of the nineteenth canto we find an illustration of the hazards of misapprehending an evil object in the episode of the dream of the Siren. Here Dante encounters a woman “stammering, with eyes asquint and crooked on her feet, with maimed hands, and of sallow hue,” whom he transforms through his own self-deluding desire into an enchantingly lyrical creature. The spell is broken by the intervention of a holy lady representing the light that can discern good from evil in the objects of our inclinations, and the demon-lover is finally disposed of by Virgil who reveals the foulness of her true nature. The message seems to be that we must be attentive to a human propensity to create what appear to be appropriate objects of desire from our needs, to deceive ourselves into believing that apparent good is the same thing as actual good.

As an inhabitant of a terrestrial purgatory, between what the epigraph of the novel refers to as the “joye in heven, and peyne in helle,”9 Beckett's Belacqua is vulnerable to similar deceptions and misdirections of desire. The first of the fair to middling women of his dream is the Smeraldina-Rima, halting in her use of English, “wobbly” on her feet, and cursed with “peacock's claws” and a “pale firm cameo of a birdface” (Dream, 15). She is also inordinately lascivious and is reported to have raped Belacqua. The second woman, the Syra-Cusa, possesses a body “more perfect than dream creek, amaranth lagoon,” (Dream, 33) but she is excessively self-centered, living, as Belacqua tells Lucien, “between a comb and a glass” (Dream, 50). The third of the three women, the beautiful Alba, insouciant and loved as a “she-devil,” bides the days “alone, unlonely, unconcerned, moored in the seethe of an element in which she had no movement” (Dream, 166). These portraits of the sirens of Belacqua's dream as erring, respectively, through too much love for another, too much love for oneself, and not enough love for anything, correspond to Dante's three categories of inappropriate love as well as the three main levels of purgatory. And to some extent they reflect the Phoebus, Narcissus, and neither of Belacqua's own nature, although not strictly according to his relationship with each.

Protected and instructed by divine intervention, Dante was “free” to follow his will in accordance with God's will, to love in accordance with God's love. Belacqua, who is equally free to love, lacks the moral assurance of a transcendent authority. Like Dante, he associates the activity of love with the activity of the will, but uncomfortable with his will and uncertain about its objects, he is generally reluctant to exercise his freedom, to bear the “yoke of liberty.” When Beckett used this phrase as the title of one of his unpublished poems, he was referring not to an acquiescence to God's love, but to the snares tendered by a predatory beauty, an image that Lawrence Harvey has likened to the description of the Syra-cusa's body as “a coiled spring, and a springe, too, to catch woodcocks.”10 The problem, as the narrator of Dream laments, is that Belacqua lives in a world where the percipi is bound to the percipere, and, like the speaker of “Enueg II,” he has no means of distinguishing between his perceptions and the phenomena perceived. In a sense it could be said that in the exercise of his will he is wary of being apprehended by his apprehensions, of being yoked by the delusions of his own desire. Without an independent means of verifying the nature of the objects of his love, any woman may be a “hell-blond,” or “she-devil,” and even love itself, as he complains to the Alba, can be thought of as a “fiend.”

This is not to suggest that Belacqua travels through his purgatory entirely without aid or instruction. At one point in Dream he is shielded from the apparition of a succubus by a Virgil of his own, the German philosopher Schopenhauer, whose description of the “will-to-live” as the principal source of our guilt and suffering in the world is far different from DanteÆs idea of an individual will flourishing under divine guidance. In the final chapters of his principal work, The World as Will and Representation,11 he identifies the free will of the individual with the Fall, and therefore with original sin and all subsequent sin. As a consequence of individuation our view of reality is clouded with an illusion of the plurality of phenomena, the veil of Maya, as Schopenhauer calls it, and we are led to a futile struggle to secure or advance our personal identity through material acquisition and, most emphatically, reproduction.12 Relief from this struggle requires a denial of the self, a “seeing through the principium individuationis,” to recognize the unity of the collective will. Because necessity exists only for our phenomenal, or individuated, nature, real freedom is only achieved when we are able to give up the externals by which we are known (World II, 321).

Describing the possibility of this liberation from the delusions of the individuated will, Schopenhauer uses the same image that we found Beckett using in his description of Belacqua's hybrid being “flapping its wings” beneath an oppressive will (World II, 606). Later in Dream this image of freedom is reinforced by the possibility of escape from the coupling of the object to its representation (which leads to a purely external and therefore plural existence) in a flight “swallow-wise, through reefless airs for a magic land” (Dream, 161). The magic sought, however, is not a “milk and honey” heaven, but an absence of discrete wills harnessed by the “coprotechnics in which they are co-ordinate.” To get beyond the vanity and conflict of the “gowned poets and uniformed peasants” we must strip away their external layers, their “leathery tunics,” and then,

you find when you come to the core and kernel and the seat of the malady that behold it is a bel niente. Now there are few things more bel than a niente but considered as a premise, and be you Abbot himself, it presents certain difficulties in the manner of manipulation.

(Dream, 161)

The beautiful nothing, as the narrator calls it, is a quietism free from the divisive illusions of the surface. But it is also an obliteration of the handles by which we are accustomed to dealing with each other. In fact it is an obliteration of “each other.” Earlier in the novel the problem for the narrator was that the liŭ-liūs were flying off of their own free will, the difficulty now is that they vanish without it.13

As we ascend from the cornices of our critical descent and return to the terms of our original point of departure—the aesthetic and metaphysical conflict between a harmonizing will and an independent “free” will—we can appreciate more fully the thematic unity of Beckett's various illustrations of the problem in this novel. To free the individual will from the authority of an author who requires its individuation for manipulation, to release the will to its own unwillingness, its “bel niente” beneath or beyond the illusions of appearance, is to lose it completely. To consider the problem anagogically, in the context of Dante or Aquinas, is to confront the apparent contradiction of an individual who is separated from the pre-established order of his or her Author in order to choose to conform to that order. In what way can a necessary (for salvation) adherence to an eternal order, or logos, be consistent with the freedom of an individual and unpredictable will? Schopenhauer summarized the problem in more secular terms when he declared that the essential incompatibility between two basic purposes in our life is responsible for its enigmatic quality (as well as our suffering):

What gives our life its strange and ambiguous character is that in it two fundamental purposes, diametrically opposed, are constantly crossing each other. One purpose is that of the individual will, directed to chimerical happiness in an ephemeral, dreamlike and deceptive existence, where, as regards the past, happiness and unhappiness are a matter of indifference, but at every moment the present is becoming the past. The other purpose is that of fate, directed obviously enough to the destruction of our happiness, and thus to the mortification of our will, and to the elimination of the delusion that holds us chained to the bonds of this world.

(World II, 638-39)

Beckett's response to this conflict is embodied in his treatment of Belacqua, whose ontological portrait is a study of undecidability. As a character in a novel he is absolutely controlled by an author who allows him the illusion of a choice over whether or not to participate in the harmony of the “narratio recta.” Paradoxically, to decline his presence in the narrative, to resist conforming to an order that transcends his will, he must deny his will, that is, he must cease to desire, to love, to maintain an external character or individual personality. In short he must cease to be anything that may be known. But as long as the story goes on, this alternative to narrative presence cannot prevail. Nor can it be fully described. This is perhaps the ultimate “presticerebration”—a character who can relinquish his presence in an art form requiring his presence.

In this first attempt at extended fiction Beckett's writing is marked by a border existence of its own between the necessity of a puppet that is present on the page and the freedom from this necessity, approached through the inexpressible “bel niente.” By alluding to authors and philosophers who expressed a similar interest in the conflict between the preeminence of an eternal presence and the liberty of individual existence he enhances his work with a resonance of the irreparable breach between the transcendent and immanent in the history of our metaphysics. Like Derrida, he avoids confirming the breach by “simply residing within the closed field of these oppositions,”14 preferring the uncircumscribed interaction of contraries, particularly in the revolutions between the will and nill, desire and indifference. But the principal achievement of this first novel is its ability to provide a literary “non-site” from which to question the philosophical and psychological pivot of an inviolable presence at the core of our existence. In this respect it would appear to have much in common with the kind of writing Derrida described as circulating inside and outside of philosophy, delivering what philosophy cannot concede,

a writing interested in itself which also enables us to read philosophemes—and consequently all the texts of our culture—as kinds of symptoms … of something that could not be presented in the history of philosophy, and which, moreover, is nowhere present, since all of this concerns putting into question the major determination of the meaning of Being as presence, the determination in which Heidegger recognized the destiny of philosophy.15


  1. All references are to Samuel Beckett, Dream of Fair to middling Women, ed. Eoin O'Brien and Edith Fournier (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1993).

  2. Samuel Beckett, Disjecta (London: John Calder, 1983), p. 29.

  3. Ibid., p. 29.

  4. Five Dialogues by Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity, trans. Jack Lindsay (New York: International Publishers, 1964), p. 27.

  5. Ibid., p. 137.

  6. Richard Kearney, Modern Movements in European Philosophy (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), pp. 124-25.

  7. All references are to Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio, trans. Charles S. Singleton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977).

  8. In the Latin of Epistole VI, 5 the phrase is “iugum libertatis.”

  9. The slight, but significant, modification of the opening lines of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, appears to suggest a purgatorial alternative to the extremes of above and below:

    A thousand sythes have I herd men telle,
    That ther is joye in heven, and peyne in hell;
  10. Lawrence Harvey, Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 314, n. 138.

  11. All references are to Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne, 2 vols., 1958. Reprint (New York: Dover, 1969).

  12. Schopenhauer is quite clear about what he considers to be the harmful effects of sexual congress. “The occasion of the most vehement willing, the focus of the will,” he declares, is “the sexual impulse.” And he sympathizes with Augustine's view that “if all were to abstain from procreation, … the kingdom of God would be realized far more quickly.” See World II, 637, 618-19.

  13. Schopenhauer wrote that as a consequence of determinism, the world is “a puppet show worked by wires (motives)” (World II, 321). The narrative is no different. When the wires are cut the show is over.

  14. Jacques Derrida, Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 41.

  15. Ibid., p. 7.

Steven Miskinis (essay date winter 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8358

SOURCE: Miskinis, Steven. “Enduring Recurrence: Samuel Beckett's Nihilistic Poetics.” ELH 63, no. 4 (winter 1996): 1047-67.

[In the following essay, Miskinis examines Beckett's postmodern nihilism.]

In Proust, Beckett remarks, “by no expedient of macabre transubstantiation can the grave sheets serve as swaddling clothes,” a parenthetic comment that explains why the moments of the self's transition between different habitual adaptations to its world “represent the perilous zones in the life of an individual.”1 Beckett's comment could easily apply to his own oeuvre insofar as we place it within the broad context of the close of the historical epoch of Western metaphysics. Beckett's work then marks a transition that manifests itself by the increasing capacity to delimit, criticize and undermine metaphysical conceptions—including the conceptual framework within which Beckett's writing occurs. That Beckett's writing serves this very critical function is attested by the various post-structural methodologies which find in Beckett exemplification of their precepts.2 But, as Iain Wright notes regarding Beckett's affinity to contemporary theory, the “deconstruction of logocentric illusions” in Beckett leads to no “erotic jouissance” or “Nietzschean Froheliche Wissenschaft.3 On the other hand, looking at the contemporary critical scene, there is not much jouissance to be found anywhere, in part because liberational politics have themselves lost appeal as they have been found complicit with what they would overthrow. Within this perspective, Lyotard asserts, “the politics which ‘we’ have inherited from revolutionary modes of thought and actions now turns out to be redundant (whether we find this a cause for joy or a matter to be deplored).”4 In effect, grave sheets cannot serve as swaddling clothes, and as Beckett asserts in Murphy and repeats in Company, “Only the most local movements were possible.”5

What can grave sheets then serve for? What is one to do with what Nicholas Zurbrugg calls Beckett's “studied nihilism”?6 Beckett's nihilism is not something to be evaded, excused or simply criticized; it is integral to what one may call post-structuralism's very possibility. What this nihilism is and how it is experienced can be addressed by turning with fresh eyes upon the pessimistic vein that colors Beckett's fiction, a pessimism stemming from the acknowledged inescapability of writing within the aesthetically exhausted Western expressive tradition.

In order to gain fresh insight, I need to go back to the modernist predecessors of post-structuralism and commence with Heidegger and Nietzsche. These thinkers allow us to grasp Beckett's nonrepresentational writing within the context of time's passing away and, more importantly, of history's lingering and return. Representation, for Heidegger, is precisely the way the will wreaks revenge on that which can pass away: “Hence the will is the sphere of representational ideas which basically pursue and set upon everything that comes and goes and exists, in order to depose, reduce it in its stature and ultimately decompose it.”7 Free of representational thinking, “The will becomes free from what revolts it when it becomes free as will, that is, free for the going in the passing away—but the kind of going that does not get away from the will, but comes back, bringing back what is gone.”8 What passes away in order to be redeemed in returning is temporality itself, that which is through coming-to-be-passing-away, and which offers no ground of identity insofar as it is only present as a returning repetition of itself.

The sense of being as recurring assumes an historical dimension in Nietzsche's thought of the eternal recurrence of the same—the hardest thought for Zarathustra to bear:

And this slow spider, which crawls in the moonlight, and this moonlight itself, and I and you in the gateway, whispering together, whispering of eternal things—must not all of us have been there before? And return and walk in that other lane, out there, before us, in this long dreadful lane—must we not eternally return? Thus I spoke, more and more softly; for I was afraid of my own thoughts and the thoughts behind my thoughts.9

Why is this thought so hard to bear? In thinking recurrence, the overman loses whatever teleologic status it may have had in the wake of Christianity's overcoming. Worse, in its recurrence, the transvaluation of values effected by the overcoming must itself return as a resentment bearing stance that also needs to be overcome. The thought behind the thought that Zarathustra fears is the anticipated recurrence of his own thought in unrecognizable difference. It is this anticipation that must be assented to if time itself is to be redeemed:

I taught them to work on the future and to redeem with their creation all that has been. To redeem what is past in man and to re-create all “it was” until the will says, “Thus I willed it! Thus I shall will it”—this I called redemption and this alone I taught them to call redemption.10

By thinking the eternal recurrence of the same as redemption, Nietzsche in effect recognizes this thought as a recurrence of Christian redemption, but in difference. That is to say, Nietzsche embraces the contamination of his own thinking by what it would overcome. Nietzsche seeks to release himself from resentment towards Christianity's part in shaping the resentful aspect of Western culture by redeeming its messianic aspirations as the possibility of its own overcoming.

But this needs to be pursued further. If the eternal recurrence of the same is understood as redemptive, then Nietzsche determines his thought as revenge. Revenge returns insofar as redemption is recognized as having a vengeful lineage since Christian redemption arises out of a desire for revenge against the passing away of time. But for revenge not to recur in Nietzsche's thought, to will revenge as worthy of passing away, this decisive, redemptive distancing from revenge at the same time distances itself from a willing of the eternal recurrence of the same. Eternal recurrence of the same opens a horizon that is neither determinatively redemptive nor revengeful but indecisive, outside of decision.

We catch sight of this horizon in The Gay Science where Nietzsche expresses his contempt for those who contemn the world in favor of some place better and then turns upon himself in a moment of self-reflection: “But look, when we laugh like that, have we not simply carried the contempt for man one step further?”11 Since humanity is to rid itself of its worldly contempt by becoming all the more contemptuous of what it discovers to be its contemning nature, it becomes unclear how the overcoming movement differs itself from what it overcomes. Nietzsche's “terrifying Either/Or” reduces to a seeming indifference: “The latter would be nihilism; but would not the former also be—nihilism?—This is our question mark.”12 What decisively terrifies is the way the matter unfolds into a question of a difference outside of identity's clear parameters and which, in turn, is not to be dismissed as logically fallacious but is to be owned up to as our predicament. I wish to think Beckett within this predicament, or, rather, to mark the predicament as it unfolds in Beckett's writing.

I focus on Beckett's second “trilogy,” Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, and Worstward Ho; and of these three, I engage primarily with Company. Company does more than tell an untellable autobiographic story.13 In the interweaving of what critics generally recognize as its two opposing strands, labeled by Paul Davies as the “lyrical-memorizing” and “rational speculative,”14 Beckett raises issues which extend beyond (without eliding) questions of narrative propriety and psychoanalysis. Subjective expression itself becomes, in Company, the question of the subject viewed as a moment in a lineage's historical unfolding and transformation. The assertion crosses familiar ground: the subject in Beckett's writing is deconstructed. But to understand subjectivity historically, in terms of lineages which arise and change, the announcement of the death of the subject cannot simply dispose of the subject in favor of something else. Whether one can assent to or reject the lineage that determines one's possibility, whether one can successfully differentiate oneself from what one says no to, these are issues which will be pursued in the course of charting the way Beckett turns out of lineages which structure his writing. And this returns us to the question of nihilism: can one exchange the mystique of nihilism for a postmetaphysical outlook? Or is it precisely the nihilistic exhaustion of Western metaphysics which opens and even determines what follows metaphysics as its recurrence in difference?15

What are we to make of the juxtaposing accompaniment of two discursive strands that comprises the text of Company? Does one strand condition or determine the possibility of the other such that the biography the lyrical fragments would sketch remains interrupted by the skepticism of the rational voice? Here is the “rational-speculative” voice meditating on priority:

What with what feeling remains does he feel about now as compared to then? When with what judgement remained he judged his condition final. As well inquire what he felt then about then as compared to before. When he still moved or tarried in remains of light. As then there was no then so there is none now.16

Neither simply an assertion regarding the discontinuous nature of experience over which narratives impose linear continuity nor an affirmation of the relativity of all feelings and judgements, this passage thematizes their ungrounded nature.17 There can be no final condition or “etat sans retour” because all states achieve substantive shape only in relation to earlier conditions, a prior “then” against which they stand out definitively.18 Such definition is itself bound to be returned to since all “nows” will become “then.” The final sentence foregrounds this overtly temporal movement not in order to dismiss the past as unrelated to the present but to turn temporality upon itself in order that the conception of it which privileges the now as something present will not hold. There was no “then” then because “then” is a horizon, not a substance, presence, or “now.” Similarly, “there is none now” implies that, in terms of the “now,” there is no answer to the opening question of “what” is felt. What substance is now? The “none” is now as the now's substance or presence, a presence which cannot “be” insofar as it does not so much endure as return.

This passage returns, in a way, in a largely biographic passage given to recalling a rendezvous at a summerhouse with a lover. The subject recalls, while awaiting her arrival, how he had spent time here with his father as a child: “The years have flown and there at the same place as then you sit in the bloom of adulthood bathed in rainbow light gazing before you.”19 The passage closes with the lovers' face to face in an encounter that assumes the shape of return:

Your gaze descends to the breasts. You do not remember them so big. To the abdomen. Same impression. Dissolve to your father's straining against the unbuttoned waistband. Can it be she is with child without your having asked for as much as her hand?20

The present is defined comparatively; she “is” in difference from how she was at the last rendezvous. Further, leaving aside the psychoanalytic commentary this provokes, her pregnancy relegates the narrative's subject to the role of father. His now is a then, so to speak, and this is recognized by the return of his father's “then” as what is coming to be, figured in the swollen belly. In its way, then, the second passage could be said to illustrate concretely the first passage—if it were possible to illustrate a thinking which is nonrepresentational.

I want to suggest that there is an undetermined typological relation between the two strands of discourse such that each refigures the other. Although I do not have the space here to fully demonstrate this, the case gains further support with the coincidence of the subject's birth with Christ's death:21

Thus to take some example clear from above his upturned face, You first saw the light of day the day Christ died and now. Then long after on his nascent hope the murmur, You are on your back in the dark. Or of course vice versa.22

In a typological inversion, it is Christ's death (not birth) that prefigures the subject's birth, just as the lying of the infant in the crib prefigures what can be construed as the unrising corpse of the sentient subject lying in the dark, perhaps of his tomb.23 The point of all this is that typology offers itself historically as a way of relating events, but one that, displaced outside of a Christocentric view of history providentially oriented toward a final redemption, does no more than call attention to similitudes without being capable of meaningfully organizing them: “Or of course vice versa.”

Christian typology itself becomes available as a type of its own refiguration:

The need to hear that voice again. If only saying again, You are on your back in the dark. Or if only, You first saw the light and cried at the close of the day when in darkness Christ at the ninth hour cried and died.24

We can see the correspondence between Christ's sense of abandonment by God the Father and the subject's own desire to hear the father echoed in the flat monotoned voice: “In his turn he murmurs to the newborn. Flat tone unchanged. No trace of love.”25 Christian history, in this case, figures the psychology of modern familial relations and thus lends the latter a primordial, determinative reality (the son sacrifices [castrates] himself in order to identify with the father's law). Alternatively, one could argue that the breakdown of typological meaning, which is a breakdown of the representational order grounded in presence, is, at the same time, the breakdown of the traditional gendered hierarchy by which the male represents presence and the female represents difference or absence. Further, the family drama suggests that Christian history can be redetermined along gendered lines such that it becomes patriarchal history which now, in the throes of a passion without redemption, prefigures a new history, one which allows feminine difference to return in the wake of the father's monotone intonations. More possibilities could be elucidated, and each is contaminated with aspects of others. The text provokes these ruminations insofar as the repetitions of the text sustain typological relations without offering any ground or measure by which the figura or types can be decisively determined or interpreted.

The question of measure, as the standard that organizes the meaningful in relation to a final end which is simultaneously predetermined in its origin, is a central preoccupation of Company. The text has a richly meaningful structure in its variety of repetitions and returns which provoke the question of what grounds or organizes them. Without securing this end, the interpretive effort must retreat (as critics like Ellison recognize) before a story that remains only potential. The text presents itself as the provocation to organize meaningfully what must, in the final instance, decay into meaninglessness. Yet meaninglessness is as much a final end as the meaning the text can express after having secured a significant ground. Both presume the metaphysical field of the sign and are the negative and positive responses to the question of the possibility of the text's referentiality. But Company postpones the question of the end or ground, enabling a signification that is neither meaningful nor meaningless insofar as these terms imply an endpoint from which this judgement could be rendered. In foregrounding the question of measure or ground, the text brings its own grounding into question. But, at the same time, in bringing its own grounding into question, the text is still determined by the question of final ends and underlying grounds.

Critics are quick to notice that Company is full of measurings. But the workings of the “reason-ridden” imagination are not to be opposed to the moments of emotional recollection in the novel. This imagination, “A kind of its own,” is the subjective imagination which finds its first prominent spokesperson in Descartes and which is mathematical by nature.26 The subject of Company recalls the habitual crossing of a pasture that became experienced mathematically: “Thither from your entering the pasture you need normally from eighteen hundred to two thousand paces depending on your humour and the state of the ground.”27 The pasture itself recedes before what Heidegger calls “a universal uniform measure” which precedes the specificity of anything which might come to sight in a prior, abstract darkness:28

The beeline is so familiar to your feet that if necessary they could keep to it and you sightless with error on arrival of not more than a few feet north or south. And indeed without any such necessity unless from within this is what they normally do and not only here. For you advance if not with closed eyes though this as often as not at least with them fixed on the momentary ground before your feet. That is all of nature you have seen. … Unhearing unseeing you go your way.29

In this way, the external world becomes nothing more than a collection of signposts or landmarks by which at intervals one emerges from one's interiority to take one's bearings: “You used never to halt except to make your reckoning. So as to plod on from nought anew.”30

“The fleeting ground before your feet” is all that is seen and all that needs to be seen because true ground is now mathematical:31 “the mathematical wills to ground itself in the sense of its own inner requirements. It expressly intends to explicate itself as the standard of all thought and to establish the rules which thereby arise.”32 That ground finds expression with Descartes: “Cogitare is the presenting to oneself of what is representable.”33 The mathematical nature of modern metaphysics involves the securing of the world through representation, that is, by objectifying it. Representing finds its ground in the subject, as that before which all objects are secured in their objectivity.

In one of the recollections, we find an example of representational securing:

East beyond the sea the faint shape of high mountain. Seventy miles away according to your Longman. For the third or fourth time in your life. The first time you told them and were derided. All you had seen was cloud. So now you hoard it in your heart with the rest. Back home at nightfall supperless to bed. You lie in the dark and are back in that light. Straining out from your nest in the gorse with your eyes across the water till they ache. You close them while you count a hundred. Then open and strain again. Again and again. Till in the end it is there. Palest blue against the pale sky. You lie in the dark and are back in that light.34

In the face of disbelief, the child secures his own belief by making experience presentable as representable, and thus as something that can be hoarded away. In the mental, mathematical darkness of the subject, experience is seized by being relived explicitly as representation. The representational process secures the emotional vignettes which one might presume to oppose against the reason-ridden imagination of the intellect. This particular vignette begins: “The light there was then. On your back in the dark the light there was then.”35 It is impossible to determine whether the one on his back is the child remembering in his bed or the subject lying in darkness addressed by the voice. The incertitude foregrounds the repetitive refiguration of one in the other: the body in the dark that imagines at moments fragments of a life finds in that life a child lying in the dark imagining fragments of the life it lives.

The imaginative space of the entire novel is the immeasurable darkness of representation into which the subject withdraws away from the light of the world in order to be grounded in an interior light. Yet the securing of self-representation in the face of the vagaries of the world and the doubts of others encounters a corresponding incertitude in the very isolation it requires as ground. The close of the novel, “Alone,” reiterates typical Beckettian skepticism (with obvious Cartesian roots) of the subject's capacity to bridge the gap between itself and the world via representation. Doubt penetrates the very ground of the subject; the relation between the self and its self-presentation is tenuously represented by the disembodied voice which speaks to the novel's subject and addresses recollections to it, without ever coming to identify with it. To recognize this is not to suggest that Company seeks to bring language back to the world as if it were somehow missing from it in the first place. Rather, it is simply to see that the self-securing urge of representation is of a piece with the estranged, skeptical relation in which the subject finds itself with an objective world and with itself.

The fragment that ends, “What kind of imagination is this so reason-ridden? A kind of its own,” is followed by this brief one:

Another devising it all for company. In the same dark as his creature or in another. Quick imagine. The same.36

The immeasurable solitude of darkness becomes the solitude of a creature which in turn implies a creator or deviser: hence, company. While the reference to the deviser shows, in postmodernist fashion, the self-referentiality of this fiction as well as the divided nature of subjectivity, there are also theological overtones of an inquiry into the relation between creator and created. References to what comes to be called “the crawling creator” and his relation to the creature run throughout the novel;37 at one point they assume the form of a theological proposition thereafter made subject to pedagogic disputation in a parody of the discursive method of St. Thomas Aquinas: “Can the crawling creator crawling in the same create dark as his creature create while crawling?”38 This passage itself is preceded by “God is love. Yes or no? No,” which recalls 1 John 4:16: “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God and God in him.” The rejection of the latter proposition does not negate God but emphasizes a relation of (literally) darkened estrangement against one of loving immanence. The question of “Whether Love Exists in God?”, one of the matters of inquiry of Aquinas's Summa Theologica, arrives at the affirmative: “I answer that, We must assert that in God there is love, because love is the first movement of the will and of every appetitive power.”39 Love “is naturally the first act of the will and appetite,” and God's will, in turn, as the cause of all things, is the first cause.40

In rejecting God as love, God's will is implicitly rejected as first cause. But the point of all this is not to see how Beckett felt about the world in terms of theological scholasticism. Rather, in raising the question of the relation between creator and creature and then rejecting the possibility of a first cause with all its unifying implications, the novel moves repetitively across a space in which the momentary ground—in this case, the ontological grounding of all creation in a first cause—recedes.41 Whether one secures a grounding in a first cause or in the certitude of representational consciousness, the underlying need to establish a ground remains the same: “Quick imagine. The same.”42

Heidegger argues that the modern period is characterized by the liberation of humankind from doctrinal truth enabling “the free self-development of all the creative powers of man”; yet, “the essential Christian thought of the certitude of salvation” is not abandoned, but transposed into the question of “how we can attain and ground a certitude sought by man himself for his earthly life, concerning his own human being and the world.” This question in turn becomes the scientific question of method which produces works like Descartes's Discourse on Method.43 If we accept Heidegger's account, then “Modern culture is Christian even when it loses its faith,” insofar as the drive to ground truth and knowledge in certitude finds its lineage in the medieval Christian need for the assurance of salvation.44

Heidegger's account is helpful here because it expresses the awareness implied in Beckett's own work regarding the Christian lineage underlying the compulsion to secure methodological certainty. The famous sucking stone passage in Molloy evinces this obsessive concern with methodological certitude. In that passage, Molloy seeks a system of circulating the sixteen pebbles among his four pockets in order to insure he sucks each in strict succession, “being absolutely certain, as far as one can be in an affair of this kind, that I am not sucking the same stones as a moment before but others.”45 In the process of accepting no “half-measure,” Molloy goes on for pages “revolving interminable martingales all equally defective,” while “beginning to lose all sense of measure.”46 On the one hand, however trivial the practical goal of Molloy's mental exertions may be, at stake is the principle of representation which will insure, beyond the vagaries of the senses and empirical mischance, an abstract ordering of the stones, which succeeds in bringing each before Molloy in succession without requiring him to distinguish them by touch or sight. In this way identity is secured ideally. On the other hand, Molloy concludes by confessing, “And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end of time. For they all tasted exactly the same.”47 The securing of measure is at the same time a loss of measure insofar as methodical rigor is so tortuously achieved for such trivial ends. The very absurdity of the context, however, highlights that certainty in method, far from being an extraneous pursuit of the essential self, is fundamental to its very subjectivity: “But to suck the stones in the way I have described, not haphazard, but with method, was also I think a bodily need.”48

By contrast, Molloy's counterpart, Moran, instead of arranging sixteen sucking stones, finds that “certain questions of a theological nature,” which also number sixteen, “preoccupied me strangely.”49 And while Molloy's ruminations occur as an interval in his wanderings spent by the sea, Moran's meditations occur while journeying homeward “in obedience to Youdi's command.”50 Moran's measure lies in external authority; his incertitude resolves itself in points of inquiry concerning theological doctrine which itself remains certain. Molloy's liberation from the tyranny of the father's laws and doctrines enables the body to emerge as a new standard of measure. But as a standard of measure, the body needs to represent itself to itself and thus requires the assurance of method to secure its self-knowledge. Yet this very need to secure, the need for method, described as a bodily need, has a historical lineage—as the comparison with Moran makes clear. Indeed, the very attunement to bodily needs, as the return to a primordial ground, is contaminated through and through by the lineages that give rise to the impetus toward such bodily attunement. Returning to Company: the significance of all this is not primarily an historical concern regarding how Christianity has shaped modern culture; but neither does the prominence of Christianity in Beckett's writing serve a purely figurative function. Rather, the Christian elements emphasize that what is, is as having been, as the “then” returns in the “now.” Return occurs historically as the recurrence of a lineage in the process of differing from itself. Thus, the subjective imagination which is “A kind of its own,” at the same time finds itself owing its aloneness to the lineage from which it “borrowed” its urge to uncover itself as its own ground. In solitude, the securing of certitude occurs as recurrence and is thus company.

“Company” itself, as the novel's title, seems to refer to the occurrence of the self as this endlessly self-reflexive, involuted questioning:

For why or? Why in another dark or in the same? And whose voice asking this? Who asks, Whose voice asking this? And answers, His soever who devises it all. In the same dark as his creature or in another. For company. Who asks in the end, Who asks? And in the end answers as above? And adds long after to himself, Unless another still. Nowhere to be found. Nowhere to be sought. The unthinkable last of all. Unnameable. Last person. I. Quick leave him.51

“For why?” is the question of ground or measure. “Why?” asks what determines this situation, what conditions the way things are? But, “For why or?” revises the question. “Why in the darkness?” becomes “Why in another dark or in the same?”, a complication that maintains the grounding question even as it delays its resolution by enfolding it within another question. Similarly, “And whose voice asking this? Who asks, Whose voice asking this?” pursues the origin of a voice whose source necessarily recedes before the standpoint from which the voice can raise the question of itself. Yet against this, in the middle of the fragment we read, “For company.” Company describes the “or” appended to the “For why?” which delays the end of the inquiry with its complication, multiplying the possibilities and momentarily appearing to be an end in itself.

To be sure, “For company” is only a way station in a paragraph that concludes by reducing these possibilities in light of their unthinkable end. In the same way, the novel itself contracts in the end into its one finality, its underlying constant, that of self-alienated subjectivity:

And you as you always were.

This ending, however, is to be distinguished from the ending that is desired, which is also the beginning, the first cause which grounds the voice and can assume responsibility for all that moves in creation. We might also characterize this desired ending as death—the final cessation of the voice. As what is entertaining, diversionary or collateral, company occurs within the horizon of ultimate ends which give all that endures in time the character of what must pass away. Company itself is the “meanwhile” of the novel which is emphatically dismissed by its pessimistic close. But the ending itself must be resentfully pessimistic insofar as the liminal end it compulsively hopes for conditions everything else with a bitter weariness. It is only as diversionary that company can avail itself as an alternative experience:

Why not just lie in the dark with closed eyes and give up? Give up all. Have done with all. With bootless crawl and figments comfortless. But if on occasion so disheartened it is seldom for long. For little by little as he lies the craving for company revives. In which to escape from his own.53

But to escape from one's “own” is not to transcend it. Company marks a transition with no decisive difference, an interval between crawls, as it were. Where company itself becomes the “end,” experience assumes the shape of cyclic return. Such is the structure of the recollective fragment which situates the subject as an old man, leaning on his staff, with his back to the sea. Behind him he hears the sound of the waves: “Ever fainter as it slowly ebbs. Till it slowly flows again.” The passage commences within the liminal horizon of death: “A strand. Evening. Light dying. Soon none left to die.” But this is promptly rejected: “No. No such thing then as no light. Died on to dawn and never died.” The passage is rife with finitude, most beautifully evoked by the man supported by a staff in the midst of all this returning, himself the only thing clearly at a threshold and, at the same time, incapable of grasping anything liminal: “Moonless starless night. Were your eyes open dark would lighten.”54

The sentence echoes earlier passages concerning seeing the dark, and yet, in the context of an ebbing and flowing returning, avails itself of another sense. If the man would only look, he would see darkness limned as that which occurs as an ebbing and flowing difference with light (and vice versa). Yet such a vision would not bear the weight of the visionary; company enables only “local movements” which do not transgress limits or cross borders:

How current situation arrived at unclear. No that then to compare to this now. Only eyelids move. When for relief from outer and inner dark they close and open respectively. Other small local movements eventually within moderation not to be despaired of. But no improvement by means of such achieved so far. Or on a higher plane by such addition to company as a movement of sustained sorrow or desire or remorse or curiosity or anger and so on.55

There is no ecstatic, epiphanic or emotive transcendence except for the ec-stasis of temporality which gives all stasis as a returning upon itself. Similarly, there is no higher plane. Because the creator crawls in the same darkness as his creature, sharing a lateral relation in which the first cause exists as the repetition of what it causes, the possibility of the fall is excluded.56

Heidegger suggests that the way the self experiences itself is historically determined. The urge of subjective consciousness to secure for itself a standard of measure which insures the certainty of its self-representing devolves from the medieval Christian need of the assurance of salvation. In each case, the securing of enduring is sought. In Company, as the incertitude of being's presence is attentively foregrounded, the certainty of enduring is secured in the form of becoming's eternal return, emblematized in the interplay of light and dark and the ocean's ebb and flow.

But the need to secure begins to expire insofar as the personal perspective shapes the figuring of history. Against the sea's ebbing and flowing and the night's gradual dimming and brightening stands the old man supported by his cane. Recurrence becomes refigured in the feeble mental and physical efforts of the incapacitated. As that which cannot achieve an end, recurrence occurs within the horizon of death which renders pointless all that it brings to an end. Within this horizon, recurrence points up its own finitude. The eternal returns as the same in difference, but from the perspective of the mortal, what returns in its self-differing is bound eventually to return as unrecognizable. In this sense, the keeping company of what returns on itself is an expiring which marks the caesura of all identity. But expiration in this sense is not a passage or transcendence to a new being; it is merely recurrence that does not avail itself of securing under any aegis, whether of Being, diffèrance, or company.

Although company occurs within the horizon of mortality, it does not affirm the subject even though dying is experienced as the dying of the subject. The dying subject is also the dying of the subject understood as a consciousness of mind and body in their division. As such, the subject as much provides the locale within which the turn to company occurs as it provides the very certainty seeking impetus of that turn. As the turn into uncertainty, finitude comes to resonate at all levels so that the subject itself and its way of experiencing become apprehended within their finitude. The yoked yet divisive relation of body and mind is experienced as expiring at the novel's close when they come to repeat indeterminably each other's impotence.

Beckett's second trilogy may turn toward “a phenomenological use of language, so that any a priori subjectivism becomes untenable” as a recent critic, Carla Locatelli, maintains, but that phenomenologically demystifying view of language only becomes available against the horizon of dying, just as the light, in Company, becomes visible in itself as company within the context of desiring to see absolute darkness.57 The worstward movement of ill saying in the later fiction does indeed demystify representation in the very process of representing. But the very attunement to the temporality of signification occurs through an awareness of presence as what passes away. The phenomenological knowledge which Locatelli views Beckett as expositing achieves its phenomenological visibility through a willing of the passing of all enduring into nothingness:

Grant only enough remain to devour all. Moment by glutton moment. Sky earth the whole kit and boodle. Not another crumb of carrion left. Lick chops and basta. No. One moment more. One last. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.58

Of course, such a void cannot be known; the very desire to know the final end defers it. Nevertheless, the desire itself cannot be negated or sorted out as a dialectical moment in the process of demystifying all finality. Phenomenological knowledge only comes to light in a nihilistic fashion because its visibility occurs within a movement that desires cessation and that experiences itself as the weariness and exhaustion which accompany the unfulfillable hope of achieving an ultimate end or presence.

This experience itself has historical persistence insofar as it cannot simply be demystified. Feeling itself is something that recurringly endures: “What with what feeling remains does he feel about now as compared to then.”59 In the French this reads: “Que ressent-il avec ce qu'il lui reste de sentiment a propos de maintenant par rapport a avant?60 “What … does he feel” translates “Que ressent-il,” and loses the connotation of resentment that attaches to feeling, which in French makes it seem as if “sentiment” that remained, in its remaining, was ressentiment. What remains are the feelings of hope and despair that shape the experience of enduring. They structure the experience of becoming conscious of what determines one's possibility insofar as that determination is experienced resentfully. But they are themselves visible in their determinative role, and this visibility in turn is nihilistically in accord with the despairing exhaustion of their shaping force, as they too are taken up by the worstward movement of the writing: “Hope and despair and suchlike barely felt.”61 Implicitly attendant on this despairing of despair is the hope of something beyond it, but the exhaustion of despair coincides with exhaustion of hope. Put differently, if hope returns, it returns indistinguishably from despair; hope resurges only as a repetition which gives the lie to the advent of the marked difference that is hope's object.

The exhaustion of hope and despair plays out within the context of finitude which is epitomized by the man leaning upon a staff, head resting on his hands with eyes closed to the twilight spectacle overhead. The image of the bowed head recurs in the beginning of the passage where the subject watches the endlessly repeating movement of the watch hands: “Numb with the woes of your kind you raise none the less your head from off your hands and open your eyes,” and closes: “But unable to continue you bow your head back to where it was and with closed eyes return to the woes of your kind.”62 In these cases, the image points up human mortality which, in its finitude, closes the eyes and bows the head before the eternal return of the same which it can only encounter as the proximity of an ungraspable alterity. Eyes averted and head bowed, the old man repeats the posture of his younger self absorbed in the mathematical darkness of inner thought while crossing a field—but the later refiguration brings a reverential aspect that gives the experience the religious character of a mystery. In this way, the Christian experience of creaturely existence returns outside of any theology or Christian doctrine.

The end of metaphysics then, which coincides with Nietzsche's proclamation concerning the death of God and which is experienced prominently in Beckett's writing as the nihilistic exhaustion and dying of all ideals, nevertheless maintains what we might call a religious posture. One can see this same posture in Heidegger's thinking which sees the completion of metaphysics in modern technology's oblivious disregard for the question of Being. Heidegger calls Being “the mystery” which only promises itself in a self-concealing withdrawal.63 This mysteriousness is, arguably, the way of describing an attunement to what Derrida would call diffèrance—something that gives presence but is itself other to presence. As such, Being's mystery cannot be experienced within the representational thinking of modern consciousness which as “self-assertion of objectification wills everywhere the constancy of produced objects and recognizes it alone as being and as positive.” Heidegger immediately continues: “The self-assertion of technological objectification is the constant negation of death.”64 Mortals, capable of experiencing death positively as a “not” integral to experience, can find a measure other to presence and outside the self-assertiveness of representational consciousness, since the nihilation of death is the fissuring and exposure of this interiority. Thus, for Heidegger, the mortal, attuned to death, measures itself against the godhead. In the mortal's looking up to the sky for a trace of what withdraws of itself is an experience of the holy. So, too, with Beckett's image of the head bowed with eyes closed in infirmity before the twilight sky. Such experiences of the holy draw one toward the limits of subjectively experienced self-presence; in that finitude there is an experience of a proximate alterity that, as what cannot be subjectively grasped, can only be taken up by actively assuming the subject's inherent passivity.

For Beckett, there is no hint of gods returning, but attunement to what fissures presence and dissolves self-presence occurs within a milieu of religious posturings. In Ill Seen Ill Said, what story there is concerns the movements of an old lady from her cabin to a tombstone, presumably her husband's: “Head bowed she makes her slow wavering way across the snow.”65 In Worstward Ho, a skull, a man and a child, and an old woman are alternately depicted in various degrees of formlessness. The old woman is first simply “Head sunk on crippled hands.”66 Later the body is expanded to reveal a figure kneeling with back bent forward. By the novel's close, her stooping is contextualized as the “Stoop mute over the grave of none,” and comes to define all the forms depicted: “Same stoop for all.”67 The fragments of stories that are not so much told as glimpsed carry us into a realm of quiet vigilance and meditatively reverent attunement to mortality. These fragments are the posts around which the narrative voice pursues its endlessly self-reflective task. And this voice, in comparison to Beckett's first trilogy, has surrendered its hectic loquaciousness for a sparer, more reserved articulation.

Mortals cannot simply choose to think or will a measure that exceeds themselves, just as the thought of the end of metaphysics or the death of the subject cannot be accounted for by appealing to the resourcefulness of the subject. Yet the occurrence of the radical questioning of the subject and its agency within history must assume some experiential shape. In Beckett's texts, which post-structuralist critics of every stripe salute for the varieties of demystification which occur in them, there is nevertheless an accompanying mysteriousness. In proposing that we recognize a sacral quality in Beckett's work, I am not aligning myself with those who see in Beckett's darkness the flame of hope still burning. Nietzsche was able to recognize a seriousness of tone in scholarly treatises that allowed him to characterize them as ascetic. In a similar way, I am asking about the tone of rigorous demystification, as we encounter it in the late Beckett. The posturing with its ablative bowing and the barren landscapes sparsely described testify to an underlying sacral quality of demystification. The stooped bow is the way of comporting toward what is one's own (experienced explicitly as such) against a horizon of finitude which gives nothing as one's own in the alterity of everything's endless return. The subject assumes the proximity of this alterity in the passivity of the bow that reveres the distance. Such religiosity is not itself something to be laid hold of and demystified, as if Beckett had been caught in spite of himself. It raises as a question the whence that delivers the imperative to demystify—from where does demystification receive its urgency and prestige; what is its lineage? This lineage itself gives the ablative impetus of Beckett's fiction, even as it is shown for what it is, a way of experiencing, a posturing that has a lineage, that repeats, that expires.

All of old. Nothing else ever. But never so failed. Worse failed. With care never worse failed.68


  1. Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York: Grove Press, 1970), 8.

  2. For an account of the synchrony of Beckett's fiction with the works of Derrida, Blanchot, and Levinas, see Thomas Trezise, Into the Breach: Samuel Beckett and the Ends of Literature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1990). For an account of Beckett's synchrony with Lacan, see David Watson, Paradox and Desire in Samuel Beckett's Fiction (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991). The list can, of course, be amply extended.

  3. Iain Wright, “‘What matter who's speaking?’: Beckett, the authorial subject and contemporary critical theory,” Comparative Criticism 5, ed. E. S. Shaffer (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), 71.

  4. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1991), 7.

  5. Samuel Beckett, Murphy (New York: Grove Press, 1957), 2.

  6. Nicholas Zurbrugg, “Ill Seen Ill Said and the Sense of an Ending,” Beckett's Later Fiction and Drama: Texts for Company, ed. James Acheson and Kateryna Arthur (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), 156.

  7. Martin Heidegger, What is Called Thinking?, trans. J. Glenn Gray (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 93.

  8. Heidegger, Thinking, 104.

  9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (Kingsport: Penguin Books, 1984), 270.

  10. Nietzsche, Zarathustra, 310.

  11. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 286.

  12. Nietzsche, Gay Science, 287.

  13. See David R. Ellison, Of Words and the World: Referential Anxiety in Contemporary French Fiction (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), 137.

  14. Paul Davies, The Ideal Real: Beckett's Fiction and Imagination (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1994), 186.

  15. In a sense this is a very Nietzschean claim about nihilism. As we will see, however, there is no liberating exhilaration of overcoming implicit in all this.

  16. Samuel Beckett, Company (New York: Grove Press, 1980), 22.

  17. Ellison uses this passage to argue that it exemplifies relation as a fictional contrivance, and, therefore, argues against relating the two strands of discourse (136-37).

  18. First quotation from Samuel Beckett, Compagnie (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1980), 28.

  19. Beckett, Company, 39.

  20. Beckett, Company, 42.

  21. According to Deirdre Bair, Beckett claims he was born on Good Friday, 13 April 1906, although his birth certificate places the date a month later. See Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978), 3. Eric Levy also sees a prefiguration operating in the text. Levy is not as much interested with the content of the refigurations as with demonstrating their structural significance as a mimesis without object: “In Company, the archetype or paradigm is the pure reflection in the dark.” Levy also notes the Christian underpinnings of this structure and connects the narrator with an unrising Christ. But for Levy, the displacement of genetic narrative by prefiguration is also the displacement of temporal difference: “All the memories are prefigurations, analogies, of that unchangingness; they reveal a present that was always present” (“‘Company’: the mirror of Beckettian mimesis,” Journal of Beckett Studies 8 [1982], 103). We will want to attend to the difference which marks the always present as an always returning—and this includes the return of Christian typology.

  22. Beckett, Company, 15-16.

  23. Beckett, Company, 47.

  24. Beckett, Company, 55.

  25. Beckett, Company, 47. “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying … My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). The flat tone of the father's voice at the cribside is doubled in the voice that addresses the novel's subject: “Another trait the flat tone. No life. Same flat tone at all times” (20).

  26. Quotation from Beckett, Company, 33.

  27. Beckett, Company, 36.

  28. Quotation from Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, trans. W. B. Barton, Jr., and Vera Deutsch (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 269.

  29. Beckett, Company, 36-37.

  30. Beckett, Company, 37.

  31. Beckett, Company, 36.

  32. Heidegger, Basic Writings, 275.

  33. Martin Heidegger, Nihilism, ed. David Farrell Krell, trans. Frank A. Capuzzi, 4 vols., Nietzsche (Cambridge: Harper & Row, 1982), 4:105.

  34. Beckett, Company, 25.

  35. Beckett, Company, 25.

  36. Beckett, Company, 33.

  37. Beckett, Company, 51.

  38. Beckett, Company, 52.

  39. For a discussion of the religious subtext of Company, see Helene L. Baldwin, “Memories, Echoes, and Trinities in Beckett's Company,Christianity and Literature 32 (1983): 37-43. Lawrence Harvey shows, discussing Beckett's early poem Whoroscope, that Beckett saw Descartes in the context of the Jesuit scholasticism he broke with. See Lawrence E. Harvey, Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), 19.

  40. St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, trans. Father Laurence Shapcote, 2 vols. (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990), 1:120.

  41. “So love is called the unitive force, even in God” (Aquinas, 121).

  42. Beckett, Company, 33.

  43. Heidegger, Nihilism, 89.

  44. Quotation from Martin Heidegger, The End of Philosophy, trans. Joan Stambough (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 24.

  45. Samuel Beckett, Molloy, trans. Patrick Bowles with Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Press, 1989), 97.

  46. Beckett, Molloy, 95.

  47. Beckett, Molloy, 100.

  48. Beckett, Molloy, 99-100.

  49. Beckett, Molloy, 228. Angela Moorjani makes the connection between Molloy's sixteen stones and Moran's sixteen questions in Abysmal Games in the Novels of Samuel Beckett (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1982), 114.

  50. Beckett, Molloy, 228.

  51. Beckett, Company, 24.

  52. Beckett, Company, 63.

  53. Beckett, Company, 54-55.

  54. Beckett, Company, 54.

  55. Beckett, Company, 45.

  56. Further, to return to Aquinas, this lateral relation in which the same causes itself suggests that the creator and creature are of the same species: “Now it is clear that of two things in the same species one cannot per se cause the other's form as such, since it would then be the cause of its own form, since it is of the same nature in both.” Where this relation pertains, importantly, nothing like being can be caused: “Thus whenever a natural effect is such that it has an aptitude to receive from its active cause an impression specifically the same as in that active cause, then the becoming of the effect, but not its being, depends on the agent” (Aquinas, 535). Thus, company describes a theological situation in which nothing can be; everything can only become.

  57. Carla Locatelli, Unwording the World: Samuel Beckett's Prose Works After the Nobel Prize (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 163.

  58. Samuel Beckett, Ill Seen Ill Said, trans. by author (New York: Grove Press, 1981), 59.

  59. Beckett, Company, 22.

  60. Beckett, Compagnie, 28.

  61. Beckett, Company, 45.

  62. Beckett, Company, 57, 59.

  63. Heidegger, Nihilism, 226.

  64. Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), 125.

  65. Beckett, Ill Seen, 15.

  66. Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (New York: Grove Press, 1983), 10.

  67. Beckett, Worstward Ho, 46.

  68. Beckett, Worstward Ho, 9.

Julian A. Garforth (essay date autumn 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7127

SOURCE: Garforth, Julian A. “Translating Beckett's Translations.” Journal of Beckett Studies 6, no. 1 (autumn 1996): 49-70.

[In the following essay, Garforth analyzes the plays Beckett translated and produced for performance in Germany, finding in them variants in language, style, and meaning.]

Samuel Beckett is often described as a bilingual playwright, due to his having composed virtually his entire dramatic canon in both French and English. However, between 1967 and 1978, Beckett directed seven of his stage plays in German in Berlin, suggesting this attempt at categorisation is somewhat inadequate. Beckett claimed his productions were not intended to be definitive. Nevertheless, they have assumed a major role in the assessment of his work, both in Germany and further afield. In many cases, the German texts offer significant linguistic and stylistic variants, often including alterations that did not appear in any English or French text for many years. An obvious example appears in Krapp's Last Tape—and relates to the line “but I suppose better than a kick in the crutch” (KLT [Krapp's Last Tape] 61).1 While the French retains the same imagery, “mais sans doute mieux qu'un coup de pied dans l'entre-jambes” (LDB [La dernière bande] 80), the German text created for the Schiller Theater production was the first to incorporate Beckett's pointed emphasis on the tape recorder as a masturbatory aid for Krapp in the line “immerhin etwas besser als zwischen Daumen und Zeigefinger” (DLB [Das letzte Band] 40). This reasserts Krapp's position as a lonely old man, alone with a machine that allows him to relive his memories.

Elmar and Erika Tophoven provided the definitive German translations of almost all of Beckett's drama and assisted him in revising the German texts for his productions in Berlin. A modus operandi was initiated with En attendant Godot, whereby the translation was read out loud to Beckett, who followed the text in the original French, interrupting only “if he missed a repetition, an ‘echo’ or if he wanted to correct the rhythm of a sentence.”2 According to Ruby Cohn, Beckett's directorial work in Berlin always began with a “meticulous examination of Tophoven's German translation and subsequent correction toward his own English version.”3 Michael Haerdter's comments substantiate this claim: “He has worked over [the text] in Paris, together with Tophoven, his translator, and has brought along an improved German version.”4 While it would be impossible to analyse every aspect of these “improved” German texts, certain features are worthy of further consideration.

