Existential questions of the unknowable nature of life dominate Samuel Beckett’s play. It has neither conventional characters nor a conventional plot. The Unnamable is both the title and the main character, who lacks specific gender, age, race, nationality or other markers of identity. The character often expresses doubt about their existence. Questions of agency, such as the authorship of the words they speak, combine with questions about their appearance and physiology. The physical attributes of a typical human being are in doubt. Has someone put words in their mouth? Do they even have a mouth?
The Unnamable’