Tophoven claims that his problems in providing an accurate translation began with the titles. En attendant Godot was originally premiered in Germany as Wir warten auf Godot—the refrain uttered by the tramps on frequent occasions as their reason for not departing. Although the word “wir” was dropped from the German title after the premiere in September 1953, it served to underscore the general theme of waiting. Unlike the English translation and the subsequent, official German one, where the attention rests firmly on Godot, the addition of the “wir” relocates the emphasis, stressing that we as an audience are very much involved in the waiting process.5

Other plays raised more complex issues. While the French phrase, Fin de partie, evokes the mental image of chess—a game of deep thought and concentration, the German title, Endspiel, is more general and could relate to the final of any sporting event. Tophoven locates Hamm's phrase, “Da es so gespielt wird … spielen wir es eben so,” as being representative of this more general theme of playing that permeates the play.6 Beckett apparently preferred the generality associated with the German term, Endspiel, although one could argue that the English title, Endgame, which appeared a year later, marked a return to the chess allusion of the French.7

Even the shorter, ostensibly simpler plays presented problems. Describing his work on Footfalls, Tophoven recalls: “His verbal precision has led me to ask questions about German that I had never asked before. … Beckett's first suggestion was ‘Schritte’ (Steps), but that has overtones of ‘Fortschritte’ (progress)—not an image one would tend to associate with this particular play.8 While an English speaker translating into German might not be aware of such overtones, a German audience almost certainly would. The eventual solution was based on the central image of the pacing. As Tophoven explains, “It is also very important that these steps are heard. So we came to Tritte.9 The French title, Pas, again focuses on the physical aspect of the pacing, yet the word also reflects the frustration and inertia within the piece in its second meaning as the standard French negative, “not” or “no.”

Although Play was written in English, it was first published in German. The English title has a dual meaning, referring to a piece designated for the stage and also suggesting the concept of playing a game—in this case, the “game” of adultery. The German, Spiel, reflects this notion of playing and also has some overtones associated with acting—“eine Rolle spielen” for example. However, it is not commonly used to refer to a dramatic piece, other than in compound nouns such as “Schauspiel” or “Hörspiel” (radio-play). In contrast, the French, Comédie, conveys the idea of a theatrical play, but loses any overtones of playing. Hence in the French and, to a lesser extent, in the German, the duality of the English title concerning a play on the subject of playing is lost in the translation process.10

The problems facing Tophoven, however, were not restricted to conveying the various nuances of the titles. In addition to the standard complexities faced by translators, Beckett's texts create their own unique linguistic hurdles. In Tophoven's case, these were exacerbated by Beckett being heavily involved in the translation process. Despite having no formal training in the language, Beckett's knowledge of German was evidently sufficient to justify his considerable contribution to the final German texts. Indeed, in most cases, his revision work is credited in the Suhrkamp trilingual edition.11

One particular element that Beckett emphasised was the establishment of verbal patterns of repetition. Tophoven explains the most obvious problem facing them:

The possibility of repetition of consonants in French is not the same as in German, so I had to determine the frequency of a word in the text to know how important it was. I had to find the right degree of verbal echoes and ways of establishing them.12

In certain cases, these repetitions lent themselves more readily to German than the other languages. In English and French, for example, the words “carrot” (“carotte”) and “turnip” (“navet”) have entirely different origins. In German, they are based on the same noun; a carrot is a “gelbe Rübe,” a turnip a “weiße Rübe.” Hence the possibility of repetition is increased. While revising the German texts, Beckett aimed to improve these verbal patterns. In Happy Days, in the passage where Winnie talks about putting on and taking off her hat (HD [Happy Days,] 34), Tophoven had used two different verbs “aufsetzen” and “abnehmen” (GT [Glückliche Tage] 35).13 Beckett substituted the latter with the verb “absetzen” throughout this section, resulting in a repetition of the “setzen” root on six occasions—a feature he was unable to reproduce in the French, where the verbs “mettre” and “enlever” are employed.

While such immediate repetitions are obvious, in other cases, the “echoes” were more subtle. Tophoven explains:

At one place Gogo suggests that Pozzo's watch ‘ist stehengeblieben’; earlier Didi had said ‘Die Zeit steht’. … There are twenty pages between those two passages in the text. A kind of light went on in my head when I realised the importance to him of the echoes and repetition of words and phrases which work like leitmotifs throughout the play.14

Similarly, Hamm's “calmant” was originally translated by the rather vague “Pillen.” This was revised to “Beruhigungsmittel,” the complementary, but counter-reactionary “remontant” being altered from the nondescript “Tropfen” to “Stärkungsmittel”—so creating a repetition of the term “Mittel.” This opened the way for further verbal repetitions. Hamm's, “Vous êtes sur terre, c'est sans remède” (FDP [Fin de partie] 76) was originally conveyed as “lhr seid auf der Erde, dagegen ist kein Kraut gewachsen.”15 The revised version, “dagegen gibt es kein Mittel” (ES [Endspiel] 77), reinforces the “Mittel” in “Beruhigungsmittel/Stärkungsmittel”—a feature not possible in the English or French.

As Tophoven suggests, on occasions, these repetitions act as leitmotifs, appearing with such regularity as to strike a chord with the audience. While revising the German texts for Berlin, Beckett focused on these more subtle echoes. At the opening of Happy Days, Tophoven had translated “the old style!” (HD 18) as “der alte Stil!” (GT 19). Winnie uses variations on this phrase in the English such as “to speak in the old style” (HD 30). In revising the German, Beckett discarded Tophoven's literal “um im alten Stil zu reden” (GT 31), replacing it with the abbreviated “der alte Stil!” establishing an echo pattern that acted as a leitmotif and became another of Winnie's refrains. Similarly, the sequence about the girl in the boat in Krapp's Last Tape originally ended: “Aber unter uns bewegte sich alles und bewegte uns, sanft, auf und nieder.”16 Beckett altered this to “sachte, auf und nieder,” so creating an echo of the passage concerning the dog that runs, “er nahm ihn ins Maul, sachte, sachte” (DLB 33), as well as the “sacht” in the hymn that Krapp sings (DLB, 28/40). He thus succeeded in using the word as a verbal leitmotif on seven occasions in three different contexts. This compares with a mere five instances for the respective English “gently” and the French “doucement.”

This notion of “standardisation” became of utmost importance during the revision process. In Warten auf Godot, Tophoven had used a mixture of “tun” and “machen” to convey the French verb “faire”—the opening line of the play being rendered as “Nichts zu machen.” However, Beckett made it clear that he “did not want a difference between ‘tun’ and ‘machen’ in the latest version of the play. … Beckett wanted ‘machen’ throughout.”17 Hence Estragon's question, “was haben wir gestern getan?” in the original German,18 became “was haben wir gestern gemacht?” (WAG [Warten auf Godot] 41) in the revised text. Indeed, “machen” was used wherever possible to establish another verbal echo. The verb “gehen” was employed in Endspiel in much the same manner. When Hamm asks, “Was ist nur los?” Clov replies, “Irgend etwas geht seinen Gang”—providing two connections with the verb “gehen.” When Clov subsequently demands, “Was hast du eigentlich heute?” (ES 61), Hamm replies, “Ich gehe meinen Gang,” so continuing the pattern. Similarly, rather than using several different terms to convey the verb “finir” such as “aufhören” or “Schluß machen,” the decision was made to employ the one verb—“enden”—which provided a further echo of the German title, Endspiel.

Occasionally, this system of “echoes” went even further. During his prophetic speech to Clov, Hamm originally warned, “Ja, eines Tages wirst du wissen, was es ist”19 as a translation of the French, “Oui, un jour tu sauras ce que c'est” (FDP 54). In the ten years since the appearance of the first German text of Endspiel, Beckett's novel Comment C'est had been published in Germany under the title Wie es ist. During the revision process, Beckett altered this line to, “eines Tages wirst du wissen, wie es ist” (ES 55), creating an echo of the title of the novel. This ostensibly minor alteration is indicative of Beckett's attention to detail and of the many subtle patterns of verbal and gestural repetition that he focused on in Berlin.

The task of recreating the assonant patterns that appear in the original texts was another major problem facing Tophoven and Beckett. This assonance is obvious in simple phrases such as Winnie's, “nichts, das die Stille dieses Ortes störte” (GT 31). However, this feature could not always be conveyed in all three languages and in several cases, the German language was able to create stronger assonant patterns. In That Time, Voice B's, “a whisper so faint she loved you” (TT [That Time] 234) is conveyed as, “ein Lispeln so leis sie liebte dich” (D [Damals] 50).20 However, the French is unable to reproduce this effect: “si bas à peine un murmure comme quoi elle t'aimait” (CF [Cette fois] 22). This success is repeated in the translation of Voice B's, “back with a shrew” (TT 234). The French offers an uneconomical literal version: “regagner son arbre creux avec une musaraigne” (CF 23). The German, “nach Haus mit einer Maus” (D 50), does not translate the English, but institutes an assonant echo in the “Haus/Maus” pattern. Similarly, in Play, the French transfers WI's, “buried his face in my lap and … confessed” (PL [Play 244) literally: “enfouir son visage dans mon giron … passer aux aveux” (C [Comédie] 413). The German language allows the two assonant verbs to appear together: “sein Gesicht in meinen Schoß bettete und … beichtete” (S [Spiel] 245).

Related to these assonant patterns are the numerous puns and word-plays, which are an intrinsic part of any Beckett text in any language. Occasionally it proved possible to retain the pun through literal translation, such as in the scene in Godot concerning Vladimir's weak bladder. Pozzo comments, “Oh! Il est parti! … Sans me dire au revoir! … Vous auriez dû le retenir,” to which Estragon replies, “Il s'est retenu tout seul” (EAG 92). Pozzo uses “retenir” to refer to Vladimir's departure, Estragon to refer to Vladimir's bladder. The German translation is based on a verb that can be used in the same manner:

Sie hätten ihn zurückhalten sollen.
Er hat es selbst zurückgehalten.

(WAG 93)

Here, the English text is the weakest:

He might have waited!
He would have burst.

(WFG [Waiting for Godot] 92)

While the punch line is retained, the pun is lost entirely in the “waited/burst” construction. In most cases, Tophoven worked with Beckett to arrive at a suitable solution, as their final translation of the “coïte/coite” pun, central to the flea section in Endgame, indicates. A gap had been left in the original German text, as this pun proved impossible to translate. Only during the revision process were they able to institute a play on “kuschen” (to lie down) and “kuscheln” (to snuggle up), which, although not as crude as the sexual innuendo in the French, “coïte/coite,” or the English, “laying/lying,” does have similar implications and provides the required assonant effect.

Evidently, it proved impossible to convey such puns successfully on every occasion. In Footfalls, May's final speech begins with the word “Sequel,” which Beckett intended to act as a pun on the phrase “seek well.” However, the German, “Folge,” and the French, “epilogue,” have different overtones. According to Asmus, “Beckett says that ‘Sequel’ was first translated by ‘Epilog’ but he found ‘Folge’ (continuation) better.”21 This final German version suggests the concept of an unending process—hence Voice's question, “Will you never have done?” The French, “epilogue,” and the original German, “Epilog,” suggest that the situation has a finite conclusion.

Related to these word-plays are the more obvious linguistic jokes that Beckett employs throughout his drama. An obvious example is the joke in Godot about the man who enters a brothel, unsure what colour hair his intended partner should have. In the French, he is merely “enviré.” Tophoven recounts:

I had made him ‘Ein Engländer, der mehr als gewöhnlich getrunken hat.’ Beckett's English translation makes its own humorous comment on the drinking habits of the English. There it's ‘An Englishman having drunk a little more than usual.’ To bring out the joke in German, Beckett had me add ‘etwas’ (‘somewhat,’ ‘a little’)—‘Ein Engländer, der etwas mehr als gewöhnlich getrunken hat.’22

This one word gives the phrase a more colloquial, more “German” feel. Subsequently, at the end of Act II, Vladimir asks the boy about the colour of Godot's beard, “Blond oder … Er zögert … schwarz?”23 When revising the German text, Beckett added “… oder rot?” (WAG 227)—to hark back to the three colour options of the brothel joke, thus associating the grand and mysterious figure of Godot with a more base sexual function and also establishing another verbal echo that only exists in the German version of the play.

This linguistic playfulness is also evident when Vladimir reminds Estragon about their desperate situation:

Il s'en est fallu d'un cheveu qu'on ne s'y soit pendu. Il réfléchit. Oui, c'est juste en détachant les mots qu'on—ne—s'y—soit—pendu.

(EAG [En attendant Godot] 150)

The French plays on the difficult grammatical structure of the subjunctive; Vladimir has to repeat the phrase at half-speed to check that he has the correct form of the verb! While the English offers a weak translation, avoiding the complexities of a play on linguistic construction (“We nearly hanged ourselves from it”), the German retains much of the humour of the French:

Um ein Haar hätten wir uns an ihm aufgehängt. Er überlegt. Ja, richtig er betont die Worte einzeln hätten—wir—uns—an—ihm—aufgehängt.

(WAG 151-53)

The notion of a “hairsbreadth” is retained, as is the word-play in the complex pluperfect subjunctive construction.

In Happy Days, Winnie refers to an “emmet” (HD 44) which appears in the German as “eine Emse” (GT 45). Tophoven explains that this is a reference to Dante's Inferno XXIX, 64:

Neither word is current in either language, but … both these archaisms appear in the English and German translations of Dante so that it is possible to make the link to the allusion since the words stand out; they invite the audience to sense a connection.24

The French forgoes the literary allusion and employs the modern word “fourmi,” which facilitates the subsequent pun on “formication/fornication.” This example raises the question of specific references, which are scattered throughout Beckett's drama. These are most prolific in Happy Days, where Winnie alludes to various literary works. However, phrases that are intended to bring to mind a particular literary text in one language, do not always have an equivalent effect in another. Tophoven explains: “In German all of Winnie's recollections of lines from the classics can at best only be emphasised through unusual sentence constructions and words.”25 In particular, there are five quotations from various works by Shakespeare. Beckett located each reference in his prompt-copy of the play, adding explanatory notes in his Regiebuch.26 Beckett wrote the words “Schlegel-Tieck” next to each quotation—a reference to August Wilhelm von Schlegel and Johann Ludwig Tieck, who created the definitive German translation of Shakespeare's plays in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries, on which all modern versions are based. In most cases, Beckett altered Tophoven's literal translations to lines from the Schlegel-Tieck edition, presumably as that would be the version with which most Germans would be acquainted.

Similarly, next to a quotation from Milton's Paradise Lost, Beckett noted “Hans Heinrich Meier” and altered Tophoven's German from “Heil, heilig Licht” (GT 77) to Meier's, “Sei mir gegrüsset, heil'ges Licht!”27 Meier had completed a new translation of Paradise Lost as recently as 1969, suggesting that Beckett was still very aware of contemporary German literature at this stage. Presumably, he felt that a German audience would be more likely to recognise a quotation from this recent edition than Tophoven's rather literal rendition. Clearly, Beckett went to great lengths to transfer the imagery surrounding a text into another language, rather than simply the literal meaning.

One of Winnie's literary allusions has a particularly unsettling effect. When she mentions the gun, she says, “Ever uppermost, like Browning” (HD 50), an oblique reference to Robert Browning's Paracelsus. In all three texts, the gun is referred to as “Brownie,” forming an echo of “Browning.” In the French, however, Beckett removed this initial reference to Browning, reducing the line to “Toujours en tête” (OLBJ [Oh les beaux jours] 50). In both the English and German, the dichotomy of the terror and attraction held by the gun is juxtaposed with a literary allusion—a bizarre contrast which is absent from the French.

An equally strange variant occurs at the end of Act I in En attendant Godot, when Estragon says, “Je fais comme toi, je regarde la blafarde” (EAG 134)—creating yet another assonant echo. This proved impossible to transfer into German and Tophoven offered the rather literal, “Dasselbe wie du, ich seh mir die Mattscheibe an.”28 During the revision process, this was altered to, “Dasselbe wie du, ich gucke in den Mond” (WAG 135). Estragon's response now conveys the literal meaning of “I am looking at the moon,” but the phrase “er kann in den Mond gucken” also has a second meaning, namely: “He can whistle for it!” The English offers an even stranger variant:

Pale for weariness.
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the likes of us.

(WFG 134)

Estragon's lines are a slightly adapted version of the opening of Shelley's “To the Moon” and act as a literary reference much like Winnie's “wonderful lines.”29 In this case, the English makes no attempt to incorporate the word-play of the other texts and is of an entirely different register.

Indeed, the register differs between the three texts on numerous occasions. Clov recounts how he visited Hamm's subjects “à cheval” (FDP 18). The English uses the equivalent noun, “horse,” whereas the German employs the archaic “Roß,” rather than the more common “Pferd.” Presumably, the intention was to create an association with the “good old days,” when such things still existed. This variation is perhaps best illustrated by the insults Estragon hurls, when he and Vladimir “play” at Pozzo and Lucky. In the French, he uses “Salaud!,” backed up by “Fumier! Crapule!” (EAG 180). The German, “Du Schweinehund!” and “Du Scheißkerl! Du Lump!” (WAG 181), retains the excrement image of “Fumier” in the word “Scheißkerl.” The English terms, “Naughty!” and “Gonococcus! Spirochete!” (WFG 180), are completely at odds with the other texts. A “gonococcus” is a micro-organism that causes gonorrhea, a “spirochete” is a spiral-shaped bacterium associated with syphilis. Clearly, these “insults” are not words normally employed in this fashion; rather, they are precise biological terms taken out of context.

In response to Pozzo's questioning as to his name, Estragon replies “Catulle” in the French (EAG 96) and “Catull” in the German (WAG 97). The reference is to the Roman lyric poet, Catullus, and is presumably Estragon's comment on his earlier claim that he used to be a poet.30 The later English text offers “Adam” (WFG 96), partner of Eve, suggesting a change in the allusion Beckett wished to make. While the French and German versions relate to Estragon's failed literary aspirations, the use of “Adam” in the English, to denote humankind in general, implies that Estragon's suffering is more representative of the human species as a whole.

Estragon later bemoans his situation: “Mais non, je n'ai jamais été dans la Vaucluse! J'ai coulé toute ma chaude-pisse d'existence ici, je te dis! Ici! Dans la Merdecluse!” (EAG 154). Beckett creates an assonant echo in the fictitious French region which equates life with excrement, marking Estragon's disgust. He presumably felt that audiences of other nationalities would have insufficient geographical knowledge to understand this pun. Hence the German makes a play on “Breisgau/Scheißgau” (WAG 155), the former a region in Germany, the latter retaining the notion of excrement. For the English pairing, “Macon/Cackon,” however, Beckett had to resort to a French region to create a suitable rhyming couplet for the fictitious “Cackon,” in order to retain the excrement theme. This feature recurs in the “Pierer/Stärer” episode in Happy Days. In the German, “Tophoven had chosen ‘Pierer’ from the English ‘to peer’ and ‘Stärer’ from ‘to stare.’”31 The English has the names Shower and Cooker, taken respectively from the German colloquial verbs “schauen” and “gucken,” both meaning “to look at.” On this occasion, Beckett borrowed from the German to fashion the English original. The French offers Piper (pronounced Peeper) and Cooker. While the latter is again taken from the German, the former is clearly derived from the English “peeping Tom.” Here, Beckett displayed his linguistic knowledge and used a combination of the English and German names for his own subsequent French translation.

Two of the couples in Godot, “Fartov and Belcher” and “Steinweg and Petermann” created similar confusion in the Berlin rehearsals. While both pairs appear to be Germanic in origin, Petermann would perhaps elicit mirth from a French audience, as it has overtones of “péter.” Klaus Herm, who played Lucky, had located Petermann as a cartographer and Belcher as a sailor. Beckett corrected him, explaining that the only allusion was to stones, in “petrus” (Greek for stone) and “Stein” (German for stone), thus providing a link with the final section of Lucky's speech concerning the earth as an “abode of stones.”32 This illustrates his love of etymology and his feel for the German language. Beckett was delighted by Herm's misinterpretation of the name Belcher, explaining, “Belcher is the opposite of Fartov, from the English to fart. To belch is Belcher.”33 Although ostensibly Germanic names, they are, in fact, little more than a play on English terms for breaking wind! Asmus concludes: “With one blow, the mysticism surrounding Beckettian names is destroyed.”34 Whether Beckett deliberately chose names that had some historical significance is not clear. His reactions, however, suggest that the word-play was certainly their most important feature.

The notion of providing an equivalent image rather than a literal translation is most evident in Hamm's proud boast, “Ça c'est du français!” (FDP 74), which appears in German as “Ja, das ist gutes Deutsch” (ES 75) and English as “There's English for you” (ES 74). This idea is reinforced by Lucky's reference to Voltaire (1694 to 1778) in his monologue in French (EAG 114). Rather than simply using the same name in all three languages, Beckett presents a well-known philosopher from the respective country and even succeeds in choosing characters who were contemporaneous: Bishop Berkeley (1685 to 1753) in English and Johann Gottsched (1700 to 1766) in German. Interestingly, the English plumps for an Irish philosopher rather than an English one, confirming that Beckett regarded the play as Irish rather than English. This view is substantiated by Lucky's subsequent choice of towns: “Normandie” in French (EAG 116), “Oldenburg” in German (WAG 117) and “Connemara” in English (WFG 116).

Tophoven also experienced problems in transferring the game of lacrosse in Footfalls. As he explains, “I tried to find a game to preserve the sense of something outmoded.”35 Combined with this was “the problem of keeping the notion of movement in the sport.” His initial proposal was “croquet,” but, as he stresses, “the word ‘Cross’ is prominent in the English.” The published German text seems to solve the problem quite neatly: “zum … La Crosse-Spiel” (T [Tritte] 57). This retains the sporting link in the word “Spiel,” but the division between “la” and “crosse” draws attention to the cross, emphasising the Christian imagery. Beckett, however, was clearly not satisfied with this option, altering it to “zum Himmel und Hölle-Spiel” in Berlin.36 This assonant phrase reinforces the Christian theme, while retaining overtones of sporting activity. Beckett evidently encountered similar problems in his own French translation and turned to this revised German version to arrive at, “ce jeu du ciel et de l'enfer” (P [Pas suivi de quatre esquisses] 11). Thus it seems that working on the German texts influenced Beckett's own translation process.

Before travelling to Berlin and during rehearsals, Beckett often made revisions to the German texts to render the language more colloquial. In an interview in 1976, Tophoven admits:

At the beginning I wasn't quite so aware of his subtle precision. In my first translation of Godot I translated ‘enfin’ as ‘endlich’ but of course that doesn't have the same value as ‘na ja.’ No one pointed that out to me then.37

He continues:

In most cases, though, our attention is on the structural details of the shape of a sentence, its rhythm, the interplay of sounds which play such a large part in establishing the leitmotifs.38

The logic behind this becomes evident when Vladimir asks where Estragon has spent the night. His reply in French is “Par là” (EAG 28)—“Over there” in English. Tophoven admits that the obvious choice in German might be the one-syllable “Dort,” but offers the more vague “Da hinten” (WAG 29), adding the warning: “One should not be led astray by the English versions which are, in comparison, mostly shorter, into reducing the German replies to a minimum in every case.”39 Despite this assertion, Tophoven claims: “As we reworked the text for the Berlin production we reduced the number of composite words … It helped maintain a certain unity of rhythmic tone in the language in keeping with the sparseness of the whole play.”40

Tophoven elaborates: “Some of the changes we made gave a sharper definition or a heightened sense to the action.”41 When Estragon tries to remove his boots at the opening of Godot, the original German ran, “Hilf mir die Dreckschuhe auszuziehen.”42 Both the English and French employ a singular noun (“this bloody thing” and “cette saloperie”). The play is based on a series of pairs, of characters and inanimate objects which complement each other, yet which also form strong contrasts. Here, the boots form the pair. One boots slips off easily, however, while the other is almost impossible to remove. Hence Beckett altered the German to the singular, “Hilf mir den Dreckschuh auszuziehen” (WAG 29), so bringing it into line with the other texts. Tophoven explains: “He suggested several seemingly small changes—at times only of one word—which reinforce the major themes of the play.”43

Beckett made a similar, ostensibly minor revision to the opening of Krapp's Last Tape, where Krapp searches for his desired recording, cursing in frustration. He altered Krapp's two mild curses in the original German, “die kleine Range” and “die kleine Liederliche”44 to “das kleine Luder” and “die kleine Range” (DLB 16), thus sacrificing the gender uniformity (“die Schachtel,” “die Spule,” die Range,” “die Liederliche”) in favour of a more obvious rhythmical pattern, based on the intonation of the two-syllable words, “Schachtel,” “Spule,” “Luder,” “Range.” While the French copies this partially in the “bobine/coquine” echo (LDB 71), the German is the only text to achieve this four-part structure. Tophoven also draws attention to the phrase “your fellow bastards” (TT 234)—“tes dégueulasses semblables” (CF 22) in That Time, which he had originally translated as “deine elenden Mitmenschen.”45 In revising the German, Tophoven and Beckett arrived at “deine Mitunmenschen” (D 50), a four-syllable, invented term, which conveys the notion of a monster in the word “Unmensch,” yet which also suggests the concept of a non-being, an other self—something which the voices represent on a wider scale.

Clearly, no single text consistently provides the most efficient version. On occasions, however, the German succeeds in clarifying issues that caused confusion in the other texts. An obvious example is the translation of the line “Let me in” (KLT 59) in Krapp's Last Tape. In the English it is unclear whether this is a plea to the girl in the boat or merely a reference to her eyes. The confusion is removed by the plural form of the verb in German—“Ließen mich ein” (DLB 37) and in Beckett's later French text, “m'ont laissé entrer” (LDB 78). Both serve to confirm that it is not a plea, but merely a reference to the girl's eyes.

While all these examples are representative of Beckett's involvement in the translation process, they by no means cover every variant between the three texts. Tophoven summarises the revision work thus: “I have to deal with a kind of ‘authorised interpretation’ which he wants taken into account in the German version.”46 He explains how “Beckett's special awareness of the possibilities of language has become clearer to me as we have worked together.”47 In some cases, the pair made significant alterations during the revision process, in others, they merely “scrutinised the German text, revising slightly for euphemy or symmetry.”48 One might imagine that the later, ostensibly simpler texts would provide less problems. However, precisely because Beckett's later drama is so exact, both textually and in terms of directions, the translator must take greater care to ensure that every nuance is conveyed in another language. In most cases, Tophoven and Beckett's efforts resulted in a German text which, “makes its own statement in translation just as it does in the original.”49 This reflects their aim to “incorporate the changes which have occurred to Beckett as he has reviewed the text and worked on it in production.”

In certain cases, the German text clearly offers a version that improves on the original. Perhaps the best example of this appears in Krapp's line, “Here I end this reel” (KLT 62), which is conveyed literally in French, “Ici je termine ce bande” (LDB 82). The German, “Hier beende ich diese Rolle” (DLB 44), refers literally to the recording, but could also refer to the playing of a dramatic role. The voice of the younger Krapp suggests he is finished with the role he has thus far assumed in life and that he intends changing for the better. The image of Krapp aged 69, however, is proof that his resolution has failed, that the fire in him came to nothing. In addition, this line is spoken by the actor playing Krapp and hence marks the imminent conclusion of his present role and with it the play.

Tophoven's initial German translation often appeared prior to Beckett's own English or French version and, in some cases, Beckett's translations were evidently a result of his revision work on the German texts. While revising the German for his Berlin productions, Beckett tended to bring it more into line with the English version, which he apparently preferred as the years progressed. Beckett's contribution to the definitive German texts clearly cannot be doubted. McMillan and Fehsenfeld suggest: “The textual changes which Beckett made when he directed the play[s] in Berlin reveal a fascinating attempt to exploit the possibilities of German for his dramatic ends.”50 More importantly, each text exists in its own right, providing significant linguistic and stylistic variants. Merely to describe one as a “translation” of another seems to be doing an injustice, both to Beckett and to Tophoven. Indeed, rather than simply acting as a translator of his own work, it is apparent that Beckett's intention was to create a new text in a different language, one which, in some respects, can be regarded as a different play.51


  1. Samuel Beckett, Das letzte Band/Krapp's Last Tape/La dernière bande (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974) 40, 61, 80. The German text is designated henceforth as DLB, the English as KLT and the French as LDB. See also: Dramatische Dichtungen in drei Sprachen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981). This single volume edition, produced for Beckett's 75th birthday, comprises the two volumes of the original version. They are differentiated as Dramatische Dichtungen I and Dramatische Dichtungen 2. The English and German texts appear on 82-109, the French on 329-43 of Dramatische Dichtungen 2. This edition contains the revised version in all three languages: “better [than] between finger and thumb” (106)—“un peu mieux qu'entre pouce et index” (341).

  2. Elmar Tophoven, “Ein französischer Dramatiker aus Irland,” trans. by Ruby Cohn. Die Neue Zeitung 208 (6 September 1953): 12.

  3. Ruby Cohn, Just Play: Beckett's Theater (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980) 236.

  4. Michael Haerdter, “Samuel Beckett inszeniert das Endspiel: Bericht von den Proben der Berliner Inszenierung 1967” in Materialien zu Becketts “Endspiel” (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968) 36-111 (36).

  5. Samuel Beckett, Warten auf Godot/En attendant Godot/Waiting for Godot (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980). The German text is designated henceforth as WAG, the French as EAG and the English as WFG.

  6. Elmar Tophoven, “Von Fin de partie zum Endspiel,” in Materialien zu Becketts “Endspiel,” 118-27 (118).

  7. Samuel Beckett, Endspiel/Fin de partie/Endgame (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974). The German text is designated henceforth as ES, the French as FDP and the English as EG.

  8. Elmar Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” in McMillan and Fehsenfeld, Beckett in the theatre (London: John Calder, 1988) 317-324 (318 and 321).

  9. Samuel Beckett, Footfalls in Collected Shorter Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1984) 239-43. Tritte in Werke V Supplementband I: Szenen/Prosa/Verse (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986) 55-60. Pas suivi de quatre esquisses (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1978) 7-17. The English text is designated henceforth as F, the German as T and the French as P.

  10. Samuel Beckett, Play/Spiel/Comédie in Dramatische Dichtungen in drei Sprachen. The English and German texts appear on 236-69; the French on 409-25 of Dramatische Dichtungen 2. The English text is designated henceforth as PL, the German as S and the French as C.

  11. Beckett's revision work on the German texts of Endspiel and Das letzte Band, for example, is recognised in the Suhrkamp trilingual editions by the phrase: “Alle drei Fassungen wurden vom Autor und von den Übersetzern für diese Ausgabe durchgesehen und überarbeitet.”

  12. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 319.

  13. Samuel Beckett, Glückliche Tage/Happy Days/Oh les beaux jours (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975). The German text is designated henceforth as GT, the English as HD and the French as OLBJ.

  14. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 317.

  15. Samuel Beckett, Fin de partie/Endspiel/Endgame in Dramatische Dichtungen 1, 273. The French and German texts appear on 206-317, the English on 453-503.

  16. Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape/Das letzte Band/ La dernière bande in Dramatische Dichtungen 2, 101. The English and German texts appear on 82-109, the French on 329-43.

  17. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 322.

  18. Samuel Beckett, Warten auf Godot (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1953) 14.

  19. Samuel Beckett, Fin de partie/Endspiel/Endgame in Dramatische Dichtungen 1, 253.

  20. Samuel Beckett, That Time in Collected Shorter Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1984) 225-35. Damals in Werke V Supplementband I: Szenen/Prosa/Verse (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986) 41-51. Cette fois in Catastrophe et autres dramaticules (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1986) 9-25. The English text is designated henceforth as TT, the German as D and the French as CF.

  21. Walter D. Asmus, “Practical aspects of theatre, radio and television: Rehearsal notes for the German premiere of Beckett's That Time and Footfalls at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt, Berlin (directed by Beckett),” trans. by Helen Watanabe, Journal Of Beckett Studies 2 (1977): 82-95 (85).

  22. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 324.

  23. Samuel Beckett, Warten auf Godot (Suhrkamp, 1953) 113.

  24. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 320.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Samuel Beckett's notebooks for his 1971 Berlin production of Glückliche Tage are located in Reading University Library under the notations RUL MS 1227/7/8/1 and RUL MS 1396/4/10. Beckett's prompt-copy of the play used in Berlin, Glückliche Tage und andere Stücke (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1963), is also housed in Reading University Library under the notation RUL MS 1480/1.

  27. Samuel Beckett, Glückliche Tage Regiebuch RUL MS 1396/4/10, p. 67.

  28. Samuel Beckett, Warten auf Godot (Suhrkamp, 1953) 65.

  29. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “To the Moon,” in Complete Poetical Works, ed. by Thomas Hutchinson (London: Oxford University Press, 1961) 621.

    Art thou pale for weariness
    Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
    Wandering companionless
    Among the stars that have a different birth?
  30. Samuel Beckett, Warten auf Godot/En attendant Godot/Waiting for Godot (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980) 34-35.

  31. Alfred Hübner, Samuel Beckett inszeniertGlückliche Tage” (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976) 41.

  32. Walter D. Asmus, “Im Theater-Alltag tut man sich schwerer,” Theater heute (April 1975): 20-23 (21). Comments made by Samuel Beckett.

  33. Ibid. 21. Comment made by Samuel Beckett.

  34. Ibid. 21. Comment made by Walter Asmus.

  35. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 321.

  36. Samuel Beckett, Tritte. A revised version of the German text was included in the programme accompanying Beckett's Berlin production, which was premiered at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt on 1 October 1976. This line appears on 20.

  37. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 317-18.

  38. Ibid. 321.

  39. Elmar Tophoven, “En traduisant Beckett,” in Das Werk von Samuel Beckett: Berliner Colloquium, ed. by Hans Mayer and Uwe Johnson (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975) 159-73 (160).

  40. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 323.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Samuel Beckett, Warten auf Godot (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1953) 8.

  43. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 323.

  44. Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape/Das letzte Band/La dernière bande in Dramatische Dichtungen 2, 89.

  45. Samuel Beckett, That Time/Damals (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976) 67.

  46. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 319.

  47. Ibid. 318.

  48. Cohn, Just Play: Beckett's Theater 274.

  49. Tophoven, “Translating Beckett,” 324.

  50. Dougald McMillan and Martha Fehsenfeld, Beckett in the theatre (London: John Calder, 1988) 190.

  51. An earlier version of this paper was given at the Beckett Conference in Strasbourg, France, in April 1996. I am grateful for assistance from the Humanities Research Board of the British Academy in the form of a travel grant that allowed me to attend that conference. All translations from the German are my own unless stated.

Works Cited

Works by Beckett in English:

Collected Shorter Plays. (London: Faber and Faber, 1984).

Works by Beckett in French:

Pas suivi de quatre esquisses. (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1978).

Catastrophe et autres dramaticules. (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1986).

Works by Beckett in German:

Warten auf Godot. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1953).

Glückliche Tage und andere Stücke. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1963). Beckett's prompt-copy of the play used in his 1971 Berlin production is housed in Reading University Library under the notation RUL MS 1480/1.

Warten auf Godot/En attendant Godot/Waiting for Godot. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980).

Das letzte Band/Krapp's Last Tape/La dernière bande. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974).

Endspiel/Fin de Partie/Endgame. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1974).

Glückliche Tage/Happy Days/Oh les beaux jours. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975).

That Time/Damals. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976).

Tritte. A revised version of the German text was included in the programme accompanying Beckett's Berlin production of the play, which was premiered at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt on 1 October 1976.

Dramatische Dichtungen in drei Sprachen. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1981). This single-volume edition, produced for Beckett's 75th birthday, comprises the two volumes of the original version. They are differentiated as Dramatische Dichtungen 1 and Dramatische Dichtungen 2.

Werke V Supplementband 1: Szenen/Prosa/Verse. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986.


Beckett's notebooks for his 1971 Berlin production of Glückliche Tage are located in Reading University Library under the notations RUL MS 1227/7/8/1 and RUL MS 1396/4/10.

Works about Beckett:

Asmus, Walter D. “Im Theater-Alltag tut man sich schwerer,” Theater heute, (April 1975): 20-23.

———. “Practical aspects of theatre, radio and television: Rehearsal notes for the German premiere of Beckett's That Time and Footfalls at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt, Berlin directed by Beckett,” trans. Helen Watanabe, Journal of Beckett Studies 2 1977: 82-95. Reprinted in S. E. Gontarski, ed. On Beckett: Essays and Criticism. (New York: Grove Press, 1986) 335-49.

Cohn, Ruby. Just Play: Beckett's Theater. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Haerdter, Michael. “Samuel Beckett inszeniert das Endspiel: Bericht von den Proben der Berliner Inszenierung 1967” in Materialien zu Becketts “Endspiel.” (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968) 36-111.

Hübner, Alfred. Samuel Beckett inszeniert “Glückliche Tage.” (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1976).

Materialien zu Becketts “Endspiel.” (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968).

Mayer, Hans, and Uwe Johnson, eds. Das Werk von Samuel Beckett: Berliner Colloquium. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975).

McMillan, Dougald, and Martha Fehsenfeld. Beckett in the Theatre. (London: John Calder, 1988).

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961).

Tophoven, Elmar. “Ein französischer Dramatiker aus Irland,” trans. by Ruby Cohn. Die Neue Zeitung 208 (6 September 1953): 12.

———. “Von Fin de partie zum Endspiel.” In Materialien zu Becketts “Endspiel.” (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968) 118-27.

———. En traduisant Beckett. In Das Werk von Samuel Beckett: Berliner Colloquium, ed. Hans Mayer and Uwe Johnson. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975) 159-73.

———. “Translating Beckett,” in McMillan and Fehsenfeld. Beckett in the Theatre. (London: John Calder, 1988) 317-24.

Xerxes Mehta (essay date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Mehta, Xerxes. “Shapes of Suffering: Image/Narrative/Impromptu in Beckett's Ohio Impromptu.Journal of Beckett Studies 6, no. 1 (autumn 1996): 97-118.

[In the following essay, Mehta examines Ohio Impromptu as a modernist interpretation of the classic theatrical impromptu form.]

Beckett called his play an impromptu.1 An impromptu in the theatre is a quite specific form in which the playwright—usually through the vehicle of a play within a play—attacks his critics, defends his practice, and, traditionally, lets his audience in on a few of the tricks and all of the tribulations of his profession. Molière's L'Impromptu de Versailles, for example, lays before us what appears to be a rather chaotic attempt to put together a play for Louis XIV. The performance is at hand, the play isn't written yet, the playwright's in extreme anxiety, and his actors not only reject their assignments but pelt their leader with critical abuse. The end result is a shambles, which, of course, itself becomes an entertainment, somehow magically plucked out of thin air, which the Sun King, by all accounts, found amusing. In the process, Molière has produced a hit, savaged his critics, and with casual generosity tossed his audience both an insight into the act of creation and, paradoxically, an affirmation of its mystery.

Beckett's impromptu draws from the same tradition and, unsurprisingly, crawls through the same hoops. The play offers us a play within a play (strictly, “a tale within a tale within a play”),2 opens up the mechanics of its own creation, secretes a message for its critics, and lays bare sources of energy no different from its predecessor's—suffering, turmoil, chaos. In all of these respects it is as unprotective of authorial privacy as tradition demands. To the extent that it differs from its great forerunner, it does so by relinquishing the conjuring element, the magician's sleight of hand, with which Molière transmuted the struggle, terror, and bitterness of his vocation into a comedy of baffling perfection. The writer of Ohio Impromptu, in contrast, perhaps reflecting the difference between neo-classical and modernist notions of an artist's responsibility and limits, neither doffs nor reassumes the professional's mask, but rather makes explicit from beginning to end the connection between suffering in life and suffering in the creation of art.

This suffering is communicated to us in two ways—through the image we see and the words we hear. The visual image is that of two old men with white faces and long white hair, dressed in long black coats, sitting at one end of a long white table. On the table, which is roughly parallel to the audience, are an open book and a single, black, wide-brimmed hat. The bowed heads of both men are propped on their right hands; their left hands rest on the table. The Listener's face is hidden by his hand. At Beckett's request, his original American director, Alan Schneider, angled the table slightly toward the audience so that the Reader's face would be partially visible.3 Despite this adjustment, both men's eyes are shielded from the audience and from each other. The Reader reads from the book in front of him, twice turning a page with his left hand. The Listener knocks on the table twelve times, also with his left hand, to signal the Reader to repeat a passage or to read on. Aside from one instance when the Listener raises his left hand to prevent the Reader from looking up an earlier passage, these are the only movements until the very end of the play.

The initial impact of this image is that of an icon—an emblem of old age, loneliness, and inner desolation. The image's clarity of line and stark black and white scheme, its lack of detail, its formal modernist rigor, its monumentality and stillness, all reinforce its emblematic quality. What is important to note at this stage, before the words do their work, is that the iconic image is received in roughly the same way by the entire audience—a collective response to an allegory of suffering. Once the narrative takes hold, however, this response, in my view, begins to change, although the image remains fixed. Under the pressure of words and the passage of time, a group response to a near-abstraction starts to dissolve into individual reveries, private communings and personal projections that together constitute a form of co-creation.

Co-creation between author and audience is, of course, nothing new in theatre; it occurs with every performance of any play. Because the majority of writing for the stage, however, is “closed” in form, the audience must fight to insert itself, except for those rare, usually climactic moments when the writer stops controlling response and, as it were, invites the audience in. Beckett's late plays move purposefully in the opposite direction, until, with his impromptu and its near-perfect interplay of image and narrative, emblem and chaos, he achieves a work about authorship in which the author appears wholly absent—a sharp irony in this most self-revealing of fictions. To shave closer to the bone on the matter of co-creation, which I think is the work's primary conduit of power, it is necessary, then, to try to understand the ways in which image and narrative play upon each other, so let us for the moment turn away from the image to the second of the openings through which Ohio Impromptu releases suffering into the theatre—the words that we hear.

Because “narrative” carries various meanings, depending on genre and context, I limit my use of the term here to mean the fictions that Beckett's characters create in their respective plays. The dramatic action comes to a temporary halt and a character embarks on a story, a fiction. One thinks of Hamm's stories in Endgame, Pozzo's in Godot, the Holloway story in Embers, and so on. Ludovic Janvier has called these stories “the holes through which the past and lived experience emerge.”4 By the time we get to the late plays, we have nothing but holes—the stories have swallowed their contexts, the fictions have become all. In Not I, for example, every word Mouth speaks is her fiction, her story of She—corrections, amendments and all—although there are six sounds, four laughs and two screams, that are problematic, that might lie outside the fiction. In That Time, all the words are the anonymous old man's fictions about himself and his past, with the only emanations from present time once again coming nonverbally, in the sound of the character's breathing. In both plays, Beckett lays out the process of fictionalizing with what feels like a kind of purposeful overtness. The desolation of the characters' lives, their clinging to authorship to survive, to displace the desolation into third person or second person narratives, their need for those narratives to supply them with what their lives did not—sanity, order, meaning, rest, wholeness, escape from the void without and the void within—all this is rendered with a transparency that enables an audience to grasp the essentials immediately—intuitively and emotionally, if not conceptually. As a result, the spectator passes easily through the fiction-making framework of these plays to fasten on the horrors of the lives on view. The breakneck pace of the one, the panting urgency of the other, combined with the vividness and specificity of the scenes that are evoked—tears on a palm, catatonia in a courtroom, humiliation in a library, the search for a childhood sanctuary—touch off deep responses in viewers. Ironically, if Not I in particular can be said to harbor a weakness, it might lie precisely in the fluency and power of such reactions. For Beckett went to great lengths in that play to elicit feeling from his female surrogate's desperate effort to think of “the right story, the right word which will end the misery.”5 I suspect that in performance this claim on our hearts is only partially honored, undermined by the very obviousness of Mouth's need to find fictions, overwhelmed by the very power of the fictions she finds. This is not to say that the plays are not stirring—they could hardly be more so—but only to suggest that the texture of experience that is their residue might not match the complexity of their structures and ends.

Trailing Not I by a decade, Ohio Impromptu unveils a narrative less transparent and more complex than those in any of Beckett's late plays, with the possible exception of Footfalls. Here is a summary, which uses language from the narrative wherever possible. The Reader reads the Listener a story about a certain He who lost a loved one—whether through death or abandonment is unspecified, although the line “my shade will comfort you” suggests the former.6 He moved away from the dwelling he had shared with the departed, although warned by the “dear face” in dreams not to do so. In his grief, He paced an island known as the Isle of Swans, presumably the one of the same name in the middle of the Seine, dressed in his habitual “long black coat” and “old world Latin Quarter hat.” He could not sleep—“his old terror of night laid hold on him again.” One night a man dressed in a “long black coat” “appeared to him,” said he had been sent by the “dear name” “to comfort” him, produced “a worn volume” and proceeded to read to him. Of the content of this reading we are told nothing, other than that it was a “sad tale.” His reading done, the spectral visitor “disappeared.” This scene was repeated “from time to time,” always after dark. Finally one night, the visitor told He that he would not come again. This time “he did not disappear,” although “dawn [was] at hand.” The two men, He and his ghostly companion, sat on in silence. The Reader on stage than reads his final words, “Nothing is left to tell,” and closes the book we see before us. The Reader and Listener “lower their right hands to table, raise their heads and look at each other, unblinking. Expressionless.”

This is a summary of a set of interlocking narratives, carrying within them the seed of infinite regression, presented under the rubric of a framing play, Ohio Impromptu. I would like to focus on just one point of interest here. Everything to do with content seems unknowable; and everything to do with form, shape, or structure is clear.

In the matter of content, for example, whose is the “dear face”? Male or female? Dead or alive? Are there two at all? If so, how can “my shade” duplicate the dreamer, our suffering He? Following from which, the phrase “where we were so long alone together,” repeated four times in five sentences, might carry a meaning other than that of romantic convention, suggesting rather a bifurcation of self, one part of which has died. What causes He's “extremity” and his “old terror of night”? Why do the comfort-bearer's visits suddenly cease? Who wrote the “sad tale”? Who wrote the story we are overhearing? That none of these questions appears answerable suggests that the omissions are, of course, deliberate; that they exploit the zone of impotence and ignorance that Beckett has claimed as his domain;7 that by offering the least directive or circumscribed projection surface possible they invite the broadest spectrum of private response from the multiplicity of life experiences in the audience; and that by refusing to posit order where there is none to be found, they force attention to shift from an unbearable past to the attempt to create a bearable present.

On the matter of form, perhaps a single instance, having to do with the kinship between outer and inner fictions, will suggest the play's structural lucidity. The outer fiction takes about twenty minutes to read and appears to center on He's immediate suffering following his departure from a site of union—whether with another or with a former self. The inner fiction, the one the shade reads to He, is much broader, lasting “the long night through,” and all we are told of it is that it is unhappy. However, ingesting the identical appearance of all characters seen and described, the identical positions “head in hands,” the identical “worn volume,” and the identical atmosphere of night and despair, the spectator is certain that the stories too must match—and so they do. It quickly becomes apparent that the outer reading, picked up midstream, has been underway for a long time (“Little is left to tell” is the play's opening line), and that “page forty paragraph four,” describing “the fearful symptoms” experienced by He “when his heart was young,” came and went so long ago that, to Reader's astonishment, the author of his text has nearly forgotten that such horrors had ever occurred (“after so long a lapse that as if never been”). From which it is clear that what has been read and is being read, of which we are offered only the final moments, is one reimagining of the entire life's history—from spring to deepest winter—of a human being, whoever that person might be, whether one, several, or all of the five figures in explicit configuration and the infinitely greater numbers implied. The two stories, inner and outer, now shift into alignment. They both begin the moment the shade starts reading to He. The beginning that we hear, the beginning of Ohio Impromptu, is but a sliver of the inner whole, cut from its very end, the tail of the tale. The inner encloses the outer, we see the shape, and yet the shape is all we see. We know little of the content of the outer story, other than that it is a story about the life-cycle of a story. Of the inner one we know even less. But we do know that there is but one life at issue, that it has been on the whole a miserable mess, and that the entirely specific attempt to reinvent it through a series of cascading fictions is both the controlling formal principle of Ohio Impromptu and the core of its emotional charge.

To the extent that the preceding argument persuades at all, it is perhaps not irrelevant that the play's hidden content and crystalline shape both turn out to have the identical effect: they compel viewers to focus on the action taking place in front of them. In comparison with, say, audiences for Not I and That Time, the audience at Ohio Impromptu does not sink as easily through the work's fiction-making surface to fasten on the specific horrors of the life on view. Rather, by foregrounding the fragmented self and its desperate attempt at survival, and by refusing any particulars of this self's situation, Beckett forces us into a divided response. On the one hand—as at funerals, when we grieve as much for ourselves as for the dead—we feel an irrational sense of melancholy, touched off by the interplay of image, voice, and story of typical loss. On the other, we feel fascination and dread as we watch the fictional world of the infernal past overlap and fuse with the here-and-now world on stage before us.

It is often said, both in the criticism on the play and in post-production conversations with audiences, that this dialectic between what is seen and what is heard, between the situation inside the fiction and the situation on the stage, is at the heart of Ohio Impromptu's power and mystery.8 While there is much mystery in the play, the conversation between levels of fiction or, more precisely, between fictions and fiction-making does not seem to me to contribute to it. Much like Didi's doggy doggerel in Godot, a song in the shape of a downward spiral from which there is no escape, the infinite regression of authors and audiences in Ohio Impromptu demonstrates no more than “the same old scene of sorrow”: the chaos within the trapped self and the irremediable impulse to free and reconstitute that self through fiction.9 But, because the ontology that compels such fictions is, for Beckett, in permanent control of the human condition, it follows that the fictions, quests for the twinned grails of order and meaning, will inevitably fail—and, equally inevitably, reconstitute, try again, fail again, and so on, until breath leaves body.10 This, in my view, is exactly the situation in Ohio Impromptu, which, as suggested earlier, is part of a larger fiction-making that has neither a beginning nor an end.

The opening carries no sense of fresh embarkation. We come upon the story midstream, a page is turned to get to the play's first spoken word, and the first related event is clearly also part of an ongoing narrative.

The play's conclusion, on the other hand, carries a powerful sense of closure, with the facing heads, uncovered eyes, and enigmatic mirror image delivering an ending of catastrophic finality.11 The play has ended. This particular fiction has ended. But the encompassing fiction and the need to sustain it have not. To make sure we receive this—intuitively, subconsciously, in our very fibre (“I hope my piece may work on the nerves of the audience not on its intellect”12)—Beckett makes us live through the ending twice.

The first time is in the collapse of the story within the story. The internal Reader, He's ghostly visitor, reads his “sad tale through” one final time, closes his book, and finally says “I have had word from—and here he named the dear name—that I shall not come again. I saw the dear face and heard the unspoken words. No need to go to him again, even were it in your power.” For me and the performers I have worked with, this is a difficult moment. If the “dear face” is understood solely as a loved one, then this enigmatic withdrawal of comfort and the devastations that follow must be ascribed to the heart's mystery, the unknowable origins of personal failure, and left at that. And for most of the audience the matter probably rests there. It is possible, however, to think about the play's quintet in another way, which does not preclude the former, but rather encompasses and enriches it. Consider the following: the shade of the “dear face” is visually a mirror-image of He; the shade's announcement just quoted is delivered in his own words, not those of his “sad tale,” which is now over, the book closed; this is the only point at which the outer Listener interrupts the inner pas de deux by asking for a repeat; the Reader's repeat (in the outer text) says “Saw the dear face …,” whereas the shade had said “I saw the dear face …,” the only occasion in the play when a repeat is not a repeat, suggesting that the Reader, too, is an emissary from the same source; and the shade is the sole user of the word “I.” Consider further that both the shade and He communicate with the “dear face” without language, in “unspoken words”; and that the ruthless “No need to go to him again, even were it in your power” can evoke sundering forces larger than those of love's demise or weakening personal volition. What I am proposing, in brief, is not only that the “dear face,” He, their ghostly familiar, the Listener and the Reader can all be seen as fragments of a single self, but that what is possibly at issue here is the unexplained, because inexplicable, failure of the creative faculty, the death of an artist.

What am I to say? I said.
Be yourself, they said, stay
yourself. Myself?
I said. What are you insinuating?
[Yourself before, they said.] Pause. [And after.]
[Not during? I said.](13)

During death, in other words; “stay yourself” as you were in the extinguishing instant; while “What are you insinuating?” mocks the very notion of a unitary “self” as something amusingly antique, if not actually obscene. If Beckett hung on to anything from this mercifully abandoned early stab at the Ohio commission, I suspect it was to his need to expose the uncertainty and terror of his life as a writer—with death of the spirit and disintegration of self his nightly hauntings—and that it was this need above all that led him to the impromptu, a form constituted by such exposures, as his vehicle of choice.

Thus imagined, Ohio Impromptu links itself as closely to the radio plays, Words and Music and Cascando, as it does to other works from the late group, for, though sharing many of the latter's tonal and formal qualities, it is focused less on recalling the particularity of textured lives than on baring ever more nakedly the self-dissolving terrors of the act of writing. Harking back to a two-decade-old template, then, something like the following pattern might emerge. The Listener plays the role of Opener in Cascando, his paired knocks standing in for “I open … And I close.”14 The Reader plays Voice, whose first word in Cascando was “—story. …”15 The shade plays a role analogous to Music, for though he, too, reads from a book, his nightly reading “at the same hour with the same volume” has the soothing power of an ideal, never heard by any but He. I take the fact that only the shade is honored by the word “I” as an acknowledgment of his closeness and secure access to the source of selfhood, creativity and comfort, the “wellhead”—a privileged position echoed in Words and Music, where Music is presented as truer to instinct and feeling than Words.16 The power at the center of creation, felt strongly as female, though never asserted as such, shines from the “dear face,” defined in Ohio Impromptu by absence (“when his heart was young”), then sustained presence, then again absence (at play's start), then intermittent presence (through shade), then crushing—because final—absence. He, accordingly, assumes the role of the poet, the central consciousness, revealed not during the years of strength, when He and the “dear face” were “alone together,” “so much shared,” but rather precisely at his time of impotence, helplessness, and vulnerability, when the forces he summons can do no more than repeat the story of his abandonment, failure, and approaching oblivion.

All of which is not to claim exact correspondences between works separated by twenty years. Music, for example, is seen in the radio plays as a force external and parallel to Voice, whereas here, perhaps reflecting Beckett's increasing precision of awareness about his means, Voice appears to create Music, the irony being, of course, that since Music remains the animating principle, the sole bringer of creativity, comfort and “shade,” Music, in effect, creates Voice. It is possible that there are other discrepancies and refinements as well, but the resemblances are striking enough to suggest that many of the same issues are at stake and that, despite differences of tone and medium, they are being worked out in roughly the same way.

Returning now to the first part of the play's double ending, the collapse of the inner fiction, the shade delivers his fateful message, the two sit on in silence and all sound and movement cease. In this tableau, which we see in mind's eye, and which has already given birth to the one that we will see in the flesh, the play's first true mirror image is established—two ashen figures who, separate, embodied a victory of will and imagination over the night, but, melted together, may not speak, hear, imagine, or feel. If Beckett abandons us to our own devices to plumb the unknowable origins of personal and creative failure, he leaves us in no doubt about the cost of such failure. The Reader describes to his Listener from his text the consequences of the death of its parent, also, paradoxically, their joint creation, the inner text: “they sat on as though turned to stone. Through the single window dawn shed no light. From the street no sound of reawakening. … Buried in who knows what profounds of mind. Of mindlessness. Whither no light can reach. No sound. So sat on as though turned to stone.” What is being evoked is a living death of silence and darkness, which, however much longed for as “rest, sleep, no more stories, no more words,”17 is also the unbearable ending, in James Knowlson's words, the “end of creativity, the failure of that impulse to drag oneself compulsively forward”18—in short, the death of the spirit. Having spelled out once, in words, the consequences of the failure of the stories we make up for ourselves and about ourselves, Beckett, like an aerialist whose partner has just fallen to her death, repeats the act, this time in silence. The collapse of the inner fiction immediately precipitates the collapse of the outer one. The Reader reads “Nothing is left to tell,” and makes to close the book. The Listener knocks and forces a repeat. The Reader reads the final phrase out again and closes the book. And then, in one of the play's most extraordinary moments, the Listener knocks again. Knowing that the fiction has failed and that “Nothing is left to tell,” the Listener makes a last desperate plea that seems to me the precise equivalent of the Rockaby Woman's “More.”19 Only after he is met with silence does he finally drop his hand, raise his eyes and merge with what has finally become his double. This is the second explicit mirror image in the play and the only embodied one. The third is the reflection between the pair we see and the pair we imagine; while the implicit ones stretch endlessly in both directions, outer and inner, reverberating through narratives within narratives within narratives.20 Engulfed by frozen figures, we stare at the two before us, now turned to stone themselves, buried in their own mindless regions of silence and darkness. It is “a scene of desolation and absence.”21

No conclusion could feel more final. And yet, all that we have experienced so far—the structure of interlocking narratives, the theme of the interdependence of life and art, the beginning that is no beginning and that so solicits an ending that is no ending—collude to deny suffering its longed-for surcease. Seemingly, Opener, Voice, Music, and Consciousness resemble the living dead, absent though present (“he did not disappear”). Seemingly, “the dear face,” “the dear name” will speak “the unspoken words” no more, leaving He alone, unitary, “one,” and therefore inert—as both writer and lover, which are perhaps the same. And yet, what have not perished are physical existence, the realities that give rise to fiction, and, therefore, the necessity for fiction. The “one” will still be prey to guilt, grief and memory, for the conditions of his life have not changed. His old “terror of night” will lay hold on him again. Again he will sit “trembling head in hands from head to foot,” until the “dear name” sends another to comfort him. Another Reader will appear, another self-division will promise rescue, another life story will begin (“this time … it's the right one”), and that final knock may turn out to be not so final after all, sounding many more times, until the final silence drowns it out.22

Ohio Impromptu, then, like the other plays in the late group, shows a small slice of a lifelong process of fictionalizing. From this perspective, it differs from Not I, say, only in that while the latter shows failure within a fiction (“try something else … think of something else …,” says “she”), the later play dwells on failure at its end, at the dark place between the crumbling of one construction and the rising of another.23 What is constant is that Beckett's forsaken ones live only when trying to reimagine themselves and their histories through stories.

Stepping away now to look at the fictions' guiding shapes, we see a narrative structure organized by an interlocking pattern of straight lines, spirals, and circles. Stories within stories evoke the spiral's paradoxical qualities of both entrapment and movement—inward and downward as we fall ever closer to the fires of personal chaos in He, he's He, and so on; and, simultaneously, outward and upward as we sense our own ontological shakiness, mere figments in the enclosing nightmares of other Listeners, other Readers, other audiences. Circularity emanates from the bitter cycle of fiction's collapse, rebirth, and re-collapse. And lastly, the linear drive, critical to the narrative's power in performance, explicitly tracks He's attempt at salvation from the genesis of his fiction to its crushing end, while implicitly lowering us into that great river of self-mythologizing that sweeps humanity across its instant in the light.

Finally in a position to examine the interplay between image and narrative in Ohio Impromptu, we see how the image's iconic cast begins to break down under the acid of the encroaching fiction. As the story takes hold, what had first appeared an emblem of suffering, perceived in roughly the same way by a collective audience, is claimed by the unique responses of individual spectators to the melancholy tale they hear. Because the image is itself unchanging, because it blocks its characters' eyes from the spectator's gaze and so cancels any subjectivity that might oppose the spectator's own, and because its physical arrangement—heads in hands—so perfectly mirrors the narrative's imagined scene, the visual tableau becomes both a screen and a transparency. Its stillness enables the audience to flow through it to He, the locus of emotion; its physical presence redelivers to the audience the imagined moment in the flesh. Our mind's eye sees He tremble, but our eye sees L, who is He in all but movement, so we brush aside the abstraction and claim L for ourselves, each spectator in his or her own way. The image has gathered into itself the narrative's turbulence of content and, in so doing, bound the spectator's imagination to the immediacy of live action in present time.24

Ohio Impromptu thus exemplifies a process common to most of the late works: the way the iconic visual image becomes the armature around which is spun both the deepening textures of the verbal narrative and the intensifying emotional projections of the audience. This dual process functions much like the camera that bores in on the impassive Joe in Eh Joe: by creating a web of personal association around an enigmatic core, it concentrates meaning, intensifies feeling and, ultimately, makes each play a creation of the individual spectator.25 The more unchanging the image, and the less idiosyncratic the narrative, the more freely do the spectator's associations flow toward the stage. As a consequence, what began as a visual abstraction and an account of a typical loss ends as a profoundly personal experience of the basic dilemmas of life.

I would like to close by revisiting two related issues, the matter of the impromptu, on the one hand, and, on the other, the gathering of specialists for whom Beckett fashioned his offering.

To stage a comedy for this kind of an
audience is no joke. These are not
easy people to amuse or impress.
They laugh only when they feel like it.

L'Impromptu de Versailles26

This is my life. No stores but mine.
No more figures.
Thalia, for pity's sake a leaf of thine ivy.

How It Is27

I think that there are two core energies that drive playwrights who, for whatever reason, at whatever point in their journeys, are drawn to the impromptu's fire. One is the need to expose as nakedly as possible the personal and professional mess that somehow enables a work's creation; and the other, equally desperate, is the opposite need to shield that exposure by using as Thalia's leaf the work itself. The pressure upon the work, therefore, is to reveal without revealing and conceal without concealing.

The interconnections between the horrors of Molière's life and certain of the satirical elements in his plays, L'Impromptu very much included, have been documented.28 Perhaps one example, the “cream tart” incident, will give the flavor of the connection. The Duc de la Feuillade, who assumed himself the model for a stage marquis in Critique de l'Ecole des Femmes, one whom Molière had rendered absurd in that play's famous “cream tart” passage, encountered the playwright a few days later in the royal antechamber. When Molière bowed to him, “the nobleman seized Molière's head with both hands and ground it against his coat buttons, yelling ‘Cream tart, Molière, cream tart!’ A Molière with his periwig askew and his face streaming blood, slinking off through the passageways of the Louvre; an infidel Molière taking advantage of his misdirected popularity to inject all manner of poison into the minds of his audience; a mountebank who has got himself into the Temple of Taste by simple burglary—such is the specimen that was beginning to take shape. Something had to be done about it.”29 That something, of course, was L'Impromptu.

LA Grange:
“Do you seriously claim that you weren't the marquess in The Criticism?”
“Of course I was; exactly like me. With that business in scene five about cream puffs. ‘Cream puffs, I hate them, ugh! Cream puffs: they're detestable!’ If it wasn't me, who else was it?”(30)

Molière thus not only avenges the assault through mimicry, but, by reminding his court audience of it, perversely relives his humiliation in public. Feeding his audience's greed and voyeurism with pieces of himself, the writer lays bare a reality that every actor instinctively knows—the cannibalistic nature of performance. That L'Impromptu as a whole is not about personal retaliation, but rather has to do with Molière's will to establish his particular brand of comedy in the teeth of a hostile tradition, does not dim the view from our perspective—that of a writer calling attention to the necessary linkage between the torments of his life and his effort at professional survival.

How, then, is privacy regained? What about the leaf? Molière appears to shed it when he closes even the slight distance between writer and actor, they here being one, and, further, insists on playing in his own name. But this final step is an illusion. What seems an ultimate unveiling is in fact the first creative act, the first move toward the construction of the art object which, on one level, and one only, will mediate between author and audience. For as soon as Molière steps onto a stage, he is, of course, no longer Molière. He is Molière playing Molière. In the scene quoted, he is Molière playing Molière playing a marquis hostile to Molière. A moment later, when fellow-actor Brécourt, playing a friendly marquis, is insufficiently eloquent in his defender's tirade, Molière shows him how to do it, in effect becoming Molière playing Molière playing both the hostile marquis and Brécourt playing a friendly marquis, with this last playing two other marquis within the tirade. Such a dizzying spiral of voices, bodies, accents, and attitudes spinning from a single performer restores magic, Eros and art to the stage, reifying imagination into a habitation that is neither author nor audience but the place where they meet. In the process, the work displaces the confessional. But, for all that, what is important to suggest here is that the confessional's suffering does not evaporate. The very obsessiveness with which life's outrage is relived (“If it wasn't me, who else was it?”), the savagery with which its titled demons are painted in, the childlike directness with which relief is sought, all point to the compulsion to hold nothing back, to reveal all. This is the substratum of the impromptu, the tone that informs it, the energy that drives it, and the turbulence that renders its titular promise of impulsive action a generative if not a literal truth.

I willingly offer up my plays, my face, my gestures, my words, my tone of voice. I sacrifice my tricks of the trade for them to use as they will. I have no objections to whatever they take, if only the audience likes it. But in yielding all this to them I reserve the rest as my own property.

Molière playing Molière in L'Impromptu de Versailles31

Circling back now from the furthest of the great impromptus to the nearest, I suggest that suffering in Beckett's play is similarly autobiographical in origin, similarly embodied in alter egos, and similarly eruptive in forcing exposure of working method and craft. Two threads of grief intertwine, the first seeming to recall personal matters, perhaps from as long ago as five decades before the writing, the second reliving the nightly torment of creation in present time and space, the shared room and moment of actor and audience.

Consider Deirdre Bair's account of Beckett's state in the winter of 1933, the year that brought the deaths of his father, William, and the cousin whom he had loved, Peggy Sinclair.

Beckett would awaken in the middle of the night, drenched with perspiration, his heart pounding erratically, unable to breathe or to extricate himself from the blind panic which threatened to suffocate him. He tried to avoid sleeping because he was afraid to dream. … Finally the night tremors became so severe that Beckett could relax only if Frank slept in the same bed, to hold and calm him. …32

Compare with:

In this extremity his old terror of night laid hold on him again. After so long a lapse that as if never been. … White nights now again his portion. As when his heart was young. No sleep no braving sleep till—(turns page)—dawn of day. … One night as he sat trembling head in hands from head to foot a man appeared to him and said, I have been sent … to comfort you.

Ohio Impromptu

It is an axiom of criticism that however fine the seeming parallel between a writer's life and his work, the assertion of unequivocal cause-and-effect relationships should be regarded with profound skepticism. Perhaps the most one can say here is that, given the resemblances between the quoted passages as well as the increasingly evident pattern of autobiographical reference in Beckett's work as a whole,33 it might be reasonable to suppose that the deaths of people he loved in his youth contributed in some way to the emotional field of this intensely personal play. Among the many lost ones would have to be included Joyce, he of the black hat and long black coat, with whom Beckett paced the Isle of Swans.34 The gender-neutral “dear face” and “dear name” thus become incomparably evocative mediums for the passage of longing and loss from present to past to present—both for the writer and for the audience, with each recall carrying the intensity and particularity of individual history and memory.

If this scalding encounter with “temps retrouvé,” the first of the play's two spines of suffering, is experienced in much the same way by the specialists at the premiere and by the general audiences that followed, being no more than an awakening of their common humanity, the second, which stems from the collapse of the creative act, seems directed more pointedly at the former group. Earlier I invoked certain similarities between Ohio Impromptu and the radio plays of the 1960s, Cascando in particular. Consider the following excerpt from that work.

What do I open?
They say, he opens nothing, he has nothing to open, it's in his head.
They don't see me, they don't see what I do, they don't see what I have, and they say, he opens nothing, he has nothing to open, it's in his head.
I don't protest any more, I don't say any more,
There is nothing in my head.
I don't answer any more.
I open and close.
[Voice and Music are heard briefly, in sequence.]
They say, That is not his life, he does not live on that.
They don't see me, they don't see what my life is, they don't see what I live on, and they say, That is not his life,
he does not live on that.
I have lived on it … till I'm old.
Old enough.(35)

As I understand this passage, the writer, speaking through Opener, a surrogate for one of Beckett's several fragments of self, is spelling out how he creates and lives, they being one. Confessing to a poetics of nullity (“There is nothing in my head”), Beckett can only channel Voice and Music, themselves stand-ins for the variety of verbal and non-verbal forces that visit and use the poet. If one admits passagework from later in the play and from its companion-piece, Words and Music, one sees a composite portrait of a near-helpless consciousness, disclaiming paternity of its disruptive wards,36 desperately attempting control,37 able to influence little in the way of tone, style or direction in whatever words or sounds emerge,38 and inevitably failing to achieve its dreamed-of end—the story that finally will be “the right one,” that will “finish,” that will deliver the longed-for silence, “no more stories … sleep. …”39 Since the stories in both plays describe unnamed quests, since the “control” figures, Opener and Croak, become heavily invested in them, and since both end badly—with the nearly dead Croak withdrawing in disarray from fiction's end in Words and Music; and with the fictional protagonist, himself an obvious projection of Opener, drifting out to sea to certain death at narrative's unfinished finish in Cascando—it is a strong presumption that the fiction in each case is the writer's own, an account of his existence, as lived at the moment of imagining, and therefore that story-telling and life (diminishing together) are indivisible (“I have lived on it … till I'm old”).

Ohio Impromptu, too, is focussed on the collapse of the creative act, which blankets the work in a ritualistic tonality of regret and grief. It, too, grasps at fiction to both defend against and enter life. It, too, contains a cluster of fragments of the self, five this time rather than three. But, drawing on Beckett's twenty more years of the “same old words same old scraps millions of times,”40 gaining authority from the entry into nether worlds, the repeated breachings of the Stygian boundary common to the late works, the play presents an experience of failure far profounder than the one the somewhat schematic and therefore directive structures of the earlier works could encompass.

For example, Ohio Impromptu presents, in my view, not one fiction but three, and gives us in addition a dual (embodied and imagined) rather than a singular perspective on them. The first fiction has already failed when the play opens. We encounter, at length, the consequences of that failure—He's change of residence, his courting of unfamiliarity, his pacing of the Isle of Swans, his guilt, his night terrors. This section occupies four of the play's eight pages. The second fiction then starts and, for a while, succeeds. The emissary appears and, “with never a word exchanged,” consciousness and memory, self and self-creation grow “to be as one.” An episode of comfort, it is afforded a bare page and a half. This fiction, too, collapses. The birth of the third fiction, as suggested above, is not shown, but implied, along with its predictable trajectory. Six and a half pages, in short, out of a total of eight, zero in on the experience of chaos and suffering. Beckett underlines the experience of fiction's failure by making us live through it three times: first in the collapse of the play's opening fiction and then twice more in the collapse of the second—the verbal rendering of the imagined scene, followed by the nonverbal embodiment, in present time and space, of that scene itself. Finally, the writer multiplies our exposure to his own incapacities by repeatedly stopping his narrative to relive its most insupportable moments. Of Listener's six interruptions of the story of his surrogate life, three bare his helplessness to prevent his story's/life's extinction (Little/Nothing “is left to tell”); two jerk, puppet-like, on treacherous memory's strings—the advent that promises solace, followed by the vanishing that withdraws it; and one broods on the bitterness of the mind's permanent separation from its ideal (“Then turn and his slow steps retrace”). In sum, the play's controlling structures—the phoenix-like cycle of flaming fictions, the twice-stressed collapse of the central story (the only one shown us from start to finish), and the ruthless fingering of the writer's failures throughout—in combination present a self-portrait of the artist as a tormented being, at the mercy of forces outside his control, capable of nothing except an awareness of his own incapacity. It is this awareness that I think is the play's subject, and, since it is also the tonality that admits the void around the central pool of light, subject and experience blend, summoning up another of those unabstractable works—works that are the thing itself—so characteristic of this particular playwright.

We are at last in a position to speculate on what Beckett might have been trying to say to the assembled scholars and practitioners in Ohio. In the impromptu's best tradition, according to which the writer's failure to create becomes the creation, Beckett might have been saying: this is what I try to do; this is why I need to do it; this is how I fail to do it; and, critically, this is what the failure feels like. I sense no condescension here, no jokes, no scanting of the scholarly enterprise. On the contrary, unlike Molière, whose fear of his carnivorous peers drove him to re-cover his nakedness in the glittering garment of a sealed and perfect entertainment, Beckett leaves himself exposed up to the bitter end. Ohio Impromptu thus becomes a true gift of the self, claiming no special knowledge or insight, offering just those “scraps” that are available to it, seeking no justification, promising no relief.

On the assumption, now, that professional writers do not write for coteries, how might such a self-reflexive perspective resonate with a general audience, which possesses neither knowledge of nor interest in such matters? The answer, I suggest, might lie in abandoning the artificial separation I set up earlier between the play's two spines of grief. For if the losses in Beckett's life probably struck the play's originating spark, they are not, I think, the source of its main current of feeling. That stems from his, and our, awareness of our existence in time. As the years pass, it is less the fear of departures that torments us than our weakening bond with the departed in our slipping memories and wavering imaginations. A kind of second loss that encloses the first and enlarges upon it, such failures of will and memory are experienced not only as a betrayal of loved ones but as a dissolution of the self, a severing of our links to the world. Looked at in this way, He's grief at the loss of the “dear face” and his, Listener's, Beckett's and our corresponding need to recreate our lives with the “dear face” through the silent narratives we inscribe in our hearts and that the play embodies in books, symbols of the writer's presence, are no more than mirrorings in art of lifelong human activities. Suffering is unremarkable; it is assumed. In the effort to deal with it, we all put on the artist's mantle and walk his bitter path. So perhaps Ohio Impromptu is a simple play, available to even the untutored in the house.


  1. This article is based on a paper delivered at the Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago, December 27, 1995.

  2. Ruby Cohn, quoted in Beryl S. and John Fletcher, A Student's Guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber and Faber, 1978/1985) 255.

  3. A Student's Guide, 256.

  4. Interviewed by Emmanuelle Klausner, Journal of Beckett Studies 4 (1): 116.

  5. Maurice Blackman, “The Shaping of a Beckett Text: ‘Play,’” Journal of Beckett Studies 10: 89.

  6. Samuel Beckett, Ohio Impromptu, in Three Plays by Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove Press, 1984) 14. All subsequent quotations are from this edition, 11-19. Because of the play's brevity, I have omitted further page references.

  7. Israel Schenker, “Moody Man of Letters,” The New York Times, 6 May 1956, section 2, p. 3.

  8. See Steven Connor, Samuel Beckett: repetition, theory, and text (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988) 131-33; Enoch Brater, Beyond Minimalism: Beckett's Late Style in the Theater (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) 125-38; S. E. Gontarski, The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett's Dramatic Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) 175-78; Verna Foster, “Beckett's Winter Tale: Tragicomic Transformation in Ohio Impromptu,Journal of Beckett Studies 1 (1 & 2): 67-75; Linda Ben Zvi, Samuel Beckett (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986), 174-76.

  9. Keir Elam, “Dead heads: damnation-narration in the ‘dramaticules,’” in John Pilling, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Beckett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 161.

  10. See Wolfgang Iser, “When is the End Not the End? The Idea of Fiction in Beckett,” in S. E. Gontarski, ed., On Beckett: Essays and Criticism (New York: Grove Press, 1986) 55-56.

  11. Catastrophic in the colloquial, not the Aristotelian sense. There is, I think, no reversal here, merely the issue of an attempted authorship that could not end otherwise.

  12. Samuel Beckett, quoted in Enoch Brater, “Dada, Surrealism, and the Genesis of Not I,Modern Drama 18 (March 1975), p. 53. This statement (about Not I) and others like it, as well as Beckett's record as a director speak to his need to elicit unmediated levels of response from his audiences.

  13. The final lines of Beckett's subsequently discarded first attempt at Ohio Impromptu. Quoted in Pierre Astier, “Beckett's Ohio Impromptu: A View from the Isle of Swans,” in On Beckett, 397.

  14. Samuel Beckett, Cascando, in Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber & Faber, 1986), 297.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Samuel Beckett, Words and Music, in The Complete Dramatic Works, p. 294.

  17. Cascando, p. 297.

  18. James Knowlson, Light and Darkness in the Theatre of Samuel Beckett (London: Turrett Books, 1972), p. 35.

  19. Samuel Beckett, Rockaby in The Complete Dramatic Works, p. 440.

  20. For a discussion of the sense of equivocal identity associated with the mirror gag, see Nicola Ramsey, “Watt and the significance of the mirror image,” Journal of Beckett Studies 10: 21-36.

  21. John Pilling, “Review article: ‘Three occasional pieces’ by Samuel Beckett,” Journal of Beckett Studies 10: 162.

  22. Cascando, 301.

  23. Samuel Beckett, Not I, in The Complete Dramatic Works, 382.

  24. For an excellent treatment of the tension in Beckett's visual imagination between image as allegory and image as direct expression of “honest” suffering, see Dougald McMillan, “Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts: The Embarrassment of Allegory,” in On Beckett, 29-45.

  25. For a similar view of narrative, see Elin Diamond, “Refusing the Romanticism of Identity: Narrative Interventions in Churchill, Benmussa, Duras,” Theatre Journal (October 1985): 273-86.

  26. In One-Act Comedies of Molière, Albert Bermel, trans. and ed. (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1965) 99.

  27. Cited in McMillan, 43.

  28. See Ramon Fernandez, Molière: The Man Seen Through the Plays (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958).

  29. Fernandez, 105-6.

  30. L'Impromptu de Versailles, 108.

  31. L'Impromptu, 117.

  32. Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: a Biography (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978), 174-75.

  33. See, for example, McMillan, op. cit., and Gontarski, The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett's Dramatic Texts.

  34. Jonathan Kalb, Beckett in Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 49.

  35. Cascando, 300.

  36. Cascando, 302.

  37. Words and Music, 287-94.

  38. Ibid.

  39. Cascando, 304.

  40. How It Is, cited in Gontarski, The Intent of Undoing …, [vii].

K. Jeevan Kumar (essay date winter 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5643

SOURCE: Kumar, K. Jeevan. “The Chess Metaphor in Samuel Beckett's Endgame.Modern Drama 40, no. 4 (winter 1997): 540-52.

[In the following essay, Kumar argues that the chess symbolism in Endgame serves as a unifying element for the play as well as a metaphor for existential uncertainty and despair.]

Samuel Beckett's drama depicts a relentless search for the central self1 or the ultimate being which remains unidentified, unseen and unattainable. Time makes this search an unending process by presenting the seeker with the illusion of being static and at the same time creating a flux, making the distinction between illusion and reality blurred. The central self which eschews the seeker is often presented in Beckett's works as a non-existent entity. In Waiting for Godot the central self that the tramps could never get at is presented as the enigmatic Godot.2 Alain Robbe-Grillet observes that “Godot is the inaccessible self.”3 In Watt this non-existent central reality takes the form of Mr. Knott, who never makes his appearance and who is continuously sought out.4 In the course of this futile search, man is caught within the infinity of Time, and bewilderment at the nature of Time finds its expression in such telling phrases as Vladimir's “Time has stopped”5 or Hamm's “time was never and time is over.”6 Thus an “Infinite emptiness” binds their lives, as Hamm says in Endgame (109).

In Endgame the struggle with Time itself is delineated through a central metaphor: the game of chess. That chess is the central metaphor in Endgame is more acknowledged than analysed. Benedict Nightingale reports that Beckett himself “told the Hamm in a German production” of the play that Hamm is “a king in a chess game … trying to delay the inevitable end.”7 Despite such a pertinent comment from Beckett himself, the chess metaphor in Endgame still remains to be fully explored. A careful analysis of that metaphor is essential for a fuller understanding of the multifaceted concerns and the varied levels of meaning that mark the play. This essay proposes to argue that the chess metaphor in Endgame functions as a unifying element, linking the other symbols with it and integrating movements and decor in the play, and, in the process, presents the existential angst of man, through the uncertainty and unpredictability of the last phase of a game of chess.

Beckett views the centre of existence as a void or nothingness which continuously eludes absurd man. Failure is imperative in man's journey towards nothingness: “the attempts of the individual to define himself by fixing his position within the void must be regarded as failures.”8 The chess metaphor in Endgame presents this quest for, and movement towards, the non-existent central reality which is, in fact, nothingness itself.

The game of chess has been one of Beckett's “abiding passions”9 and has exerted a seminal influence on Beckett's works, ranging from the cursory reference to the “unfinished game of chess with a correspondent in Tasmania” in Rough for Theatre II to the subtle and complex employment of chess as a symbolic device in Murphy and in Endgame.10 A. Alvarez remarks that Beckett's dream world is “the world of chess.”11 In Endgame, with paradoxical dexterity, Beckett turns the rationality of the game of chess into the irrationality of the Absurd. Like the diverse squares in the chequered board, the world is strewn with numerous systems of thought. Each system, whether it be philosophical, religious, materialistic, or aesthetic, is represented by a square. But no system is absolute; no system shows the central or eternal reality. And the chess board is devoid of a central square. That is, there is no such position on the chess board which a chessman can occupy and which is the absolute centre of the board. There is no centre, or, in other words, the centre is a void, nothingness, which is the seat of the central self or the ultimate being.

For Beckett, a game of chess reflects life itself. Referring to the chess metaphor in Endgame, Valerie Topsfield notes that the “action of the play has an affinity with the repetitive, defensive play at the end of a less-than-perfect chess game which is a metaphor for life.”12 But the game of life, unlike a game of chess, is quite irrational. Man is a being tossed in the absurd universe like a piece on the chess board, and his fate is as dubious as that of a chessman. He may be checked or thrown out of the board at any time in the perilous game of life: “It is, of course, clear that the fate of chessmen is, to Beckett, analogous to the fate of man.”13 So the best course to be adopted is to avoid the game; that is, not to make any move at all. Or, if one is to make moves, one must try to retain all the chessmen in the initial position. Beckett himself played such a game with Geoffrey Thompson, according to a biographer, and it is reflected in the game of chess in Murphy. Beckett's concept of the ideal game of chess emerges from the anecdote as follows:

Beckett argued and then tried to demonstrate that once the pieces are set up on the board, any move from then on will only weaken one's position, that strength lies only in not moving at all. The ideal game for Beckett was one in which none of the pieces were moved, for from the very first move, failure and loss were inevitable.14

Beckett employs the chess metaphor for the first time in Murphy, and the game of chess there has made its impact on the later dramatic works, Endgame in particular. Murphy, like the other heroes of Beckett, is a victim of Cartesian dualism.15 He finds his absolute freeing into nothingness after the game of chess he plays with Mr. Endon, an inmate of the sanatorium where Murphy works as a male nurse.

Beckett gives an account of the game Murphy plays with Mr. Endon, detailing all the eighty-six moves leading to Murphy's surrender. Beckett regards the first move of Murphy's as the “primary cause of all White's subsequent difficulties.”16 He should not have made any move at all. But Murphy makes his moves to reach the non-existent and unattainable centre of the board. Though he tries to imitate the moves of Mr. Endon, he is quite unable to follow his opponent who tries to retain the original positions of his chessmen. On the twenty-seventh move which Beckett describes as the “ingenuity of despair,”17 Murphy tries to tempt Mr. Endon by making his queen an easy prey for Mr. Endon's pawn, but his opponent pays no heed. His only endeavour is to achieve the initial position. On the thirty-fourth move of Mr. Endon, Murphy's king is actually in check, but he ignores that opportunity too. By the forty-third move, Mr. Endon's pieces have come almost to the initial position except for the king and two pawns. With the next move, he could have brought the king, too, to the initial position though he will not be able to bring the pawns to the initial position for the technical reason that pawns cannot be moved backwards in chess. But before that, Murphy surrenders; his chessmen remain “scattered about the board in utter chaos,”18 the ultimate fate of the man who makes the move. That night Murphy gazes into Mr. Endon's face, when he comes to an awareness of his own being and existence. He returns to his room and sits in his rocker where he feels “… astir in his mind in the freedom of that light and dark that did not clash” (141), like the white and black in a game of chess. As the gas leaks, leading Murphy to “superfine chaos,”19 he attains his “ritual rock into Nirvana” nothingness.20

Murphy plays the game in the intervals between his duty, and Mr. Endon and he do not see each other as they make the moves since each “made his move in the absence of the other. …”21 This aspect further orients the game as a metaphor of life, a game of chess with the unfathomable force of Time in the absurd universe. In such a game the player and the pieces are often identified, both are in the same miserable plight, which is highlighted in Endgame.

There is no fixed time for a game of chess to conclude; the time taken is indefinite, with the ending perpetually delayed. The first move in a game of chess is analogous to birth, which existentialists view as a forcible ejection into the world, like the man in Act without Words I who is “flung backwards on stage”22 to play the game.23 In a game of chess the white has to make the first move. Mr. Endon, who has a deeper insight into life, never plays with white, he plays only with the black. His zeal to return to the initial position could be seen as the urge to return to the womb which Beckett often presents in his plays by making his characters take the “foetal posture” as does Estragon in Waiting for Godot.24

Murphy has many subtle links with Endgame. The play's dialogue opens with Clov's recital of Christ's last words on the Cross: “Finished, it's finished.” (93). It is curious that “while a theological student he [Murphy] had used to lie awake night after night … pondering Christ's parthian shaft: It is finished.25 The setting of Endgame suggests the inside of a skull, the locus of brain, and chess is a game of the intellect. This setting has another significance. Referring to Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot, at the end of which he repeats “the skull the skull the skull the skull,”26 G. C. Barnard says that the skull is the “image for man's ultimate fate, the end product of his wasting, pining, shrinking and dwindling.”27 The skull-like setting is integral to the action of Endgame which enacts the last-ditch phase of the search for the ultimate self and the process of dying.

Ruby Cohn has provided the fullest account of Beckett's advice to Ernst Schröder, the actor who played Hamm in Berlin in 1967.

Hamm is a king in this chess game lost from the start. From the start he knows he is making loud senseless moves. That he will make no progress at all with the gaff. Now at the last he makes a few senseless moves as only a bad player would. A good one would have given up long ago. He is only trying to delay the inevitable end. Each of his gestures is one of the last useless moves which put off the end.28

Yet Hamm seems not only to be a mere chess piece; he is the player too. The very first words he utters are “Me—[he yawns]—to play” (93). Michael Robinson points out that “… Hamm is both player and chess piece, to be exact the threatened king.”29 That Hamm is both player and king is further assured by Clov's inability to resist his orders:

Do this, do that, and I do it. I never refuse. Why?
You're not able to.
Soon I won't do it any more.
You won't be able to any more.


Hamm implies that Clov is not able to defy his orders though soon he will be unable to obey him. Hamm here refers to the end of the game when the king will be checkmated so that the other piece left, Clov, loses significance. As Hamm is the player too, Clov cannot but obey him, since the pieces are moved at the player's disposal. Realisation of this dual existence of Hamm as the player and the king is essential to the understanding of his plight and the play as well in the existential context. It makes Hamm a true existential hero, who is both the actor and the sufferer. He is fully responsible for his actions or the moves he makes.

Hamm is aware of the futility of the game he pursues, which, in fact, is a metaphor for man's confrontation with the greatest enemy in his search for the self: Time. Michael Robinson says that Hamm's “opponent is not human but time and against the latter one seeks to lose, to be eliminated into Nothing.”30 That Hamm is trying to delay the inevitable end is evident from his first speech: “And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to … to end. Yes, there it is, it's time it ended and yet I hesitate to—[he yawns]—to end” (93). The game with an adversary who is beyond Hamm's ken and mettle turns out to be a lingering trauma. Hamm, as a blind man who plays chess, is dependent on Clov, and he is also a split personality. Being blind, he falls short of making the moves in accordance with the conception of his mind. His is essentially a Cartesian plight; non-coordination between mind and body makes him an inept and grotesque player in the game with “a relentless opponent who has seized each advantage and stripped the board.”31 As player, Hamm represents the mind; as a chess piece, the body. Hamm, as king is unable to comprehend the strategies of Hamm, the player, and this, together with his blindness, aggravates his inability to cope with the game. The split between mind and body is evident when he says that the game has been continuing without his full awareness of it: “Absent, always. It all happened without me. I don't know what's happened” (128).

The structure of the play also enhances the chess metaphor. In the first draft, Endgame had two acts, but Beckett later adopted the one-act structure.32 Beckett seems to have dispensed with the two-act structure to present the play as one long, continuing action so that the chess metaphor is evoked in a clearer light. A break would have ruined the titular metaphor.

This game of ending has been continuing, on and on, with recurring moves. But on the day on which the action of the play takes place, there is some sort of a change in the moves. Something strange, some unprecedented move on the part of the opponent is threatening Hamm's existence and is accelerating the slow game toward its finale. Hamm has a premonition of this even at the beginning of the action:

Apart from that, how do you feel?
I don't complain.
You feel normal?
[Irritably] I tell you I don't complain!
I feel a little queer.


So there is some change from the usual repetitive moves. This makes Hamm anxious at the way the game is getting on:

But that's always the way at the end of the day, isn't it, Clov?
It's the end of the day like any other day, isn't it Clov?
Looks like it.


Hamm is eager to make sure that he is making the right moves. But the oddity of the moves on the part of the opponent is making him more and more anguished, and his inkling of some unexpected move of the enemy is soon assured:

[Anguished.] What's happening, what's happening?
Something is taking its course.


So something is taking its course; though Hamm, at present, is unaware of the real moment of that move. But the endgame of existence also seems to them as having a repetitive pattern:

[Gloomily.] Then it's a day like any other day.
As long as it lasts. [Pause.] All life long the same inanities.


The events seem to have the same pattern as the moves in a game of chess. Yet within this pattern there is an enigmatic variety which is flabbergasting. As no two games of chess are likely to have the same moves, so the next move, the next astounding moment of life, lies beyond Hamm's expectation and that is why he is anguished. He is completely overcome and baffled by Time at the end of the play when he exclaims, “Moments for nothing, now as always, time was never and time is over.” (133).

The relentless game with Time and the slowness of the last moves are hinted also through the reference to Zeno's heap. Clov says in the opening speech, “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's heap, a little heap, the impossible heap” (93). Hamm later echoes Clov's words, which are more revealing: “Moment upon moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of … [he hesitates] … that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life” (126). Hamm has been trying to get at the seemingly impossible culmination of the game. The endgame of his existence continues without mounting up to a life, and is getting more and more slow and tiresome as it moves towards its terminus. As Michael Robinson puts it: “… the closer the heap approaches to completion, the slower it actually increases.”33 In all probability, the final moves in a game of chess take much time or get slower; each move needs much forethought and the player has to take into account the consequences before the piece is actually moved. Thus, the reference to Zeno's impossible heap may also suggest the end of the endgame which is continuously delayed. Hamm is aware of the fact that the endgame of his existence or the act of dying is getting very slow. Getting checkmated in the game of life is indeed slow; as Hamm says: “This is slow work” (97).

The long awaited endgame with Time is indeed irritating. When Hamm, exasperated by the conversation of Nagg and Nell, asks them to stop, he is not merely referring to their talk: “Have you not finished? Will you never finish? [With sudden fury.] Will this never finish?” (103). Hamm seems to imply that the last phase of the game will never cease. He refers to the game later, too, as “this”:

Do you not think this has gone long enough?
Yes! [Pause.] What?
This … this … thing.


Yet Hamm's only aim has been to prevent or to delay the inevitable end. He has sacrificed many a piece during the course of the precarious game with Time, to save himself from being checkmated. Two such pieces are directly referred to in the course of the play, an old doctor and Mother Pegg:

… That old doctor, he's dead, naturally?
He wasn't old.
But he's dead?
Naturally. [Pause.] You ask me that?


Clov's query, with the emphases on “you” and “me” suggests Hamm's responsibility in this piece's captivity and its subsequent disappearance from the chess board. Similarly, Clov accuses Hamm of having denied Mother Pegg oil, thus causing her death due to “darkness” (129). Again, Hamm refers to the other pieces which he lost in his attempt to delay the ultimate failure: “All those I might have helped. [Pause.] Helped! [Pause.] Saved. [Pause.] Saved!” (125). His urge to save himself and thus delay the end is more evident in his anxious insistence on the position Clov should take. Whenever Clov is behind his chair, Hamm is deliriously anxious of his safety: “Don't stay there [i.e., behind the chair], you give me the shivers” (105). Again when Clov is behind his chair Hamm expresses the same frenzied anxiety: “[Clov closes the window, gets down, pushes the chair back to its place, remains standing behind it, head bowed]. Don't stay there, you give me the shivers!” (124). He wants Clov to be beside him, as a shield, to prevent himself from being checkmated.

Ending the game by surrendering, like Murphy, would be just like leaving the chess board of existence: “Outside of here it's death” (96). Paradoxically, remaining on the board and continuing the game would also lead to no other end but death. Hamm is slowly approaching the end as if he were in a blind alley. Hema V. Raghavan notes, “He [Hamm] has reached, so to say, a cul-de-sac analogous to the stalemate in a game of chess.”34 Hamm and Clov as pieces in a game of chess, the stage being the chess board, have no existence outside the board. Beckett emphasizes this fact:

Gone from me you'd be dead.
And vice versa.


It is true that if Clov, the knight, is taken away from Hamm, the king, that is, from the chess board itself, he is dead. At the same time, Clov is the lone piece left for the king's protection. So the capture of the knight by the enemy would be detrimental, for it would make the process of checkmating the king rapid.

The anxiety over the unforeseen changes in the moves of the opponent becomes more and more apparent towards the end of the game. The strategies of Time seem to have a menacing finality and so the game may be approaching its end. Hamm realises that he will be checkmated soon, and that it will put an end to Clov's intention to leave him: “You won't be able to leave me” (115). This premonition of the imminent defeat is later made clear:

Do you see how it goes on.
More or less.
Will it not soon be the end?
I'm afraid it will.


But Hamm is resolute to go on with the game. As he is destined to play the game with Time, he will continue it:

[Imploringly.] Let's stop playing!


Time, the greatest obstacle in the search for the self, keeps Estragon and Vladimir endlessly waiting and it incarcerates Winnie of Happy Days.35 Hamm's case is more hazardous as he is forced to play a game of chess with Time.

Beckett presents the existential anguish of man confronting the absurd, by depicting Hamm's centripetal quest. When Clov moves Hamm's armchair round the shelter, Hamm insists on bringing him back to the centre. He seems to have a frantic desire to be at the exact centre:

Am I right in the centre?
I'll measure it.
More or less! More or less!
[Moving chair slightly.] There!
I'm more or less in the centre?
I'd say so.
You'd say so! Put me right in the centre!


This insistence to be at the exact centre is later repeated, towards the end of the play. When Clov moves Hamm's chair and searches for the telescope for the final observation of the world around the shelter, Hamm expresses his angst in being away from the centre:

[Anguished.] Don't leave me there! [Angrily Clov restores the chair to its place.] Am I right in the centre?


Hamm's quest to be right in the centre, which is the locus of the ultimate self, will remain unfulfilled. That he can never be in the exact centre is hinted when Clov again tries to put him right there. Hamm is aware that he is not in the exact centre as Clov moves his chair in all directions. As a chess piece, Hamm cannot occupy the central position:

I feel a little too far to the left. [Clov moves chair slightly.] Now I feel a little too far to the right. [Clov moves chair slightly.] Now I feel a little too far forward [Clov moves chair slightly.] Now I feel a little too far back.


These movements are similar to the moves of a chess piece in the four central squares of the board.36 The quest for the central self in the absurd world is like Hamm's movements in his attempt to reach the unattainable centre. Yet man is fated to search for the ultimate self and is thereby subjected to endless suffering.

The futility of his endeavour is hinted earlier to Hamm by a mad painter. Hamm, calling on him in the asylum draws his attention to the rising corn, the herring fleet, and all the loveliness outside. But the mad painter can see only “ashes” (113). This lunatic is the counterpart of Mr. Endon in Murphy, who makes Murphy realise the futility of making moves in the game of existence only to incur uncertainty and angst. The mad painter seems to have realised that beyond all external beauty and abundance, the true mark of the world is “ashes,” which suggests the vanity of all human endeavour. When Clov surveys the outside he finds everything gray, the colour of ash:

[Looking.] Grey. [Lowering the telescope, turning towards Hamm, louder.] Grey! [Pause. Still louder.] GRREY! [Pause. He gets down, approaches Hamm from behind, whispers in his ear.]
[Starting.] Grey! Did I hear you say grey?


Hamm is now in a situation, as if the world has come to its end, which the mad painter had earlier prophesied.

During the course of the endgame, Hamm relates the story of a man who comes begging bread for his child on a Christmas eve (116-18). Hamm refers to his story as “chronicle” (121). Stanley Cavell says that the word “chronicle” “suggests that it is a record of fact.”37 Looking at the story in the light of the chess metaphor, helps to understand it better and to provide a probable answer to John Fletcher's query: “[I]s Clov the little boy whose father came begging Hamm for food one very bad year?”38 It is said in the play that the man “came crawling” (116), which suggests the slow movement of a pawn. A pawn reaching the eighth rank in a game of chess could be promoted to powerful pieces like knight, bishop, rook, or queen. The man says that he left his child “Deep in sleep” (118). The deep sleep may refer to the inactive state of a chess piece other than a pawn, removed from the chess board, which may return onto the board if a pawn reaches the eighth rank. So the child in deep sleep may be a knight already captured by the enemy. The man, after Hamm agrees to take him into service, asks one more favour: “In the end he asked me would I consent to take in the child as well—if he were still alive. [Pause.] It was the moment I was waiting for” (118). Why should Hamm await the moment when the man would ask him to take in his child? He might have been waiting for the opportunity to move the pawn to the eighth rank, to bring the knight which is a more useful piece, back into the game. Concluding his chronicle, Hamm says that the man was “glaring at me with his mad eyes, in defiance of my wishes” (118). The man wants to be with his child, yet why should he glare at Hamm in defiance? Hamm, the player, can resurrect the knight from deep sleep and bring it back to the game only by moving the pawn into the eighth rank. So, as the knight is taken back onto the board, the pawn has to leave it, once again causing their separation. The man is forced to move into the eighth rank, resulting in the return of the knight, Clov. The “odd[ity]” of Clov's carriage, as Hugh Kenner remarks, reminds one of “the Knight, which moves angularly.”39 It is said in the play that Clov came into the shelter when he was quite small:

Do you remember when you came here?
No. Too small, you told me.
Do you remember your father?
[Wearily.] Same answer.


As Clov makes his last survey of the world around the shelter, he sees a boy outside (130). Clov proposes to go out with his gaff, evidently to exterminate the boy. But Hamm prevents him and says that the game has reached its finale: “It's the end, Clov, we've come to the end. I don't need you any more” (131).

The boy's appearance gives the suggestion of queening in a game of chess.40 The boy may be “an enemy pawn crawling towards the backline to become a Queen.”41 That is why Clov calls him “[a] potential procreator” (131), a pawn which would bring the queen back into the game. Hamm prevents Clov from assaulting the boy as it is beyond the powers of the lone knight to capture or block the queen, the most powerful piece in chess. That is why he says that he does not need Clov anymore. As Michael Robinson suggests, Hamm seems to be “in check from the boy.”42 The ending of the game is further assured early in Hamm's final speech: “Old endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing” (132). “He tries to move his chair, using the gaff (132), but ‘gives up’ his attempt to move and throws away the gaff” (132-33). The stalemate situation is now over, and the king is actually checkmated. So Hamm “covers his face with handkerchief, lowers his arms to armrests, remains motionless” (134). Clov remains at the door, “impassive and motionless, his eyes fixed on HAMM, till the end” (133). This ending of the play is also suggestive of the ending of a game of chess. Hamm remains unmoving in his chair when he is checkmated as “the king is never removed from the board as are the other pieces when captured.”43 Clov cannot make his exit as his relevance as a chess piece and his ability to move come to an end when Hamm, the king, is checkmated. The millet heap of time has reached its completion and the endgame of existence terminates as futilely as it began. In one of Beckett's own production notebooks his “note on the beginning of the play reads ‘C[lov] perplexed. All seemingly in order, yet a change. Fatal grain added to form the impossible heap.’”44

To sum up, Beckett deftly presents the existential concerns of the play through the central metaphor of chess. The irrationality of the Absurd is conveyed through the moves in the endgame when the king is perpetually under the threat of being checkmated. Caught within the bewildering intricacies of the game, Hamm experiences the anguish of man confronting the Absurd. His search for the central reality is marred by the uncertainty created by the unprecedented moves of Time. Hamm tries to seek out the unattainable locus of the central self which is symbolically delineated through the non-existent centre of the chess board. The absolute reality he strives to seek out is something that does not exist or that is simply absent; and so he is anguished. This quest of Hamm metaphorically reveals the angst of man in the absurd world where all his endeavours incur pain, frustration, and failure. The non-existent centre of the chess board symbolises the void at the centre of being, as envisioned by Beckett. The essence of existence is a void or Nothingness. The chess metaphor in Endgame is, thus, a metaphor for the murky chaos of human existence rooted in absurdity.


  1. See Martin Esslin, “Samuel Beckett: The Search for the Self,” The Theatre of the Absurd, 3rd ed. (London, 1980), 29-91.

  2. See Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragi-comedy in Two Acts, in The Complete Dramatic Works (1986; London: Faber, 1990) 7-88.

  3. Alain Robbe-Grillet, “Samuel Beckett, or ‘Presence’ in the Theatre,” trans. Barbara Bray, Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Martin Esslin (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1965), 110.

  4. See Samuel Beckett, Watt (London, 1963).

  5. Beckett, Waiting for Godot, 36. See note 2.

  6. Samuel Beckett, Endgame: A Play in One Act, in Complete Dramatic Works (1986; London, 1990), 133. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

  7. Benedict Nightingale, A Reader's Guide to Fifty Modern British Plays (London, 1982), 274-75.

  8. Peyton Glass III, “Beckett: Axial Man,” Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot: A Casebook, ed. Ruby Cohn (London, 1987), 75.

  9. Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London, 1990), 233.

  10. Samuel Beckett, Rough for Theatre II, in Complete Dramatic Works (1986; London, 1990), 242; and Murphy (London, 1977).

  11. A. Alvarez, Beckett, 2nd ed. (London, 1992), 17.

  12. Valerie Topsfield, The Humour of Samuel Beckett (London, 1988), 109.

  13. Bair, 234. See note 9.

  14. Ibid.

  15. “Murphy felt himself split in two, a body and a mind” (Murphy 64). See note 10.

  16. Ibid., 137.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Hugh Kenner, A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett (London, 1973), 69.

  19. Murphy, 142, See note 10.

  20. Hugh Kenner, “Progress Report, 1962-65,” Beckett at 60: A Festschrift (London, 1967), 71.

  21. Murphy, 106. See note 10.

  22. Samuel Beckett, Act Without Words I: A Mime for One Player, in Complete Dramatic Works (1986; London, 1990), 203.

  23. A. J. Leventhal, “The Beckett Hero,” trans. Barbara Bray, Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Martin Esslin (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1965), calls this a game “between a psychotic and a neurotic.”

  24. Waiting for Godot, 43. See note 2.

  25. Murphy, 44. See note 10.

  26. Waiting for Godot, 43. See note 2.

  27. G. C. Barnard, Samuel Beckett: A New Approach: A Study of the Novels and Plays (London, 1970), 96.

  28. Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett (Princeton, 1973), 152.

  29. Michael Robinson, The Long Sonata of the Dead: A Study of Samuel Beckett (London, 1969), 264.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Kenner, Reader's Guide, 127. See note 18.

  32. Beryl S. Fletcher and John Fletcher, A Student's Guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett, 2nd ed. (London, 1985), 91-2.

  33. Robinson, 262. See note 29.

  34. Hema V. Raghaven, Samuel Beckett: Rebels and Exiles in His Plays (Liverpool, 1988), 34. Stalemate refers to the situation in endgame when the king can make limited moves, only to get checkmated.

  35. See Samuel Beckett, Happy Days: A Play in Two Acts in Complete Dramatic Works, 135-68.

  36. These movements in the four central squares could be figuratively represented as 1 indicates “far to the left”; 2 “far to the right”; 3 “far forward”; and 4 indicates “far back.”

  37. Stanley Cavell, “Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett's Endgame,” in Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays (Cambridge, 1976), 142.

  38. John Fletcher, Samuel Beckett's Art (London, 1967), 144.

  39. Kenner, Reader's Guide, 126.

  40. Queening is the process in which a pawn reaching the eighth rank is replaced by the queen.

  41. John Fletcher and John Spurling, Beckett: A Study of His Plays, 2nd ed. (London, 1978), 80.

  42. Robinson, 265. See note 29.

  43. J. A. Cuddon, The Macmillan Dictionary of Sports and Games (London, 1980), 211.

  44. James Knowlson, “Beckett as Director: The Manuscript Production Notebooks and Critical Interpretation,” Modern Drama, 30:4 (1987), 455, quoting Samuel Beckett, manuscript notebook prepared for the San Quentin Drama Workshop production of Endgame at the Riverside Studios, London, in May 1980, Reading University Library Ms. 1975.

Jeanette R. Malkin (essay date spring 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6705

SOURCE: Malkin, Jeanette R. “Matters of Memory in Krapp's Last Tape and Not I.Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 11, no. 2 (spring 1997): 25-39.

[In the following essay, Malkin discusses Beckett's dramatic presentation of memory in Krapp's Last Tape and Not I.]

Krapp's Last Tape (1958) embodies memory and the dislocations of time; in Not I (1972) even the “body” disappears—“whole body like gone”—and only a dislocated memory, visualized as a “subjectless” mouth, is left us. Theatrically, we have here the break between a mimetic theatre (however reduced), and postmodern dissolutions. Krapp may be drawn as a metaphor for man as clown or bum—white face, purple nose, short pants, large shoes; but for all the pregnant minimalism he still retains a distinct character, a discernable story, a room, a name. Mouth obviously has none of these; she also has no body or head attached to the red orifice we see, no logical placement on stage—floating as she (it) does eight feet above stage level—no context or frame, beginning or end to the unstoppable monologue we hear her speak. Separated by fourteen years, these related plays both attempt to objectify memory within highly visual—and very different—organs of remembrance. It is this difference, and the world-views signified through this difference, that will interest me here. I will claim that Beckett's ever-moving fragment of body, Mouth, recalling a being which slips away and disperses even as it is being evoked, reflects an ontologically different notion of memory and self than does the static memory-machine (the tape-recorder) we find in dialogue with Krapp. Inversely, we might say that this changed perspective governed Beckett's reformed strategy (in Not I) for imaging and theatricalizing memory.

There was never a lack of “rememberers” in Beckett's theatre: Hamm's ongoing story of a remembered life, probably his own (Endgame); Winny's struggle to remember bits of her cultural past (Happy Days); the divergent testimonies given by the three complicit figures of Play. But in Krapp's Last Tape, the past remembered is already problematized through Beckett's experiment in physically imaging memory and memory processes on stage. Thus we must negotiate between two tenuously connected versions of self—Krapp, the banana eating body; and Krapp the memory-box. The externalized ontological dualism found in this play is a basic Beckettian motif, here applied specifically to the relation between selfhood and recall. With Not I and Beckett's ensuing set of short plays, scattered between 1972 (Not I) and 1980 (Ohio Impromptu), this dualism is itself problematized and a completely different view of memory, and selfhood, is advanced through a range of dramatic strategies. Beckett grapples in these late plays with formalizing devices, with ways of giving theatrical shape to the process and posture of remembrance; and to the subsequent problems of reception. It is not the memories revealed or the words which suddenly “come” that are of the essence. Rather, it is the complex net of memoried states of being—the interplay of inner voices, the pluralisms of self-perception, the complexity of agency, of volition or its lack, the simultaneity of pasts and present, the multiple modes of repetition and recall, of traces and patterns: which evoke a sense of our own trivial yet inevitable multiplicity, simultaneity, fragmentedness. In a discussion of these late plays, Bernard Beckerman wrote that: “As we concentrate to make sense out of the alternating strands of memory, we face the question … Are we anything other than listeners to our own memories?”1 Through a study of the similarities—but especially of the differences—between Krapp's Last Tape and Not I (which in a loose sense can be seen to represent some of the common traits of these late plays, especially in terms of memory and selfhood), we can perhaps trace a break between a mimetic, dualistic theatre—and a theatre of dispersal, plurality, and irreducible fragmentation.

In Krapp [Krapp's Last Tape], memory is imaged as a large two-spooled (double-lobed) tape-recorder. This choice of metaphor—a mechanical, material box—presupposes and shapes the way we view the memory function, and thus the “self,” in Krapp. It also entails a set of concepts and dramatic moves—mechanistic, dualistic, basically still mimetic—which, I will claim, are no longer relevant in Not I. Memory in a box means memory localized, thrillingly present within a concrete, material form. No longer elusive or diffuse, memory seems self-contained, redeemable, depending for its “use” on finding the right reel, twisting the right levers, locating the desired section of tape. The comic ironies wrested by Beckett from Krapp's difficulty in locating the exact memory he seeks (his need to fast forward and rewind), only underscore the dualism of rememberer and memory, where memory is imaged as an objectified “other” which cannot be completely controlled. Krapp, “a wearish old man,” sits in his den trying to record his impressions of the past year—as he does every year on his birthday—but is instead drawn to listen, again, to a recording from his past, the memory of “farewell to love.” The past that Krapp seeks is elicited from his box at will; it is also ironized and contextualized through Krapp's present behavior: his visual doubling of the traits described in memory (eating bananas, drinking, writing notes on an envelope), his difference from the self in memory (more lonely still, more depleted, and there is also forgetting). This objectification of memory is a brilliant way to theatricalize dual consciousness; it is also a way to give a one-man play—“company.” Krapp presents us not only with the act of remembering a life: it is also a dialogue between living and remembrance, present and past—Man and his Memory.

Remembering is, in a sense, an inherently dualistic activity. The one part of the mind REcalls, brings up the past; while the other watches, listens, is reminded, reacts, sometimes refuses the memory brought up and rejects it (Mouth: “try something else … think of something else”2). Memory, writes St. Augustine,

is like a great field or a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds which are conveyed to it by the senses … When I use my memory, I ask it to produce whatever it is that I wish to remember. Some things it produces immediately; some are forthcoming only after a delay, as though they were being brought out from some inner hiding place; others come spilling from the memory, thrusting themselves upon us when what we want is something quite different [Mouth: “not that either? … nothing to do with that either?” 22] … These I brush aside from the picture which memory presents to me, allowing my mind to pick what it chooses, until finally that which I wish to see stands out clearly and emerges into sight from its hiding place … and as their place is taken they return to their place of storage, ready to emerge again when I want them.3

For Augustine, the will (“I”) is lord, sending messengers into memory to recover neatly stored, sometimes more deeply interred but still redeemable, always restorable remembrances. Although Krapp, like Augustine, can retrieve his buried past, it is no longer clear which is master: the will or the memory. The easy sway of Augustine's present “I” over stored and malleable memory is no longer the working assumption. Krapp will finally forego the attempt to record his immediate impressions and allow the voice of the past to speak instead. The voice of memory will prove stronger than Krapp's own.

Memory seeps into most of Beckett's late plays. In his film-script Eh Joe, Beckett, in an almost paradigmatic demonstration of the hold of the past over the present, has the mocking voice of memory invade Joe's room even after he carefully (and literally) locks all entrances and seals all cracks. For Joe, as for Krapp, memory is still a “material” other, which can hopefully be excluded through lock and key; for Joe, as for Mouth, memory “comes” uncalled in a flood of uncontrollable words. Beckett's rememberers, like Augustine's, are often dual beings, split dramatic character—body and mind (memory-box), voice and ear, Reader and Listener, the perceiving subject and the perceived object. But in Beckett, duality (and, as we shall see, shattered multiplicity) suggest a multiplied cast of characters vying and negotiating for a determination of self. This chasm within being—the impossibility of perceiving the self without turning the self into an object—and thus the impossibility of unity, is a basic trope of remembrance. “Because of this disjunction,” writes Linda Ben-Zvi, “all of Beckett's people have the continual sense that they are being watched, if only by themselves.”4 In Krapp's Last Tape this duality is turned into a refracting dialogue within an externalized self, and thus made dramatically explicit. In Not I, duality is both assumed (Mouth/Auditor) and shown as an insufficient, perhaps a useless model for the dispersed and centerless contemporary consciousness.

Augustine in his Confessions, analyzes the function of memory through a simple example that aptly parallels the mechanistic images of Krapp's memory-machine: the recitation of a psalm. When we recite, Augustine writes, the mind “performs three functions, those of expectation, attention, and memory. The future, which it expects, passes through the present, to which it attends, into the past, which it remembers.” As the recitation of the psalm gets on the expectation grows shorter and the memory grows longer; this is true too, Augustine continues, of every part of the psalm, and of life itself.5 Augustine's description of the movement of future into past is like the “decantation” of self of which Beckett writes in Proust: “The individual is the seat of a constant process of decantation, decantation from the vessel containing the fluid of future time, sluggish, pale and monochrome, to the vessel containing the fluid of past time, agitated and multicoloured by the phenomena of its hours.”6 This same “movement” is given visual form in Krapp. James Olney has suggested that the two spools of Krapp's magnetic tape-recorder, in their iconic movement, offer a visual parallel to Augustine's description of time's passage from future into past. Krapp “listens to the narrated episodes of his life pass from the spool of expectation on the left across the head of the tape player, which corresponds to the present narration, to be taken up by the spool of memory on the right—which, when rewound, becomes once again the spool of expectation.”7 Applying Augustine's spacial description of time to Krapp's tapes allows us to easily visualize concepts such as “returning” to the past (rewind), or “seeking” a different memory. It also underlines the dualistic view of memory as a present “I” (the agent) interacting with a dormant but available past stacked up before him, as in Augustine's images of a memory “storehouse.”

In Not I, memory is less easily compartmentalized, its movement less easily visualized. A disembodied mouth hanging eight feet above stage level is the organ of memory, its externalized form; the “agent” or initiator of recall (such as Krapp), is missing—thus we no longer have an obvious “dialogue.” Unlike Krapp which begins in pantomime, in comic gropings that acquaint us with the present Krapp (“characterize” him) before we hear of (and from) the voice of Krapp past, Mouth is found from the first in medias res of an already ongoing discourse. Mouth is supplied without context or frame; her mawings begin before she, or we, begin to listen, they continue after. All we will see is red lips endlessly moving, lit by a spot, and downstage left a tall figure, “sex undeterminable,” standing fully gowned in a long hooded djellaba, facing Mouth, almost unmoving, and silent throughout. Mouth's logorrhea is offered without preamble or explanation. It is not her birthday, as it is Krapp's, this is not a ritual occurrence, a yearly word-letting, as it is in Krapp, there is no external, narrative explanation for what we see—aside from what may be gleaned, gradually and at our peril, from Mouth's text which suggests a sudden and involuntary “coming” of speech to the lips of an old woman at the moment of the body's demise.

Several dualisms and seemingly mechanical repetitions are initially apparent in Not I. Mouth and body positioned on stage certainly suggest a mind/body dualism, just as they suggest the division between speaker and auditor in consciousness, parallel to Krapp and his voice-machine. Iconigraphically, Mouth seems to represent absolute speaker; the second figure, Auditor, so named and physically positioned towards Mouth, would thus seem to image absolute listener. But Auditor does not listen as Krapp listens—choosing the memory (“allowing my mind to pick what it chooses”), judging whether he's interested, returning to a given section. Nor does he (she?) listen as does Listener in Ohio Impromptu. S/he may, philosophically, be a Berkeleyan perceiver objectifying and maintaining the existence of Mouth, but (unlike Berkeley's God) s/he functions as a witness without being an implicit source of what s/he sees; is, indeed, an affective mediator only for the audience. Unlike Listener in Ohio, who intervenes physically through knocks which affect the spoken text, or Krapp who manipulates memory physically through lever and reel, Auditor is totally outside the cognizance, or function, of Mouth, and in no way modifies the workings of memory itself.8 Auditor comments on Mouth's monologue four times: through four small gestures expressing (so Beckett tells us in his text) “helpless compassion.” These gestures are physically directed towards Mouth, but affectively aimed at the audience. Thus Mouth, who would seem to be a speaking and not a listening organ, would seem to be the one half of a dualistic pair—mouth and ear—is, I will claim, actually both, and much more.

Mouth, like Krapp's “box,” is a self-repeater, returning again and again to the same texts as though in a loop (“and now this stream … not catching the half of it … not the quarter …” repeats, for example, five times in this short text). Often the repetitions seem obsessive; but they are never mechanical, never mere spoken recordings. Each repetition is also an addition to and variation of the previous texts, always a “clothed” repetition—to use Gilles Deleuze's distinction between mechanical “naked” repetitions which confirm sameness, and “clothed” repetitions which, through variation, uncover difference.9 Not only is each repetition of key texts (“tiny little thing … out before its time … godforsaken hole”) slightly (at least) reworded, each also leads to an additional moment of remembrance. Still, one of the central texts in the play—the text that gives the play its name—is indeed repeated five times with little variation, and underscored through (almost identical yet depleting) gestures made by the otherwise static figure of Auditor. This is the passage which Beckett describes as Mouth's “vehement refusal to relinquish third person” and to which Auditor reacts with “helpless compassion.” Five times Mouth rejects the word “I” through the formula: “and she [found herself in the—] … what? … who? … no! … she! …” followed by a pause and (except for the fifth time) a movement by Auditor. This precisely repeated section (except for the fifth repetition, when the word she! is followed by SHE! …) certainly suggests an unheard dialogue, indeed, an inner dualism, between voice (who narrates), and some further inner voice bringing words—such as the word “I”—which mouth refuses to say: “no!” Thus Enoch Brater, for example, concluded that “Mouth is hell-bent on obliterating any relationship to a questionable past.” Brater develops this mimetic image into a figure of duality with the words: “The staging of the play suggests … a literally dislocated personality: an old woman listening to herself, yet unable to accept that what she hears, what she says, refers to her.”10 Old woman versus inner voice.

But once we begin attending to Mouth's words (not an easy task in performance), we note that the unheard inner voice trying to say “I” and vehemently rejected by Mouth, is not the only “dislocated” figure proffered or described, not the only intruding piece of self. Nor is “her” only problem—the only dualism of a “hell-bent” will—a division between the spoken “she” and the proposed “I.” Indeed, once we meet the entire inner cast and crew we will have gotten to know voice (speaking), mouth (moving on its own), “she” (wherever she may be located), the unheard inner voice suggesting “I,” a possibly additional inner voice intervening periodically in Mouth's narration, brain “raving on its own,” and the constant buzzing—but we will have completely lost sight of “I.” Mouth tells us of the voice, presumably the voice we are now hearing, which “she” suddenly hears and “did not recognize … at first … so long since it had sounded … then finally had to admit … could be none other … than her own …” (18). Words “were coming” of their own, voice was speaking of its own volition. The words seem not to be identified with “she” since she—wherever she may be located—has a hard time hearing or understanding “this stream … not catching the half of it … not the quarter … no idea … what she's saying … imagine!” (18). Nor can she stop mouth, or mouth can't stop itself—“no idea what she's saying! … and can't stop … no stopping it” (19). We next learn that “lips … cheeks … jaws … never—… what? … tongue? … yes … lips … cheeks … jaws … tongue … never still a second” are also moving on their own, forming words without recourse to “she,” wherever she may be located. Thus the ear (straining to hear) the lips (moving) the voice (speaking) all seem to be working independently, autonomously, neither understood nor mediated by “she.”

In a number of sections of the play we find a seemingly dialogical relationship between Mouth and an inner (unheard) voice which suggests changes to Mouth's monologue. The pattern is constant: each time this occurs Mouth listens, repeats the suggestion, and then self-corrects her speech: “she did not know … what position she was in … imagine! […] whether standing … or sitting … but the brain—… what? … kneeling? … yes … whether standing … or sitting … or kneeling … but the brain—… what? … lying? … yes …” (15). This inner voice suggesting additional positions to the ones Mouth had already named (the same voice, perhaps, that suggests adding “tongue” to Mouth's list of “lips … cheeks … jaws … never—… what? … tongue?”), may be the same inner voice trying to say “I,” but we have no way of knowing. In addition to the speaking voice, the occasionally intervening inner voice(s), the self-moving lips and tongue, the “she” straining to hear—there is also the brain, “the whole brain begging … something begging in the brain … begging the mouth to stop … pause a moment … if only for a moment … and no response … as if it hadn't heard” (20). Brain is another important player in this drama; for while it begs Mouth to stop, it is also “raving away on its own … trying to make sense of it … or make it stop … or in the past … dragging up the past … flashes from all over” (20). Does brain have a memory of its own? aside from the memory of voice which is also “dragging up the past?” So it seems; for we now hear of scenes from the past of some life (“walking all her days …”), which Mouth (paradoxically) claims are occurring in brain, not in voice: “the brain … flickering away on its own … quick grab and on … nothing there … on to the next … bad as the voice … worse … as little sense” (20). Like voice, brain too flickers through memories of a fragmented and “senseless” past and Mouth, or voice, or “she,” is critical. All the while, even as voice speaks and brain flickers and “she” strains to hear, there is an inner “buzzing”—“dull roar like falls” (20), accompanying all the rest.

Paul Lawley writes that “the whole of the monologue, insofar as it is a denial—‘Not I’—is a lie, a refusal to acknowledge the fragmentary nature of the self.”11 But WHO, we must ask, is doing the “refusing”? To assume a potential “acknowledger” who can “acknowledge the fragmentary nature of the self,” is to assume the existence of a unifying center of being, an ontological ground everywhere denied in this play. Not I invests in every form of fragmentation and splintering, imaging through text, figure and performance a consciousness so divided against and within itself, so incapable of integration or of being imaged as other then a whirl of fragments, that we literally have a portrayal of the being of a “Not I.” This demonstration of a splintered consciousness torn asunder in a multitude of ways, produces far more than a double consciousness or an opposition between unified I and fragmented self. Mouth is both cognizant of self-fragmentation (and seemingly gives it some united “form” through the formless, instantly disappearing medium of voice), and herself captive to a nonunitary logorrhea which she did not initiate and cannot stop. Moreover, and increasingly as the play continues, the words which have “come” are contested and denied by, perhaps, additional fragments of self. We find an urge to forget, to erase, to censure and thus change parts of the memory being produced: “think of something else.” Mouth strains under the demands of both an involuntary confessional voice, and the voice of resistance, refusing to reveal or denying the memories being offered. Each attempt at speech produces a refusal—“what? … not that? … nothing to do with that? … nothing she could tell? … all right … nothing she could tell … try something else … think of something else … oh long after … sudden flash … not that either … all right … something else again … so on” etc. (22). The attempt to give voice to the memory of “how it was … how she—… what? … had been? … yes … something that would tell how it had been … how she had lived” (21) is continuously disrupted by the difficulties of how it IS to remember: the inner fragmentation, the different voices intervening, the strains of recall and, not least, the need to forget which constitute the activity of remembrance itself. Not only is “she” internally fragmented, she is internally conflicted. This division into speaking voice and inner censurer (repression) may suggest a territorialization of consciousness similar to the Freudian model; but this spacial image (parallel to Krapp's “tapes”) dissolves and interpenetrates into further fragments even as we try to analyze it. Memory here is not, as Augustine had thought, “a spacious palace, a storehouse” in which “everything is preserved separately, according to its category”12—perhaps on (not always well-marked) magnetic tapes. Memory, like consciousness, is split and cracked and redoubling, lacking agency or telos, with various and contradictory agendas.

Inner fragmentation, multiplication, refraction are only a few of the play's many strategies for signifying dispersal and centerlessness. Another track is through temporal fracturing. At the start of the play, the monologue is heard as a sort of “buzzing” for at least 10 seconds before we begin to understand the words;13 this repeats for at least 10 seconds at the end, after we cease to understand. Clearly, we hear but a fragment of an ongoing monologue which repeats both internally and entirely, dispersing mimetic coherence and creating a dramatic equivalent for the endless loop. The monologue is possibly being spoken out of an immobile, insentient body—“whole body like gone”—after its collapse (“in the field … April morning … face in the grass”); yet the words repeatedly refer to some future time, after this event. One of the play's most common verbal patterns, repeated in nine slight variations, is: “her first thought was … oh long after … sudden flash.” An additional four (near) repetitions go to the phrases: “when suddenly … gradually.” How are we to understand this? “Long after … sudden flash” implies a time long after the occurrence being related, but well before the narration we are hearing now: that is, it implies a long, ongoing stretch of time. Yet the description of “lips moving” and words “coming” seems to imply that the event being described is coextensive with its description. The physical image of the disembodied mouth reinforces the sense of simultaneity between the incident (“whole body like gone”) and the narration. Further, the repetition of the words “suddenly … gradually,” like “long after … sudden flash,” create temporal disorientation through their contradictory senses of time, simultaneously given. This sense of splintered temporality is recaptured in the structure of the play. Mouth's text seems to be a narrative, beginning as it does at birth, telling of collapse, recall, memories. However, the feeling of a forward movement is vitiated by the inner repetitions of whole sections of text, creating inner cycles (“tiny little thing … out before its time …”), and by the fact that the ending obviously returns us to the start of the narrative which had itself started before we began to listen. Beckett so much as tells us in the last words of the play that the monologue, which may have fooled us into a sense of a forward moving narrative, is in a loop: “hit on it in the end … then back […] back in the field … April morning … face in the grass … nothing but the larks … pick it up—” (23, my emphases). This section too has been repeated a number of times within the monologue, so that the “return” is not signified as a mechanical repetition of the whole, as in Play, but as a continued cycle within the cycles of “clothed” repetitions and new revelations of the play.

Thus the monologue moves in a number of directions both “suddenly” and “gradually,” fusing contradictory senses of temporality. This fluid simultaneity of times parallels the “profound paradox of memory”14 which is so central to the writings on memory of the philosopher Henri Bergson. In his book Matter and Memory, Bergson differentiates between two types of memory: habit memory, and “pure” or spontaneous memory.15 In Mouth we have an approximation of Bergson's concept of “pure” memory, unlike Krapp's memory-machine which is closer to Bergson's description of “habit” memory. Habit memory is mechanistic, functional, reflecting a view of time which is serial and consecutive: basically a spatial and analytic concept of time, like the image of the movement of Krapp's tape. Pure duration—or pure memory—on the other hand, is intuitive, multi-directional, simultaneous, spontaneous; Bergson speaks of “interpenetration,” of flow.16 Mary Warnock rephrases Bergson's theory through a concise example: learning a Horace Ode by heart employs “habit memory”; recalling the hot summer day when I lay in the field learning the Ode by heart is closer to “pure” memory.17 How can we overlook the radical difference, Bergson writes, “between that which must be built up by repetition and that which is essentially incapable of being repeated?”18 The former, the memorized ode, or the passage on “recital” (Augustine) cited above, is locked into a spacial image of time, repetition, process. The latter type of memory, key to Bergson's vitalist rejection of dualism, is unanchored in temporality; it has neither chronology nor image. In Gilles Deleuze's arresting formulation: “The past is ‘contemporaneous’ with the present that it has been. … The past would never be constituted if it did not coexist with the present whose past it is.”19 Mouth, viewed through this paradox, exists both in her present disembodied form, throbbing on stage, and is equally present in the forms of all the memories which she animates and of which she is constituted. In Bergson's spontaneous memory we are free from the segmentation and one-directionality of perception which is the prisoner of the corporeality of body (of which Mouth is almost freed), and of the tainted specificity of language (which Mouth almost overcomes through her fragments of speech). Spontaneous memory occurs when the brain's defenses are down, outside the control of consciousness. In its purest (ideal) form, we would have a “pure intuition of how things are, and were, without the restriction of space, or of time.” In it we would “know ourselves … But, unfortunately, exactly what we know can never be adequately expressed.”20 If Mouth can be seen as something like Bergsonian “pure” memory, then what she perhaps gets to “know” but cannot express (“nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express”21) is the complete absence of a center of being; that is: essential fragmentation.

Diffusion and simultaneity in Not I extend of course beyond the textual to the performative and receptive aspects of the play as well. The textual images are, clearly, preceded and anchored in visual fragmentation—the mouth, the figure; and their odd positioning, decentered, dislocated, floating above stage at a height both unreasonable and hallucinatory. The fracturing continues through the theatrical self-referentiality of Mouth's text which seems to reflect the dramatic production we see. Mouth's description of “lips moving […] the cheeks … the jaws […] the tongue in the mouth” (19) parallels the production of sound on stage; her talk of “this ray or beam […] always the same spot” (16) mirrors the spotlight in fact aimed at Mouth; the “whole body like gone” reflects Mouth's absence of body, as well as Auditor, a body gone from Mouth, or from consciousness. Thus the text doubles up as narrative and metanarrative. This same doubleness also encourages us to hear the text as reflecting the activity of auditing which the spectator experiences. Not only “she” but the spectator too hears “the buzzing … so-called … in the ears”; and faced with the speed and fracture of the words, will be “straining to hear … to make something of it” (19). This is as much a description of the audience's difficulty in auditing and perceiving Mouth and text, as of “her” difficulty.22 The “steady stream,” the words “coming,” the “whole body like gone,” the “mouth alone” on stage, all these, as has been often remarked, reflect metadiscursively on the text we hear, mirror reflexively the physical performance we see, parallel the strain of reception we feel, and still have referential import for the “stories” being told. And all these multiple functions and implications, dramatic and metadramatic, need to be held in the viewers' memory, simultaneously. Like “brain” or “she” (wherever she may be located), should the spectator want to “make sense” of the play, to “piece it together,” he or she would likely need to replay the pieces in her/his own memory. The performance enacts the multiple dislocations of narrative from consciousness; thus, to see the mouth as a person and the voice as its life, would be a mimetic act only realized in the imagination of the spectator.23 Any reading of the play must reconstruct from fragments; and a reconstruction for a mimetic reading can only be done through a mis-remembering of the disparate fragments themselves. The swirl of competing fragmentations can, on the other hand, also free the spectator from representation and allow for an intuition of centerlessness and flow. “The great achievement of Not I,” writes Keir Elam, “is to free the spectator's imaginaire” so as to allow a “blurring” of the competing images and senses of Mouth's body (and being), in the body's very absence.24

This same experience of fragmentation is, in addition, endured by the actor of Mouth. Billie Whitelaw, who played Mouth in London under Beckett's own direction, was strapped into a chair, head anchored for the spot, body and eyes covered to prevent reflection of the light. Whitelaw speaks of being turned physically into a Mouth, deprived of her other senses—resulting at first in an “out-of-body” experience which is like the extracted mouth we see, inducing hysteria and hallucinations. The speed at which the piece needed to be said gave her jaw-pain, and she had difficulty remembering the text.25 Thus the actor too experiences fragmentation and memory strain, as does the audience, replicating the experience of the fractured “self” on stage.

Beckett's late “memory plays”—from Not I to Ohio Impromptu—all impress a strong, evocative single image onto our memories, images (a displaced mouth, a floating head, a steadily pacing ghostly figure, a dressed-up rocking woman, two identically dressed men at a table) which are disturbing and not easily forgotten. In production, writes Enoch Brater of Mouth, “one is all but overwhelmed by the sheer persuasiveness of the image: a mouth staring out at us from otherwise ‘empty’ theater space. Disembodied, suspended in space, and throbbing with a constant pulsation of lips, teeth, tongue, and saliva.”26 “You may find nothing in it,” said Jessica Tandy who played Mouth in the 1972 New York production, “but I suspect you will never forget it.”27 The texts spoken by or above these images provide the emotional and intellectual substrata, but are less easy to penetrate or recall. “I am not unduly concerned with intelligibility,” Beckett told Jessica Tandy when she complained that his suggested speed for the monologue made the words unintelligible. “I hope the piece may work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect.”28 The image, unnerving, functions as a memory trigger, evoking the sense and sensations of the piece, the “nerves” rather than any plot or narrative line. It is through the image, in this case a grotesquely displaced fragment of an absent body, pathetically trying to recreate itself through speech, that we intuit the complexity of the drama of absence and fragmentedness. And while we may not “get the half of it … not the quarter,” we are not likely to forget the image of mouth/memory recalling a self that slips away and dissolves even as its absent parts are being named.

Beckett's play of fragments invites us, I think, to “think” intuitively, through the fragmented images themselves, and through the additional fragments produced by text, by voice, by metadiscursive devices, by strategies of reception. Billie Whitelaw tells how she cried when she first read the play “not understanding one word of it, may I say, intellectually,” but intuitively recognizing the mode of Mouth's existence.29 The nature of Mouth is perhaps not given to rational cognition, to penetration through the will. Every aesthetic decision in the play suggests a poetics of dissolution and fragmentation, meant to be grasped intuitively in something like Bergson's “pure” memory. Mouth creates and erases herself, is constituted and evaporated in ways very like S. E. Gontarski's description of Beckett's creative process: “What remains is the trace of an author struggling against his text, repenting his originary disclosure, effacing himself from the text, and thereby creating himself.”30 Compared with this, the series of selves in Krapp is relatively easy to grasp. The fractured memory of “farewell to love,” replayed in three separate fragments, interrupted by additional pieces of Krapp's past, refracted through Krapp's present personality and his own attempts at recording, does finally coalesce into a story and a history which reflect poignantly on Krapp's present loneliness. Not I boggles the imagination in its bottomless, unending production of splinters and fractions resistant to mimetic reconstitution and impervious to closure. Thus, while Krapp may be thought of as a series of distorted and “distilled” selves, as, perhaps, a hall of distorting mirrors in which versions of the self view and reflect previous and subsequent versions; Not I is perhaps better thought of as a flow of aporias, each opening onto interiority (within Mouth, within the actor, within the viewer), each partial image of self displaced or erased or redoubled by a further fragment in a mise en abyme of ontological fragmentation and simultaneity. In Krapp, the self may indeed already be a series of mobile utterances creating, to quote Connor, “a web of mutually enveloping, self-quoting moments, each endlessly displaced from its originating context, and regrafted elsewhere,”31 but the “regrafted” pieces continue to reflect each other (the laugh, the bananas, even the signature loneliness) hinting, even strongly suggesting, some minimal self which survives through time—and thus justifying the material metaphor of a memory “box.” In Not I we really cannot locate a source, a moment, a place at which an I, a self, resides.

Beckett's careful shaping of the fragments of memory in Not I is in many ways paradigmatic for postmodern memory-theatre. As can be said of some of his subsequent memory-nuggets (That Time, Footfalls, Ohio Impromptu), Not I reshapes our notions of theatrical space and time, enacts a multiple dissolution of the boundaries of the (mostly absent) self, stresses the process of viewer reception over the self-sufficiency of the text, performance over narrative, the parts over the whole; it is self-reflexive, open-ended, indeterminate, forever incomplete. Thus, that hallucinatory fragment of body, the never-still and thus never “formed” Mouth, a perhaps distorted (or “misremembered”32) and virtually immaterial version of Krapp's memory-machine, becomes a fittingly flighty “emblem” for contemporary ontological dispersal and centerless being.


  1. Bernard Beckerman, “Beckett and the Act of Listening,” Beckett at 80/Beckett in Context, ed. Enoch Brater (New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986) 158.

  2. Samuel Beckett, Not I, in Ends and Odds: Eight New Dramatic Pieces (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1976) 22. All references are to this edition, and will be cited parenthetically within the text.

  3. St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1961) 214 (section X.8).

  4. Linda Ben-Zvi, Samuel Beckett (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986) 6.

  5. St. Augustine 277 (section XI.28).

  6. Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York: Grove Press Inc., 1957) 4-5.

  7. James Olney, “Memory and the Narrative Imperative: St. Augustine and Samuel Beckett,” New Literary History 24 (1993) 864.

  8. Auditor's unclear function is attested by the fact that Beckett directed a French version of the play in 1975, omitting the figure altogether. He also allowed the play to be filmed by the BBC that same year, again without the figure of Auditor. See Ben-Zvi 244 and 245.

  9. See Gilles Deleuze, Différence et Répétition (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968); and more specifically, Steven Connor's application of Deleuze to Beckett's use of repetition in his Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988), especially Chapter 1.

  10. Enoch Brater, Beyond Minimalism: Beckett's Late Style in the Theater (New York, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987) 23.

  11. Paul Lawley, “Counterpoint, Absence and the Medium in Beckett's Not I,Modern Drama 26/4 (1983) 412.

  12. St. Augustine 114 (section X.8).

  13. Beckett asks for “Mouth's voice unintelligible behind curtain” even before the house lights go out. It continues “unintelligible behind curtain, 10 seconds” and is replaced by ad-libbing from the text until “curtain fully up and attention sufficient” (p. 14). This must take at least 20 seconds.

  14. A phrase used by Gilles Deleuze about Bergson's theory of memory, in his study of Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1988) 58.

  15. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. N. M. Paul and W. S. Palmer (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1911).

  16. Chapter 2, especially 89-92.

  17. Mary Warnock, Memory (London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1987) 29-30.

  18. Bergson 95.

  19. Deleuze, Bergsonism 58-59. Italics in original text.

  20. Warnock 30.

  21. Samuel Beckett, “Dialogue Two,” Proust and Three Dialogues With Georges Duthuit (London: John Calder, 1965) 103.

  22. See, for example, Charles R. Lyons, “Beckett, Shakespeare, and the Making of Theory,” Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama, eds. Enoch Brater and Ruby Cohn (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1990) 97-127; Keir Elam, “Not I: Beckett's Mouth and the Ars(e) Rhetorica,” Beckett at 80 124-148; Lawley, “Counterpoint.”

  23. Cf. Lyons 117-19.

  24. Keir Elam 147. I slightly “mis-remember” Elam's sentence here, which has a more specific cast in his rich article. In the original it reads: “The great achievement of Not I is to free the spectator's imaginaire (‘imagine!’ says Mouth repeatedly) so as to operate the same kind of ‘blurring of the oral, anal and genital’ aspects of the body in the body's very absence.” The “blurring” reference is actually to Melanie Klein on “infant confusion” and the “blurring of the oral, anal and genital impulses,” Envy and Gratitude: A Study of Unconscious Sources (London: Tavistock, 1957) 3.

  25. See “Billie Whitelaw: Interviewed by Linda Ben-Zvi,” Women in Beckett: Performance and Critical Perspectives, ed. Linda Ben-Zvi (Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1990) 3-10; and Toby Silverman Zinman, “Billie Whitelaw: What Beckett Said to Me,” American Theatre 11/4 (April 1994) 24-25.

  26. Brater, Beyond Minimalism 18.

  27. 19; quoted by Brater from an interview with Tandy.

  28. Cited by Enoch Brater in “Dada, Surrealism and the Genesis of Not I,Modern Drama 18 (March 1975) 53.

  29. “Billie Whitelaw: Interviewed by Linda Ben-Zvi” 4.

  30. S. E. Gontarski, The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett's Dramatic Texts (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985) 2.

  31. Connor 130.

  32. H. Porter Abbott has suggested that Beckett, in (especially) his last pieces, evolves “through a deliberate process of recollection by distortion … a kind of misremembering in successive works of elements from those that went before.” This would also allow us to see Mouth as a sort of “misremembered” version of Krapp's memory-machine. In “Late Modernism: Samuel Beckett and the Art of the Oeuvre,” Around the Absurd 75.

Marguerite Tassi (essay date summer 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11411

SOURCE: Tassi, Marguerite. “Shakespeare and Beckett Revisited: A Phenomenology of Theater.” Comparative Drama 31, no. 2 (summer 1997): 248-76.

[In the following essay, Tassi suggests options for staging Shakespearian plays in light of Beckett's absurdist theater.]

Comparisons of William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett have been popular among academic critics over the past few decades. In the locus classicus of such comparisons, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, Polish critic Jan Kott memorably argued that Shakespeare's King Lear bore a deep thematic resemblance to Beckett's dark absurdist dramas.1 Beckett's universe of the grotesque, of incomprehensible punishment and painful endurance, offered Kott the vision he needed to reinvent Shakespeare for Eastern European audiences who had undergone the atrocities of world war, concentration camps, fascism, and widespread oppression. Kott's Shakespeare, like Beckett, unflinchingly exposed the “absurd mechanism” at work in the universe and penetrated to “the thing itself,” as Lear called man stripped to the bareness of his existence; through the ethos of Beckett's dramaturgy, Kott offered critics and directors a stark modernist approach to Shakespeare's histories and tragedies that rejected both nineteenth-century romanticized interpretations and realist-historical stagings. If the ultimate test of a theater critic's vision lies in its embodiment in a successful production, then Kott has seen the theatrical viability of his ideas proven beyond a doubt. Impressed with Kott's famous essay, “King Lear or Endgame,” Peter Brook produced King Lear as a philosophically absurd, ponderous piece of theater that robbed the play's world of Cordelia, Kent, and Edgar's redemptive virtues—goodness, kindness, generous service, and love.2 As Charles Marowitz, Brook's assistant director, commented in his “Lear Log,” the production was “not so much Shakespeare in the style of Beckett as it [was] Beckett in the style of Shakespeare, for Brook believes that the cue for Beckett's bleakness was given by the merciless King Lear.3 There were no consolations and no catharsis to be had in Brook's theater; many of those who saw his Stratford production in 1962 found themselves alienated, as in a Brechtian drama, “strangely unmoved,” yet compelled to watch, as Robert Speaight claimed in his review.4 Speaight chastised the Stratford directorate for its “flirt with a fashionable and fugitive existentialism.”5

Kott had emphasized not only a similar philosophy underlying Beckett's Endgame and Shakespeare's Lear but also a continuity in phenomenal expressions of this philosophy through the actors' bodies, their use of stage space, and their ability to provoke particular perceptions and emotional responses in the watching audience. He reflected a phenomenological awareness of how the material condition of bodies and objects can take on a “self-given” quality that strikes spectators viscerally rather than intellectually. Similarly, Brook reflected the decomposing world of Lear in phenomenal terms by creating a set made of geometric sheets of rusting, corroding metal, which became the thunder sheets for the storm, and rough-hewn wooden furniture. In the screen version of Lear produced by Lord Birkett and directed by Brook, frozen tundra covered a vast, forbidding landscape; the characters seemed to be the last wretched inhabitants of this world. The leather costumes and knights' cloaks for both stage and screen actors gave the appearance of having weathered many years. Lear's cape and coat in particular had been blackened and creased to give this effect.6 The lighting for the Stratford stage cast the play in a permanent, unnaturally bright light, which calls to mind the blazing light of Beckett's Happy Days. Brook clearly emphasized the phenomenal qualities of performance and place that evoked an unrelievedly bleak, threatening atmosphere in which men and women have lost their bearings. But in its phenomenal emphasis on moral and physical decay, Brook's production lacked a balance to be found in the playscript itself—that is, a Shakespearean equipoise struck between loss and gain, waste and value. Kott and Brook neglected the positive values offered in the play in favor of the lurking absurdism, the grotesqueness, and the disintegrating forces of civilization, which frankly interest twentieth-century playgoers who have been stunned by the world-wide brutalities of this century and mesmerized by the profound truths of Beckett's pained vision of life as an interminable waiting to be endured and a crouching towards death.

Brook's famous production was not the only Beckettian interpretation or adaptation of King Lear. Another notable performance of Shakespeare's play in 1973 highlighted the absurdity of Lear's universe. Called Leir Blindi, “blind clay” in Icelandic, the play was produced by the Triple Action Theatre of Britain, founded by Steve Rumbelow, without use of technical lighting, makeup, or an elaborate set. The group presented a haunting adaptation of Lear that began in a darkened theater with the actors dressed in sackcloth and bowed over candles. Once they blew out the candles, the theater filled with “a chaos of cacophonous noises,” as Ruby Cohn described it. Cohn continues:

Slowly, very gradually, a breathing rhythm intrudes upon, then orders the sounds. A man is expelled onto the stage, falling in fetal position. He will prove to be Leir. Then Gloucester is born to the accompaniment of rhythmic panting. For each character there is an increase of light and volume of breath. With six actors on stage, a writhing Gloucester speaks the opening lines, Shakespeare's “These late eclipses of the sun and moon. …”7

The production ended as it began, like a reenactment of Beckett's Act Without Words, the pantomime that followed Endgame in which a man is flung backwards onto the stage. The actors playing Gloucester and Lear have left the stage after a brief radiant moment in which their faces are illuminated by candlelight. The stage falls into darkness once more, and the noises from the play's opening begin to sound again. The rhythm of breathing can be heard establishing an order in the chaos of noise. Suddenly two men are flung onto the stage. They are Kent and Edgar, men of the new generation, hurtled onto “this great stage of fools” to repeat the cycle of birth to death.

Approaching Shakespeare through Beckett may have seemed revolutionary in the 1960s and 1970s, but the conceit has now become all too familiar, even outdated in some critics' eyes. As Charles R. Lyons points out, “Kott's essay clearly illustrates the tendency in revisionist criticism to read the classic text as if it were organized within the same aesthetic conventions and implicit ideologies as those the critic sees in the contemporary text.”8 Perhaps this sort of revisionism is simply unavoidable for any highly creative producer, director, or critic faced with the daunting task of revealing, yet making anew, the great Elizabethan-Jacobean playwright. His task resembles that of the phenomenologist: to remove things from the world at large where they have become inconspicuous in order to see them in a defamiliarized way. But admittedly, there is something of the ventriloquist, to use Bert O. States' provocative term,9 in Shakespeare's interpreters, who raise their voices to express personal, ideological, and philosophical tenets of their age. Ironically, just three years before Brook's famous production, Muriel St. Clare Byrne had declared Charles Laughton “a modern, realistic Lear—a Lear for our time and of our time.”10 Laughton's performance in Glen Byam Shaw's production reflected a far different underlying philosophy than did Paul Scofield's rugged, ponderous performance in Brook's production. Laughton played Lear without grandeur as a complacent, indolent, genial father, wrapped in layers of fat, recognizable in his humanity rather than abstracted as the titanic Blakean figure of many previous productions. Scofield presented an arrogant, despotic king, stony in countenance, deliberate in action and thought, and suffering with a contained, world-weary pain. Which post-war production truly revealed the Lear of our time? What of the Lear of Shakespeare's time? What of the tragedy that must have disclosed a world of sensory experience in Jacobean London, a world of objects momentarily “self-given,” as the phenomenologist would say?

This last question may sound naive and reflective of purist tendencies, for after all, the nature of theater is change and phenomenal renewal; performances are the result of artistic collaborations; each production conveys nuances, motifs, and surprises, as in a symphonic performance of a score, that may not have occurred to artists in prior productions. So, what of the Jacobean Lear? The question might be restated to a better purpose: what phenomenal qualities might a production of King Lear have had when it was first presented by Shakespeare to his peers? How might the stages of Jacobean London and the live, sensuous presence of actors, their dress, gestures, speech, intonations, movements across the stage, and use of properties have appeared to spectators? Are these aspects cued in the script, to some extent, indeed marking the composition of the script in a way that directors should consider carefully when reconstructing the play today? Since we do not have Shakespeare's annotated director's script, nor do we have helpful logs kept by assistant managers, or autobiographies written by his actors, we need to rely on the reports conveyed by Renaissance dramatists who were theatergoers themselves, the playscripts, and knowledge of the theaters of the time. We can be sure that Shakespeare's treatment of and expectations regarding the actor's art differed greatly from Beckett's, as did the theatrical spaces in which they worked; therefore, we must expect to see some startling differences appear between these two dramatists that some modern directors and critics would like to ignore—or indeed feel they must ignore in order to grip the imagination of contemporary theatergoers and scholarly readers alike.

There is nothing more compelling in the theater than the presence of the human body on the stage. But when we compare Shakespeare's Renaissance actors with Beckett's modern actors—their bodily translations of the script, their handling of stage space and their relationship to the audience—the body seems to compel sensations and responses in different ways. Shakespeare wrote dramatic scripts for an Elizabethan “centric” stage that appeared in the midst of the audience's space. The “power of the center,” to use Rudolph Arnheim's phrase,11 defined the actor's place on the English Renaissance stage whether he stood at the geometric center of the theater or moved the optical focus of the stage dynamically across the wooden platform. Beckett, in contrast, composed his dramas, most particularly the later ones, for an eccentric stage that, as the term “eccentric” indicates, deviated from a balanced center, allowed multiple centers, and reflected an irregular, unconventional use of the performance field. His actors, unlike Shakespeare's players, were not only removed from the audience by being placed inside the proscenium, but also they found themselves driven or positioned off-center, away from or above the visual center of the stage. Quite deliberate and painstaking in his approach to the actor and the stage space, Beckett's direction of his plays reveals the playwright to have been a kind of modernist composer and conductor of “scores,” to use Jerzy Grotowski's notion.12 What he accomplished in rehearsals was nothing short of orchestration—phrasing movement, stressing the pauses and silences, striking discordant notes with gestures at odds with words. The actors in Waiting for Godot (written in 1949; produced in 1953 as En attendant Godot) and Endgame (written in 1956; produced in 1957 as Fin de partie) worked against central staging most notably in choreographed movement patterns that repeated like recurring themes. As Beckett commented to Marowitz,

Producers don't seem to have any sense of form in movement. The kind of form one finds in music, for instance, where themes keep recurring. When in a text, actions are repeated, they ought to be made unusual the first time, so that when they happen again—in exactly the same way—an audience will recognize them from before. In the revival of Godot (in Paris) I tried to get at something of that stylized movement that's in the play.13

In his later dramatic pieces, Beckett developed a form of minute orchestration that focused intensely on the rhythms of speech, breath, and pauses with only slight, if any, movement of body parts. He began to work with a radically eccentric stage upon which his actors found themselves frozen in unbearably awkward positions—crouching in urns, for example, or strapped into an elevated chair in complete darkness. In his short pieces Not I (1972) and That Time (1974-75), a disembodied Mouth and a silent, unmoving head of a Listener appear elevated eight and ten feet respectively above the stage with spots of light trained upon the speaking mouth and listening head. This precise geometric positioning, upstage audience right for the suspended Mouth and midstage, off-center for the Listener, effectively shifts the center of gravity above the stage to an unconventional space, which forces spectators to become intensely aware of their perceptions—and conscious, as well, of just how conditioned they are to viewing drama on a centric stage with the actors' bodies working from the center. “Whole body like gone,”14 Mouth utters as language streams uncontrollably from the void where her tongue is lodged. Stripped of bodily expression and movement—indeed, stripped of her body altogether—the actor has become a “maddened” mouth delivering a soliloquy with lips, cheeks, tongue, jaw, and throat all working to full athletic capacity for fifteen minutes without rest.

A few years before Not I, Beckett had literally freed the stage of the actor's body in his extreme minimalist piece Breath (1969). The whole body was indeed gone; Beckett replaced the human actor with rubbish scattered horizontally along the stage. The recorded sound of two cries and a breath inhaling and exhaling with an accompanying increase and decrease of light comprised the thirty-five seconds of dramatic action. Beckett's minimalist reduction of “play” to the birth cry, breath of life, and the death cry would seem to have brought his artistic work to an end. What next, after all? Of course, Beckett brought the actor back to the stage; however, he brought the actor back in pieces, in body shards that intensified the audience's awareness of a suffering, disjointed consciousness. He incorporated Breath into Mouth's memory, for she recalls “the birth cry to get her going … breathing … then no more till this … old hag already.”15

While Beckettian productions featured bodies in a state of physical deterioration and fragmentation (“My people seem to be falling to bits,” Beckett once observed in an interview16), Shakespearean performances during the English Renaissance highlighted the actor's expressive, charismatic body, his exuberant form, his confidence in striding to the center of the theater. Shakespeare, as far as we know, did not orchestrate and severely limit the movement of his actors in order to create the distinct impression of repetition and recurring motifs conveyed through the body. His actors needed to have the flexibility and freedom to play King Lear at the Globe Theater one afternoon, for example, at Court on another, and, yet again, in an Elizabethan great hall on another day. The actor on Shakespeare's stage would not have been “falling to bits” physically as a reflection of his character's metaphysical condition, as in Beckett's plays. Rather, characters often reflected states of agitation, anxiety, and despair in verbal images, especially images of bodies that appeared to be in pieces, degraded, or in the process of vanishing, as when Antony in Antony and Cleopatra perceives his body to be no more stable than a vaporish cloud or when Imogen in Cymbeline anxiously imagines her banished husband evaporating into nothing. In metaphysically dark moments that occur in the tragedies and histories, however, it is quite possible to emphasize a Beckettian mood, as Kott and Brook did, and to treat the body in literal ways as an expressive vehicle of anguish, madness, and despair. King Lear perceives his body to be frail and vulnerable; he must shiver, feel the penetrating rain, watch all “accommodations” known to man fall away. Lear must physically articulate his madness. But in Shakespearean performance, it is the intensely visual language at work through the body or speaking for the body that evokes the haunting phenomenal realities of a Beckett play. Beckett branded his actors' bodies with their emotional, psychological, and metaphysical conditions. Shakespeare gave his actors phenomenally sensuous, disturbing images of their inner lives in the form of verbal pictures which hovered in the theater like palpable extensions of the body.


Beckett's Endgame presents a stunning example of the physical and spiritual depletion of humankind and, more particularly, the modern actor's resources.17 The tragicomedy offers a series of fragile, painful moments that reveal the actor working under severe constraints to portray a character who speaks barely intelligible lines with little naturalistic shading and whose physical deformation requires a crippling exertion of the body. Beckett's actors, like his characters, no longer inhabit the charmed circle of classical or Renaissance theater, nor do they stand authoritatively in the center of a bourgeois mise-en-scène. Endgame epitomizes modern drama's stripping away of traditional theatrical resources; the actor who once took center stage, expressing a unity of word and action through performance, finds that the center is no longer available because the very conception of a center requires that the stage be conceived as a circle rich with metaphysical and spiritual associations. A sequence emblematic of the deflation of the actor's center occurs when the blind and crippled Hamm attempts without success to take center stage in his wheelchair. This move, like a failed chess strategy, reveals how the “power” associated with the center—authority, energy, stabilization, convergence of meaning—has dissipated from the world he inhabits.18 When Clov pushes the blind Hamm in his wheelchair around the contours of their limited world on the stage, the audience sees that this is the theater's endgame; the playwright has sentenced these actors to a stage that continually reveals its limitations. “Right round the world!”19 Hamm gleefully exclaims as if they were embarking on a pleasure voyage. Shortly, however, he tires and wants to be placed back “in the center”—“bang in the center” of the stage. “Back to my place!” he demands anxiously, giving emphasis to the possessive “my” and “place,” that unnamed but definitive locale which he instinctively fears he has lost:

Is that my place?
Yes, that's your place.
Am I right in the center?
I'll measure it.
More or less! More or less!


But Clov has stopped the wheelchair deliberately, even maliciously off center—a displacement the audience perceives, but Hamm cannot. Beckett's painstaking diagrams for the German Endspiel, which he himself directed at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt in 1967, reveal that Hamm's wheelchair is indeed to be positioned slightly off center.20 The playwright himself signalled that eccentric positioning was to mark the stage composition in this play, for he had calculated movements and blocking precisely according to the strict lines and planes of the stage's geometry.

Hamm's desire to be in the physical center of the stage exposes both the egotism and the vulnerability of the actor: he is the ham actor blinded by his drive to claim center stage as “his place”; at the same time, he is the modern actor nostalgic for the powerful central position of the classical tragic player: “Can there be misery loftier than mine?” he asks, and immediately answers himself, deflated: “No doubt. Formerly. But now?” (2). Yet Hamm's awareness of the tragic actor's diminishing exit into the vanishing point does not prevent him from painfully reaching for his place in the center.21 On an intellectual plane the scene unmasks the falseness of placing the self “right in the center” of the universe, exactly where many Renaissance humanists, influenced by the Ptolemaic system, had envisioned man to be. In the Oration on the Dignity of Man, to take a famous example, Pico della Mirandola has God place Adam “at the very center of the world, so that from that vantage point you may with greater ease glance round about you on all that the world contains.”22 While Clov and Hamm's place in the world has been determined as well, they certainly do not find themselves “at the very center of the world.” Clov pathetically manipulates Hamm within the unrelenting rectangle of their world, and cruelly mocks his desire to be in the center with his sardonic retort, “I'll measure it” (26). Clov, of course, is as much trapped within the measured world of the stage as Hamm is; the only dramatic question the play poses, in fact, revolves around whether Clov will ever be able to leave the stage.

The audience experiences on a phenomenal plane the loss of the center (that place Adam confidently took at God's command) and the actor's dispossession from the tragic stage: spectators feel the gravitational pull of their eyes to the actor's eccentrically positioned body, trapped at odd points, and to his degenerative movements on the stage. As the actors engage in a highly controlled pantomime of frustrated movement, it becomes clear to spectators that Beckett has choreographed tight, repetitive movements and orchestrated speech with the meticulousness of a watchmaker. During rehearsals of the Berlin production, Beckett insisted that the actors were to achieve a split between action and word, which called attention to the actor as a kind of modernist musical instrument, sounding discordant notes.23 This acting technique differs greatly from the Shakespearean actor's delivery in which the action fittingly suited the word, to invoke Hamlet's famous advice to the players. In Beckett's theater, the audience sees only “ruin'd pieces of nature,” to echo King Lear, whose movements seem to be the manifestation of incomprehensible drives, or in some cases, lack of drive.

In Beckett's plays, characters are dispossessed from a former repertoire of roles that bestowed dignity, meaning, and tragic awareness. Shakespearean allusions crop up as reminders, fragments of meaning that, no sooner spoken, refuse to adhere to the characters. In Winnie's endless chattering from her earth mound in Happy Days, bits and pieces of the classics float up into her consciousness, but her memory, like that of all Beckett's characters, is clouded over, imprecise, fractured. The actors' lack of contact with the audience mirrors this displacement from the past in theatrical terms: they rarely speak in asides or use direct address; they cannot walk amidst a sea of moving bodies the way an Elizabethan or Jacobean actor could. The bond between audience and Beckett's actors is formed almost against the spectator's will on a visceral, empathetic level. The audience senses the dark humor at play when its connection to the “foul brood” from which Beckett's characters are born is made explicit; as Didi exclaims in Waiting for Godot, “at this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not,”24 and whether the audience likes it or not. The audience is aware as well of the actors, who are working in a state of discomfort, even pain, on both physical and emotional levels; the actor, similarly, is conscious of himself or herself as an actor working through the arduous choreography of Beckett's assigned movements, gestures, and vocal pitches. Bud Thorpe referred to Beckettian performance as a “tightrope”: “It is a fine line we have to tread, working so hard to give the character a human quality, and yet move the left foot on the tightrope and you realise you are an actor delivering poetic prose in play form.”25 Shakespearean drama likewise presents histrionic obstacles for actors which make them all the more aware of the laborious task before them and of the distinct possibility of failure before an audience. The most frequently observed case lies, not surprisingly, in the role of King Lear. Michael Goldman points out the harsh demands placed on an actor who must begin at an emotional extreme in portraying an absolute monarch's rage—and then move on to greater and greater extremes. “The danger,” Goldman sees, “is that he will soon have nothing left—not so much that he will run out of voice or physical energy, but that he will lose the capacity for discriminating his emotional response, that he will be unable to render the emotions truthfully, with freshness and particularity.”26 The actor must be able to find still within himself at the end of the fifth act an unbearable, piercing howl, the howl that must shake spectators at the very ground of their beings.

The phenomenal aspects of the playing space and the way in which the script imagines the space affect how Shakespeare's and Beckett's actors are perceived. In Beckett's theater, the playing space does not represent any other space, as it does in Shakespearean drama. Spectators are not asked to imagine that they have been transported to Rome, Egypt, or an ancient British court. The stage is literally the very boards upon which actors crawl, pace, hover, and sink. The actors as well as the audience feel unbearably confined in this theater, which seems without exit and rigged to play endless repetitions without release. The actors behave as if there were a fourth wall onstage—they almost never refer to the other side—yet the play, unlike the bourgeois drama's drawing room, appears anything but naturalistic. The Shakespearean actor, on the other hand, experienced much less constraint within his playing space; without the unrelenting fixity of a scenic illusion, he could “piece out” a scene for the audience to imagine, to invoke the Chorus in Henry V. The actor had direct sensuous contact with an audience, which, in the public theaters, numbered in the thousands. With large, expansive movements, he could swiftly gain and shift their attention as he desired. He would have projected his voice out into the vertically tiered gallery and down into the pit in public theaters such as the Globe and Fortune. Taking the center of the theater's circle with confidence, he strode along the platform as he spoke. In Shakespearean theater, the actor expressed human vitality, or “liveliness,” in his movements, to use the Elizabethan term of praise, and offered a fullness of presence which made him available to the audience in a way that Beckett's actor must refuse to be, given the constraints of the script, his corporeal presentation, and Beckett's minutely explicit directions.


What did English Renaissance theatergoers encounter when they went to see a Shakespearean drama performed? The audience's perception of the actor commanding center stage, “uplifted to the view,” as Cleopatra phrases it, shaped the phenomenal experience of theater productions of the time. Jacobean dramatist John Webster, author of the Overburian sketch of “An excellent Actor” (1615), described the actor not only in the center but as the visual and aural center of the theater. “Sit in a full Theater,” Webster suggests, “and you will thinke you see so many lines drawne from the circumference of so many eares, whiles the Actor is the Center.27 His circular figure for the theater reproduced the actual geometry of the Elizabethan playing space. The platform stage in both public and private theaters extended through the theater like a radius that drew the actor towards the actual center of the theater.28 The audience surrounded the platform in a large semicircle with seats placed in a three-tiered gallery; the “groundlings” stood below the platform, which rose about five and a half feet high in the public theaters, and watched like spectators at a sporting event. The audience may very well have encircled the actors entirely if the gallery above the tiring house accommodated spectators. Johannes de Witt's famous sketch of the Swan Theatre, which survived as a copy in Arend van Buchell's diary, indicates as much, for he has depicted an audience in the balcony behind the actors. Playgoers were exposed to the elements in the open-air public theaters and watched dramatic performances in the afternoon light. A different atmosphere could be found in the Blackfriars, an intimate indoor theater about half the size of the Globe, where spectators were all seated, some on the edges of the stage, watching a drama lit by candlelight.

The Elizabethan public stages and halls, unlike the strictly confined space of Beckett's stages—most particularly the stages he himself arranged for productions—offered great freedom to the actor. Movement characterized the visual dynamic of the stage, for there were no scene divisions or changes in scenic design. The audience also moved, unlike in modern theaters where people remain in their individual seats usually positioned in front of the stage. Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton described the view from the stage in The Roaring Girl, which was performed at the Fortune some time during the first decade of the seventeenth century:

                                                                                                                        Then, sir, below,
The very floor, as 'twere, waves to and fro,
And, like a floating island, seems to move
Upon a sea bound in with shores above.


From the actor's point of view, a mass of people, fully visible in daylight, appeared like a floating island rocking back and forth. This picture of the audience suggests that live performance created a dynamic between an active, participating crowd and lively actors attuned to their presence. How unlike the perception Beckett's actors would have had as they crouched upon a stage before a hushed, still, unreachable audience sitting in the dark!

The Shakespearean actor's center reflected more than his position in the middle of the theater; his center constituted “a focus of energy from which vectors radiate into the environment [and] … a place upon which vectors act concentrically.”30 The actor's power lay in his energetic presence—the sensual reality of his body, his gestures, his eye contact with spectators. To be more precise, the English Renaissance actor's source of power stemmed from his physical evocation of the presence of another being which radiated from his center. His “personation” was a masking of himself in order to reveal the spirit of another. In Jerzy Grotowski's words, “The theatre is an act carried out here and now in the actors' organisms, in front of other men.”31 Unlike objects or scenic design which convey phenomenal power in specific relation to the actors and the actions of the script, the actor established a phenomenal connection with the audience that could vary in intensity and significance throughout the performance in ways that were not always within his control. The actor on the Globe's stage might have intuited his experience much the way the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes the body located in the visible world: “The enigma is that my body simultaneously sees and is seen. … Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing. But because it moves itself and sees, it holds things in a circle around itself.”32 This sense of circularity or concentric circles emanating from the actor was reinforced by the shape of the Elizabethan theater. Beckett's plays differ significantly from Shakespeare's in this respect, for dramas like Endgame and Happy Days were not composed for theaters-in-the-round; they give the spectator the sensation of rectangularity rather than circularity, and the actors seem to be boxed into the stage space. Circular movement occurs in Endgame, for example, only to produce a sense of frustration and meaningless repetition as the action leads nowhere.

How did early seventeenth-century theatergoers react to the actors' performance? One account comes from dramatist Thomas Heywood, who claimed that the actor's “personation” had a “bewitching” effect on the audience. In An Apology for Actors (written c. 1608; published 1612), he argued that drama had moral value and that the actor's “lively and well spirited action” persuaded men and women to virtue more effectively than could speech or pictures:

A Description is only a shadow receiued by the eare but not perceiued by the eye: so liuely portrature is meerely a forme seene by the eye, but can neither shew action, passion, motion, or any other gesture, to mooue the spirits of the beholder to admiration: but to see a souldier shap'd like a souldier, walke, speake, act like a souldier: to see a Hector all besmered in blood, trampling vpon the bulkes of Kinges. A Troylus returning from the field in the fight of his father Priam, as if man and horse euen from the steeds rough fetlockes to the plume in the champions helmet had bene together plunged into a purple Ocean.33

In Heywood's sensuous perception of the theater, the actor has become the resurrected persona of famous warriors and kings from history; he feels the presence of Troylus and Hector in these actors as if they have come back from the dead specifically to play out history's triumphs once more on the public stage. Heywood's emphasis on the visible aspects of the actor's body—his bloodstains, his chameleon ability to shape his behavior to that of the character—reveals how expressive and commanding the presence of the Renaissance actor must have been. Conversely, Beckett's theater does not offer this magical sense of resurrection through the actor's body. In fact, his actors seem poignant in their human position which reflects the diminished possibility of the modern actor to present positive characteristics of human history and selfhood.

Heywood's description of the audience watching domestic histories suggests that the actor inspired psychological and moral identification, and even better, virtuous action:

What English blood seeing the person of any bold English man presented and doth not hugge his fame, and hunnye [speak sweetly] at his valor, pursuing him in his enterprise with his best wishes, and as beeing wrapt in contemplation, offers to him in his hart all prosperous performance, as if the Personater were the man Personated, so bewitching a thing is liuely and well spirited action, that it hath the power to new mold the harts of the spectators and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt. … What English Prince should hee behold the true portrature of that amous [sic] King Edward the third, foraging France, taking so great a King captiue in his owne country, quartering the English Lyons with the French Flower-delyce, and would not bee suddenly Inflam'd with so royall a spectacle, being made apt and fit for the like atchieuement.34

Heywood seems to be aware of theatrical performance as both a series of signs to be read for moral and educational value and as a phenomenological disclosure. He describes the minds of theater-goers “as beeing wrapt in contemplation”; this condition of “wraptness” suggests the spectators' absorption of the corporeality of the play—its bodies and images—by the senses. The sensual richness of performance, the delight in momentarily taking “the Personater” for “the man Personated,” produces a bewitching effect on spectators that has real results. The theater, as Heywood suggests, has the ability to transform the spectator's life. This possibility of theater provoking newly molded hearts, while perhaps a bit overdrawn by Heywood, is far from the experience audiences have with Beckett's actors. The actors playing Hamm and Clov, Krapp, and May appear to “be” the characters they are playing but without reference to real historical figures. They seem to literalize metaphysical states of being that take on a painfully physical or corporeal expression onstage. The Beckettian actor's appearance and speech mesmerize and disturb spectators rather than inspire them to identify, take action, or reform their own characters.

In “An excellent Actor,” Webster also assumed that theatergoers identified with the actors for the compelling reason that they themselves engaged in the phenomenal experience of acting in life. Webster's defense of the “excellent actor” invokes the popular theatrum mundi metaphor. The actor, he claims, “doth not strive to make nature monstrous, she is often seen in the same Scæne with him, but neither on Stilts nor Crutches. … By his action he fortifies morall precepts with example; for what we see him personate, we thinke truely done before us. … All men have beene of his occupation: and indeed, what hee doth fainedly that doe others essentially: this day one plaies a Monarch, the next a private person. Heere one Acts a Tyrant, on the morrow an Exile.”35 Webster perceives the actor as a natural player who personates “truely”; that is, his actions call up something real in the presence of spectators. “A man of deepe thought,” he claims, “might apprehend, the Ghosts of our ancient Heroes walk't againe.”36 The actor holds the mirror up to spectators, to use a popular Elizabethan conceit, and they find themselves unmasked in their essential roles as actors in life; they become, in a sense, the actor's double. In moments of transcendent consciousness, the spectator catches a glimpse of himself as an actor doing naturally what the players do artificially.37 Through the experience of theater as phenomenology, playgoers perceive drama to be a series of disclosures that relate playing to the various acts of being in life.

Webster's and Heywood's responses to actors' personations must have been shaped to some extent by the intimacy and conviviality of the theaters. In the private theaters, for example, anyone could “aduance himselfe vp to the Throne of the Stage,” as Thomas Dekker described in The Gull's Hornbook (1609).38 Unlike the modern theaters in which Beckett's dramas were first produced, the Elizabethan private theaters accommodated audience members on the stage where they sat on stools. Spectators were literally sharing the same platform with the actors and could interact with them in an immediate way by touching, provoking, heckling, and flirting. Dekker emphasized the spectator's “actions” on display in the theater, and in his satirical pamphlet advocated a seat onstage where the ostentatious “gull” could be viewed along with the actors. With tongue in cheek, he points out the sort of power a stage-sitter might exert: “By spreading your body on the stage, and by being a Justice in examining of plaies, you shall put your selfe into such true Scænical authority, that some Poet shall not dare to present his Muse rudely vpon your eyes, without hauing first vnmaskt her, rifled her, and discouered all her bare and most mysticall parts before you at a Tauerne, when you most knightly shal for his paines, pay for both their suppers.”39 In the public theaters, where there were most likely no stage-sitters, the audience nonetheless was still relatively close to the actors and reacted without inhibition to their performances.

The English Renaissance actor, as many accounts of the time emphasize, revealed himself through the rhythms and sensuous emphases of language as well as action, or, to put it more exactly, the actor spoke through the body with actions that expressed intention, feeling, and desire. Rhetorical performance formed an integral aspect of the player's art. There were undoubtedly conventional features of gesture and bodily movement, vocalization and intonation that the actor inherited from the orator and shaped to his art during extensive training. As Webster indicated in “An excellent Actor,” the “lines” of attention on the actor, typically regarded as sightlines, were drawn not only with the eyes but from the “circumference of so many eares.” The actors had the effect of an orator—he moved the passions through voice, tone, select emphasis on words, and the use of vivid mental images. Sound worked its way through the actor's body, gripped it with vibrations, and struck the listener's body viscerally. Spectators had to look through the circle of their ears, and by doing so they formed an inward phenomenally constituted vision. The Shakespearean platform stage appeared as a kind of “tabula rasa,” to use Bert O. States' image, “on which the actor could draw the evershifting pictures of the text.”40 Scenes were painted out of words without the constraint of literal painted scenes and places. States calls this effect “a physics of metaphorical attraction.”41 Indeed, metaphor glued together much of the Shakespearean theater's visual and aural regime in order to attract the imaginative eye. The actor's words took on a sensuous presence of their own and hence created a palpable atmosphere in the theater. The special kind of visual/aural art found in English Renaissance theaters offered a rich phenomenological experience created by the actor's presence made visible amidst a sea of words that encouraged a perceptual habit of envisioning what was not there beside what was literally there. Thus, another kind of center manifested itself through verbal scenery that ornamented, enhanced, or provocatively competed with the actors' bodies. The actor projected this imaginative center—this perspectival object of the mind—directly into the minds of listeners.


Let us now reconsider Kott's famous treatment of King Lear as Shakespeare's Endgame. Kott, focusing his reading of the play on the Dover cliff sequence in Act 4, Scene 6, emphasizes the philosophical grotesqueness that arises from the striking image of two clowns miming a scene. He has us imagine the blind man Gloucester and a pretended madman, his son Edgar, walking along a flat, empty stage. Neither are whom they appear to be, and, even worse, the madman is busily depicting a false landscape that teems like a Brueghel painting in order to convince the blind man that they have just climbed a cliff and are standing at its top. This is not a place that is meant to exist on the stage, Kott emphasizes; rather the description symbolizes the abyss that lies everywhere. The blind man leaps into the abyss in what he hopes will be a suicide jump; in the phenomenal reality of the theater, this scene becomes a piece of buffoonery. “Gloucester's suicide attempt,” Kott argues, “… is merely a circus somersault on an empty stage. … [O]nly in King Lear are great tragic scenes shown through clowning.”42 But this episode is not entirely the Beckettian stage of clowns that Kott has conceived it to be—unless it is played deliberately in absurdist fashion. Indeed, Shakespeare's King Lear presents a stage of fools, not clowns, in which wisdom and absurdity co-exist in a paradoxical way. In actuality, this scene is a miniature drama emblematic of the play as a whole and of the theater making itself through its own essential material. This is a moment in which the theater's power to create ex nihilo is foregrounded and enacted. The disguised Edgar leads his blinded father Gloucester through a landscape painted by language. Gloucester, like any Jacobean spectator sitting in the theater, uses his imagination to complete the picture and bring it to “actuality.” Edgar has his father envision a picture of the two of them poised at the edge of Dover cliff—a picture so vivid and persuasive that Gloucester bids farewell and attempts to jump to his death. Like hundreds of other instances in English Renaissance drama, this passage makes what is absent present through rhetorical vividness; in this case, the character has employed the art of perspective painting to aid him in saving his father: “Come on, sir; here's the place: stand still,” Edgar says, directing Gloucester as if they had arrived at the top. He pretends to be looking down a steep incline, and exclaims:

                                                                                                                        How fearful
And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles; half way down
Hangs one that gathers sampire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.
The fishermen that walk upon the beach
Appear like mice, and yond tall anchoring bark
Diminish'd to her cock, her cock a buoy
Almost too small for sight. The murmuring surge,
That on th' unnumber'd idle pebble chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I'll look no more,
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.


Against the evidence of his own senses, Gloucester is convinced by Edgar's fearful description that the “diminish'd” elements seen through atmospheric perspective exist. He jumps, or so he thinks, in a movement that may appear absurdist on a modern stage but would have evoked profound pity on a non-scenic stage before an audience accustomed to imagining invisible landscapes as Gloucester has just done. Perspective here proves to be a compelling tool for presenting something “before the eyes,” as Aristotle and Quintilian would say. Not only this, Edgar's creative act employs illusion for a moral purpose—to save his father from the sin of despair and from death. Perspective art here has a higher purpose than creating a dizzying optical aesthetic or a meaningless deception. The purpose of Edgar's art is to produce an illusion that is salvific, a vehicle to Gloucester's salvation and an honoring of the “miracle” of life. While the larger absurdist themes that Kott identifies as motivating the play could very well engulf this fragile scene, it nonetheless serves as a paradigm for Shakespearean drama's greatest potential—to use the resources of the actor's body and language to create something real and redemptive out of nothing. Lear's pronouncement from the play's opening that “nothing will come of nothing” (1.1.89) is proven to be the false reasoning of an absolutist monarch who believes that he possesses the authority to control all of nature, including human behavior.

Let me offer two other Shakespearean dramas from the Jacobean period, Antony and Cleopatra and Cymbeline, as examples that demonstrate how the actors' histrionic presentation on the Renaissance stage and the descriptions of bodies found in the scripts created a range of phenomenal experiences that expressed a balance between absence and presence, loss and hope, waste and value. The actor was displaced from the stage's center only in face of a deity, his character's death, or a more charismatic actor than himself. The opening and closing scenes of Antony and Cleopatra (probably first performed between 1606 and 1608) most dramatically demonstrate how a Shakespearean play revolves around central staging that attracts spectators' eyes and ears to the actor at the center. The bodies of Antony and Cleopatra form a significant imaginative and generative source that motivates the play's imagery. The actors would have been challenged to project highly charismatic and glamorous characters. Like a painting set into motion, Antony and Cleopatra is framed with Roman speakers who gesture to the central panel and invite the audience to view the actors' bodies perspectively—that is, through the optical dynamics of central-point perspective. The actors who play Philo and Demetrius enter the stage in mid-speech and undoubtedly walk towards the audience as Philo paints his verbal portrait of Antony as Mars enslaved by the lustful Egyptian queen:

Nay, but this dotage of our general's
O'erflows the measure. Those his goodly eyes,
That o'er the files and musters of the war
Have glowed like plated Mars, now bend, now turn
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front. His captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy's lust.


The actor-Philo controls the opening moments of the play before the audience first witnesses the players: he speaks and, gesturing through Demetrius to the audience, covertly beckons them into the play world as if they were eavesdroppers at the Alexandrian court. He directs the audience to “Look where they come! / Take but good note, and you shall see in him / The triple pillar of the world transformed / Into a strumpet's fool. Behold and see” (1.1.10-13). In Philo's command to “behold and see” lies the actor's appeal to the audience to see Antony and Cleopatra from his vantage point. This awareness of the audience embedded in the play's language reflects the English Renaissance actor's technique of including the audience in his speech. Unlike an audience at the first productions of Beckett's Endgame, the members of an early seventeenth-century audience would have felt that they were involved in creating a successful performance of Antony and Cleopatra and that the actors were playing in their midst. Philo most likely would have walked to the center of the stage to make intimate contact with the audience, for, after all, his performance constitutes its threshold experience into the drama.

While the first speech of the play establishes the Roman commentator Philo's negative view of Antony, it becomes clear in other verbal depictions of the Roman warrior's body and in the actor's performance itself that the character of Antony is more ambiguous—perhaps more sympathetic—than Philo's view indicates. Even more significant to the phenomenal aspect of the play is the way in which the actor playing Cleopatra claims a central focal point and physically displaces Antony on stage. One critic has ingeniously suggested that Antony and Cleopatra first enter the stage dressed in each other's attire.45 This would effectively convey the sense of revelry, play, and sexual license in which the lovers famously engage and would draw attention to their bodies as spectacles. The queen would be armed with Antony's sword and helmet, visual signs of her power and will to dominate. She and Antony play to the entourage of Egyptian and Roman followers who naturally form an onstage audience, perhaps encircling the couple as they begin the show. Their public repartee reflects Cleopatra's control over Antony: “If it be love indeed, tell me how much” (1.1.14), she taunts, possibly eyeing the spectators to gauge the effect of her words. Cleopatra is fully aware of the power of performance and “eyeing well” to her audience; when she has gone too far with Antony, she says, “But, sir, forgive me, / Since my becomings kill me when they do not / Eye well to you” (1.3.97-99). The queen commands the center; Antony seems slightly off-center when Cleopatra is present. The actor's “bewitching” embodiment of the queen, to use Heywood's words, would have “Inflam'd” the audience “with so royall a spectacle”; Cleopatra, however, bewitches beholders on an aesthetic, sensuous plane rather than on moral grounds, as Heywood would have it.

While Cleopatra has mastered the histrionic art of changing personae for various audiences and occasions, Antony is less flexible in finding resources to transform his corporeal presentation. As the Roman warrior's fortunes decline, he imagines a corresponding deteriorization in his physical shape, the outward form of his valor and manhood. He delivers a speech that strikes a profound note of anxiety about the coherence of his identity in the play's world. Antony asks Eros, “thou yet behold'st me?” (4.14.1); it is as if his physical form would “dislimn”—or dislimb—in keeping with his inner ruin. Antony turns to a poetic image of transience and mutability, that of the cloud:

Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish,
A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
A towered citadel, a pendent rock,
A forked mountain, or blue promontory
With trees upon't that nod unto the world
And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs?
They are black vesper's pageants. …
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns and makes it indistinct
As water is in water. …
My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body. Here I am Antony,
Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave.


In Antony's metamorphic vision, the cloud becomes a visible manifestation of the uncertain, changing qualities of his identity. The formerly great emperor and warrior senses that his identity has melted into air like the indistinct trees that seem to appear high upon some blue promontory and “mock our eyes with air.” This image suggests that Antony's appearance as a contained body in the world is but an illusion, a trick of the eyes; the body which signified valor and manliness “like plated Mars” (1.1.4) or Mars loved by Venus has dissolved into the vanishing point. The image of “black vesper's pageants” suggests Antony's perception of life as ephemeral, a show of passing pageants. The audience may very well have perceived the Jacobean performance of Antony and Cleopatra in this manner, especially if the drama was performed by candlelight in a private theater or court hall.

By the fifth act, Antony has committed suicide, and the balance of the stage picture has shifted wholly to Cleopatra. In the extended final scene of the play, Cleopatra resolves to be “marble constant” and transforms herself into the divine body of Isis like an actor divesting himself of a multiplicity of personae in favor of the most worthy one. “Give me my robe,” she commands Iras as she prepares for her last act; “Put on my crown. I have / Immortal longings in me. Now no more / The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip” (5.2.279-81). Her final action is a mystical ritual of transfiguration and apotheosis. The queen has attempted to fix a vision of her divine body in the historical imagination of the audience. In the competition for control over perspective, Cleopatra is a masterful player, yet the very ephemerality of her final moments onstage—the pathos of her parting show to end all shows—reveals the inherent vulnerability of the actor's art. Her self-staged perspective is visually stunning, as in a masque spectacle, but fragile; the soldiers dismantle the suicide tableau by touching and poking the queen's body irreverently and then ushering her corpse off the stage. In essence, a corpse is left in the center Cleopatra inhabited. Since Cleopatra most consistently commanded the center, her death opens up a phenomenal vacuum on the stage, but this space is quickly occupied by Octavius Caesar. He fills the center only in material and secular terms; spiritually and aesthetically, Cleopatra has achieved the victory. The queen's apotheosis takes place in the audience's mind where the image of her transcendent suicide persists; below on the “dungy earth” are Caesar and his men, cleaning up the stage, as it were, in preparation for the next act in history which belongs to Caesar. His victory seems a paltry gain compared to the greatness Antony and Cleopatra offered. The play closes with an anamorphic picture: “painted one way” is Cleopatra triumphant in an invisible world as fire and air, her new elements; “the other way” is the corpse, like the death skull slicing through Hans Holbein the Younger's The Ambassadors, and Caesar claiming his victory over land and water in the visible terrain of history. This double perspective is haunting and strikes spectators viscerally and emotionally, for there is no way to reconcile the ambiguities of victory and loss in this last scene.

Like Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline (probably performed in 1609-1610) presents both theatrical spectacle and unaccommodated scenes in which the actor stands at the center of the bare stage and rhetorically imagines a scene. Imogen, the king's daughter, creates a perspectival image that reveals her grief over her husband Posthumus' banishment from court by her father. She prompts Pisanio, her husband's servant, to recount the details of his departure. After Pisanio describes the farewell scene, Imogen rivals his experience with a notable verbal conceit: “Thou shouldst have made him / As little as a crow, or less, ere left / To after-eye him” (1.4.14-16).46 “Madam, so I did,” Pisanio protests, but Imogen continues, emotionally compelled to enact verbally an imagined farewell:

I would have broke mine eye-strings, crack'd them, but
To look upon him, till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle:
Nay, followed him, till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat, to air: and then
Have turn'd mine eye, and wept.


When Harriet Walter played Imogen in a Royal Shakespeare Company production at The Other Place (1987), she literally guided the spectators' eyes as she knelt down by candlelight and extended her fingers towards the audience until her touching forefinger and thumb presented an imperceptible point before their eyes.47 Walter focused the audience on a double vanishing point—the actor-Imogen commanding the center of the theater, and the rhetorical “point” she visually enacted through the body. Here, the actress suggested in this tense moment of intimacy, is where Posthumus has melted—into the vanishing point—the nothing that lies between these two fingers. Literary critics, without reference to live performance, have often found this speech mannered, as if the words were obscure conceits inappropriately masking Imogen's feelings. But for the Shakespearean actor, dramatic speech is, as Bert O. States (following Grotowski) has suggested, like a musical score, which finds its performance through the instrument of the body.48 In the “affective corporeality” of the theater,49 Walter's body and voice became the instrument of her speech, much as they would have in the English Renaissance theater. When Peter Hall directed Cymbeline in 1984, he treated Imogen's linguistic style as an indication of her “habit of verbalizing her emotions, using often minute verbal details to pin down precisely what she thinks and feels.”50 Through the actor's fidelity to the verse line, the searching quality of Imogen's words reveals her propensity to articulate intense feelings. The conceits she imagines are extreme and viscerally painful to the audience, for it perceives Imogen's suffering through her language.

Imogen's imagined farewell to Posthumus occurs within a perspectival space conceived in her mind. From a fixed vantage point in her imagination, her eyes follow the receding image of her husband until he is “little as a crow, or less,” then “melted from / The smallness of a gnat, to air.” Imogen's rhetorical creation of this scene is indeed in her “after-eye,” in the trace of an image conjured up after the physical image has vanished. She must convince herself that Posthumus is really gone; thus she conceives of her husband passing into the vanishing point of a picture plane where through the “diminution of space,” she watches him finally disappear into air. Her “eye hath play'd the painter,” to quote Shakespeare's Sonnet 24, and, in painting a scene of her husband's departure, she imagines him “melting” away into nothing. To imagine Posthumus at the needle's point as she strains to hold him within her sight belies Imogen's anxiety over their separation and suggests death, which Elizabethans thought caused the breaking of eye tendons.51 The vanishing of Posthumus into air reflects the possibility of tragedy, that their love will vanish into air with the separation in time and space.52 Peggy Muñoz Simonds has suggested that Imogen's speech implies an apotheosis—that is, the death and resurrection of her beloved.53 Just as the vanishing point in many Renaissance religious paintings indicated the mystery of divine intervention and apotheosis of sacred bodies, so also the point where Posthumus has disappeared in air signifies his vanishing into the afterlife. On a phenomenological plane, this intuition of apotheosis depends on the absence of the actor's body. Imogen commands the audience to listen to her perspectival rendering of Posthumus' apotheosis into air; onstage, she is the center of the stage picture, but her words evoke another center—a center in which the body is annihilated—to be imaginatively re-created in the mind of the audience.

Like Shakespeare, Beckett focused on the human actor as an instrument that reveals reality phenomenally through placement on the stage, vocal pitch and intonation, and particular articulations of the body. But, as I have attempted to show, the Shakespearean actor had—and should continue to have—a far more active relationship with the audience, for this movement within a theatrical space shared with the audience reflected the actor's meaningful, purposeful position in the center of the theater and at the center of the imagined world of the script. While a Beckettian Shakespeare production such as Peter Brook's King Lear realizes forces that lie within the Renaissance dramatist's plays—the forces of decomposition in the world, of doubt, meaninglessness, and despair—the balance of the play is disturbed in such modern ventriloquisms. To view Shakespeare through Beckett is to radicalize these elements in the drama and to magnify them mercilessly. Beckett's actor inhabits a ghostly center removed from the audience's reach; he is a “speck in the void, in the dark, for ever,” as Hamm says in Endgame (36). The actor has arrived at the postmodern vanishing point where the emptying of meaning lies. When Hamm hesitatingly suggests, “We're not beginning to … to … mean something?” Clov replies, “Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh) Ah that's a good one!” (32-33). Shakespeare's plays arguably possess Beckettian embers, which are revealed in some of his bleakest poetry, best exemplified by King Lear—poetry that presents the human fear of decay, disintegration, or, at times, the painful inescapability from the self. Antony's speech in which he suddenly visualizes his body melting from its former shape, Imogen's vision of her lover vanishing into nothingness—these are haunting moments that betray the fragility of the self, of love, of the body. But Beckett's actors are the unremitting corporeal manifestations of our painful consciousness of self and world, our desolate, unfulfilled dreams, our deteriorating memories, our sense of futility and waste, our helplessness in the face of ever-elusive endings and lost beginnings. Shakespearean actors, directors, and critics today must perform a phenomenological act of reduction, a cleansing of the doors of perception, if they hope to gain access to a theatrical world folded deep in time, a time before Beckett and the absurdist theater.


  1. Originally published as Szkice o Szekspirze (Warsaw: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1964); English edition: Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966). As Martin Esslin points out in his introductions to the English edition and to Kott's The Theater of Essence and Other Essays (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1984), Kott ingeniously critiques Soviet Marxism, Leninism, and Stalinism through his modernist, Beckettian readings of Shakespeare's histories and tragedies. He argues that because of the political traumas suffered in Eastern Europe, Poland in particular, these countries afford the most vital vantage point from which to view Shakespeare in the modern world.

  2. King Lear was first produced by Brook at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Aldwych Theatre, London, in 1962; in 1964 the production toured Eastern Europe and was well received. Although Brook claimed that he was not directly influenced by Kott, he nonetheless had read the Polish critic's “King Lear or Endgame” and admits that there were distinct similarities between Kott's vision and his own. See Daniel Labeille, “‘The Formless Hunch’: An Interview with Peter Brook,” Modern Drama 23 (1980): 221.

  3. Charles Marowitz, “Lear Log,” in Theatre at Work: Playwrights and Productions in the Modern British Theatre, ed. Charles Marowitz and Simon Trussler (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), 134.

  4. Robert Speaight, “Shakespeare in Britain,” Shakespeare Quarterly 14 (1963): 420.

  5. Ibid., 421.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Ruby Cohn, Modern Shakespeare Offshoots (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 318.

  8. Charles R. Lyons, “Beckett, Shakespeare, and the Making of Theory,” in Around the Absurd: Essays on Modern and Postmodern Drama, ed. Enoch Brater and Ruby Cohn (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 107. Lyons additionally claims that Kott's book “relates to Beckettian drama, self-consciously, as clearly as A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy relates to nineteenth-century realism unself-consciously” (107).

  9. Bert O. States, The Pleasure of the Play (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 157-79.

  10. Muriel St. Clare Byrne, “King Lear at Stratford-on-Avon, 1959,” Shakespeare Quarterly 11 (1960): 190.

  11. See Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts, revised ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 13-35.

  12. Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 211-12.

  13. Charles Marowitz, “Paris Log,” Encore 9 (March-April 1962): 44.

  14. Samuel Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays (New York: Grove Press, 1984), 220.

  15. Ibid., 220.

  16. Israel Shenker, “Moody Man of Letters,” New York Times, 6 May 1956, Sec. 2, 1, 3.

  17. For further discussion, see William B. Worthen, “Beckett's Actor,” Modern Drama 26 (1983): 415-24.

  18. In a postmodern reading of Endgame, Hollis Huston claims that “no position amounts to place. … The walls of this terminal box set are chords of a circle whose center is no where on stage. The characters stare fixedly at us, who sit outside the kingdom Hamm holds. Hamm's center is a fiction that depends on ignorance of the house …” (The Actor's Instrument: Body, Theory, Stage [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992], 71-72). Huston sees the play as a reflection of modern anxiety about authority. “We know too much,” he argues. “We can't get up our disbelief any more” (72).

  19. Samuel Beckett, Endgame (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 19. Subsequent page references appear in parentheses in my article.

  20. See Dougald McMillan and Martha Fehsenfeld, Beckett in the Theatre (London: John Calder; New York: Riverrun Press, 1988), 197.

  21. Herbert Blau has theorized the vanishing point as that “wobbling pivot” of the work he and others have done in the contemporary theater. “The history of the theater,” he claims, “is a calculus of changing focus on a subject which is increasingly mist. The thing which moves us is on the edge of a disappearance. Whether in or out of perspective, we are always at the vanishing point” (Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point [Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982], 28). By “we” Blau seems to mean the actor/subject, or theater itself.

  22. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. A. Robert Caponigri (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1956), 7.

  23. See McMillan and Fehsenfeld, Beckett in the Theatre, 163-240.

  24. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), 51.

  25. Bud Thorpe, in an interview with Colin Duckworth, “Beckett's New Godot,” in Beckett's Later Fiction and Drama, ed. James Acheson and Kateryna Arthur (New York: St. Martins Press, 1987), 189. Thorpe is referring to the San Quentin Drama Workshop of 1984 in which he played Vladimir in Waiting for Godot.

  26. Michael Goldman, Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 72.

  27. In Sir Thomas Overbury, The Overburian Characters to which is added A Wife, ed. W. J. Paylor, Percy Reprints 13 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1936), 76.

  28. For convenience see A. M. Nagler, Sources of Theatrical History (New York: Theatre Annual, 1952), 118-19, for the contract between Henslowe-Alleyn and the carpenter who was to build the Fortune Theater; the “Stadge shall conteine in length Fortie and Three foote of lawfull assize and in breadth to extende to the middle of the yarde of the said howse.” It was to be “fashioned like vnto the Stadge of the saide Plaie howse called the Globe.”

  29. Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl, ed. Paul A. Mulholland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987).

  30. Arnheim, The Power of the Center, 13.

  31. Grotowski, Poor Theatre, 118, in reference to Antonin Artaud's theater.

  32. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Primacy of Perception and Other Essays, trans. Carleton Dallery, ed. James M. Edie (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 162-63.

  33. Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors (London, 1612), sigs. B3v-B4r; facsimile rpt. (with I. G., A Refutation of the “Apology for Actors”), introd. Arthur Freeman (New York: Garland, 1973).

  34. Heywood, An Apology for Actors, sig. B4r.

  35. In Overbury, The Overburian Characters, 76-77.

  36. Ibid., 77.

  37. I am indebted to John Harrop's description of the actor's fascination: “It is precisely part of the fascination of the actor that he or she does artificially what everyone else does naturally, and tries to make the artifice natural” (Acting [London: Routledge, 1992], 7).

  38. I quote for convenience from Nagler, Sources of Theatrical History, 134.

  39. Ibid., 135.

  40. Bert O. States, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 56.

  41. Ibid., 57.

  42. Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 149.

  43. All references to William Shakespeare's King Lear are to the Arden Edition, ed. Kenneth Muir (1972; rpt. London: Routledge, 1989).

  44. All references to Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra are to the Arden edition, ed. John Wilders (London: Routledge, 1995).

  45. Gordon P. Jones, “The ‘Strumpet's Fool’ in Antony and Cleopatra,Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983), 62-68. In attempting to make sense of how Enobarbus could mistake Cleopatra for Antony (Enter Cleopatra. Enobarbus: “Hush, here comes Antony” [1.2.81]), Jones argues that Cleopatra must have been dressed in Antony's attire. But this line does not necessarily indicate a case of momentary mistaken identity, for Enobarbus most likely is making a sly reference to Cleopatra's power over Antony. This interpretation would explain equally well why the queen, as Jones suggests, might have been dressed in male attire.

  46. All references to Shakespeare's Cymbeline are to the Arden edition, ed. J. M. Nosworthy (1955; rpt. London: Routledge, 1988).

  47. I am indebted to Stephen Buhler, who called this performance to my attention. See Carol Rutter, Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare's Women Today, ed. Faith Evans (New York: Routledge, 1989) for an interview with Harriet Walter regarding this particular production directed by Bill Alexander and a photograph of Walter showing the audience the vanishing point between her fingers (pl. between pp. 68 and 69).

  48. See States, The Pleasure of the Play, 25-41.

  49. For the use of this terminology, see States, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, 27.

  50. Roger Warren, Staging Shakespeare's Late Plays (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 29.

  51. See Nosworthy's note to Cymbeline 1.4.17 in the Arden edition.

  52. Maurice Hunt argues that “perspectivism is Shakespeare's chief means for suggesting a potentially tragic love. In this late dramatic romance, various perspectives suggest that knowledge is restricted, that physical forces control it and the values that derive from it, and that a major challenge lies in maintaining, or recapturing, an unparalleled love in light of two adversaries—time and space” (“Perspectivism in King Lear and Cymbeline,Studies in the Humanities 14 [1987]: 25).

  53. Peggy Muñoz Simonds, Myth, Emblem, and Music in Shakespeare's ‘Cymbeline’ (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992), 190.

Jacqueline Thomas (essay date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: Thomas, Jacqueline. “Happy Days: Beckett's Rescript of Lady Chatterley's Lover.Modern Drama 41, no. 4 (winter 1998): 623-34.

[In the following essay, Thomas studies Happy Days for evidence of a subtext influenced by D. H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover.]

The importance of Beckett's use of literary references in Happy Days is well established.1 The juxtaposition of truncated yet recognizable fragments of literature provides a frame of reference for the erudite reader or spectator to appreciate fully—at least subconsciously—the irony of the characters' speech and situation. In his manuscript study of the play, Stanley Gontarski lists fourteen allusions identified by Beckett and the stages at which they were deliberately added.2 However, Beckett did not acknowledge a significant literary source that resonates throughout Happy Days: D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Subtle echoes of Lawrence's novel provide a hitherto unexplored perspective from which to interpret Happy Days. Unlike the texts to which Winnie directly refers, this one does not deal with confronting death or with despair at the brevity of life. Instead, the Lawrentian subtext establishes Winnie's precarious sexuality and her womanly needs, which Beckett then undercuts, the better to establish the bitter irony of her situation.

Lady Chatterley's Lover relates the story of a woman trapped in a marriage with an impotent, insensitive man. Her life is sterile and joyless until she finds “phallic tenderness” and sexual fulfillment with an outsider.3 One can forget that over one-third of the novel deals with Connie Chatterley's hollow, barren relationship with her partially paralyzed husband and her life of hopeless inertia, in which “[t]he days seemed to grind by with curious painfulness, yet nothing happened” (LCL 76). Throughout the first nine chapters of the book, Connie is slowly dying: she is “spending [her] life without renewing it” (LCL 78). Feeling “completely stranded” (LCL 110), she is vapidly whiling away her life.

Until she finds life after the deadness of marriage and meaningless copulation, Connie Chatterley resembles Winnie. Winnie, in turn, continues the stream of characters who embody Beckett's “concern with the physical details of reproduction, its success or lack of success, [with] the impotence, sterility, and decay of the sexual organs, [and] repulsive copulation.”4 Allusions to Connie, who liberates herself through sexual fulfillment, establish Winnie's erotic possibilities, made all the more poignant and frustrating by her inability to satisfy them.

But, more than a dramatist's ploy to add breadth and depth to the characters in his minimalist world, these subtle allusions serve as an outright rejection of Lawrence's credo. Both Winnie and Connie embody their creators' philosophy on women's sexuality and freedom, women's relationships with men, men's impotence in society, and the whole body/mind dichotomy. Similarities in mood, characterization, and imagery reveal the two authors' common preoccupations and profound spiritual ties; yet, unlike Connie, Beckett's fictive character is trapped inescapably, rendering her incapable of being rescued from her desperate condition. Beckett opposes Lawrence's strong convictions concerning the significance of physical passion and rejects the philosophy that phallic powers will save us from the alienation of modern life. With Beckett's bleaker vision, Happy Days provides a harsh rejoinder to Lawrence's proposed solution to (wo)man's hapless condition.

Lawrence's Connie and Beckett's Winnie are both trapped in death-in-life situations that they stoically accept. They question the meaning of their bodies and are aware of their erotic capabilities. They maintain control over their minds, but have unfulfilling relationships with their husbands, who are themselves remarkably similar. But there the similarities end. The gap caused by loneliness and alienation in Connie's life is filled by a tender and satisfying connection with another human being. Such a resolution to the problems of existence is unthinkable in Beckett's world. Winnie exists without a vagina or womb throughout the first act and without breasts in the second act, thus deliberately denied any possibility of experiencing the erotic that Lawrence describes with such relish. Significantly, Beckett did not allow his own exploration into the erotic to be published until after his death.5 While Lawrence insists that we make a balance between the consciousness of the body's sensations and experiences and these sensations and experiences themselves, no such balance is possible for Beckett. Winnie's sexual experiences exist as fantasy or memory; the extent of her sensations is intentionally ambiguous. Connie, lurking in the wings, helps us understand Winnie's condition féminine, “the agony of her own female forlornness,” to use Lawrence's words (LCL 114).

Both women stoically accept the situations into which they are thrust. The opening paragraph of Lady Chatterley's Lover, which Lawrence informs us “was more or less Constance Chatterley's position,” equally well sums up Winnie's:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

(LCL 5)

Winnie is similarly stuck in a “scorched” wilderness6 that has reminded at least one critic of the cataclysmic “flash of a Hydrogen Bomb and its power to incinerate.”7 Like Connie's husband, Winnie's suffers from restricted mobility and very limited conversation. He provides little comfort to her, except that he prevents her from feeling that she is talking to herself. She survives thanks to her repertoire of little rituals associated with her new habitat; for example, she empties the contents of her black shopping bag, brushes her teeth, “inspect[s]” the state of her gums in a mirror, cleans her glasses, and takes her medicine (HD [Happy Days] 138-41). Buried “up to above her waist” in earth, she sums up her survival technique: “There is so little one can do. [Pause.] One does it all” (HD 138, 145). Likewise, Connie realizes that “[t]o accept the great nothingness of life seem[s] to be the one end of living. All the many busy and important little things that make up the grand sum-total of nothingness” (LCL 55).

Winnie expresses the little hopes Lawrence refers to in his opening paragraph, what she calls “great mercies” (HD 140). She constantly repeats such hopeful phrases as “Oh this is going to be another happy day!” (HD 142). Yet she is aware that “there is now no smooth road into the future”; in fact, for her, there is no future save that of slipping further into the ground, and, as is typical in Beckett's world, no road. Winnie is able to scramble over obstacles only metaphorically, but this she does cheerfully for the most part. She has apparently accepted the fact that we've got to live—“to speak in the old style” (HD 143)—and she admonishes herself frequently to remain thankful (HD 140).

Neither woman can forget her body. Winnie articulates to her husband, Willie, a sensation of being held against a natural force: “Yes, the feeling more and more that if I were not held—[gesture]—in this way, I would simply float up into the blue.” And she adds, “Yes, love, up into the blue, like gossamer” (HD 151-52). Connie, too, refers to the idea of floating away, but her parallel expression is, while similar, less poetic: “Imagine if we floated like tobacco-smoke!” Her comment follows a discussion about extra-uterine conception and the future of civilization, when “a woman needn't be dragged down by her functions” (LCL 74-75, original emphasis). Thus, Connie and Winnie both incarnate their authors' concern with the problem of women's freedom (or lack of it) as it relates to their bodies.

The two women question the meaning of their bodies. Winnie reminisces about the Shower/Cooker couple who “st[ood] there gaping at [her]”: “What's she doing? he says—What's the idea? he says—stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground—coarse fellow—What does it mean? he says—What's it meant to mean?” The answer is, intriguingly, another question: “And you, she says, what's the idea of you, she says, what are you meant to mean?” (HD 156). In Beckett's world the body and mobility are not meant to mean. Winnie—part realistically human and part inanimate, incongruously entombed alive and yet somehow totally acceptable to the reader/spectator—exists as a surrealist metaphor for life itself.

This passage subtly echoes and contrasts with the more conventional description Lawrence provides of Connie naked, verifying the ravages of time in a mirror. “Her body was going meaningless, going dull and opaque, so much insignificant substance.” She notices that “[her breasts] were unripe, a little bitter, without meaning hanging there. … Her thighs, too, … were going flat, slack, meaningless.” Connie becomes hopelessly aware that her body is without meaning because it is “[d]isappointed of its real womanhood.” Only her buttocks have life in them still, and Lawrence compares them to “hillocks of sand.” (LCL 70-71). Winnie is buried in something resembling a hillock of sand; and the meaninglessness of her breasts and thighs is a given in the play. Ironically, the only time Winnie looks into a mirror, her purpose is more “clinical … than … narcissistic,” as Shari Benstock has pointed out: she checks on “the state of her teeth and gums.”8

This is not to say that “Winnie … is reduced to a sexless object,” as some critics have suggested.9 Beckett deliberately makes Winnie a sexual being, the better to undercut her sexuality and render her situation more paradoxical. The soft curve of her breasts and their erotic possibilities are canceled out by the ever-present mound. The mound itself is intentionally mastoid; in fact, the connection is more obvious in Beckett's French version (written two years later) because he uses the word “mamelon,” which means both “rounded eminence” and “teat, or dug.”10 And Winnie herself is right in the middle, like an erect nipple, a visual reminder of the erotic possibilities she is denied. Beckett's stage directions for Winnie specify “well-preserved, … arms and shoulders bare, low bodice, big bosom, pearl necklace” (HD 138). Elsewhere, Beckett has suggested that Winnie might be viewed as a virile woman.11 While virile is usually associated with a man, the adjective, significantly, carries the meaning capable of procreation. When Beckett directed the play with Billy Whitelaw as Winnie, “he made [her] quite a sexy little piece … very seductive.”12 Moreover, Aideen O'Kelly, who played Winnie in Shivaun O'Casey's production, asserts, “In her mind [Winnie] certainly is [a sexual being].”13

The question of the extent to which Winnie is physically a sexual being surfaces the second time Winnie recalls the conversation of the Shower/Cooker couple. Like Connie, who was supposed to have rather a good figure, and who has become “a demi-vierge” (LCL 70, 17-18), Winnie recalls being referred to in the following words:

Can't have been a bad bosom, he says, in its day. [Pause.] Seen worse shoulders, he says, in my time. [Pause.] Does she feel her legs? he says. [Pause.] Is there any life in her legs? he says. [Pause.] Has she anything on underneath? he says.

(HD 165)

When Beckett first directed the play, “Mr. Shower-Cooker's voice was to have an erotic tone,” according to Ruby Cohn.14 The audience cannot doubt Beckett's intention to make Winnie an archetypal woman with all her womanly needs. Winnie even specifically mentions sexual intercourse; she alludes to the sadness that follows and, with a typically Beckettian twist, brings it up in the context of “sadness after [a] song” (HD 164). The trivialized reference to intimate sexual intercourse is yet another instance of Winnie ironically echoing Connie. Connie's experience of anti-climax and lack of satisfaction associated with sexual intercourse dominate the first third of Lawrence's novel.

With their meaningless, half-virgin bodies, and surrounded by nothingness, the two women possess control only over their minds and talk, words to get them by. Connie specifically thinks to herself that “If you don't hang on to it in your mind, it's nothing” (LCL 64). Winnie works on the same assumption, and verbalizes her fear of the consequences “If the mind were to go” (HD 161). Winnie unquestionably equates her talking with survival. She is able to go on talking only if she believes something of what she says is heard (by Willie), and she fears the day when she must learn to talk to herself (HD 145, 148). She expresses her anxiety about running out of things to say before the bell for sleep and dreads the day when words must fail (HD 151-52). Frequently Winnie muses about the relationship of words and meaning to reality. Aware of how words change their meaning, she modifies “day,” “night,” and “time” with the phrase “to speak in the old style” (HD 143, 157, 160). After wondering if she can still use the word “life,” she decides poignantly that there is no other word (HD 149). Because she realizes that any reference to the past is composed of empty words, she expounds the following dilemma: “[D]id I ever know a temperate time? [Pause.] No. [Pause.] I speak of temperate times and torrid times, they are empty words” (HD 154).

Likewise, Connie ponders the emptiness of some words caused by a dehumanization of society: “All the great words, it seemed to Connie, were cancelled for her generation: love, joy, happiness, home, mother, father, husband, all these great dynamic words were half-dead now, and dying from day to day” (LCL 62). At times Connie, like Winnie, identifies words with survival: Life “was words, just so many words. The only reality was nothingness, and over it, a hypocrisy of words” (LCL 50). And, paralleling life in Happy Days, Connie encounters the feeling that life “was all nothing, a wonderful display of nothingness. At the same time, a display. A display, a display, a display!” (LCL 50).

Winnie and Connie both cope with the burden of existence by relying heavily on quotations from literature. Winnie quotes—albeit in truncated form—from Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible, among others. Connie similarly comforts herself at dark moments in her life. As in Winnie's case, “endless phrases swept through her consciousness” (LCL 85).15

To describe the one woman's relationship with her husband is to describe the other woman's. Clifford, who is paralyzed from the waist down, has restricted mobility. Lawrence calls attention to “the burden of his dead legs,” describes him as “helpless,” and likens him to a child. Elsewhere the reader finds Clifford compared to “a legless worm,” a “squirming monster,” and “one of the … crabs” (which, incidentally, live at ground level and move sideways) (LCL 292, 110). Because he is rendered “like an idiot” without her (LCL 110), his repressive dependence on Connie has become a weighty responsibility for her. Not only is Clifford sexually impotent, he is also an emotional cripple. Typical of his generation, he is “not in touch … with … anybody,” even Connie, who feels that “perhaps there was nothing to get at, ultimately: just a negation of human contact” (LCL 16). Physically, Connie and Clifford are non-existent to one another. Of their marriage, Lawrence specifies, “there were days when it all became utterly blank and nothing” (LCL 50). “Clifford tend[s] to become vague, absent, and to fall into fits of vacant depression” (LCL 63). Most important, he is unaware of and unresponsive to his wife's needs.

Willie, who crawls around (backwards) on his hands and knees, lives in a hole in the ground behind Winnie's mound. No physical contact between them is possible, and he does not exist independently from Winnie in the final version of the play.16 She characterizes him as rather helpless and frequently talks down to him as to a child. His impotence is implied in his association with “[c]astrated male swine”—his longest independent utterance—and in the scene when she is telling him how to get into his hole (HD 159, 147). She even reminds him about his Vaseline.17 When Winnie screams, Willie remains cruelly absent (HD 165).

Both husbands are associated with a lack of communication. Clifford writes stories that Connie considers hollow. His wife accuses him of having nothing original to say and quoting annoyingly, and sometimes out of context, from literature. Willie reads aloud inanely from an old newspaper. He provides predominantly monosyllabic answers to his wife's questions, repeats her comments, and calls her name pathetically. Only twice in the play does he venture an innovative thought.

Each man is represented at one time as pathetically idolatrous of his wife. Clifford's “declarations of idolatry” are said to “[torture]” Connie: “It was the cruelty of utter impotence” (LCL 112). With an amusingly different tone, Winnie mocks Willie's proposal of marriage: “I worship you, Winnie, be mine. […] Life a mockery without Win” (HD 166).

Because neither woman feels fulfilled in marriage, both wait and dream. Connie dreams of having a baby and hopes to find a “real” man to father it (LCL 64-65). Winnie, in humorous contrast, dreams that one day Willie will “come round” in front of the mound where she can see him (HD 158). Both works end with the suggestion that their dreams have come true. Connie is pregnant with her lover's baby. Moreover, the novel closes on a sexually optimistic note: “John Thomas says good-night to lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart—” (LCL 302). In wonderful contrast, Willie—whose name in British slang also refers to genitalia, but to a small boy's diminutive, dangling member—is at the foot of Winnie's mound, having been unable to mount it. The final tableau consists of Willie “on his hands and knees looking up at” Winnie as she has just sung “the Waltz Duet ‘I love you so’ from the Merry Widow” (HD 168, 155). The erotic symbolism has been noted,18 and the parody is not lost on the reader or spectator who is familiar with Lawrence's text.

Other similarities between the women's situations, when they are compared, emphasize Winnie's stasis, her inability to change. Connie is figuratively trapped on the Wragby estate, where life resembles “being inside an enclosure.” Yet, Lawrence's image of her enclosed and restricted, on a “denuded … knoll,” functions as the background for an important discussion between Connie and her husband about his inability to sire an heir. For Lord Chatterley, only “the habit of each other” matters, not any short-lived sexual connection. Connie reluctantly agrees, but with the proviso that “life may turn quite a new face on it all” (LCL 41-45). At that precise moment, Mellors the gamekeeper literally walks into her life and becomes the new face that will ultimately change her concept of marriage and sexual connections. In contrast, Winnie is literally trapped on a denuded knoll. Her enclosure denies her the possibility of sexual connections and dooms her to a marriage of mere habit. Moreover, when Willie finally appears within Winnie's view he lacks “jizz” (HD 167), which Kristin Morrison suggests means sperm.19 The parallels in the two women's situations are so strong that the impossibility of Winnie's being rescued underscores her unbearable predicament.

This image of the women trapped—Winnie inescapably—in a death-in-life situation is one of the most compelling ties between Lawrence's novel and Beckett's play; but there are still others.20 Two significant passages in Lawrence's novel have exact parodic counterparts in Beckett's play and underscore the contrast between the two women's erotic possibilities. One deals with events leading up to Connie's epiphany and is reflected in one of only three incidents to occur in Happy Days. The other, which exhibits specific verbal echoes, describes the location where Connie's sexual enlightenment takes place; its equivalent figures among Winnie's nostalgic reminiscences of the days when she was young and attractive.

Out of loneliness and boredom, Connie has started visiting the secret sanctuary of a hut in a remote area of her husband's property. Mellors rears pheasants there, and her discovery that they have laid eggs reinforces her feelings of unfulfillment and barrenness. Fascinated initially at the sight of the newly hatched chicks, she reflects, “Life! Life! Pure, sparky, fearless new life! New life!” However, her urge to conceive and her sense of abandonment replace her excitement and force tears from her eyes: “never had she felt so acutely the agony of her own female forlornness” (LCL 114).21 Her despondent state inspires the gamekeeper's tenderness, and he forges a regenerative connection with her, one that takes up most of the rest of the novel (and accounts for its notoriety).

Intriguing for its similarities yet important differences is a scene in Act One of Happy Days: Winnie discovers a sign of life—the only sign of normal life in the whole play—on her mound. Even the fertility connection is made. She says:

Oh I say, what have we here? […] Looks like life of some kind! […] An emmet! […] Willie, an emmet, a live emmet! […] Where's it gone? […] Ah! […] Has like a little white ball in its arms. […] It's gone in. […] Like a little white ball.

(HD 149-50, stage directions omitted)

In response, Willie now utters his only two original comments, thus emphasizing their significance. He says, “Eggs,” followed almost immediately by his sexual pun: “Eggs. […] Formication” (HD 150). Winnie and Willie share briefly the intimacy of Willie's pun on fornication; but even as they are laughing, Winnie cannot be sure that they are laughing at the same thing. The anticlimactic link with the Lawrentian subtext of new birth accentuates the agony of Winnie's female forlornness and subtly undermines Lawrence's ideology.

The scenes that made Lady Chatterley's Lover controversial take place in the late afternoon in “a secret little hut made of rustic poles.” Lawrence provides the following description:

The hut was quite cosy, panelled with unvarnished deal, having a little rustic table and a stool, besides her chair, and a carpenter's bench, then a big box, tools, new boards, nails, and many things hung from pegs: axe, hatchet, traps, leather things, things in sacks, his coat. It had no window, the light came in through the open door. It was a jumble. But also, it was a sort of little sanctuary.

(LCL 87-88)

Here, the gamekeeper (who has a red moustache [LCL 46]) releases Connie from her unendurably bleak situation through the active realization of her own sexuality. This very description is recalled in Happy Days, when Winnie recollects her first kiss and her own initiation into sexuality. She reminisces:

Very busy moustache, very tawny. [Reverently.] Almost ginger! [Pause.] Within a toolshed, though whose I cannot conceive. We had no toolshed and he most certainly had no toolshed. [Closes eyes.] I see the piles of pots. [Pause.] The tangles of bast. [Pause.] The shadows deepening among the rafters.

(HD 142-43)

In a manner indicative of the connection to Lawrence's famous hut, Beckett translated toolshed in the French version as “réduit de jardinier,”22 which has connotations of both a hut lived in by a landowner's gardener and a retreat. Moreover, in subsequent versions of the play, Beckett insisted on the moustache even when other references were becoming vaguer.23 Winnie's recollections function “as ironic counterpoint” to her impaired sexuality, as Kristin Morrison has suggested.24 The irony of her sexual disability is accentuated by the allusion to Lady Chatterley's Lover. The observant reader or spectator who associates this description of sensual experience in a toolshed with the archetypal erotic heroine, who finds in a hut the tenderness and togetherness she has been craving, appreciates more fully that irony.

Lawrence's philosophy about (wo)man's desolate condition is summed up by the gamekeeper. He says to himself, “It's no good trying to get rid of your own aloneness. You've got to stick to it—all your life. Only at times, at times, the gap will be filled in. At times!” (LCL 145). Beckett's view of a dehumanized and tragic world parallels Lawrence's. However, with his bleaker outlook, Beckett would deny the possibility that the gap can be filled. In Winnie, with all her womanly needs, buried to above her waist in Act One and to her neck in Act Two, Beckett has—with typical irony—created Lawrence's worst nightmare.

The post-censorship editions of Lady Chatterley's Lover finally appeared in 1959 in the U.S. and in 1960 in Britain and were published by Penguin, who published Happy Days in 1961. Perhaps Beckett read the novel then and transposed aspects of it deliberately into his play. More likely—though the evidence must remain circumstantial—he read the work at a more formative time in his career, when his literary path crossed that of Lawrence in France.

During 1929, following the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover in Florence, Lawrence's good friends Richard Aldington and Aldous Huxley approached Sylvia Beach about a cheap Paris edition of the controversial novel.25 Beach's Shakespeare and Company had published Joyce's equally controversial Ulysses, but neither they nor Lawrence himself could persuade her to publish the work. In April of that year Edward Titus, who also published Lawrence's “Pornography and Obscenity” in his magazine This Quarter, agreed to publish Lawrence's Paris edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover at his Black Manikin press. A cheap, un-pirated edition was thus available in Paris in 1929, and original manuscripts had been in the hands of Beach, Titus, Aldington, and Huxley.

Throughout the period 1928 to 1930, the young Beckett was living in Paris, where he was in contact with a number of literati, notably Joyce. He also met Titus and Aldington. His first writings appeared during this period: Beckett's essay on Joyce and his short story “Assumption” were published in June 1929. The following year Aldington and Nancy Cunard awarded the first prize in a poetry contest to Beckett's entry. Beckett subsequently spent time with Aldington in Paris cafés and visited Aldington's home. During this time the young Irishman was translating poems for Titus's This Quarter, three of which appeared in a 1930 issue.

The fact that “[a]ll the little presses and literary groups bought each other's work” and that “most of the copies were passed freely (and free) from one to the other”26 leads me to believe that Beckett is likely to have read Lady Chatterley's Lover when he was in Paris. We know for sure that Joyce did: he rejected it as “a piece of propaganda in favour of something which, outside of D. H. L.'s country at any rate, makes all the propaganda for itself” and attacked the English as “sloppy.”27 Given the antipathy known to have existed between Joyce and Lawrence, and Beckett's admiration for Joyce, Beckett would certainly have similarly dismissed the novel. However, allowing that much of what he read and wrote was subsequently sublimated and transposed into the uniquely Beckett oeuvre, a convincing case can be made that the playwright absorbed ideas and images from Lawrence, the echoes of which reverberate today in Happy Days.28

Many intriguing hints suggest that the intertextual correspondences between Lawrence's novel and Beckett's play are more than mere coincidence: they imply a desire to undercut the telling of Connie's story, which Dennis Jackson has convincingly argued was itself a response to Joyce's Ulysses.29 Thus Happy Days provides a new round in the well-documented quarrel that Lawrence had with Joyce's approach to art and life in general, and to his treatment of sex in particular. If Connie Chatterley's story was intended as a corrective to the marital situation that Lawrence had seen described in Joyce's Ulysses, then we have come full circle. Winnie's story is a rescript of Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.


  1. See Anthony S. Brennan, “Winnie's Golden Treasury: The Use of Quotation in Happy Days,Arizona Quarterly, 35:3 (1979), 205-27; Ruby Cohn, “Beckett and Shakespeare,” Modern Drama, 15:3 (1972-73), 223-30; and James Knowlson, “Beckett's ‘Bits of Pipe,’” in Samuel Beckett: Humanistic Perspectives, ed. Morris Beja, S. E. Gontarski, and Pierre Astier (Columbus, OH, 1983), 16-25.

  2. Stanley Eugene Gontarski, Beckett's Happy Days: A Manuscript Study (Columbus, OH, 1977), 76-77.

  3. D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover, in Lady Chatterley's Lover and A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover, ed. Michael Squires, Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D. H. Lawrence (Cambridge, 1993). Subsequent references are to this edition, cited as LCL, and appear parenthetically in the text. According to Richard Aldington, “phallic tenderness” is what Lawrence called his poetic and purely physical theory of sex as a motive force in human contact. See, for example, Portrait of a Genius, but … (London, 1959).

  4. Kristin Morrison, “Defeated Sexuality in the Plays and Novels of Samuel Beckett,” Comparative Drama, 14:1 (1980-81), 18.

  5. See Samuel Beckett, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, ed. Eoin O'Brien and Edith Fournier (New York, 1992).

  6. Samuel Beckett, Happy Days: A Play in Two Acts, in The Complete Dramatic Works (London, 1986), 138. Subsequent references are to this edition, cited as HD, and appear parenthetically in the text.

  7. Hugh Kenner, A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett (New York 1973), 149.

  8. Shari Benstock, “The Transformational Grammar of Gender in Beckett's Dramas,” in Women in Beckett: Performance and Critical Perspectives, ed. Linda Ben-Zvi (Urbana, IL, 1990), 176.

  9. Anne Marie Drew, “A Sigh into a Looking Glass: The Trickster in The Winter's Tale and Happy Days,Comparative Literature Studies, 26:2 (1989), 95.

  10. Samuel Beckett, Oh les beaux jours: Pièce en deux actes (Paris, 1963), 9.

  11. Samuel Beckett, quoted in Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (New York, 1978), 563.

  12. Billie Whitelaw, interview by Linda Ben-Zvi, in Women in Beckett, 4. See note 8.

  13. Aideen O'Kelly, interview by Rosette Lamont, in Women in Beckett, 37.

  14. Ruby Cohn, “Beckett Directs Happy Days,Performance, 1:2 (1971-72), 115.

  15. See Dennis Jackson, “Literary Allusions in Lady Chatterley's Lover,” in D. H. Lawrence's “Lady”: A New Look at Lady Chatterley's Lover, ed. Michael Squires and Dennis Jackson (Athens, GA, 1985), 170-96, for a fuller description of Lawrence's “allusions to the Bible, hymns, popular songs, classical myths, and other literary works from Plato to Proust” (170).

  16. See S. E. Gontarski, “From ‘Female Solo’ to Happy Days,” in The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett's Dramatic Texts (Bloomington, IN, 1985), 80.

  17. See Drew, 104 (see note 9), for a discussion of this metaphor.

  18. Morrison, 27. See note 4.

  19. Ibid., 34 n. 10.

  20. Both authors explore the body/mind dichotomy—albeit from different perspectives—resulting in interesting thematic similarities and contrasts. Unfortunately, a discussion of the thematic links falls outside the scope of this paper.

  21. In her review of Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (“De Beauvoir, Lessing—Now Kate Millett,” New York Times Book Review [6 September 1970], 12), Barbara Hardy notes the sincerity and intensity of Connie's despair, which Millet had condemned as a sign of female submission.

  22. Beckett, Oh les beaux jours, 22. See note 10.

  23. In “From ‘Female Solo’” Gontarski states that “the sexual overtones of both the Charlie Hunter (at one stage called Bunny Hunter) and Johnston reminiscences were more explicit” in earlier versions and that originally the two reminiscences were continuous. Gontarski, 81, 88-89. In the French version of the play, Beckett translates “Hunter” as “Chassepot” (breech-loading rifle). See Oh les beaux jours, 21.

  24. Morrison, 28.

  25. See Hugh D. Ford, Published in Paris (New York, 1975), 195.

  26. Bair, 106. See note 11.

  27. James Joyce to Harriet Shaw Weaver, 17 December 1931, Letters of James Joyce, Vol. I, ed. Stuart Gilbert (New York, 1957), 309.

  28. André Malraux read Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1931-32, when Gallimard were preparing the first French translation. In fact, Malraux wrote the preface to that edition, and D. G. Bevan argues that “Malraux's reading of Lawrence in 1931-32 was crucial to the importance and meaning he was to attach to the erotic in La Condition humaine.” See Bevan, “The Sensual and the Cerebral: The Mating of D. H. Lawrence and André Malraux,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, 9:2 (1982), 202-5.

  29. Dennis Jackson, “Lady Chatterley's Lover: Lawrence's Response to Ulysses?” Philological Quarterly, 66:3 (1987), 410-16. In particular, Jackson documents Lawrence's “‘horr[or]’ [at] Joyce's novel,” at “its treatment of [passionless] sexuality.” Jackson, “Lawrence's Response,” 410, quoting Compton Mackenzie, On Moral Courage (London, 1962), 109.

S. E. Gontarski (essay date fall 1999)

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SOURCE: Gontarski, S. E. “Beckett's Play, in extensor.Modern Drama 42, no. 3 (fall 1999): 442-55.

[In the following essay, Gontarski finds Play to be a crucial element in the formation of Beckett's theatrical sensibility.]

To date none of the commonly available English texts for Samuel Beckett's Play, in fact, none of the printed texts in any edition in any language, is entirely accurate. None reflects the final text Beckett took such pains to establish; none, that is to say, includes the revisions he made after first consulting on the world premiere in German (1963), then overseeing more directly near-simultaneous productions in French and English (both 1964), and finally directing the play himself at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt in October 1978. British and American publishers tried to accommodate Beckett's production changes in various editions of the published work, but Beckett's revisions were made in as well as on stages, over an extended period. As publishers revised texts to accommodate productions, Beckett re-revised his work to accommodate insights drawn from new productions; that is, production generally outpaced publication. The production and textual history of Play testifies, as well, to the growing professional pressures on Samuel Beckett as an international artist (if not an international commodity) by the mid-1960s. That pressure would culminate in the so-called “catastrophe” of the Nobel Prize in 1969.1 The early productions of Play, moreover, suggest a singular shift in Beckett's development as a theatre artist. At this period, Beckett began to embrace theatre not as the medium through which an authored script was given its preconceived expression but as a (or even the) means through which his theatre art was created. In many respects this aesthetic shift, much of it the result of theatrical necessity, represented a break from the hegemony of modernist textuality, from Modernism itself, in fact, and a move closer to the indeterminacy we more often associate with post-modernist textuality. Beckett was never quite willing to abandon the authority of authorship completely, however, since even as a director he simultaneously (if not primarily) functioned as an author. But his uncertainties about the text of Play began from this period to affect all of his dramatic work, and he began to re-author earlier work as he came to direct it. The problems surrounding Play in particular, then, mark a seminal period in Beckett's developing theatrical sensibility and as such are emblematic of his altered conception of theatre itself.

The composition, publication, and performance history of Play is, admittedly, complicated.2Play triggered an increase in Beckett's direct involvement in the theatre, since it demanded a level of technical sophistication and precision unknown in his earlier work, and it was the staging of Play that may finally have forced a reluctant Beckett to assume full directorial responsibility for his own works. Beckett had introduced technology to his theatre with Krapp's Last Tape in 1958, shortly after working on and then hearing a tape recording of his first radio play, All That Fall (1957), sent from the BBC. And the exploding umbrella of Happy Days (1961) still gives producers and fire wardens headaches. But the single inquisitorial spotlight—part torturer, part orchestra conductor, even part theatre director—situated amid the footlights, which flashes from face to face instantly, was not part of any technical director's repertoire of contraptions in 1963. And so Beckett kept a hand in all major European performances to ensure that technological compromise—three separate spotlights, for instance—did not compromise performances.

Originally written in English in 1962-1963, Play would be rewritten with each production Beckett himself was involved with, and various stages of that rewriting process found their way into print and, sometimes unfortunately, reprint. Play would have its premiere in German; Beckett reviewed the German translation by Elmar Tophoven thoroughly (although when he came to direct the play himself in German in 1978, he revised the published German translation yet again), and he attended final rehearsals for Deryk Mendel's Spiel at the Ulmer-Theater, Ulm-Donau, Germany, 14 June 1963, in the company of director Alan Schneider, who was preparing an American production. Beckett was, however, according to Michaël Lonsdale, very dissatisfied with the German production: “En Allemagne, les jarres étaient trop rondes et trop éloignées les unes des autres [In Germany the urns were too round and too separated from each other].”3 Shortly thereafter Beckett began a detailed correspondence with Schneider in preparation for the English language premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York, which opened on 4 January 1964. To Schneider Beckett emphasized his dissatisfaction with Play as written and his growing reliance on working directly in the theatre. Responding to Schneider's letter of 21 November 1963, Beckett wrote on 26 November, “I am perplexed about Play and so find this letter very difficult to write. I realize that no final script is possible till I have had work on rehearsals.”4 This apparently simple observation on the nature of theatre was to have a profound impact on Beckett's work, since it not only affected subsequent creations but drew him further into the theatrical process to reread, rethink, and finally rewrite even his earlier work—plays, that is, not only already in print but well established in the critical commentary. Beckett may have begun advising directors of his work to ensure that his plays were staged as conceived and written. For Beckett, setting the standard of production, especially in initial performances, was singularly important. It established precedents. Writing to his American publisher and theatrical agent, Barney Rosset, on 1 April 1958, he said of the premiere of Krapp's Last Tape, for example, “I'd hate it to be made a balls of at the outset and that's why I question its being let out to small groups beyond our controp [sic] before we get it done more or less right and set a standard of fidelity at least.”5 On 10 April 1958 Beckett wrote to Rosset that he was off to London to oversee George Devine's Krapp's Last Tape at the Royal Court Theatre, “where I hope to get the mechanics of it right.” By the mid-sixties, Beckett decided to set his own “standard of fidelity,” and in the process he not only staged his work as written but reconceived it directly on stage. The Schneider production of Play would take place before Beckett could “work on rehearsals” himself, and so he essentially wrote off the American production, acceding to Schneider's apparent request for changes (made admittedly under duress) that would essentially eviscerate the play as written.6

With production failures in Germany and the United States, that is, with potentially dangerous standards of performance already established, Beckett threw himself into British and French productions that he could oversee directly but which were occurring almost simultaneously. Working uneasily in Paris with French director Jean-Marie Serreau on staging the French text, Comédie, before London rehearsals began, Beckett decided that fundamental revisions were still necessary, and he wrote to British director George Devine on 9 March 1964—less than one month before the scheduled opening—to prepare him, even warn him, of necessary changes:

The last rehearsals with Serreau have led us to a view of the da capo which I think you should know about. According to the text it is rigorously identical with the first statement. We now think it would be dramatically more effective to have it express a slight weakening, both of question and of response, by means of less and perhaps slower light and correspondingly less volume and speed of voice.7

These revisions were unprecedented, since they did not call for temporary textual concessions to appease the likes of the Lord Chamberlain, say. They were, instead, the result of the author's dissatisfaction with his own text as already published, his recognition that his play, even if in print, was unfinished, unacceptable, and in need of further revision. In addition to altering the da capo ending, then, Beckett also revised the fundamental relationship between the inquisitorial light and its urn-imprisoned victims: “The inquirer (light) begins to emerge,” continued Beckett, “as no less a victim of his inquiry than they and as needing to be free, within narrow limits, literally to act the part, i.e. to vary if only slightly his speeds and intensities.”8 While the French production was still in rehearsals, Beckett left for London with his new insights to ensure their incorporation into the English premiere performance. Subsequently, he produced a document he called “Notes made after the National Theater Production” (emphasis added), which varies only slightly from the original letter he sent to Devine before the London rehearsals.

The complex changes to the text of Play were publicly announced by the English publisher of Beckett's fiction, John Calder, in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement on 23 April 1964. Calder, perhaps eager to cast aspersions on a text published by his British competitor, Faber and Faber, writes:

Sir—Although the printed edition of Beckett's Play states “Repeat play exactly”, your readers might be interested to hear that during the London rehearsals Beckett made a number of changes in the order of cues, so that although each actor has his lines in the same order as the light interrogates him, the light interrogates in a different order. This makes it impossible for the actors to take cues from each other, but only from the light, and lets us assume that on a third round many things might be different.9

The multiple productions of Play, then, signaled not only Beckett's increasingly frenetic involvement with productions of his work, but also that he was prepared to change and even at times substantially to rewrite a published text based on the practicalities, the realities, the insights that working in stage space literally brought to light, and this at a time when he was rethinking the staging of all his work. Roger Blin, for example, was directing Oh les beaux jours with Beckett in Paris in October of 1963 (which production delayed the opening of Comédie). Beckett was heavily involved with Anthony Page's revival of Waiting for Godot at the Royal Court in December of 1964, a significant production because it would be the first British staging not censored by the Lord Chamberlain, hence the first UK production of the text as Beckett wrote it. And he was also preparing two new productions of Endgame with Jackie MacGowran, one that opened in Paris at the Studio des Champs Elysées (in English) in February 1964 and one with the Royal Shakespeare Company that opened at the Aldwych in London in July of that same year. Such close and frequent theatrical work began to reveal to Beckett various insufficiencies in his texts, so that the changes Calder announced would soon become a pattern with every play Beckett subsequently directed. The principle that Beckett suggested to Schneider, “that no final script is possible till I have had work on rehearsals,” would now apply to all of his work.10

Eighteen months after the French première of Comédie (14 June 1964), the production was reprised (28 February 1966), and Beckett now found that there was “no escape” from assuming full direction of the work himself. He wrote to MacGowran on 8 September 1966:

Up to my eyes in theatre again for my sins and despite rows rerehearsing Play with new cast for new season at Théâtre de France. Hope to try it a different way. Serreau nominally in charge is off to Dallas Texas and N.Y. for 10 days on theatre prospection, so no escape.11

What Beckett could no longer escape was self-collaboration, taking full charge of directing his work. Serreau appeared as the director of record, but it was Beckett's productions of Comédie, Va et vient, and Robert Pinget's L'Hypothèse that opened at the Petite Salle, Odéon Théâtre de France, on 28 February 1966. That production of Comédie began a long period of Beckett's working with and even through Beckett, this time as an auteur/metteur-en-scène, in collaboration with himself. By the early 1960s working directly in the theatre became an indispensable part of Beckett's creative process, and he wanted that direct theatrical insight reflected in his published texts, before initial publication if possible; but also, as he began directing work already published, he assiduously revised those texts in terms of his production insights, completing them, as it were, on stage well after publication. Writing to Grove Press about Happy Days on 18 May 1961, for instance, Beckett said, “I should prefer the text not to appear in any form before production and not in book form until I have seen some rehearsals in London. I can't be definitive without actual work done in the theatre.” On 24 November 1963 he wrote to Rosset about his wife's disappointment with the world premiere production of Play, the German Spiel:12

Suzanne went to Berlin for the opening of Play. She did not like the performance, but the director, Deryk Mendel, is very pleased. Well received.

I realize I can't establish definitive text of Play without a certain number of rehearsals. These should begin with [French director Jean-Marie] Serreau next month. Alan's text will certainly need correction. Not the lines but the stage directions. London rehearsals begin on March 9th.


In fact, after having read proofs for Play, Beckett delayed its American publication so that he could continue to hone the text in rehearsals, as he confirmed to Grove Press editor Richard Seaver on 29 November 1963: “I have asked Faber, since correcting proofs, to hold up production of the book. I realize I can't establish text of Play, especially stage directions, till I have worked on rehearsals. I have written to Alan [Schneider] about the problems involved.” Seaver confirmed in his reply of 4 December 1963, “We won't do anything on the book [now called Play, the title originally intended for the whole volume of short works that became Cascando and Other Short Dramatic Pieces in 1968] until we hear from you.” Shortly thereafter Beckett rejected a Grove plan to couple Play with The Lover by Harold Pinter, and he returned to his theme about the indispensability of production to this final stage of theatrical composition:

Quite frankly I am not in favour of this idea, particularly as your text of Play is not final and cannot be till I have had some rehearsals, i.e., not before the end of next month. It is all right for the purposes of Alan's production, because I have left it open for him and he knows the problems. But not as a published work.

This insistence on “completing” the text of his play only after “some rehearsals” would become, then, his method of composition from Krapp's Last Tape onward. Well over a decade later Beckett sounded the same theme about the text of Not I in a letter to Grove Press on 7 August 1972: “With regard to publication, I prefer to hold it back for the sake of whatever light N.Y. & London rehearsals may shed. I have not yet sent the text to Faber.” Without working on stage directly himself, Beckett seemed unsure whether his work, in this case Not I, was even drama, shaken perhaps by the difficulties Alan Schneider was having staging the world premiere (that is, setting its “standard of fidelity”) with actress Jessica Tandy at New York's Lincoln Center.13 He wrote to Rosset on 3 November 1972: “Had a couple of letters from Alan. They seem to have been having a rough time. Hope smoother now. Hope to work on Not I in London next month and find out then if it's theatre or not.”

The publication history of Beckett's texts suggests as well that Beckett was unable to resist the pressures of publication, after which, however, he continued as a director to collaborate with the author, that is, with himself—or, more psychoanalytically, with his “Other.” Such collaboration was not, moreover, a “one-off.” Beckett very quickly found that staging the play once, even staging it himself with the freedom to change any of it he chose, did not produce anything like what he was fond of calling a “definitive” text. The principle of waiting for direct work in the theatre before publishing did not always produce what Beckett has variously called “corrected,” “accurate,” “final,” or “definitive” texts, in part because the process of staging as an act of textual composition seems to have become open-ended, continuous. The pressures from producers in various countries, however, were incessant after the success of Waiting for Godot, as were the pressures from publishers. The result was an inevitable proliferation of texts. Several versions of the same text often circulated among producers, directors, and even publishers. The text of Play is a case in point. As Beckett continued to revise the text through British and French productions in 1964, various versions of the play circulated in typescript. Beckett wrote to Grove Press on 17 August 1964 regarding a Swedish translation, “As to your MS text, it is less likely to be accurate than the Faber published text [the first edition of 1964] for which I corrected proofs.” But the same letter suggested further revisions, another version of Play that would reflect more of his theatre work: “[Fred] Jordan suggested publishing in Evergreen Review the text in extenso (as played in London and Paris), i.e., giving changed order of speeches in the repeat and indicating vocal levels. This is quite a job to prepare and I suggest we reserve this presentation for Grove and let translations follow the existing text, simply correcting ‘Repeat play exactly’ to ‘Repeat play.’” Beckett seemed here unusually cavalier about translations of his work, but the creation of a text of Play in extenso for Grove Press was a priority. When Rosset's personal assistant, Judith Schmidt, compared the Faber text of Play with the Grove typescript in preparation for publication, she acknowledged on 26 August that the Faber published text had superseded the Grove typescript: “I can see that there are a good many changes.” Fred Jordan announced to Beckett, also on 26 August, “We are using the Faber and Faber text in the next issue of Evergreen Review, but I believe you asked to have one word changed. Could you indicate what the change is, giving me page and line number, assuming we both work from the same edition.” Having then made more than a few changes to the Faber printed text of 1964, Beckett responded on 28 August, “Herewith corrections to Faber text of Play.” The Evergreen Review text (ER),14 then, was the one for which Beckett made his final production-based revisions, but these were never incorporated into any Faber text, and, inexplicably, this was not the text that Grove Press itself published in book form.15

The American book publication was taken, some four years later, not from Grove's own fully “corrected” ER text, Play in extenso—that is, the text Beckett revised for the ER publication—but from the penultimately revised Faber edition. The ER text, for instance, was the first to include Beckett's major post-production revision, the production note titled “Repeat” (the Grove 1968 Cascando edition does not include this note at all, but it does anticipate the second Faber edition of 1969 and deletes the word “exactly” from the phrase in the first Faber edition, “Repeat play exactly”).16 The ER edition, moreover, is the first printing in which the opening instructions on lighting were emended by deleting “not quite” from the original Faber wording, “The response to light is not quite immediate” (ER 43; Faber 1964, 9). The Grove book edition of 1968 retained “not quite” (45) even after it was cut from its own ER text. But the subsequent sentence was illogically retained in ER, as it is today in both Faber and Grove standard editions,17 but not in the collected editions (Collected Shorter Plays and The Complete Dramatic Works), in which both “not quite” and the entire subsequent sentence are cut: “At every solicitation a pause of about one second before utterance is achieved, except where a longer delay is indicated.18 Logically, of course, the response to the light has to be either “immediate” or delayed, not both, and so the retention of the sentence in the ER version was clearly an oversight.

The ER edition has a number of other refinements in dialogue that characterize this “final” text of the play. In it, for example, “if he is still alive” was revised to “if he is still living”; “talk” was revised to “chat,” and “air-cushions” was changed to “air-pillows.”19 When the German publisher Suhrkamp printed an English text in 1964 in the second volume of its trilingual edition, Dramatische Dichtungen in drei Sprachen (DD),20 it published the most completely revised text, supplied by Beckett as that which contained the “final” revisions, that is, the ER text in extenso. In fact, Beckett had revised yet again his 1963 French translation of Comédie on 27 April 1964, and sent that version, which he called “Etat définitif,” to Suhrkamp that same day.21 When the request for a revised text of Play came from Judith Schmidt and Fred Jordan in August 1964, Beckett had his revisions ready, revised the Faber text on the basis of the French revisions, and sent that text, the “Etat définitif,” to Grove Press on 28 August 1964. In fact, on the copyright page of the second volume of Dramatische Dictungen, Suhrkamp carries the following note on Spiel: “First published by Grove Press Inc. 1964.” No mention is made of the Faber text, and the Grove book version appears only in 1968. The text of Play that appeared in 1964 from Grove Press was that in the Evergreen Review. No English language publisher has heretofore seen fit to publish Play in extenso.

When Beckett came to stage Spiel (Play) himself at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt in October 1978, he characteristically made innumerable small revisions to the German text, but almost none to the corresponding English text, which he reviewed completely and concurrently. We know he read the English text carefully because he corrected a number of misprints to the English version of Play in the trilingual Suhrkamp edition he used for his production, correcting the designation “M2” (DD 254) to the proper “P2” for example.22 The collation of earlier English texts with the one Beckett reviewed for his German production confirms, then, that the German text was based on the ER refinements. As the British editions were reprinted, however, not only were the ER revisions ignored, but a new series of textual anomalies was introduced into the English texts. The line “Get off me,” which followed W1's “Or you will weary of me,” was part of both British and American first editions (Faber 1964, 15; Grove 1968, 52), but it was dropped in all collected editions (CDW [The Complete Dramatic Works] 312; CSP [Collected Shorter Plays] 152). In addition, the collected editions inexplicably dropped the list of characters, changed Beckett's quirky “astoundment” to “astonishment,” eliminated the stage direction “Vehement” between the repetitions of “Get off me,” and dropped the word “old” from M's description of his women's abodes, “now in the one dear old place, now in the other.” Each of these omissions or deletions should be restored on the basis of the ER text,23 which appeared before the American book publication of 1968 and before the revised Faber text of 1969 and should have been the copy-text not only for both those publications but also for the collected editions, CSP and CDW. The ER text did, however, constitute the English version in the trilingual German text, DD, which Beckett reviewed in preparation for his 1978 Schiller-Theater staging. All the revisions to the first British and American texts cited above appear in both the English and the German texts. We have, then, two texts that we know Beckett scrutinized, one prepared after his theatre work in France and England in 1964 and the other in anticipation of his German production in 1978, and they concur. Beckett came to what was essentially the revised ER text some twelve years after its publication and reconfirmed it for his 1978 production. Clearly then, the ER/DD text is the most accurate for Play, the play in extenso—that is, the version that incorporated Beckett's direct work in the theatre, not those texts originally printed, then incompletely revised (Grove 1968; Faber 1969), or those published in the collected editions, CDW and CSP. Although few corrections are made to the English text of Play in the German edition, it represents the last text that Beckett examined closely. (The German text, however, has its own deficiencies. It inexplicably omits the production notes on light, chorus, urns, and, most important, on repeat—as does the French text Comédie et actes divers, although the latter contains a note on the London and Paris production revisions.)24 The primary importance of the revised (1978) DD text for the English reader is that it confirms the ER text of 1964.

Such post-publication revisions of Play and the proliferation of incompletely revised texts that followed were not an anomaly in Beckett's publication history. Beckett began to direct in earnest beginning in September 1967 at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt with Endspiel (Endgame). In all, between the Odéon Va et vient and Comédie in 1966 and the valedictory television version of Was Wo, which was aired by Suddeutsche Rundfunk on Beckett's eightieth birthday, 13 April 1986, Beckett directed some sixteen stage productions of his work and some seven works for German television, each time making at least adjustments to his texts, each time creating the final text in performance. Beckett began to fold directing into the creative process as he found that turning his directorial eye on his earlier plays gave him the opportunity to “correct” (his word) the theatrical insufficiencies he found there and to reshape the works with an aesthetics that coalesced with the writing and staging of Play.25

What John Calder's letter to the Times Literary Supplement announced in 1964 was that the printed texts available for Beckett's plays were neither always reliable, nor even acceptable to the author; that is, they did not represent Beckett's final and certainly not his most recent and so most complete thinking about his work. In some very fundamental ways, Beckett's direct theatre work from 1964 onward allowed him to break through the constraints of authorship rooted in an aesthetics of Modernism and freed him to explore the process of theatre. The particular textual problems with Play seemed at first to have been easily solved. Beckett's “Notes,” with a few variants, were incorporated into subsequent printings. That seemed to have solved the problem. But Beckett revised his French text after Serreau's Comédie and again after Devine's Play. Both of those revisions are reflected in the Evergreen Review, but that text has been largely ignored by English language publishers, critics, and theatre directors. It is, however, the most accurate and complete text of Play available (with, of course, the adjustments noted above), the play, in extenso.


  1. Beckett was indeed a reluctant recipient of the award, although he did not decline it. He received word of the award by telegram from his French publisher: “Malgré tout ils t'ont donné le Prix Nobel—je vous conseille de vous cacher” [“In spite of everything, they have given you the Nobel Prize. I suggest you hide”]. As biographer James Knowlson suggests, Beckett's wife, Suzanne, “genuinely regarded the award as a ‘catastrophe.’” Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 505, Knowlson's translation.

  2. See “Play: Chronology and Bibliography,” appended to this essay. For the sources of correspondence quoted in this appendix, see note 4.

  3. Michaël Lonsdale, quoted in Élisabeth Auclaire-Tamaroff et Berthélémy, Jean-Marie Serreau: Decouvreur de théâtres (Paris: L'Arbre verdoyant, 1986), 75, translation mine. A photograph of the world premiere German production with bloated and foreshortened urns continues to grace (if not dis-grace) the cover of the French edition, Comédie et actes divers (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1966, 1972). Additional photographs of the production are available in Beckett in Berlin, ed. Klaus Völker (Berlin: Frölich and Kaufmann, Edition Hentrich, 1986), 161. The contrast to Beckett's own production of 1978, pictured on page 168 of the same volume, is striking.

  4. Beckett to Alan Schneider, 26 November 1963, No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider, ed. Maurice Harmon (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 144. Unless otherwise noted, all other letters throughout, as well as “notes made after the National Theater Production” are in the Barney Rosset/Grove Press archives, now at the George Arents Research Library at Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, and the John J. Burns Library, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA; the latter holds the Schneider/Beckett correspondence as well. All material is used with the permission of the principals.

  5. It would, of course, be Alan Schneider who set the “standard of fidelity” for the American Krapp's Last Tape.

  6. Beckett seems to have given up on Schneider's production of Play. His instructions to Schneider were that “Play was to be played through twice without interruption and at a very fast pace, each time taking no longer than nine minutes,” that is, eighteen minutes overall. Alan Schneider, Entrances: An American Director's Journey (New York: Penguin Books, Viking, 1986), 341. Michaël Lonsdale, who played M in Serreau's French premiere in 1964, notes of Beckett's instructions to the actors, for example, “[I]l voulait qu'on parle à une vitesse de mitrailleuse [He would like it spoken with the speed of a machine gun].” Quoted in Auclaire-Tamaroff et Barthélémy, 75 (see note 3), translation mine. American producers, Richard Barr, Clinton Wilder, and, of all people, Edward Albee, threatened to drop Play from the program if Schneider followed Beckett's instructions. Schneider, unlike Devine, capitulated, and wrote to Beckett for permission to slow the pace and eliminate the da capo: “For the first and last time in my long relationship with Sam, I did something I despised myself for doing. I wrote to him, asking if we could try having his text spoken only once, more slowly. Instead of telling me to blast off, Sam offered us his reluctant permission.” Schneider, Entrances, 342. Admittedly, Beckett himself expressed reservations about the da capo to Schneider soon after the Ulm-Donau premiere. On 20 July 1963 he wrote, “It is clear that mistakes were made at Ulm—notably tempo, spots and excessive characterisation of faces—but they can be put right. There seems to have been general doubt as to justification of da capo. I am not at all sure of it myself and can't be till I work on a production. … I am inclined to think that I'll [?] suppress.” No Author Better Served, 138 (see note 4). But Beckett's letter to Schneider of 18 January 1964 seems to suggest that he was surprised that Schneider dropped the da capo: “Yes, the notices [for Play] are pretty grim. I gather from them that you are not using the da capo. Perhaps I misunderstand them.” No Author Better Served, 152.

  7. Beckett to George Devine, 9 March 1964. For a published facsimile, see “The Beckett Symposium,” New Theatre Magazine, 11:3 [Samuel Beckett special issue] (1970-71), 16-17.

  8. Ibid.

  9. John Calder, letter to the editor, Times Literary Supplement (23 April 1964), 343. For the text to which Calder refers here, see Samuel Beckett, Play: A Play in One Act, in Play and Two Short Pieces for Radio (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 7-24 (hereafter Faber 1964). Revised edition published in 1969 (hereafter Faber 1969).

  10. Alec Reid makes something of the same point in the posthumously published “Impact and Parable in Beckett: A First Encounter with Not I,” published in a tribute issue of Hermathena, 141 (1986), edited by Terence Brown and Nicholas Grene: Beckett “will speak of the first run-through with actors as the ‘realisation’ of the play and when it has been performed publicly he will say that it has been ‘created’” (12).

  11. Beckett to Jackie MacGowran, 8 September 1966, in No Symbols Where None Intended: A Catalogue of Books, Manuscripts, and Other Material Relating to Samuel Beckett, in the Collections of the Humanities Research Center, selected and described by Carlton Lake, with the assistance of Linda Eichhorn and Sally Leach (Austin: Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, 1984), 129 (emphasis added).

  12. This was Deryk Mendel's world premiere production, Spiel at the Ulmer Theatre, Ulm-Donau, Germany, 14 June 1963.

  13. When actress Jessica Tandy complained that the play's suggested running time of twenty-three minutes rendered the work unintelligible to audiences, Beckett telegraphed back his now famous (but often misinterpreted) injunction, “I am not unduly concerned with intelligibility. I hope the piece may work on the nerves of the audience.” For a discussion of this performance see Enoch Brater, “The ‘I’ in Beckett's Not I,Twentieth Century Literature, 20:2 (1974): 200.

  14. Samuel Beckett, Play, Evergreen Review, 8:34 (1964), 43-47, 92 (hereafter ER).

  15. Samuel Beckett, Play: A Stage Play, in Cascando and Other Short Dramatic Pieces (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 436-63 (hereafter Grove 1968).

  16. See ER 92; cf. Faber 1964, 23-24. See Grove 1968, 62-63, 61; cf. Faber 1969, 22, and Faber 1964, 22. The 1968 Grove edition does, however, drop an entire paragraph from a discussion of the urns that appears in the 1964 Faber edition and all subsequent editions. What's missing from the Grove 1968 edition is the second paragraph of the description of the urns:

    Should traps be not available, and the kneeling posture found impracticable, the actors should stand, the urns be enlarged to full length and moved back from front to mid-stage, the tallest actor setting the height, the broadest the breadth, to which the three urns should conform.

    (Faber 1964, 24; cf. Grove 1968, 63)

  17. See ER 43; Faber 1969, 9; Grove 1968, 45.

  18. See Samuel Beckett, Play: A Play in One Act, in Collected Shorter Plays (London: Faber and Faber; New York: Grove Press, 1984), 147 (hereafter CSP); and in The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1986, paperback rev. ed., 1990), 307 (hereafter CDW). cf. ER 43 and Faber 1964, 9.

  19. See ER 44, 47; cf. Faber 1964, 11, 12, 21.

  20. Samuel Beckett Dramatische Dichtungen, Band 2 (Englische Originalfassungen/Deutsche Übertragung von Erika und Elmar Tophoven/Französische Übertragung von Samuel Beckett) (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1964), 234-69 (hereafter DD). German on recto, English on facing versos. The English version conforms to the ER text. Volume 2 includes work originally written in English, and so Spiel, and appeared in 1964, a year after the first volume, which featured the work written originally in French.

  21. A photocopy of this typescript is on deposit at the Samuel Beckett Archive, University of Reading, Reading, England: Ms 1534/3. It is cited in The Samuel Beckett Collection: A Catalogue (Reading: Library, University of Reading, 1978), 62. The revisions to the German text are detailed in “Cuts and Changes” for the Play section of The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, vol. IV: The Shorter Plays, ed. S. E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 1999).

  22. This annotated, two-volume edition of DD is on deposit at the Samuel Beckett Archive, University of Reading, Reading, England.

  23. See CSP 146-47, 149, 153, 154; CDW 306-7, 309, 313, 314. Cf. ER 4-46.

  24. See DD and Beckett, Comédie: pièce en un acte, in Comédie et actes divers, 33-35 (see note 3).

  25. Beckett to Alan Schneider, 4 August 1962, No Author Better Served, 126.

Daniel Katz (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13722

SOURCE: Katz, Daniel. “‘Ways of Being We’: The Subject as Method, Method as Ritual in Watt.” In Saying I No More: Subjectivity and Consciousness in the Prose of Samuel Beckett, pp. 43-70. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Katz studies Watt as a transition between Beckett's life in Ireland and England and his move to France as well as between his early conventionally composed works and his later experimental writing.]

Beckett's mystifying second novel, Watt, seems to have generated two main lines of critical approach. One influential trend points to the mock-Cartesian elements of the novel and reads it as a critique of rationalist epistemological pretensions regarding both hermeneutics and problem solving. As Thomas Cousineau writes, “Critics have tended to treat Watt as an allegory in which human beings' rationalistic pretensions are ridiculed.”1 Many critics have pointed out, for example, that Watt's absurd speculations concerning Mr Knott's knowledge and approval of the arrangements concerning the preparation and ingestion of his food, along with the suppositions regarding the dog and the Lynches, wholly follow Descartes's four crucial epistemological precepts from the Discours de la méthode:

Le premier était de ne recevoir jamais aucune chose pour vraie, que je ne la connusse évidemment être telle: c'est-à-dire d'éviter soigneusement la précipitation et la prévention. …

Le second, de diviser chacune des difficultés que j'examinerais, en autant de parcelles qu'il se pourrait et qu'il serait requis pour les mieux résoudre.

Le troisième, de conduire par ordre mes pensées, en commençant par les objets les plus simples et les plus aisés à connaître, pour monter peu à peu, comme par degrés, jusques à la connaissance des plus composés; et supposant même de l'ordre entre ceux qui ne se précèdent point naturellement les uns les autres.

Et le dernier, de faire partout des dénombrements si entiers, et des revues si générales, que je fusse assuré de ne rien omettre.


[The first was never to accept anything as true that I did not know to be evidently so: that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice. …

The second, to divide each of the difficulties that I was examining into as many parts as might be possible and necessary in order best to solve it.

The third, to conduct my thoughts in an orderly way, beginning with the simplest objects and the easiest to know, in order to climb gradually, as by degrees, as far as the knowledge of the most complex, and even supposing some order among those objects which do not precede each other naturally.

And the last, everywhere to make such complete enumerations and such general reviews that I would be sure to have omitted nothing.

(Discourse, 41)]

No reader who has staggered through the serial lists of Mr Knott's displacements of his furniture or changes in appearance would dream of reproaching Watt, or the narrator, Sam, with having ignored Descartes's final precept. However, these “antirationalist” readings seem to suffer from two major inadequacies. First of all, they often end up privileging, by contrast, an implied intuitionism that the novel's devastatingly systematic strategies of estrangement and doubt throw into equal disrepute. Second, they tend to overlook the clear specificity of the sort of conundrums that arouse Watt's “failed rationalism”: they virtually always are linked to symbolic exchange and social practice—habits, custom, ritual, art, and language. There is little phenomenological anxiety concerning the attempt to grasp the true nature of a “thing” as such, but rather affective eruptions and hallucinations concerning the cultural economies that produce, inscribe, and retain meaning. As Watt attempts to penetrate the meaning of his duties at the Knott household, or the picture in Erskine's room, or the word “pot,” the book's metaphysical investigations are linked to a kind of practical anthropology in a manner quite foreign to the sort of pseudo-Cartesian philosophizing that runs rampant in the trilogy or the Texts for Nothing, for example.

Perhaps in response to these limitations, more recently another school of criticism has arisen, which despite significant divergences of emphasis tends to be in accord in its consistent stressing of the issue of the foreign, the artificial, the unnatural, and the unknown. Thus, Watt's obsessive and convoluted hermeneutic enterprises tend to be taken less as a global critique of rationalism than as reactions to the violently incomprehensible customs and undivulged mysteries of the Knott household, while the novel's stylistic dislocations are seen as reinforcing this problematic by providing a systematic estrangement of the reader from the conventions of the realist novel and narrative fiction generally. Once this basic framework is established, its implications are then allegorized in a variety of ways. To list a few recent examples, Knott's household has been taken for an allegory of the realm of human experience in its entirety, skeptically seen as epistemologically unknowable, as the site of a systematic breaking down of the familiar patriarchal structures of filiation and symbolic reproduction, and, more mystically, as a crystallized centering of the circumference of nothingness which habitually brackets our petty acts of interpretation in the world as we live it. The wrenching away of the English from its usual syntactical forms and the plethora of gallicisms, in turn, are also often read biographically as an effect of Beckett's long sojourn in France and isolation from other English speakers during his wartime hiding in Rousillon, and thus as a harbinger of his subsequent shift into French as a literary language following his completion of the novel.2

I, too, shall read the novel largely in this light—as a transition from Ireland to France and English to French, and stylistically, a transition from the solid mock realism of Murphy and the early stories into the extremities of plotlessness and characterlessness found in the trilogy and Texts for Nothing. The novel stands firmly between the learned, arch wit of Murphy and the more austere syntactical and grammatical demolitions conducted in the trilogy, while its approach to character and narrative conventions pull further away from realism than the previous novel, while stopping short of the trilogy's near-total evacuation of these props. But if both biography and authorial “development” amply justify a focus on such concerns, more important than this is the fact that the narrative of the novel itself, such as it is, with its constant emphasis on demarcations, limits, thresholds, boundaries, and arrivals and departures, already displays a continual obsession with the issue of transition, regardless of the context of the book within Beckett's biography and œuvre.

As for Beckett's impending personal and linguistic transitions, we should note that not long after the novel was completed, Beckett wrote a short, little-known piece which also explicitly raised the question of the foreign and cultural difference, in the entirely literal context of Franco-Irish postwar cooperation. By June 10, 1946, Beckett had written a text titled “The Capital of the Ruins,” intended for broadcast over the airwaves of Radio Éireann, which detailed his experiences as a volunteer in the Irish Red Cross Hospital in Saint-Lô, Normandy, where he had worked from August 1945 to January 1946.3 He wrote the text to defend the enterprise against Irish criticism of its lack of facilities and poor working conditions, which by implication were criticisms of the French elements of the staff and administration. Coming in the immediate aftermath of World War II and following Beckett's experiences in the résistance and subsequently in hiding in the Rousillon, it is also one of Beckett's first statements of the postwar sense of physical and moral desolation of which his drama would be taken as a major expression in the fifties. But if the text is devoted largely to portraying the devastation of the city of Saint-Lô, “bombed out of existence in one night” (As the Story Was Told, 25),4 it also gives a fair amount of space to questions of cultural appurtenance and cultural difference—issues clearly of interest to Beckett at this time. Indeed, Beckett asserts that the final importance of the project is to be found elsewhere than in the concrete medical aid brought by the Irish: “And yet the whole enterprise turned from the beginning on the establishing of a relation in the light of which the therapeutic relation faded to the merest of pretexts” (22-23). Beckett claims that what was “important” was rather “the occasional glimpse obtained, by us in them and, who knows, by them in us (for they are an imaginative people), of that smile at the human conditions as little to be extinguished by bombs as to be broadened by the elixirs of Burroughs and Welcome” (23). Behind Beckett's characteristically caustic view of the Irish, one finds an uncharacteristically optimistic, reassuringly humanist rhetoric in this passage. It is, however, subjected to an immediate correction which I would like to quote in full:

It would not be seemly, in a retiring and indeed retired storekeeper, to describe the obstacles encountered in this connection, and the forms, often grotesque, devised for them by the combined energies of the home and visiting temperaments. It must be supposed that they were not insurmountable, since they have long ceased to be of much account. When I reflect now on the recurrent problems of what, with all proper modesty, might be called the heroic period, on one in particular so arduous and elusive that it literally ceased to be formulable, I suspect that our pains were those inherent in the simple and necessary and yet so unattainable proposition that their way of being we, was not our way and that our way of being they, was not their way. It is only fair to say that many of us had never been abroad before.


Beckett's articulation of cultural difference, contained in the “so unattainable proposition” that “their way of being we, was not our way and that our way of being they, was not their way” deserves careful reading. Obviously, Beckett is not laying claim to any naive notion of insuperable cultural difference—he is not saying “their ways were not our ways.” Nor does he write, “Their ways of being they were not our ways of being we,” which would imply that although culture may be arbitrary, after a certain point unsurpassable limits become established. We must also avoid even a more sophisticated potential paraphrase which might affirm, “They tried to be like us and we tried to be like them, but both our ways failed to achieve their objects.” Such a proposition would imply a “natural” or at least naturalized Irishness and Frenchness, which each foreign party attempts to approximate through artifice, a “way” which can never be more than an affectation. In other words, the French way of being Irish would not be the same as “really” being Irish, nor would the Irish way of being French be the same as simply being French. But Beckett rejects this also. For in Beckett's formulation there is no unmediated cultural appurtenance at all—he does not even claim that “they” were not “we” and that “we” were not “they.” Beckett acknowledges that they had a way of being we; they were we, in a way. And again, this does not mean that they were we, in a way, while we were simply we, for we were also we “in a way”: “their way of being we was not our way.” Thus, if they are not simply “we,” for that matter, neither are we: our “weness” is just as constructed as their attempt to be “like us.” Meanwhile, they are not simply “they” either, for they also have a way of being they. We see now why this “simple and necessary” proposition is also “unattainable,” for if one follows its rigorous logic we arrive at a point where the law of noncontradiction is clearly violated: “they” both are and are not “we”—they are “we” in that Beckett's grammar places “their” claims to “weness” and “our” claims to “weness” in exact, indistinguishable parallel. But “they” are not “we” in that a difference is introduced between “their way” of being ourselves and “our way” of being ourselves. Beckett's delicate rhetoric here recognizes cultural identity as a construct and thus theoretically nonexclusionary for foreigners. But more importantly, being a construct, cultural identity is also on one level just as much an artifice, a “way” of behaving, reacting, and constructing reality for those who are defined or who define themselves as within as for those who are defined or define themselves as without. Beckett refuses all rhetoric which might pose a “native” culture as being natural or naturalized in a manner which would place a “foreigner” in an irremediable relationship to it of exteriority, mediation, and artifice. Yet Beckett also rejects any appeal to nonhistorical, nonculturally specific criteria of “universal human values,” which can so easily serve to erase the distinct specificities and very real divergences that collectively constitute “universal” human culture and history. Strictly speaking, there are no “theys,” but every “we” has its “way.” An unattainable proposition indeed.

Thus, “The Capital of the Ruins” invites meditation on the construction of subjectivity through cultural ritual—the “ways” through which one becomes what one is. And Watt is largely an investigation of ritual, whether it be the mysterious, guiding rituals of the Knott establishment, or those surrounding the meetings and discussions of Sam and Watt, or the increasingly ritualistic use of serial repetition as a stylistic device in the narration. But the rhetoric of “The Capital of the Ruins” also offers a means of reconciling the “anthropological” school of criticism with the metaphysical one, if we examine the novel's use of Cartesian thought in its light. For if Descartes largely ignores questions of culture and cultural difference, his concern is nevertheless nothing other than how the subject constructs and recognizes itself as such. For Descartes, of course, neither immediate certainty nor a priori subjective presence is ever a given, and even the most fundamental of all intuitive notions—the sense of one's own existence—is seen by Descartes to be in fact constructed through the logical and linguistic practice of the cogito. In this sense, the cogito, chief among Descartes's méthodes, itself may legitimately be seen as a “way of being oneself”—a radical way which through its profound skepticism regarding all externality seems to annul any possibility of a “we,” while simultaneously rendering plural every individual subject through its logical exigence that one witness oneself.5 Thus, linking Beckett's emphasis on the “way” to Descartes's méthode, Watt may be seen as Beckett's attempt to write the necessarily repetitive, performative, skeptical ritual of the cogito and the individual over the performative, repetitive, group rituals and rites by which a “culture” enacts itself.

Beckett's attempt to think this juncture between culture and subjectivity, between subjective singularity and a cultural plurality which must in some way precede it, inevitably leads him to Freud and psychoanalysis.6 For if Watt is evidently concerned with ritual and “method” (in the Cartesian sense and more generally), it is also equally concerned with law, transgression, and taboo, and the elaboration of the rites and prohibitions of the Knott household (whose proprietor's name simultaneously invokes the law's prohibitions and the necessary vacancy of the symbolic space that anchors them) seems resonant with echoes of Freud's reading of ritual in Totem and Taboo. For Watt not only superimposes cultural practice over Cartesian “method,” it also draws the latter into relation with the repetitive personal rituals of obsessional neurotics. Yet the novel's rendering of taboo is oddly vacuous, in that it never allows the extrapolation of the unconscious impulses which, according to Freud, taboo laws are established to counter. A large part of the novel's difficulty derives from its voiding of the libidinal energy that such a taboo structure should generate (in stark contrast to both halves of Molloy, for example). The book is neither a simple critique of Cartesian “rationalism” nor an anthropological inquiry into cultural practice, patriarchy, and the foundation of law, but rather an attempt to think subjectivity as ritual, ritual as method, and method as neurosis, in a chain which would refuse to label neurosis as simply a rhetorical response to desire. Watt's elaborate staging of what could be called culture shock, in that Watt's crises are so often linked to his utter estrangement from and incomprehension of the rituals it is his task to perform, is thus not an affirmation of the inscrutability of the foreign, nor simply an assertion of the inherent “foreignness” of all culture as compared to some sort of “naturalness” of the individual which could preexist it. The novel deconstructs the opposition individual/culture, allowing no clear boundary between culture shock and what could be called “subject shock”: indeed, for Descartes the “shock” is produced by the culture of the real. Throughout the novel, the point of convergence where questions of subjective introspection dissolve into allegories of cultural inscription is language, and it is there that our reading must begin.

Many critics have noticed the prevalence of gallicisms in the novel, and speculation abounds as to whether their presence is due to an intentional authorial choice or unconscious linguistic interference from the French. Is Beckett then suffering from the interference endemic to those who immerse themselves in a foreign code, or is he commenting on it? That the inclusion of the gallicisms indicates at least in part a deliberate decision is evident from the obvious foregrounding Beckett provides for many of them, as we shall see. They also tend to be concentrated in certain sections of the novel, most notably the early discussion between Hackett, Nixon, and Tetty, and Arsene's parting speech to Watt. Indeed, at one point, Arsene seems to catch himself committing one: “Where was I? The change. In what did it consist? It is hard to say. Something slipped. There I was, warm and bright, smoking my tobacco-pipe, watching the warm bright wall, when suddenly somewhere some little thing slipped, some little tiny thing. Gliss—iss—iss—STOP! I trust I make myself clear” (42-43). Arsene is apparently on the verge here of replacing “slip” with the French “glisser,” thus what is slipping is in fact the word “to slip.” The “change” Arsene is discussing when “slip” slips is that from his prior feeling at Knott's that “he [i.e., Arsene] may abide, as he is, where he is, and that where he is may abide about him, as it is” (41) to this other condition, which Arsene is unable to define more precisely than in the following terms: “What was changed, and how? What was changed, if my information is correct, was the sentiment that a change, other than a change of degree, had taken place” (44). Typically, Arsene never manages to bring these meditations to any conclusion, deliberately changing the subject with the announcement that he has “information of a practical nature to impart” (45). But prior to this, he clearly depicts the effects of this undefined change as a dépaysement from the comfortable fit between himself and the Knott residence where he was abiding:

The sun on the wall, since I was looking at the sun on the wall at the time, underwent an instantaneous and I venture to say radical change of appearance. It was the same sun and the same wall, or so little older that the difference may safely be disregarded, but so changed that I felt I had been transported, without my having remarked it, to some quite different yard, and to some quite different season, in an unfamiliar country.


The rhetorical chain here is relatively clear: this radical change is both figured as a transportation to an “unfamiliar country” and referred to as a “slip,” while this act of designation itself instigates a linguistic slip into the language of another country, sliding into “glisser.” What happens, then, is that the act of naming the “slip” repeats and reproduces it. So the language of Arsene would seem not only to represent but also to symptomatically reenact what it recounts. Such a conception, however, only delivers half of the complexity of the passage. For the “slip” represented by Arsene's linguistic shift is not just a repetition of but also the model for Arsene's previous slip, as it is only in terms of transportation to an “unfamiliar country” that the latter can be understood. In this sense, linguistic interference, or what might be termed “cultural” interference generally becomes the model for all subjective “qualitative changes,” and not just a species within their genus. Group identity and cultural economy is thus rhetorically posited as prior to any sort of individual subjectivity which would subsequently extend itself toward a group. The mediation between the group structures and the subject's self-positing seems to be effected in this passage through a further slip of the “tongue.” Let us consider some of Arsene's early comments concerning the dawning of the recognition that this “change” has taken place. Speaking of the uncanny day when, although feeling better than ever, the servant of Knott is nevertheless led to ask himself, “Am I not a little out of sorts, to-day?” (42), Arsene goes on to claim: “But that is a terrible day (to look back on), the day when the horror of what has happened reduces him to the ignoble expedient of inspecting his tongue in a mirror, his tongue never so rosy, in a breath never so sweet” (42). In the immediate context of the passage, the phrase would seem to imply the servant's desire to check himself for symptoms of illness, but in the larger context of the disorder Arsene sketches, this “tongue” must also be read in its Gallic nuance as “language,” so intimately tied to Arsene's unnamable catastrophe. And indeed, Watt certainly gives us one of the greatest spectacles we have of an author “inspecting his tongue in a mirror,” as it were, not least of all in section 3 where Watt narrates to Sam in what could be seen as mirrored inversions of words, sentences, and paragraphs.7 To examine one's tongue in a mirror would thus mean not simply to produce an adequate representation of it, but to work through a representation which necessarily doubles by reversing. Beckett's “mirror” is not at all the perfectly transparent medium of representation, but rather one which reveals by doubling and extending the original in an uncannily inverted fashion, thus highlighting and estranging the structure of articulations of the original which had come to be naturalized. Arsene's following speech is filled with somewhat understated gallicisms: “ordure” (46), “luxurious” for “lustful” (49), “defunct” for “deceased” and “Daltonic” for “color-blind” in the space of two lines (51), and “collation” and “imprevisible” in the same sentence (53), to name a few. The relationship of these “slips” to the something that “slipped” is left unelaborated, although the evocation discussed above of the sense of transportation to an unfamiliar country cannot but color our reading of them. However, in order to continue our examination of gallicisms in the context of the inspection of the tongue, we must turn to the verbal perpetrations of Tetty Nixon.

The discussion surrounding Tetty Nixon's burlesque account of the birth of her son, Larry, and the history of Watt foregrounds gallicisms even more clearly than does Arsene's speech. There is at the least a Gallic inflection in Hackett's use of “antecedents” (22) to designate Watt's past, and Nixon's term “facultative stop” (19) for a tram stop serviced only if requested by a passenger is a clear transposition of the French. But Tetty's gallicisms are different—they are not based on the choice of a false cognate, as in the examples given above, but are rather phonetic transpositions of French terms, which do not respect the regular morphological structures of English appropriations of Latinate words.8 Thus, describing the sudden onset of labor pains, she says, “No trace of this dollar appeared on my face” (13), where “dollar” would appear to be her pronunciation of the French douleur, or “pain.” A few lines later, she refers to a risqué repartee as “Not too osy” (14). Hackett, at a loss, asks, “Not too what?” Mr Nixon replies, “Osy. … You know, not too osy” (14). “Osy” here would seem to be an assimilation of the French osé. But one cannot claim that Tetty's speech is simply denatured by the invasion of foreign terms, for prior to her notable gallicisms, Tetty demonstrates a sort of aphasia which it is impossible to attribute to the interference of a foreign code. As Tetty recounts the fateful night of Larry's delivery in the midst of a dinner party, we find the following exchange:

The first mouthful of duck had barely passed my lips, said Tetty, when Larry leaped in my wom.

Your what? said Mr Hackett.

My wom, said Tetty.

You know, said Goff, her woom.

How embarrassing for you, said Mr Hackett.


This phonetic disturbance “within” the “mother tongue” is a harbinger of much that is to follow in the novel. First of all, it introduces the structural convolutions of the English language which comprise so much of the burden of part 3, and which Beckett investigates more systematically, more methodically in the Cartesian sense, than any other author has ever done. Second of all, this insistence on Tetty's error in contrast to the gallicisms that follow seems to warn against a reading that would interpret these structural convolutions and breakdowns as the result of an incursion of the “foreign” that would in some way damage the integrity of a given code. The damage is already operative from the “inside,” and note that these linguistic disturbances within the “mother tongue” take place in the context of a discussion of maternity, and thus in the context of that other notable system of differences, which is kinship structure. On the one hand, Beckett parallels linguistic structures, whether syntactic, discursive, or phonetic, to family and kinship structures, and in Watt, disturbance in one register tends to mirror disturbance in another. This is why the novel disallows a separation of Cartesian skepticism or epistemological investigation from questions of cultural and social practice and kinship organization. The interrogation of patriarchal structures epitomized by the Knott household is written into the interrogation of linguistic structures we have been examining, and both investigations are conducted through the mode of estrangement. On the other hand, any idea of naturalness which might be associated with the “mother tongue” is implicitly challenged not only by Tetty's aphasia, but also by the wholly uncanny story of maternity she recounts. Larry is delivered in three minutes flat single-handedly by the mother herself while his father and friends play billiards downstairs. The umbilical cord, we are told, was severed by the mother's teeth, she “not having a scissors to her hand” (14). Thus, if linguistic law and patriarchal law are clearly put parallel in the book, we should resist all recourse to any concept of the maternal or the natural to which these laws would be opposed. Rather, in Watt both the “maternal” and the “natural” are necessarily seen as effects created and dominated by these very structures.

The novel itself expounds the idea that concepts, categories, and oppositions are not simply descriptive terms that maintain a relationship of adequation with the real, but rather products of structures which the relationship to the real provokes. Indeed, the “real” itself is also paradoxically described as one of these effects. This problematic is treated most explicitly in the episode involving the Galls, father and son, who come to tune Mr Knott's piano. The passage, one of the most widely discussed in the novel, is quite rightly described by Leslie Hill as “paradigmatic” (20). Indeed, the narrator tells us it is a model for many of Watt's “experiences” in his early days at the Knott household. Hill goes on to read the episode in the light of filial relations, stressing that which pertains between the Galls and the memory they induce in Watt of his father's legs and trousers. This leads to a broader discussion of Knott as symbolic father. Critics also often discuss the role of music in the novel, additionally raised by the picture of the piano in the “addenda,” and finally, mention is usually made of the way the passage's discussion of memory establishes Watt as a generally “unreliable” narrator.9 However, the major point of focus tends to be the status of this passage as the novel's most detailed exploration of the relationship between experience, immediacy, memory, and linguistic construction, questions that recur incessantly in Watt. Certainly, as a theory of Watt's need to narrativize and construct meaning, it provides the thread that will bind all the subsequent episodes: indeed, it leads directly to the famous discussion of the “pot,” which, in turn, is immediately followed by the long episode recounting Knott's dietary habits, the need for a dog to dispose of his leftovers, and the hallucinatory Lynch family. Now, what must be emphasized is that the concerns raised by these two later episodes are entirely extensions of the problems caused by the “memory” of the Galls. A full forty-five pages after the beginning of the section on the Galls, the story of the Lynches concludes with a declaration on precisely what was at stake in the previous saga also. For Watt has no conviction at all concerning the veracity of the elaborate myth he has constructed around the Lynches: “Not that for a moment Watt supposed that he had penetrated the forces at play, in this particular instance, or even perceived the forms that they upheaved, or obtained the least useful information concerning himself, or Mr Knott, for he did not. But he had turned, little by little, a disturbance into words, he had made a pillow of old words, for a head. Little by little, and not without labour” (117). What is established in the sequence of these three central passages—the Galls, the pot, and the Lynches—is a link between, respectively, linguistic constructions of memory and meaning, the referential tie implied by any semiotic act, and kinship and family structures. The “pillow of old words” is composed of a familial narrative, and the construction of reference is embodied in the story of the father and son. The point of this is not that some Oedipalized structure forms a “primal” content of all subjectivity but rather that there is profound complicity between subjective self-scrutiny and kinship structures inasmuch as the former insists on an emphasis on the question of origin which only the latter can answer. It is through the concatenation of these passages that Beckett achieves his linkage of Cartesian dogma to questions of filiation and thus of Cartesian method to Freud's view of obsessional ritual. Obsessional ritual leads to taboo and finally to the investigations of patriarchy conducted through the figure of Knott.

The incident of the Galls, like that of the Lynches, involves disposing of “disturbances” by transferring them into language or “foisting a meaning there where no meaning appeared” (77), not in the sense of determining a metaphysical signification but merely through the construction of the simplest temporal narrative. Thus, we learn that in fact the “incident of the Galls” might in reality have had nothing to do with either a piano, tuners, or a father and son, and that this might simply be the “meaning” Watt arrived at to disperse his phantoms: “For to explain had always been to exorcise, for Watt” (78). And this explanation might very well be pure fabulation:

Watt spoke of it [the incident] as involving, in the original, the Galls and the piano, but he was obliged to do this, even if the original had nothing to do with the Galls and the piano. For even if the Galls and the piano were long posterior to the phenomena destined to become them, Watt was obliged to think, and speak, of the incident, even at the moment of its taking place, as the incident of the Galls and the piano, if he was to think and speak of it at all.


Moreover, we are told that Watt's fabulations tend to wear out and necessitate new ones to take their place, themselves to be at times replaced in turn by previous constructions which have recovered their power to convince. It is due to such considerations that “one is sometimes tempted to wonder, with reference to two or even three incidents related by Watt as separate and distinct, if they are not in reality the same incident, variously interpreted” (78). Thus, concerning what “really happened” in the incident of the Galls, we know absolutely nothing, but only how at one particular moment Watt linguistically and conceptually “exorcised” it. We do not know if this was the original exorcism, the only one, or simply the latest of a long series. As this incident is the type of the majority of those which occurred at the Knott household, strictly speaking we have no idea if any of the events therein should be taken as anything other than Watt's fabulation. Such a skeptical reading would give us a very different novel, consisting of the early episode of Hackett and the Nixons, Sam's account of meeting Watt in part 3, perhaps the departure at the train station, and then a long, interpolated narrative with the status of a fable. This reading would produce a work in line with Company, or the problems raised by Moran's disavowal of his narrative in Molloy, which is far from the optic in which Watt is usually read.

In any case, the incident of the Galls, the discussion of the pot, and the story of the Lynches all emphasize linguistic narrative as a means of constructing “reality” and memory, not as a means of representing them or depicting them. The manners in which this form of construction is itself arbitrarily structured and subject to disturbance are foregrounded in many ways: largely by the way the book permits rhyme schemes and sentence structure to generate slots and oppositions which are then filled by a semantic content which comes to seem increasingly random, irrelevant, and, in practical terms, increasingly difficult to convert into ideational content given the density of the repetitive linguistic mass that vehiculates it. But as we have seen, the book also stresses very early on such structural disturbances as aphasia and interlinguistic interference, such as gallicisms. This being the case, it seems worth pondering the proper name of the piano tuners: given our gallicisms, what does it mean for the Galls to come to tune the piano? After our awkward gallicisms, do we finally have the arrival of the Galls in person, and not just their linguistic forerunners?10 After all, their task of “tuning the piano” can be read in highly allegorical fashion: they have come to tune the literary instrument, language, so clearly off key in the novel up to this point. Such an allegory has at least two clear applications. First of all, it replicates one of the central, founding myths of early Anglo-American modernism: that a turn to French literature was necessary to achieve a cleaner, clearer, harder, “modern” literary language. Such thinking is prevalent in Eliot, in Joyce's admiration and emulation of Flaubert, and most of all in Pound's critical writings. And it may be argued that it is only with Watt that Beckett manages his difficult break with the modernist trend these writers represent, which is much more clearly in evidence in his earlier prose and poetry. The Galls then would represent a paradigm that Beckett here is rejecting.11 However, this episode could also be seen as a comment on Beckett's own subsequent shift into French as language of composition and a reinscription of his filial position within a different symbolic structure (thus the Galls “father and son”). But before embarking on a heroic reading of the shift into French as the choice of the proper, well-tuned instrument, the move away from a suffocating, castrating maternal language into a phallicized, instrumentalized, distant paternal one, or a move away from the language bearing the patriarchal inscription of the patronym into a neutral space of auto-engenderment,12 we should remember that the episode of the Galls is constantly stressed as a fantasy, as “foisting a meaning there where no meaning appeared” (77). Thus, the story could also be taken as a warning against all forms of critical linguistic exoticism, that is, the assertion that a shift from one specific linguistic structure to another can free one from the bounds of structure generally, or the symmetrical claim: that all linguistic structure distances one from the purity of a real beyond expression.

The episode of the Galls can also be taken as an allegory of allegorization generally, that is, of the need to foist meaning where there is none. But this does not lead to a global critique of hermeneutics and a privileging of the literal and the proper, for the pages on the Galls make it quite clear that the construction of any literal or proper is already an allegorization in this sense. The literalist readings of Beckett would be the most mystified of all. Beyond this sort of “allegory,” all is unnamable, but not in the sense of being ineffable or beyond the illusory grasp of linguistic mediation. On the other side of cultural graphematic constructions is something which seems much less the “real” of traditional Western metaphysics, to which language can only point and approximate, than the real as evoked by Lacan. Speaking of Watt's occasional failures to foist meanings in the manner of the Galls story, Sam tells us:

As to giving an example of the second event, namely the failure, that is clearly quite out of the question. For there we have to do with events that resisted all Watt's efforts to saddle them with meaning, and a formula, so that he could neither think of them, nor speak of them, but only suffer them, when they recurred, though it seems probable that they recurred no more, at the period of Watt's revelation, to me, but were as though they had never been.


It is important to note here Beckett's distance from both phenomenology and logical positivism. For the events that resist being saddled with meaning or formula have no phenomenological status at all and cannot be considered events or objects as such—as the passage tells us, they are literally unthinkable. Being unthinkable, they cannot be considered in the light of Wittgenstein's language games either, in which words or counters are exchanged for prelinguistic entities. The sort of narrativization of which the Galls story forms the example has all the characteristics of an obsessional ritual or rite, being repeated, modified, and, when need be, reinvented in a ceaseless effort to keep a potential suffering at bay. Indeed, the opposition of meaning, no matter how gratuitous, to suffering is one upon which all critics of the novel would do well to dwell. If Watt is dominated by the pleasure principle, his suffering cannot be said to originate with the distance between language and a “real”—indeed, it is the possibility of such a difference which provides his occasional salvation, and his rituals are less motivated by a desire to comprehend or represent the real than to create a real whose laws provide repose. And this “exorcism” through explanation would seem to hold good for Watt's fabulation generally, being the archetype of most of his experience at Knott's: “For the incident of the Galls father and son was the first and type of many” (76). Thus, the general process for which the Galls provide the model and which is also the model for most processes generally undertaken by Watt, might be called gallicization—that is, the need to foist a meaning where there is none through the creation of a ritual narrative.

Thus, staying within the Gallic register we may begin to see how the novel reads Descartes—not only as the author of a narrative of rituals, the precepts, but also as the philosopher who takes as his foundation a ritual narrative, that is, the cogito. Already in Whoroscope, as we have seen, Beckett had read Descartes in terms of ritual and superstition, such as those surrounding the preparation of his omelettes and his fear of fortune tellers. And indeed, Descartes's own investigations in the Discourse and especially the Méditations teeter precariously between the need to recognize meaninglessness on the one hand, and the need to abrogate or name it, on the other. In this connection, God is the name given to the fact that rationally, reason cannot be established as equivalent to truth. According to Descartes, in addition to things that can be proven, we must accept as true also those which defy logical proof but are intuitively obvious. Yet for Descartes, the only assumption which permits us to accept as true the suprarational intuitive would be the existence of a perfect God, disinclined to deceive us in our innermost impressions: “Car, premièrement, cela même que j'ai tantôt pris pour une règle, à savoir que les choses que nous concevons très clairement et très distinctement, sont toutes vraies, n'est assuré qu'à cause que Dieu est ou existe, et qu'il est un être parfait, et que tout ce qui est en nous vient de lui” (67) [For, firstly, even the rule which I stated above that I held, namely, that the things we grasp very clearly and very distinctly are all true, is assured only because God is or exists, and because he is a perfect Being, and because everything that is in us comes from him (Discourse, 58)]. Descartes offers the above to argue specifically that only the hypothesis of the Deity allows us to have faith in our ability to distinguish dreaming from waking life, for while we dream we often have the impression of being awake, and at no particular moment can we be rationally or phenomenologically certain we are not within some particular dream, with its own particular false reality. Now this distinction between reality and hallucinatory or oneiric perception is one which, the Galls episode teaches us, Watt has no desire to make—all that matters for him is the imperative that there be a meaning; its ontological status is of no real concern. But there is another Cartesian proof of the existence of God that is perhaps also in play here. In Whoroscope Beckett sums it up in the following lines:

I'm a bold boy I know
so I'm not my son
(even if I were a concierge)
nor Joachim my father's
but the chip of a perfect block that's neither old nor new,
the lonely petal of a great high bright rose.

(lines 78-83)

In the notes, Beckett explicates this passage with the phrase, “He proves God by exhaustion” (Collected Poems, 6). Beckett is here referring to Descartes's assertion that his own existence is proof of the existence of God. Descartes reasons that he did not bring himself into existence, for were he “l'auteur de mon existence” (211) [the author of my birth and existence (Discourse, 127)], he would be endowed with every perfection, being his own cause and therefore independent of all externality. As he is instead, in Beckett's Irishism, a far from perfect “bold boy,” another answer must be hazarded. The obvious answer, that his parents created him, is not a final answer, because of course his parents could not have brought themselves into existence either, and thus another step back must be taken. As living things cannot create themselves ex nihilo, moving backward genealogically one is obliged to finally assert the existence of a first cause, that is, God (by exhaustion). However, in Descartes's argument in this section of the third meditation, the conclusion is not only that God is the ultimate engenderer, but also that he leaves his mark on his creation, “comme la marque de l'ouvrier empreinte sur son ouvrage” (215) [like the mark that the workman imprints on his work (Discourse, 130)]. Descartes goes on to claim that this mark of resemblance to God is known by the individual through the same mechanism by which the individual knows itself: “Je conçois cette ressemblance (dans laquelle l'idée de Dieu se trouve contenue) par la même faculté par laquelle je me conçois moi-même; c'est-à-dire lorsque je fais réflexion sur moi” (215) [I perceive this likeness, in which the idea of God is contained, by means of the same faculty by which I apprehend myself; that is to say that, when I reflect upon myself (Discourse, 130)]. The Galls, who appear as father and son, are perhaps an evocation of this exhaustive link; that “There was no family likeness between the two, as far as Watt could make out” (70), is perhaps Beckett's ironic nod at the idea of the creator's imprint left on the creation. But in any event, the implication of this passage from the Méditations and Descartes's accompanying argument that not only is God the ultimate engenderer but that he reengenders each being in every separable moment of its existence is that the cogito serves not only to prove my existence but simultaneously and by the same token to inscribe me in a filial position in a fully elaborated kinship structure.

Indeed, despite the cogito's apparent logical austerity, its status as proof is untenable without this inscription: “[I]l est nécessaire que Dieu soit l'auteur de mon existence; car tout le temps de ma vie peut être divisé en une infinité de parties, chacune desquelles ne dépend en aucune façon des autres, et ainsi de ce qu'un peu auparavant j'ai été, il ne s'ensuit pas que je doive maintenant être, si ce n'est qu'en ce moment quelque cause me produise, et me crée” (211-12) [God is necessarily the author of my existence. For the whole time of my life may be divided into an infinity of parts, each of which depends in no way on the others; and thus, it does not follow that because I existed a little earlier, I must exist now, unless at this moment some cause produces and creates me anew (Discourse, 127)]. Thus, subjective ritual comes to be both dependent on and productive of progenitory myth, which links the Cartesian rituals of self-recognition or subjective assertion to those Freud describes in Totem and Taboo, equally concerned with subjective construction through kinship structuration. Likewise, this moves us from the Galls dyad to the sprawling Lynches.

Although Totem and Taboo is most notorious for its mythic account of Oedipal violence and desire, the burden of the book is in fact more occupied by discussing how kinship structures are built through relation to a totem animal. Freud argues that it is through a shared relation to the same totem animal that any particular group establishes its identity. Moreover, it is this identity and not that established by the nuclear family which will be the model of all group identities, including national, to follow. This contradiction is only one of appearance, however, because the totem itself represents a father figure, transformed into animal shape. The general prohibition on killing or eating one's totem animal echoes the prohibition on parricide, whereas the ritual eating of the totem animal on festival days serves two purposes: first, it enables the identification with the totem animal to be reinforced through a literalized incorporation, and second, it gives expression to the other pole of the ambivalent relation to the father, that is, the homicidal one. But following Freud's logic, it is not the “real” tribal father who is projected into the totem, but rather the relationship of paternity itself is only constructed by the mapping of the totemic relationship onto it. The relevance of all this for Watt lies in the book's emphasis on taboo rituals and the erection of the bizarre and absent patriarchal icon with the name of Mr Knott. Much of the book's discussion of taboo centers precisely on culinary ritual: in what seems a condensed parody of Totem and Taboo, the elaborate prohibitions regarding Mr Knott's eating habits and leftovers lead to the absurd and lengthy investigations of the kinship structure of the Lynch family. The Lynches, joint custodians of the sacred dog appointed the task of eating Knott's remains, also provide us with a totem animal. Watt's relationship to his duties is also clearly governed by taboo law, that is, not an internalized sense of right and wrong pertaining to conscious intention, but a “superstitious” belief that the failure to observe certain regulations and rituals will have disastrous consequences, regardless of the intentions surrounding their observance. An example of this is found in Watt's uncharacteristic transgression consisting of his refusal to actually watch the dog eat Knott's leftovers. We are told that this refusal “might have been supposed to have the gravest consequences, both for Watt and for Mr Knott's establishment” (115) and that indeed “Watt expected something of this kind” (115). We learn that Watt's course of action was determined by his insurmountable hatred of dogs, despite his fear of its consequences. These consequences, however, fail to appear:

As it was, nothing happened, but all went on, as before apparently. No punishment fell on Watt, no thunderbolt, and Mr Knott's establishment swam on, through the unruffled nights and days, with all its customary serenity. And this was a great source of wonder, to Watt, that he had infringed, with impunity, such a venerable tradition, or institution. But he was not so foolish as to found in this a principle of conduct, or a precedent of rebelliousness, ho no, for Watt was only too willing to do as he was told, and as custom required, at all times. And when he was forced to transgress, as in the matter of witnessing the dog's meal, then he was at pains to transgress in such a way, and to surround his transgression with such precautions, such delicacies, that it was almost as though he had not transgressed at all. And perhaps this was counted to him for grace. And he stilled the wonder the trouble in his mind, by reflecting that if he went unpunished for the moment, he would not perhaps always go unpunished, and that if the hurt to Mr Knott's establishment did not at once appear, it would perhaps one day appear, a little bruise at first, and then a bigger, and then a bigger still, until, growing, growing, it blackened the entire body.


The above should give pause to the many naively “Oedipal” readings to which Watt has been subjected. What this remarkable passage establishes is not Watt's resentment of the paternal principle or its laws, but rather his anxiety at the potential fragility of these laws themselves. Watt does not fear punishment, but rather that he will not be punished. For this sort of reason, we should hesitate to read Knott simply as an emblem of paternal or patriarchal despotism. For Knott, as his name might imply, is not simply the source of the system, although he does seem to be the knot which ties it together. And the novel does not give us the drama of the son's embattled assertion of his subjectivity in the face of oppressive paternal authority, but rather anxiety at the potential breakdown of a social signifying structure in which the father is no more than a marker, thus, “not.” Not the primal father who dominates his subservient sons, Knott far more closely resembles the sort of tribal chiefs discussed by Freud, who by the fact of their very sacredness are more bound by taboo law than their subjects.13 As Freud explains, since the totemic ruler is divinely linked to the well being of his subjects (being intimately tied to the elements, for example), it is crucial that he be protected from any mishap which might find a cosmic reflection. These protections are often violently restrictive. Such a structure once again represents for Freud a compromise formation in which the primal ambivalence toward the ruler may be expressed: on the one hand, taboo laws protect, honor, and isolate him. On the other, they can eventually become so restrictive and violent that they come to resemble the murderous act that they are established to defend against. A detail from Freud which seems particularly relevant to Watt is that “the principal part [in taboos concerning kings and priests] is played in them by restrictions upon freedom of movement and upon diet” (45-46), both of which are prominent in the rituals surrounding Knott's care and behavior. Freud then quotes a list of prohibitions from Frazer concerning the Flamen Dialis of ancient Rome, which for the very rhythm of the list of nots, in addition to its content, is evocative of Beckett's novel: “He ‘might not ride or even touch a horse, nor see an army under arms, nor wear a ring which was not broken, nor have a knot on any part of his garments; … he might not touch wheaten flour or leavened bread; he might not touch or even name a goat, a dog, raw meat, beans, and ivy’” (46).14 In addition to the knot, the dog, and the prohibition on naming, the broken ring also has its place in the novel, being depicted in the picture in Erskine's room.

Thus, the novel's emphatic Oedipal nods must be answered not in terms of the boy-child's desire for the mother, which finds itself blocked by the “Not!” of the Father's commandment. The figure of the mother is largely absent from the novel, as desire is from Watt, while Knott, like one of Freud's tribal chiefs, is as powerless as his subjects. Rather, Beckett's interrogation of the patriarchal economy seems more concerned with its function in determining subjective identifications, positionings, and group identities. Of course, the question of desire cannot be separated from the process of identification, but as we saw above, the anxiety of the novel is centered not on castration, or the paternal punishment of the son's desire, but rather on the fragility of the laws which give the son his “place” in the symbolic economy.15

Thus, if Knott seems in some ways to be invulnerable, abiding impassively the serial replacements of his rotating servants, he is by no means beyond the laws they enforce. Indeed, Knott's apparent omnipotence is, in fact, but a reflection of the most imperious need of all: “For except, one, not to need, and, two, a witness to his not needing, Knott needed nothing, as far as Watt could see” (202). The need to need nothing is precisely the need that can never be met, as every abolition of need becomes no more than a reinforcement of its law. In order to finally achieve the state of needing nothing, one would also have to reach the state where one no longer needed to need nothing, which would then open the door to all the needs one wished to exclude. So Knott is also the tie that doubly binds.16 Thus, just as Watt must witness, so must Mr Knott be witnessed—neither are free from or within their places in this arrangement which looks less like Hegel's master/slave dialectic than Freud's description of an “organized” group. In his “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” Freud begins by summarizing accounts of how the behavior of groups tends to reduce or cancel the intelligence, moral inhibitions, and critical functions of the individuals which comprise them. But following W. McDougall, Freud also discusses what he calls “organized” groups, which on the contrary allow for greater achievements than those undertaken by individuals alone. Of the five necessary conditions for the formation of an organized group, four are strikingly present in the Knott household, the third being the only conspicuous absence:

The first and fundamental condition is that there should be some degree of continuity of existence in the group. This may be either material or formal: material, if the same individuals persist in the group for some time; and formal, if there is developed within the group a system of fixed positions which are occupied by a succession of individuals.

The second condition is that in the individual member of the group some definite idea should be formed of the nature, composition, functions and capacities of the group, so that from this he may develop an emotional relation to the group as a whole.

The third is that the group should be brought into interaction (perhaps in the form of rivalry) with other groups similar to it but differing from it in many respects.

The fourth is that the group should possess traditions, customs and habits, and especially such as determine the relations of its members to one another.

The fifth is that the group should have a definite structure, expressed in the specialization and differentiation of the functions of its constituents.

(Civilization, Society and Religion, 114-15, my emphasis)

This sort of organized group is held together not so much by the libidinal ties between its members nor by those between the members and their leader, but rather by an identification with an abstracted concept of the group itself—a group which should continue beyond the lives and scope of the individuals who comprise it at any given moment. Watt's fixations are less on the other servants or even Mr Knott than on the customs and rituals that constitute the household. And as Watt's speculations concerning Knott's consciousness of and responsibility for his feeding arrangements indicate, there is no necessity that Knott be taken as the origin, source, or inventor of these customs, although his structuring role within them is crucial. Like the Cartesian God, Knott becomes a necessary hypothesis for the functioning of a series of repeated rituals that create subjective identifications. The sense in the novel that prohibitions and rituals are due to arbitrary custom rather than the whim of an individual source of power and desire is reinforced by the way Watt seems to inherit them—although we are told that Erskine did spend some time explaining to Watt his duties (85), the perpetuation of the enduring structures of the Knott household, despite the frequent changes of not wholly articulate servants, seems to lend the customs a regulating power of their own. The laws of the household are inherited and assumed like social custom, like the divergent cultural manners that form the “ways of being we,” and, of course, also like the structures of language, which present themselves as the laws of the signifying combinations through which the subject can be constructed. It is precisely these laws which begin to dissolve for Watt in the famous “pot” passage.

This amply discussed passage describes the dissolution of semantic links for Watt, so that the object or concept of a pot no longer completely corresponds to the word that signifies it: “Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr Knott's pots, of one of Mr Knott's pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot” (81). What Watt suffers here is quite properly an estrangement from the seeming naturalness of linguistic structures. Contrary to many other sections of the novel, this passage presents us with no aphasia. For example, Watt does not find himself unable to recall a word that would signify “pot,” nor does he hear the word “pot” without remembering what it signifies, as in classical cases of aphasia. On the contrary, he clearly remembers the law that binds the signifier to the signified but is forced to make the detour of an appeal to this law for his understanding to function. Jakobson defines similarity aphasia as an atrophy of the metalinguistic function: “The aphasic defect in the ‘capacity of naming’ is properly a loss of metalanguage” (104). But for Watt the situation is the inverse: only metalinguistic verification allows him to keep his faith in semantic links that no longer ring either true or false for him. As many critics point out, this is the situation in which one finds oneself when learning a foreign language, in which the links between signifier and signified have yet to be reinforced by repetition, use, and context and are established only by the copula of the bilingual dictionary. But what is lost for Watt here is neither linguistic binding, in the sense of an aphasic, nor lexical anchoring, in the sense of someone operating in a foreign language. We are told:

And Watt preferred on the whole having to do with things of which he did not know the name, though this too was painful to Watt, to having to do with things of which the known name, the proven name, was not the name, any more, for him. For he could always hope, of a thing of which he had never known the name, that he would learn the name, some day, and so be tranquillized. But he could not look forward to this in the case of a thing of which the true name had ceased, suddenly, or gradually, to be the true name for Watt.


Thus, in the case of a foreign language, Watt would be willing to apply the new name, as arbitrary and denatured as it might seem. But what has happened here is that an undeniable, recognizable, and “proven” name continues to function, but ceases to seem “proper.” What Watt has lost is the literal, having entered a world where the word, though recognizable, seems a catachresis—a figure or substitute name for something which is really “something else.” Watt is clear on this throughout: one can call it a “pot”; others will call it a “pot”; if I call it a “pot” others will understand me, but “pot” is not the right word. That Watt extends his worries about this phenomenon to the word “man” is not coincidental, as in the trilogy all subjective auto-designation and identification will come to be seen as catachrestical. In Watt, however, the end of the proper means the end of the natural, the end of the internalization of the identification which allows us to oppose a “we” to a “they,” although it could be argued that such a distinction is still possible, based on the difference between those who know what “pot” is supposed (in the literal sense) to mean in the system of English and those who do not. Thus, there is a clear analogy between the episode of the Galls and the question of the pot. As we have seen, the Galls story is less a memory than an attempt to saddle the meaningless with a meaning or a formula, to prevent its constant haunting return. In the later passage, the word “pot” would be seen as just such a saddle, which for Watt begins to fray. Beckett's criticism of language here is in no way that language fails to represent the real in its plenitude (the lack and distance inherent in the mediating sign), nor that language falsifies through its distorting figural additions (the spillage or the excess of the mediating sign with regard to the signification before which it should withdraw). Rather, the real in its plenitude is itself structured by language in the large sense, including the marks that are assembled to constitute memory, in a movement which seems to precede the distinction between true and false, relying more on the pleasure principle and its distinction between suffering and its other. And this is where Descartes's “method” finally meets Watt's pseudo-linguistics, pseudo-anthropology, and obsessional rituals, because for Descartes it is the real itself that is radically foreign and consequently threatening to subjective constitution, as seen in his radical exclusion of it from the interiority of the subject. Indeed, the cogito may be seen as an obsessive ritual defense mechanism against the incursions of all that the ego has rejected as outside it: not only the sense perceptions by which the real penetrates, but also and significantly the body and the drives it registers.

It is in the trilogy, the short stories, and the Texts for Nothing that this retreat from the question of collectivity and its relation to that of the construction of all intrasubjectivity will be carried out. The singularity of Watt in Beckett's oeuvre lies precisely in its interrogation of group or communal structures, and the mechanisms by which the sense of belonging or estrangement is built. In the works composed during the famous “siege in the room,” these questions will have largely disappeared through a sort of phenomenological reduction of all that they presuppose. Thus, Watt also marks the transition between Beckett's humorous investigations of Irish manners and morals in the early prose and the more atemporal, severe later work.17 So, having looked extensively at examples of foreignness in the novel, and the encounter with that which presents itself as the foreign, I would like to close by examining a very little studied passage.

Surely one of the most remarkable of the many tirades in Beckett's work is the “short statement” (39) that Arsene delivers to Watt when the latter arrives to take his place in the Knott establishment. Arsene's rant exceeds twenty pages, and in its descriptions of the eating habits of the hypothetical maid Mary, the list of ancestors, and the account of the sequences of Mr Knott's servants and their replacements, it provides an early example of the many mathematical permutations and serial lists that are the novel's most salient stylistic trait. But critics have paid rather little attention to some of the less immediately striking passages that discuss what Knott's household will mean for Watt.18 Speaking of the sense of peace the new arrival at Knott's must feel, Arsene describes it in these terms:

But he being what he has become, and the place being what it was made, the fit is perfect. And he knows this. No. Let us remain calm. He feels it. The sensations, the premonitions of harmony are irrefragable, of imminent harmony, when all outside him will be he, the flowers the flowers that he is among him, the sky the sky that he is above him, the earth trodden the earth treading, and all sound his echo. When in a word he will be in his midst at last, after so many tedious years spent clinging to the perimeter. These first impressions, so hardly won, are undoubtedly delicious. What a feeling of security! They are transports that few are spared, nature is so exceedingly accommodating, on the one hand, and man, on the other. With what sudden colours past trials and errors glow, seen in their new, their true perspective, mere stepping-stones to this! Haw! All is repaid, amply repaid. For he has arrived. He even ventures to remove his hat, and set down his bags, without misgiving. Think of that! He removes his hat without misgiving, he unbuttons his coat and sits down, proffered all pure and open to the long joys of being himself, like a basin to a vomit.


The passage, with its emphasis on journey and arrival, clearly evokes a return from exile or banishment, but that from which the servant has been banished is himself—in rhetoric prefiguring the pronominal torsion of the trilogy, Arsene states, “When in a word he will be in his midst at last.” As we have seen, this is hardly the experience that awaits Watt. Yet this scene of homecoming, already bracketed by the inevitable expulsion which Arsene lives here in Watt's place, is a sort of narcissistic arrival, a perfection of projection and fusion where the issue of the foreign disappears as the boundary between what one is and what one is not is annihilated: “when all outside him will be he, the flowers the flowers that he is among him, the sky the sky that he is above him, the earth trodden the earth treading, and all sound his echo.” This destruction of the threshold between the inner and the outer—that is, this destruction of the central organizing concept of the Cartesian system—is an element to which Arsene explicitly returns: “For my—how shall I say?—my personal system was so distended at the period of which I speak that the distinction between what was inside it and what was outside it was not at all easy to draw” (43). Arsene's implication here is that bliss comes not when the external world simply corresponds to the internal, as in the case of “natural” belonging or identification, but rather when the external world no longer maintains any externality at all—to come home in this sense means to be the home one comes to, and the joy of “being oneself” is the joy precisely of being both the basin and the vomit. In this context, some of Freud's remarks from “Instincts and their Vicissitudes” seem quite apt. After asserting that the ego originally hates the external world for introducing stimuli it cannot control, Freud writes: “At the very beginning, it seems, the external world, objects, and what is hated are identical.” Then Freud describes the fate of the external objects that, despite their extraneity, provide pleasure: “If later on an object turns out to be a source of pleasure, it is loved, but it is also incorporated into the ego; so that for the purified pleasure-ego once again objects coincide with what is extraneous and hated” (On Metapsychology, 134). Freud thus describes the ego as working by tautology: what is hated must be categorized as belonging to the outside; if anything is loved, its exteriority is simply denied through identification. Arsene's ideal of total narcissistic identification would serve to neutralize the world of objects entirely. One must think the pun on “Knot” in this sense also—a site which is not, or a site where that which one is not, is not.

But such a schema implies that to be banished from oneself is, in fact, identical to being banished within oneself; the sense of exile from oneself derives from one's own awareness of the boundary between the internal and the external. It is, then, the existence of objects that leads to the banishment. This odd contradiction—that it is, in fact, the existence of an outside which divides the subject from itself—is what leads Beckett to Descartes, for whom the subject can only be defined through the suspension of the external. This, as we shall see in the following chapters, is the proposition that the trilogy refuses, enacting the utter rejection of all the appropriative assumptions, linguistic and philosophic, that allow Descartes to postulate subjective self-presence in the ideal absence of an external world. But Watt, on the contrary, depicts such a hypothetical self-presence as necessarily constitutive of its own lack. To arrive at the sort of self-delimitation which constantly eludes the trilogy's “voices” is here defined as banishment, as subtraction from a world always irredeemably other, while, as the trilogy will make clear, to be both the traveler and the home, both earth trodden and the treading earth, both the basin and vomit, is to be originally doubled, and in consequence no less divided. On the one hand, then, subjective and objective self-presence create a remainder that cannot be managed, on the other, self-integrity is banishment.

The great irony of Watt, however, is found in the enormous distance between this vision of total harmony, reflection and fusion proffered between “haws!” by Arsene, and the absurdly arbitrary, ritualistic duties Watt is obliged to carry out, with no sense of their meaning or utility. As we have seen, Watt submits to the peculiarities of the functioning of the Knott household as to a law—questions of utility, desirability or significance cannot even be raised. Although Watt seems to enjoy the utter alienation of his service, it is certainly a far cry from the sort of bliss that Arsene had evoked. We seem to move from total narcissistic boundless unity and identification to the violent exteriority of the inherited, arbitrary law. But this is perhaps a contradiction in appearance only, for Arsene's vision goes beyond that of desire instantly gratified, providing instead a schema in which desire is automatically preempted, as the spacing or difference necessary for its establishment is denied. In both cases, objects, or that which is hated, have been removed from play—in one case, through the refusal to recognize separation, internalizing everything, in the other, through a structure of prohibitions in which libidinal investment in the structure replaces investment in the objects and actions this structure prohibits. This shift enables the structure itself to break its link from a repressed unconscious and to become truly arbitrary in the sense that Saussurian linguistics speaks of the arbitrariness of the signifier. Thus custom and ritual are logically prior to desire, and if they inevitably serve to create it, they cannot be said to represent it in the sense that a sign is classically seen to represent a logically prior referent. But what could be called Watt's hypercathexis of custom and ritual seems to create an economy where linguistic law goes lax and enters the motivated relationship to the unconscious that the taboo rituals do not here present. Both Arsene's evocation of complete narcissistic extension and Watt's experience of total egoistic effacement before an internalized ego ideal serve to short-circuit the tension that Beckett will explore in the trilogy—that of the ego's self-apperception. This, of course, leads to Beckett's further investigations of the cogito, but the crucial difference between Beckett and Descartes is that if for Descartes the cogito is logically prior to the hypothesis of the relationship with a possible other, for Beckett the mechanics of identification in the formation of the subject lead him into a sort of temporal aporia, or even anachrony, as we shall see in the following chapters.19 And the privileged figure for this dialectic in Beckett will be that of voice, which inextricably links the Cartesian question of the subject's self-apperception to the alterity of the interlocutor and shared social structure that Descartes attempts to provisionally bracket.


  1. Cousineau,Watt: Language as Interdiction and Consolation,” in Gontarski, 64.

  2. See Ross Posnock for a cogent account of Watt as “Beckett's critique of the traditional novel” (51). Steven Connor, in his fine chapter on the book, acknowledges that “Reading Watt is, of course, a slow and painful process” (31); and in a recent article, Martin Kevorkian begins by stressing that the text “seems to prohibit certain kinds of reading” (427) altogether. Meanwhile, the famous passage on the unnamable “pot,” among others, opens the way for Wittgensteinian reflections on an essential alienness or unnaturalness of language with regard to what it designates. On a biographical level, it is often recalled that Beckett started writing in French after finishing Watt, perhaps in response to the seeming exhaustion of English in this work. See Astro, p. 49, for one example. Stressing Beckett's “sceptical” outlook, Michael E. Mooney asserts that “Watt's sojourn in Knott's house teaches him the futility of attempting to impose meaning on events or to concern himself ‘with what things were in reality’ (Watt, 227)” (see Butler and Davis, 163). Leslie Hill posits Mr Knott as “a figure of paternal indifference, engulfment and indeterminacy, apathy and invisibility” (27), and claims that Watt's relationship to his largely extratextual, presumed biological father “turns on a failure of incorporation” (27). For Hill, the novel's central concern is “the possibility of a form of language in which the spectre of the father can be incorporated” (28). Gottfried Büttner writes of “Watt's path into nothingness or rather Mr Knott's house and garden,” which he later asserts quite simply “are to be found in another realm of existence” (Butler and Davis, 172-73). The fullest examination of the issue of Beckett's residence in a new tongue in Ann Beer's “Watt, Knott and Beckett's Bilingualism,” which repeatedly views the novel as a tentative plunge into the foreign: “Written in English, the novel seems exiled from any familiar realm of English literature and language; but it is also foreign to the French linguistic home which Beckett was to make his from 1945” (37). Another characteristic statement is the following: “In Watt Beckett begins to examine and externalize a language which is gradually shifting from its status as a mother-tongue, habitual and instinctive, to that of a language whose relative and arbitrary nature is clear” (37). Beer also mentions, critically, the argument of Patrick Casement, who attempts to forge a link between the “mother tongue” and Beckett's biological mother (43) in explaining Beckett's seeming attack on English and move into French. In this argument, linguistic appurtenance and monolinguism are inscribed into an overriding discourse of the natural and the native generally, in which the “naturalness” of the native tongue and culture will be likened to a supposed natural bond between mother and child. A whole series of oppositions ensues: native language/foreign language, maternal love/paternal law, womb/world, immediate perception/hermeneutic mediation. Beckett's works generally, and certainly Watt among them, call all of these oppositions into question.

  3. It has not been determined whether this piece was actually broadcast or not. See Gontarski's note in Complete Short Prose, 285-86.

  4. On June 6, 1944. That it was, in fact, the allies who destroyed the town in their bombardment of German positions in conjunction with D day is the sort of irony to which Beckett's work is consistently sensitive.

  5. The following chapters on the trilogy and the Texts for Nothing will develop this idea in much greater detail.

  6. James Knowlson's recent biography confirms the extent of Beckett's knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, already easily inferred from his writings. According to Knowlson, Beckett took lengthy and detailed notes on most of the leading figures and theories of his day, including the specialist on group psychology McDougall, whom I shall refer to later in this chapter (see Knowlson, 172-78).

  7. For an examination of the question of mirroring generally in Watt, see Ramsey, “Watt and the Significance of the Mirror Image.” Ramsey discusses Watt's inversions on pp. 31-34.

  8. An exception would be Arsene's “imprevisible,” which is not strictly speaking an English word. However, as “visible” is, and “pre” and “im” are acceptable English prefixes, Arsene's mistake is due only to chance; his inference is based on many valid examples of the transposition of French to English—for example, “visible” and “invisible”—and follows the general rules of French to English transposition.

  9. Of course, the “real” narrator is Sam, but as Sam claims to be for the most part simply forwarding Watt's story, the latter's reliability remains a narratological issue.

  10. Obviously, the root of “gallicism” is in fact the Gauls, not the “Galls.” But given that all the English words derived from this root drop the u, I think the reference is still operative. Michael Beausang links the name to Franz Joseph Gall, an early student of aphasia. See Rabaté, Beckett avant Beckett, (153-72). More recently, Richard Begam evokes the possibility that “Beckett, the Gaelic writer writing in Gaul, is tuning his piano, keeping his hand in, and wondering all the time whether it is worth it” (91).

  11. I do not believe such a break could be read as either doctrinal or definitive, but rather strategic. However much Watt distances itself from a certain kind of Joycean wit that dominates Murphy and More Pricks than Kicks, stylistically and structurally it remains clearly indebted to the “Ithaca” chapter in Ulysses, to give just one example. As Peter Nicholls has recently shown, the term “modernism” itself should probably not be taken in the singular. But I would argue that Watt does represent a shift of interest to a different tangent of modernism, and a different kind of interest in France and the French—further investigations of Beckett's work of this period thus necessitate a close look at his relationship to the work of Gertrude Stein.

  12. Ironically, this itself would inevitably inscribe a filial debt to Joyce, master of this strategy.

  13. See the section “The Taboo upon Rulers” in Freud, Totem and Taboo.

  14. The above translation comes from Strachey's standard edition, which would not have been available at the time of the novel's composition. A. A. Brill's translation, dating from 1918, rather than quote Frazer with elision, renders the passage this way: “He was not allowed to ride, to see a horse or an armed man, to wear a ring that was not broken, to have a knot in his garments, to touch wheat flour or leaven, or even to mention by name a goat, a dog, raw meat, beans and ivy” (62).

  15. Thus, I would agree with Leslie Hill's emphasis on the novel as an attempt to construct a relationship with the father rather than an attempt to defy the paternal law, though I would differ with his account of the mechanics of incorporation, or his identification of Knott with the “father.” See the interesting chapter, “The Loss of Species,” especially pp. 23-30.

  16. Beckett's 1938 article “Les Deux Besoins” (first published in Disjecta in 1984) raises similar questions but in quite dissimilar terms, as it stresses precisely that the artist needs to need, rather than not need, and goes on to chart the relationship between the need to need and the particular need that at any given time is needed. Thus, in “Les Deux Besoins,” the sort of ataraxy which Knott is under the injunction to search out is precisely the temptation which must be resisted in order to live “la seule vie possible.” A much longer study would be necessary to explore the relation between these two texts, but already it could be suggested that Knott's heroism lies in his (doomed) attempt to reject that which life ordinarily commands as its condition: that you need. A first sketch in this direction is probably provided by William Burroughs in Junky, where the attraction of heroin is that it supplants and supersedes all other needs while being itself in constant short supply: “Junk takes everything and gives nothing but insurance against junk sickness” (125); “Junk is a biological necessity when you have a habit, an invisible mouth” (124), but also, “The kick of junk is that you have to have it. … You cannot escape from junk sickness any more than you can escape from junk kick after a shot” (97).

  17. Though Beckett never loses interest in ridiculing the assumptions and conventions of bourgeois society. We need only think of Moran.

  18. For a notable exception, see Richard Begam's recent reading of the passage, which also views it as an interrogation of “Cartesian dualism” (72).

  19. See chapter 4 in [Saying I No More] for a discussion of anachrony in Beckett and Derrida.

William Cloonan (essay date winter 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3386

SOURCE: Cloonan, William. “Placing the Unplaceable: The Dilemmas of Samuel Beckett's Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 1009-18.

[In the following essay, Cloonan discusses several of Beckett's novels.]

Samuel Beckett easily divides into groups of two, the Anglo/Irish writer and the French author, the playwright and the purveyor of often unsettling fictions. However, the initial dichotomy in large measure quickly resolves itself, since the translator of the French texts into English is the author himself. More troublesome is the distinction between the very successful dramatist, whose works have fascinated audiences ranging from Parisian sophisticates to lifers at San Quentin, and the novelist whose hermetic fictions have had little appeal outside the academic community, whose brooding mindscapes have evoked little resonance among the practitioners of contemporary English and French fiction.

Yet of the two Becketts, the novelist is perhaps the more fascinating. Serious readers of modern fiction are drawn to Beckett's prose works—particularly the trilogy consisting of Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1952), and The Unnamable (1953)—because, despite the aridity of the trilogy's universe and the minimalist storylines, it remains replete with echoes of the psychological, cultural, and social traumas that haunted the twentieth century. Reading the trilogy therefore poses two questions; the obvious and specific issue is how to make sense out of these three novels, while the second, less apparent but more complex dilemma is how to place Beckett, especially the Anglo/Irish author of post-World War II French texts, in the context of twentieth-century literary history. To put the matter baldly: what are literary scholars to do with an artist who everyone agrees is major, but whose work defies simple explanation and convenient classification? Thomas J. Cousineau addresses the first question in After the Final No: Samuel Beckett's Trilogy, a study that manages to offer a compelling psychological reading of the trilogy while nonetheless accounting for the striking literariness of these works. David Weisberg's Chronicles of Disorder: Samuel Beckett and the Cultural Politics of the Modern Novel undertakes the more ambitious effort of positioning Beckett in the turbulent history of modern and contemporary literature.

Cousineau comes to the trilogy from the vantage point of contemporary psychological theory, notably the works of Lacan and Gilles Deleuze, but he wears his erudition lightly. The prose is always clear and the psychological analyses are enhanced by a constant reference to prototypes from classical literature and philosophy that function as shadow figures in the three novels. For Cousineau, the trilogy “shows characters whose liberation from alienating attachment to parental figures leads to the discovery of new forms of relationships that have been made possible by their literary activity” (22). Thus, from the outset the literary and the psychological are blended.

Beckett's figures are commonly perceived as quintessentially modern, with their shattered psyches and tendency to lethargy (probably no modern author has created so many characters who pass such large amounts of time in prone positions). But they are also wanderers and questers like the Ulysses of Homer's Odyssey and the Hebrew Bible's Abraham, with the important difference that their goals of social integration of any sort are doomed to failure. Unlike their classical prototypes, they have no safe havens, only illusory destinations. Cousineau rightly observes that the disappearance of the family is one of the most striking features of the trilogy (19), and that the absence of a paternal mediator, some source of authority and purpose, compels the characters to struggle toward an alternative form of stability, however pathetic this alternative may initially appear in relation to the achievements of their classical models. In Beckett's world there is no Ithaca with its inviting Penelope, no divine voice to provide guidance; his characters are doomed to failure, yet their total collapse is at least somewhat offset by their ability to write their failure. In a world without meaningful structure, parental or otherwise, the writing that Beckett's figures do is their only true recourse and tentative protection. Another, less successful option is flight.

More than any other novel in the trilogy, Molloy reenacts the journey motif, even if the title character never rejoins, or even probably wishes to rejoin, his mother. If the maternal presence is abolished in the first section, Moran's quest in the second leads to the loss of his son, the rejection of his priest, and the inability to achieve any reconciliation with his father, who is personified in the figure of Youdi, the godlike personage for whom Moran works. While at first Molloy and Moran appear as contrasting figures with, as Cousineau suggests, Moran representing the repressive, civilized values against which Molloy revolts, by novel's end they have become one, united in physical stasis.

For Cousineau, Molloy is one “of the most explicitly oedipalized novels ever written” (54), as both Molloy's search for the mother and Moran's desire to please the father eventually dissolve in a liberating escape from both. This liberation is achieved through each character's narrative that on the most superficial level describes the failure of their respective quests. In a more significant sense, however, these narratives demonstrate that while this failure is inevitable, the articulation of this failure in a language that eschews false complacencies and easy explanations represents the only honest option open to the inhabitants of Beckett's world. In his literary universe the past is a constant presence and figures like Ulysses and Abraham are part of his heritage, but the past is the past. It cannot be used to illuminate the present except through contrast.1

In Malone Dies, Cousineau sees Beckett as shifting his attention from paternal figures to the individual self (90) and then treating the question of individual identity in a fashion that is at once idiosyncratic and funny. In this novel the achievement of individuality is too painful to be wished, because it is the product of suffering and exclusion. Beckett is once again subverting the cultural tradition from which he nevertheless consistently draws by suggesting that “Know thyself” can only be a burden in the modern world. If Ulysses and Abraham lurked in the shadows of Molloy, the cultural icon whose presence permeates Malone Dies is Descartes, the philosopher who thought he had uncovered the basis of truth in “cogito ergo sum.” As Cousineau remarks, Nietzsche believed he had “doubted better” than Descartes and thus was able to make the cogito itself suspect. Beckett echoed the Nietzschean critique, according to Cousineau, by showing that the “I” that appears to stand at the center of Malone Dies is an imaginary construct: “The isolated self (‘man alone’) of its title, far from being an original foundation, is a by-product of its relationship with the larger community in which it evolved” (91). What characterizes the individual-community relationship is the violence of the latter against the former. Thus to the extent that selfhood occurs, it is the result of isolation from the company of others. Malone may not really want such total exclusion, but he certainly seeks protection from his fellows and this he imperfectly achieves through the act of writing.

Cousineau argues that Malone's attempts to mitigate this isolation through writing are pathetic to some and humorous to others. He aims at repressing all autobiographical reference, but never succeeds completely despite his decision to cloak himself behind the stories he tells about Sapo and Macmann, stories that he wants to treat as play. But his efforts to make storytelling a form of play and thus create a barrier between himself and the violent world around him are something of a fiasco, since his narrative intrusions—for instance, “A few words about the boy. This cannot be avoided” (qtd. in Cousineau 96)—serve to bring the speaking voice to the attention of the reader. Throughout the novel, Malone constantly trips over his own strivings to efface himself; yet, for Cousineau, Malone's failure is Beckett's success because, in detailing his hero's attempt to hide from life, Beckett manages to expose the sadness, violence, and loneliness of modern life in a way that appeals to the audience's ludic instincts.

In his treatment of the trilogy, Cousineau wishes to identify, if not a progression, then a series of attempts to overcome essentially psychological burdens through the act of writing. To this end, he argues that Molloy and Moran sought to disentangle themselves from parental figures, and Malone struggled to empty his narrative of his own identity. In The Unnamable, the narrator wants to “reunite with his authentic voice, which has been confiscated by others” (111). While Cousineau makes his point effectively in his analysis of each work, a lingering question remains: what factors have made the world of Beckett's postwar fiction such a frightening and forbidding place? This question preoccupies David Weisberg in his Chronicles of Disorder.

Weisberg begins with an effort to situate Beckett in the context of twentieth-century literary and cultural history, a task that is really not as simple as it may initially appear. It is one thing to recognize Beckett's importance as a writer, but, particularly when the subject is his prose works, where does one place him? The quick answer is to throw him into the hodgepodge category known as the nouveau roman. At one time this might have made some sense, but now, with a fifty-year perspective, the French new novel seems less a grouping of writers united by comparable stylistic devices and themes than a tribute to a combination of Alain Robbe-Grillet's gifts as a polemicist and the perennial desire of scholars to have discovered a new “school.” Certainly the most telling similarity among writers like Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Claude Ollier, and Beckett is that at one time they were all relatively new writers who were published by les Editions de Minuit. (Even here Beckett is somewhat of an exception because he was considerably older than most of the writers associated with Minuit.) Thus these nouveaux romanciers easily became “l'école de Minuit.

Weisberg chooses not to speculate on Beckett's role as a “new novelist.” He describes instead the political and aesthetic tensions that weighed on the young Samuel Beckett at the beginning of his literary career, and then argues that Beckett eventually defined himself as a writer by establishing a unique place between and within these tensions. Weisberg asserts that in the 1930s writers were pressured to opt for either a politically committed literature or an autonomous modernist art. Beckett's peculiar genius was to reject political engagement of either the Left or the Right without aligning himself in the camp of those espousing aesthetic autonomy. Beckett essentially refused the antithesis as it was then presented and sought, especially in his postwar French work, “to reimagine a communicative literature beyond the choices of autonomy or commitment” (1). Weisberg's words are particularly well chosen. Despite even some of Beckett's own pronouncements that appear to indicate the contrary, his literature does intend to communicate, although the content of the communication is of a very special sort. His literature is also certainly autonomous, since to this day it stands by itself and has had few if any imitators. And finally, if by “commitment” one means an awareness of social forces and what they do to even the possibility of individuality, then Beckett is indeed a committed writer.

Perhaps the greatest obstacles to accepting Beckett not only as a writer desirous of communication but also as someone whose communications reflect some degree of commitment are the author's own rather gnomic pronouncements in Three Dialogues with Georges Duhuit (1965): “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express” (3). This statement, as Weisberg notes, is often taken to be Beckett's aesthetic credo. In a sense, then, one can read Chronicles of Disorder as an elaborate gloss on these words, wherein Weisberg demonstrates that having nothing to express can indeed become a content, that having “nothing with which to express” bespeaks a search for an effective style, and that having no power or desire to express, coupled with no vantage point from which to express, all reflect the collapse of literary, moral, and social values in the aftermath of World War II.

In the early sections of his study, Weisberg details the young Beckett groping toward an artistic identity he would achieve only in the aftermath of war. He argues that in Beckett's early prose works, his essay on Proust for example, the young writer struggled unsuccessfully to negotiate the conflicting demands of commitment and autonomy; the very contractions that initially stymied him, however, later revealed themselves as simplifications that the mature artist would exploit. For Weisberg neither Murphy (1947) nor Watt (1959) is particularly successful, the former because of its persistence in the sort of literary experimentation that had become obsolete and the latter because it does little except signal the transition into Beckett's more successful period. In Watt the markers of this transition are the narrator's compulsive desire to continue talking, “as if someone were there, behind the voice, threatening” (45), and the novel's “placelessness,” its “geopolitical void” (47). Both of these factors are traceable to the impact of World War II on Beckett, an experience that would provide the catalyst and grounding for his subsequent achievement in the trilogy.

Beckett wrote Watt while hiding out in Southern France from the Nazis because of his Resistance activities. The war made concrete the various intellectual and aesthetic issues that Beckett had been contending with throughout his career. The idea of aesthetic autonomy seemed absurd in a world of saturation bombing, and if opposition to Hitler appeared a relatively obvious choice, how would the notion of political involvement play itself out in the confusion of postwar Europe? To accept the Cold War dichotomy of communism versus democracy would mean abandoning the simplistic duality Beckett struggled with in the 1930s in order to embrace a more politically-charged, albeit equally simplistic set of alternatives.

The massive destruction of World War II was bad enough and certainly figures in the devastated and alienating cityscapes that emerge in Molloy and Malone Dies, but what was even more shocking were the Nazi genocidal policies which orchestrated wanton cruelty on a scale the world had never seen. In a way, one can read Beckett's postwar prose as an effort to respond to Adorno's terrible question, “How can one write poetry after Auschwitz?” From the perspective of the death camps, the idea that there was nothing to express became all too real, and Beckett opted to articulate how little can be said in the wake of what had happened. Some writers were much more optimistic in this respect, and novelists like Thomas Mann (Doktor Faustus, 1948) and Albert Camus (The Plague, 1947) offered elaborate and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to make sense out of the war through recourse to allegory. Beckett, for reasons that were probably as much personal as aesthetic, could never have availed himself of such a strategy. This war was too terrible and different to lend itself to such facile treatment. The reality of war was one of loss, not of some benighted triumph of the human spirit. Hence Beckett's heroes' incapacity to express becomes content; his personages refuse to speak of anything beyond the specifics of their condition, because at this historical juncture (the war's immediate aftermath), there is simply nothing meaningful that can be said.

In the postwar era Beckett becomes the master of the “non-speak,” the refusal to offer comforting bromides of any sort. Just how effective this “non-speak” can be is best articulated in The Unnamable, where the narrator constantly makes references to lights that are hissing or going out. These lights may reflect “the blessed pus of reason” (92), yet these same lights remain the only means of showing what progress has been made (95). It is difficult not to find in these references allusions to the Enlightenment tradition that writers such as Adorno believed was destroyed or severely compromised by the war. Beckett can mirror this loss in his fiction, but without having any means of providing an alternative source of structure or hope. If then, there no longer exists a vantage point from which to speak (the Enlightenment or something comparable), if literary tradition no longer provides the power to generate new forms of expression, and if the enormity of human loss at least for the moment kills the desire to express, Beckett nonetheless develops a powerful literary medium in the trilogy to articulate all of the above.

In Molloy, Weisberg shows that paradox is not an end in itself; rather it indicates the flaws in the concepts by which bourgeois society has given order to experience. Molloy, however marginal he may be, remains in this novel a social being, and if some poststructuralist critics would prefer to see Molloy and Moran “as arbitrary textual constructs that merge into each other” (88), and believe that “the social content […] is negated in favor of the play of signifiers” (95), the fact remains that the social content is there (95). Weisberg does an excellent and fair-minded job explaining poststructuralist approaches to Beckett, but he is justifiably adamant in insisting that however bizarre Beckett's world may appear in this text, it is always anchored in social reality, however unreal that reality might at times appear.

Weisberg reads The Unnamable, the final work in the trilogy, as a meditation on writing, where the narrator's obsessive struggle against the language of social order “never loses the cultural specificity characteristic of the genre” (128). The narrator remains bourgeois, middle-aged, and intellectual, a person whose struggle to express himself involves an effort to overcome his social and professional formation. If he is to succeed, he must develop a voice that, while it cannot deny his origins, will not merely reflect the complacencies characteristic of his background. Whatever one makes of the narrator's attempt to overcome the social and aesthetic pressures weighing upon him, his efforts, at once funny and pathetic, quite clearly reflect the salient quality that was to be the hallmark of Beckett's postwar fiction: the willingness to accept the very real possibility that the questions of voice, social class, and aesthetic choice that generate the text may not be resolved, but that the posing of these questions remains the paramount obligation of the artist.

While a psychological approach to Beckett and an effort to situate him in a political cultural climate might initially appear quite different, the major similarity in Cousineau and Weisberg's studies is the importance given to the act of writing as a means of coping, however imperfectly, with a deeply alienating world. Cousineau stresses the terror within and the means by which Beckett forged a prose that provided a measure of freedom from parental demons. Weisberg focuses on the ways aesthetic and political pressures weighed on Beckett, forcing him to develop literary techniques that allowed him to manipulate both, thereby creating a language that reflects, more powerfully than any other artist, the moral and social desolation of the immediate postwar period. In developing their approaches, both Cousineau and Weisberg move Beckett through the cultural landscape of the twentieth century. There is the Anglo-Irish/French author filtered through Freud and Lacan, communicating in an ironic dialogue with his literary forebears and modernism in general, and finally eluding the pressures of a narrowly-conceived political commitment. Beckett may have been, as Weisberg suggests early in his study, “a typical intellectual artist of his generation” (9). Such a positioning may well describe Beckett's historical situation and the issues he had to confront, but, as Weisberg's work so tellingly demonstrates, it does not reflect his achievement. Taken together, After the Final No and Chronicles of Disorder clearly establish Beckett in a place that echoes the settings of his own fiction, a no man's land, inhabited by a unique and enduring voice.


  1. Given the importance of literary allusion in Beckett, it is striking in this otherwise excellent account of the novel that Cousineau did not note the similarity between the Moran section and Kafka's “The Country Doctor,” where once again an establishment figure (the doctor) accepts a call he ought to have known not to heed, and with comparably disastrous results. The difference, of course, is that the country doctor experiences failure as something unanticipated, whereas Moran recounts his demise in a clear-eyed fashion. If, for Kafka, failure is pure loss, for Beckett it is the acting-out of an unavoidable situation.

Work Cited

Beckett. Unnamable. New York: Grove, 1954.

Daniel Katz (essay date summer 2003)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6736

SOURCE: Katz, Daniel. “Beckett's Measures: Principles of Pleasure in Molloy and First Love. Modern Fiction Studies 49, no. 2 (summer 2003): 246-60.

[In the following essay, Katz discusses Beckett's Molloy and First Love.]

Toward the beginning of the first part of Samuel Beckett's Molloy, Molloy utters the following words concerning the object of his endless discourse: “My life, my life, now I speak of it as of something over, now as of a joke which still goes on, and it is neither, for at the same time it is over and it goes on, and is there any tense for that?” (Three Novels 36). This passage is one of the very many in Beckett in which life, or at least a particular life, is seen as so utterly given over to stasis and the death drive, so entirely dominated by a closed circle of potential permutations of behavior, sentiment, ratiocination, and expression, that it is always already “over,” despite the contingency that it may in fact seem to be continuing in time. In similar fashion, when Beckett's characters claim to be speaking from beyond the grave, they speak from a death equally beyond that of the tomb, the latter allegorizing the burgeoning dying of their continual living. If the question of death is pervasive in Beckett's work, this is precisely because it is not a death that could be simply and formally opposed to something that would be called life. In Beckett, as is well known, we are consistently confronted with living as a modality of dying. Beckett's work often troubles the distinction between life and death, progress and regression, pleasure and unpleasure, in a manner that, as we shall see, seems not unrelated to some of the interrogations of Sigmund Freud. For the moment, however, it is crucial to examine the place of language in relation to these questions. For in the phrase cited above, if Beckett does indeed point to the inadequacies of language, it is not in any absolute metaphysical sense but only regarding a contingent technicality: that of finding a tense or mood that could at once englobe the completive and non-completive aspects, a tense that would not insist on establishing an absolute difference between what is “over” and what “goes on.” Beckett here appeals to a tense that could chart this infinitude of finality which is Molloy's life, certainly; but in addition to that, a tense such as the one Beckett envisions would also tend to destroy the deictic present, the simultaneity of utterance and reference upon which all effects of subjective presence depend. Beckett's linguistic dismantling of deictic and subjective temporality will be led to its conclusion in The Unnamable and the Texts for Nothing, foreshadowed in this passage and many others in Molloy.1 But let us also turn our attention to the manner—more consonant, perhaps, with the traditions of lyric poetry than of the novel—in which Beckett here explicitly searches for a new measure or space of inscription, a mark and a marker. Such a measure, of course, would be asked not simply to “represent” the oscillations, permutations, and rhythms that Beckett's works recount, but also to take its place among them, to become itself one of the many pendular movements through which the Beckettian economy writes itself. Not only a measure in the sense of a standard for representing or charting, Beckett's measures are also acts—and measuring is one of the actions most frequently taken within the Beckettian scene of writing.

The question to be asked, then, is just what sort of measure is this well-known Beckettian measuring, within and outside of what we habitually mean by “language”? To ask this question in these terms is to attempt to skirt, at least provisionally, one of the commonplaces of Beckettian criticism: the assertion that the myriad mathematical calculations in his work have the function of providing an objective reality and certainty of the sort denied to a language viewed as necessarily falsifying.2 On the contrary, I would like to suggest that the pseudo-opposition language/number, certainly operative in places, can be seen as existing within a greater economy of measurings, including not only numerical calculation, but also the establishment of distances, standards, patterns, and rhythms in general. By Beckett's measures, then, I mean the entirety of movements of charting and mapping with which his work is so obsessively concerned, from Murphy's calculations concerning the possible orders for eating his biscuits, to a late, silent work like “Quad” in which measurement and measure—the meticulously plodding steps of the “dancers” as they chart the geometrical figure they have been assigned—is virtually all that remains. In between these, we find the trilogy and above all The Unnamable, in which linguistic elements such as syntax, the pronominal system, and verb tense are the systems of measure most ostentatiously mobilized and called into question.

One of the most notable instances of measuring in all Beckett's work is, of course, the scene of the sucking-stones in Molloy. It also provides an excellent example of the imbrication of mathematical calculation and language as systems of measure. For if the major burden of the passage is to describe Molloy's calculations to ensure that he suck his sixteen stones in sequence, never sucking the same stone twice without having first sucked each stone in the collection, the passage, abruptly and laconically, begins as follows: “I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones” (69) [C'étaient des cailloux mais moi j'appelle ça des pierres” (113)].3 As is well known, the passage will deal with Molloy's imperious imperative that he suck all his stones “turn and turn about” (69, 70) and is in many ways a parody of the compulsions and rituals of obsessional neurotics, for the ultimate solution to Molloy's conundrum is simply to abandon the initial imperative, the presence of which, after all, was never justified in any way but simply accepted as a given. But of interest to us here is the way in which the calculating imperative is casually preceded by a different sort of measuring injunction presented as no less pressing: “They were pebbles but I call them stones.” The point here is perhaps less to attempt to distinguish why the word “pebbles” might be a less satisfactory choice than “stones” than to simply recognize the need for the object in question to be bounded not only by mathematical but also by strict linguistic symbolization.4 Indeed, “measuring” in Beckett seems hardly a way of ordering or controlling the world, a Cartesian “method” of mastering it (despite what some of his narrators on occasion profess), but rather an activity that becomes its own raison d'être, with its alleged “practical” ends serving as no more than a pretext for the process, in and of itself. In this sense, Beckett's measuring is always immoderate or “démesuré,” to use the French term, and Molloy says as much himself when he rejects a not entirely satisfactory partial solution to the quandary of the sucking-stones: “And I did not feel inclined to take all that trouble for a half-measure. For I was beginning to lose all sense of measure, after all this wrestling and wrangling, and to say, All or nothing” (70-71) [“Et je ne tenais pas à me donner du mal pour une demi-mesure. Car je commençais à perdre le sens de la mesure, depuis le temps que je me débattais dans cette histoire, et à me dire, Ce sera tout ou rien” (116)]. At this point, we must ask along with Molloy: what is there immoderate about measuring, first of all, and second, just what sort of measure is being taken when Beckett measures, and against what?

The above comments are already sufficient to raise the question of what Moran will call “the fatal pleasure principle” (Three Novels 99), as the relationship of measure to pleasure arises with clarity in the sucking-stones passage. However, if measuring is itself a source of pleasure, pleasure, as Moran so often reminds us, is best measured (in all senses). As a result, measuring emerges very much as a compromise formation in much of Beckett, for if measuring serves to establish and preserve distances, to keep things in their place, to maintain a certain order—that is, if measuring often serves the traditional ends of moderation—equally often in Beckett the pleasure is the distance, the separation, the boundary. Measuring both partakes of and permits the familiar tele-erotics of Beckett, the manifold schemas that both link and divide, in which the establishing of a division is the link. Following a different passage from Molloy, these mappings and demarcations could be thought of as Beckett's hyphens, or as the French makes clearer, his “traits d'union” (132)—the term employed in Molloy to describe the anus, there characterized as a “link between me and the other excrement” (80). Indeed, the anus is perhaps the very type of the privileged sites or measures one finds in Beckett that link through the marking of a separation and that send into circulation the economies in which the link is that which pushes apart, the division that is shared. Distancing effects of this sort are everywhere in Beckett, for whom the lacunae of language often serve to represent speech, immediate exchange, and especially the “interior monologue” of thought as forms of telecommunication. Obversely, the prime Beckettian technological emblem of mediation is the static yet speeding bicycle—an agent of telekinesis, linking its riders to abstractions of distance that surpass their own bodily capacities and also extending the anal hyphen into a more palpable union with the road, as Beckett's early poem “Sanies I” reminds us, exulting as it does of “heaven in the sphincter” (Collected Poems 17).5 When Molloy, on his bicycle, runs down the dog Teddy, Lousse's surrogate son, only to take his place, as a surrogate surrogate, it is one of the paradigmatic scenes of Beckettian love. To be pondered is the homology and symmetry here of bicycle and dog, the prehensile supplements through which Molloy and Lousse are allowed to meet. Teddy, as prosthesis, takes his place in a series of supplements that includes not only Molloy's crutches, Malone's stick, and innumerable greatcoats, but also Moran's son and, perhaps, Worm in The Unnamable, and the narrator's father in Company. These markers, which both extend and dismantle that to which they are at least rhetorically attached, are paradoxical measuring devices themselves.6

Meanwhile, Teddy's fatal accident is itself a re-elaboration of a traumatic event from Beckett's youth. Collating the accounts of Beckett's two major recent biographers, it seems that in 1926 Beckett ran over and killed his mother's Kerry Blue bitch in the family driveway.7 Greatly attached to both dog and mother, young Beckett appears to have fallen into a despondency bordering on suicidal. If such excessive mourning implies that a source of guilty jubilation is perhaps to be sought, some hints as to its logic might be found in the early story “Walking Out” from the collection More Pricks than Kicks, in which the protagonist Belacqua's fiancée, Lucy, is struck by a car while riding her horse. The horse—clearly depicted as an extension of Lucy's castrating vitality—is destroyed, while Belacqua is not unhappy to realize that Lucy's resulting paralysis leaves him subsequently free from the threat of her voracious sexuality.8 “Walking Out” and Molloy both seem to rewrite the same scene through a varied arsenal of horse, dog, bicycle, and car, and they demonstrate a compulsion to return to trauma through the process of re-elaborating it with differing forms of markers. However, in the context of the Beckettian investigation of the relationship between trauma, narrative, and repetition, we must turn our attention to Beckett's early story First Love, which in addition to providing something of a precursor to the Molloy-Lousse relationship in Molloy, offers some of the most notable examples of measuring in all of Beckett.9

First Love, as has often been noted, begins with a scene of measurement: “I associate, rightly or wrongly, my marriage with the death of my father, in time” (Complete Short Prose 25). And it is immediately thereafter that by subtracting the date of his own birth from that of his father's death, the narrator is able to discern that he must have been about 25 at the time of this “marriage.” The concatenation of the father's death with the narrator's sexual assertion sets the scene for the overly programmed Oedipal course the story will chart—a course that culminates symmetrically with the narrator's compulsion to abandon his own child just after its birth. Julia Kristeva has seen the tale as a travesty of the Christ-story,10 which it cannot avoid being to the extent that it oscillates its way through the structural positions or markers called Mother, Father, Son. Indeed, the “drama” of the story as such could be seen as the failed attempt to write into this structure the position of “wife”—as absent, indeed, from the Freudian as from the Christ-story.

However, despite the Oedipal overdetermination, the dates on the father's tombstone are not the touchstone for First Love; the numbers they display and the measurements they permit are in no way isolated or privileged, and the story demands recourse to other units of measure. For example, in a manner not unlike Molloy's decision to call his pebbles “stones,” the anonymous narrator of First Love abruptly changes the name of his “wife” in the middle of the story: “Anyhow I'm sick and tired of this name Lulu, I'll give her another, more like her, Anna for example, it's not more like her but no matter” (34-35).11 The humor in this passage derives from a number of sources. First of all, it is not entirely clear how a proper name, in distinction to a common noun, can resemble either more or less the person to whom it refers. The criteria would clearly no longer be those of “accurate description” or appropriate usage but would lean more toward the properties available in the formal matter of the signifier, and Beckett highlights them here, moving from the phonemic repetition of Lulu to the chiasmic oscillation of Anna. But even this is somewhat beside the point, for the narrator abandons his concern for accurate designation (the name being “more like her”) as soon as he invokes it. The derisory nod toward the writer's craft is acknowledged as a pretext to indulge in a play of measuring that seems to have no substantial ulterior justification. It is not surprising therefore that just a few lines after the changing of the name to Anna comes the following passage: “I thought of Anna then, long long sessions, twenty minutes, twenty-five minutes and even as long as half an hour daily. I obtain these figures by the addition of other, lesser figures. That must have been my way of loving” (35). The tenses here make clear that the “way of loving” refers to his habit of thinking of Anna, and not the measuring of the amount of time he spent doing it. But we should note how the way of “loving” again becomes an occasion for a loving description or reckoning that takes its pleasure from calculation. If the narrative voice performs a measuring of love, it also enacts a love of measuring that itself echoes many of the events recounted within the tale. Indeed, First Love is largely structured around several explicit attempts to gauge and determine distance, and it should be noted that if the narrator's “way of loving” involves mental proximity, that is, thoughts of his beloved, this itself is engaged in a dialectic with physical distance. For the main goal of the narrator is precisely not to think of “Anna” anymore—a task that can be accomplished only by being near her. In the end, he accepts her companionship as a means of getting rid of her where it counts—in his mind: “I must have been beside myself, at this period. I did not feel easy when I was with her, but at least free to think of something else than her, of the old trusty things, and so little by little, as down steps towards a deep, of nothing. And I knew that away from her I would forfeit this freedom” (39). In this way, the physical proximity of Anna becomes a measure of the narrator's mental proximity to the “nothing” he takes as his object. Indeed, once it manages to arouse desire, Anna's body itself becomes a surrogate not for any ideal and unobtainable object, but for a nothing, a lack of object the narrator seems condemned to figure and name and count. In this respect, First Love continues to meditate on the conundrum raised by Mr. Knott in Watt, whose essential need is not to need—a need that can only encompass all others.12

Given these considerations, we should be wary of the narrator's assertion of the value of measurement and calculation as measures against doubt, “the hell of unknowing” (43). Rather, it would seem that the obsessional reckonings invited by this hell form part of the “old trusty things” (39) leading toward “nothing,” especially as the story often seems at pains to add as many occasions for doubt and uncertainty as possible. From this perspective, we must examine the three major episodes foregrounding the desire for measuring—all involving the determination of the origin and distance of a sound—that largely structure the story and that all clearly look forward and back to the other episodes in the series. The first of these is when the narrator attempts to determine the exact distance at which a song that Anna is singing becomes inaudible to his ears; the second is when he desires to know if the amorous groans and giggles he hears from Anna's room in their apartment all originate with the same man or with several, and finally, the story ends when the narrator, leaving Anna and their child, repeats the experience of Anna's singing with the cries attending their child's birth. In the first instance, the narrator asks Anna to sing him a song before he leaves her alone on the bench that they had been sharing. As he walks away and hears the singing gradually fade, his desire to ascertain the cause of the silence overwhelms him:

Then I started to go and as I went I heard her singing another song, or perhaps more verses of the same, fainter and fainter the further I went, then no more, either because she had come to an end or because I was gone too far to hear her. To have to harbour such a doubt was something I preferred to avoid, at that period. I lived of course in doubt, on doubt, but such trivial doubts as this, purely somatic as some say, were best cleared up without delay, they could nag at me like gnats for weeks on end. So I retraced my steps a little way and stopped. At first I heard nothing, then the voice again, but only just, so faintly did it carry. First I didn't hear it, then I did, I must therefore have begun hearing it, at a certain point, but no, there was no beginning, the sound emerged so softly from the silence and so resembled it. When the voice ceased at last I approached a little nearer, to make sure it had really ceased and not merely been lowered. Then in despair, saying, No knowing, no knowing, short of being beside her, bent over her, I turned on my heel and went, for good, full of doubt.


Immediately striking in this passage is the manner in which the narrator admits not only the prevalence of doubt in his life but even his taste for it—“I lived of course in doubt, on doubt”—only to distinguish this particular form of doubt from those in which he delights. The key word here is “somatic,” which the narrator applies to this particular kind of doubting, apparently in the sense of “pertaining to the body.” Beckett's original French text indeed refers to these “incertitudes” as being “d'ordre physique” (Premier amour 35), but “somatic” opens into a problematic that neither “physical” nor the seemingly more appropriate English “sensory” would lead to. As we have seen, Anna's body itself virtually has the status of a somatic symptom for the narrator, and this passage, unlike the encounter of bicycle and dog in Molloy, seems to mark the failure of the mediated, for here only Anna's body, and not the mark of her voice floating through the air, can provide the necessary measure of certainty: “Then in despair, saying, No knowing, no knowing, short of being beside her, bent over her, I turned on my heel and went, for good, full of doubt.” Once again, it is the imperative to be beside his beloved that causes the narrator anguish and torture. Here he prefers the somatic doubt to the certainty of somatic proximity. The “certain point,” the “beginning” of the sound, can only be the woman's body, which the narrator at this point feels impelled to avoid. It is only later, “beside himself” but mentally shackled to the “something” represented by his lover, that the narrator will consent to establish himself “beside” Anna, and thus, he hopes, to nothing. The parallels of the prepositional structures seem to chart the narrator through his proximities and thus necessarily his non-coincidence with both his object of desire and his own desire itself.

The second attempt to localize sound would also appear to belong to the “somatic” variety, as the narrator finds himself tormented by his ignorance concerning certain groans and giggles:

I couldn't make out if it was always the same gent or more than one. Lovers' groans are so alike, and lovers' giggles. I had such horror then of these paltry perplexities that I always fell into the same error, that of seeking to clear them up. It took me a long time, my lifetime so to speak, to realize that the colour of an eye half seen, or the source of some distant sound, are closer to Giudecca in the hell of unknowing than the existence of God, or the origins of protoplasm, or the existence of self, and even less worthy than these to occupy the wise. It's a bit much, a lifetime, to achieve this consoling conclusion, it doesn't leave you much time to profit by it.


Rather than resorting to empirical experiments, here the narrator simply asks Anna for the answer, and learns that the source of the sound is her clients, received in rotation. But the annoyance represented by this sound already impels the narrator to consider leaving, a choice he will definitively opt for when he is tortured by the cries arising from the birth of his child. As he leaves Anna's house for the last time, the narrator re-enacts the scene of “somatic” doubt, but this time, almost, in the form of a game. This is how the story ends:

I began playing with the cries, a little in the same way as I had played with the song, on, back, on, back, if that may be called playing. As long as I kept walking I didn't hear them, because of the footsteps. But as soon as I halted I heard them again, a little fainter each time, admittedly, but what does it matter, faint or loud, cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease. For years I thought they would cease. Now I don't think so anymore. I could have done with other loves perhaps. But there it is, either you love or you don't.


After the previously stated obsessions with dispelling doubt, or “unknowing,” it is easy to overlook just how much, in this final episode, is left in the utmost uncertainty. For example, critics tend to assimilate the narrator's child to a son, whereas the infant's gender is never specified by the text. A similar temptation, which the text in many ways encourages, is that of assuming the “cries” here are of the new-born infant, although this assumption is not entirely borne out by the text in the two places it qualifies their nature and provenance.13 The following passage certainly identifies the crying with the child: “What finished me was the birth. It woke me up. What that infant must have been going through!” (45). A phrase a few lines later, however, seems to imply something different: “Precautions would have been superfluous, there was no competing with those cries. It must have been her first” (45). This phrase seems to imply the mother's cries from the pain of birth and not the child's birth cries (the French word for the crying, “hurlements” [Premier amour 55] reinforces this reading). Already we see how this passage is not only a repetition of the game with Anna's song, but also a parody of the narrator's anguish concerning the “giggles and groans,” as here the narrator leaves indeterminate the very distinction that had previously so painfully eluded him: the number of individuals responsible for the disturbing sound. Finally, as critics have noticed,14 the narrator's obsessional doubting is astonishingly inoperative regarding the single issue in the story where it would have been appropriate, for he accepts as a given his paternity of Anna's child despite the fact that she is a prostitute and that the paternal relation, impossible to establish empirically (at least until very recently), is perhaps the classic locus of the question of uncertainty in the western tradition; it is certainly the paradigm for the Christian vision of faith.15

Of course, in addition to the scene of Anna's singing, there is another lurking in the background of the story's final game of demarcation, for this evocation of repetition, as several critics have pointed out, seems itself a repetition of Freud's account of his grandson's “fort/da” game in Beyond The Pleasure Principle.16 There, Freud describes his grandson's game of hiding and subsequently retrieving a wooden reel on a string, thereby rendering it in turn “gone” (fort) and “there” (da), in response to the pain he feels when his mother would leave him for the day. Freud is careful to insist on the fact that the child's game would most often consist only in the first part of the sequence, that is, that in which the object is made to disappear. The conclusion Freud draws from this is that the essential aim of the game cannot simply be the staging of the pleasurable return of the mother through her surrogate, the wooden reel, but must also fully include the distressing moment of separation. Why then, Freud asks, would the child stage an insistent repetition of an event that could only be painful? He offers two hypotheses: first, that by staging the event himself, the boy transforms himself from passive victim to active instigator and thereby “masters” his mother's absence, and second, that in casting the reel away, the boy takes revenge on the stand-in for his mother, treating it in the same fashion he feels he has been treated himself.17 If the first account of the boy's “mastery” over the situation is that upon which most commentators choose to dwell, it is crucial to note that Freud has also described what may be seen as a primary narrativizing of the absence of the object of desire: the mother's painful absence becomes a sequence, an alternating pattern as the child withdraws and reveals his toy, now become a device for measuring what Freud describes as the difference between plenitude and lack. Crucial here is that this staging of a “plenitude” only becomes possible in the first place by the child's willingness to accept an even greater lack: that of the mother herself, whom the child, even when staging her “presence,” must necessarily replace with an object chosen to represent her.18

In First Love, a series of displacements has of course been effected: here it is not the child but the father who plays, if it may be called playing, and the painful moment is not that of an absence, but of a presence to be fled, if it may be called presence. Freud's paradox in Beyond the Pleasure Principle is that the boy, attempting to cope with the mother's absence, invents a game whose dominant moment is the repetition of that absence. Here, the narrator of First Love, attempting to flee a “presence,” succeeds only in ensuring that the cries will never cease. Still, the narrator in the end does achieve his goal, oddly enough, as the final “trait d'union,” the cries that stay with him forever, do so in the final absence of that to which they linked him. Sheer mediators, one is tempted to assert that they too have taken their place among the “old trusty things” on the path to “nothing.” But it would be more accurate to assert that once again we have a compromise. For whereas Freud depicts the game as a form of mastery over a painful situation, which he then suggests as being possibly paradigmatic for the “artistic play and artistic imitation carried out by adults” (17), the game the narrator plays ends in submission, in another somatization, as the marks of presence take up abode in the narrator's body. As the story ends, the longed-for point of control, the cartographical spot in reference to which the narrator could turn the cries on and off as with a switch and render them “here” or “gone” according to his will, is itself what is “gone,” as the cries now lodge in a spot that seems unamenable to measure. Unlike young Ernst Freud, the narrator of First Love is unable to mark a firm distinction between “here” and “gone,” which leaves everyone nowhere and which upsets the very notion of “mastery” to which Freud makes appeal. To a certain extent, the entire story First Love can be seen as a repetition of the “fort/da” game, in which the words of the text and the narrator's body now become the playing board. Indeed, as the story shows, it is the measuring impulse itself that is always inevitably immoderate, as the units of measure always are capable of replacing and extending that which they are meant to demarcate and delimit. Sheer mediation is no more thinkable than sheer immediacy, and alternations of flight and the strange sort of proximity that mimics it will always be necessary. If Ernst's game “succeeds” because a wooden reel can take the place of “mother,” in First Love the game with the “cries” fails precisely because Anna and her child can be extended in a similar fashion. Beckett's story, fetishizing the surrogate, seems to realize the danger lurking in Ernst's substitutive game: that once the mother is replaced by a marker, she will come to seem no more than a marker of plenitude herself, rather than its essence, and therefore infinitely replaceable and modifiable, like Lulu, who becomes Anna, who becomes song, cry, or child. This process would seem to mimic that other “biographical” one, in which a Kerry Blue is rewritten as a horse, or later a Teddy, and a car as a bicycle. The obsessive and repetitive rewriting and recasting that is typical of First Love and Beckett's work as a whole poses trauma in this light: not as an originary kernel to be gradually uncovered and meticulously re-presented, but as a form of writing to be transposed and constantly reworked. For the traumatic event is nothing but an inscription itself—the contingent, arbitrary, and thus literally “accidental” production of signifying economies, in which even the most innocent and lamented canine victims become markers, measures, names of the circulation of affect. The inexhaustible creative power of this sort of narrative and semiotic production is in and of itself the trauma of First Love.

First Love seems to end with a haunting, though as we have seen, the depiction of the cries adds a female element into the exhausting and exhausted ghost story of paternity. Yet if the haunting provokes the measures of the story, these measures themselves represent and render possible the haunting they are invoked to counter. For all these reasons, within the Beckettian corpus the silent cries that extend First Love into an only love find their intermittent echo in the ghostly reckonings of Company. Meanwhile, there are other games to be played. Ernst Freud's wooden reel with a string is a “Holzspule” in the original German (“Holz” = “Wooden,” “Spule” = “spool”) and Beckett himself would later stage a character particularly fond of reeling and unreeling long spools of tape as he obsessively records himself listening to the recordings he has already made of the story of his life. Krapp's Last Tape, or La Dernière bande, as Beckett translated the title into French, would then be the exemplar of the deflation of the sorts of excitements made possible by a wooden reel, or any emblem endowed with the power of distinguishing between the here and the gone: “Spooool!” Krapp utters, repeatedly and “with relish,” as he plays at playing his tapes (Collected Shorter Plays 56).


  1. For an extended analysis of this, see my Saying I No More: Subjectivity and Consciousness in the Prose of Samuel Beckett.

  2. Shira Wolosky has done an excellent job of showing how Beckett's position is significantly more complex than that of various schools of Beckettians, who all “assume language to mask true reality, whether as a defilement to be denounced, a delusion to be pierced, or merely as a seduction to be resisted, in accordance with the various notions of the essence it at best conceals and at worst betrays” (225). Prominent among the evidence hauled out to justify a dualistically “anti-language” position on the part of Beckett, is the so-called “German Letter” to Axel Kaun of 1937, in which (in Martin Esslin's translation) Beckett famously writes: “As we cannot eliminate language all at once, we should at least leave nothing undone that might contribute to its falling into disrepute. To bore one hole after another in it, until what lurks behind it—be it something or nothing—begins to seep through; I cannot imagine a higher goal for a writer today” (Disjecta 172). In addition to Beckett's explicit distancing of himself from this letter subsequently (in the same volume in which the letter is published, Beckett is quoted as referring to it as “German bilge” [170]), his 1937 position is already more complex than it is usually represented as being. Further on, for example, he comes up with this model for the writing practice he envisions: “Let us therefore act like that mad (?) mathematician who used a different principle of measurement [Messprinzip] at each step of his calculation” (173). Steven Connor's study of the manuscripts leading to Watt show just how literally Beckett was capable of applying this idea: the manuscript reduces to two different algebraic equations the proposition that the “experience” of “life” will inevitably add to up a “lamentable tale of error, waste, folly and ruin” (173-74), having “L” equal “life,” “E” the experience, and “ltewfr” the aforementioned “lamentable tale.”

  3. All English citations are from Beckett's Three Novels (Grove), while the French is from Molloy, Editions de Minuit.

  4. For a different viewpoint, see Hill, who suggests that the choice of “stone” here is motivated by its use in British English to designate a unit of measurement of weight, and thus by extension a possible intertextual connection with “The Expelled,” and a lady within it described as weighing sixteen stone (94).

  5. “tires bleeding voiding zeep the highway / all heaven in the sphincter / the sphincter” (Collected Poems 17).

  6. For a sensitive extended examination of the bicycle in Molloy, which touches on several of these points, see Gunn.

  7. See Knowlson 67 and Cronin 248-49, 258 for this information.

  8. This reading is entirely indebted to Sjef Houppermans's brilliant article, “A Cheval.”

  9. First Love, or Premier Amour, was written in French in October, 1946 (Knowlson 362), but only published in French in 1970 (Knowlson 574) and in Beckett's English translation in 1974. Molloy was largely written, again in French, in spring and summer 1947 (Knowlson 366-67).

  10. “La pietà de Beckett traverse les W. C. en demeurant sublime; la maman a beau être prostituée, la paternité réelle y est aussi peu reconnue que l'enfant n'appartient qu'à sa mère” [“Beckett's pietà makes a trip to the toilet, yet remains sublime; Mommy might very well be a whore, but real paternity goes so unrecognized that the child belongs only to its mother”] (257).

  11. A similar move is made in Molloy, in which “Lousse” is first introduced as perhaps bearing the name “Sophie Loy”—“I forget,” Molloy informs us (33), before determining, with regard to the first name “Sophie,” “No, I can't call her that any more, I'll try calling her Lousse, without the Mrs” (35).

  12. “For except, one, not to need, and, two, a witness to his not needing, Knott needed nothing, as far as Watt could see” (Watt 202). The Berkeleyan need for a witness seems less pertinent for the narrator of First Love.

  13. For example, David Lloyd's insightful reading of the story never questions this (53). However, the problem is discussed in some detail by Carolyn Ayers and Barend van Heusden (375-76).

  14. See, for example, Lloyd 52-54.

  15. Jean-Michel Rabaté makes this point in Joyce Upon the Void, discussing Joyce's famous assertion: “Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?” (xxii).

  16. See Connor 9-10 for an interesting discussion of how Beckett's work “repeatedly reproduces that duality demonstrated in Freud's work in which repetition and the death-instinct do not stand against the pleasure principle in simple opposition, but enfold the pleasure principle within them, affirming life at the very moment of death, openness with the jaws of closure” (10). Robert Scholes also notes that the narrator seems here to be “playing a kind of fort-da game” (389), while Henk Hillenaar in turn discusses the “fort/da,” emphasizing writing as a kind of “mastery” over painful situations, just as the child's game with the spool is thought to be (430-31).

  17. The full account is to be found in Chapter 2 of Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

  18. It is precisely because the child replaces a binary opposition of presence and absence with an alternation of two signifiers—both necessarily equally “present” and “absent”—that this game becomes the prototype of the entry into the symbolic for Lacan. See “Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage,” particularly 203-04, and “D'une question préliminaire à tout traitement possible de la psychose,” especially 92-93. For an interesting discussion and partial critique of the Lacanian account, see Weber 96-99.

Works Cited

Ayers, Carolyn, and Barend van Heusden. “An Introduction to the Groningen Workshop on Beckett's ‘First Love.’” Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui 7 (1996): 375-78.

Beckett, Samuel. Collected Poems in English and French. New York: Grove, 1977.

———. Collected Shorter Plays. New York: Grove, 1984.

———. The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989. Ed. S. E. Gontarksi. New York: Grove, 1995.

———. Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. Ed. Ruby Cohn. New York: Grove, 1984.

———. Molloy. Paris: Editions de minuit, 1951.

———. Premier amour. Paris: Editions de minuit, 1970.

———. More Pricks than Kicks. New York: Grove, 1972.

———. Three Novels by Samuel Beckett: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. New York: Grove, 1965.

———. Watt. New York: Grove, 1981.

Connor, Stephen. Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text. London: Blackwell, 1988.

Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. New York: Harper, 1997.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1989.

Gunn, Daniel. “La Bicyclette irlandaise: Flann O'Brien et Samuel Beckett.” Tropismes 6 (1991): 143-71.

Hill, Leslie. Beckett's Fiction: In Different Words. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Hillenaar, Henk. “A Psychoanalytical Approach to ‘First Love.’” Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui 7 (1996): 419-37.

Houppermans, Sjef. “A Cheval.” Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui 5 (1996): 43-55.

Katz, Daniel. Saying I No More: Subjectivity and Consciousness in the Prose of Samuel Beckett. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1999.

Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.

Kristeva, Julia. “Le Père, l'amour, l'exil.” Cahier de l'herne: Samuel Beckett. Ed. Tom Bishop and Raymond Federman. Paris: Editions de l'Herne, 1976.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits I & II. Paris: Editions Points, 1966.

Lloyd, David. Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Rabaté, Jean-Michel. Joyce Upon the Void: The Genesis of Doubt. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.

Scholes, Robert. “Playing with the Cries.” Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui 7 (1996): 379-90.

Weber, Samuel. The Legend of Freud. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982.

Wolosky, Shira. “The Negative Way Negated: Samuel Beckett's Texts for Nothing.New Literary History 22 (1991): 213-30.

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Beckett, Samuel (Short Story Criticism)


Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 1)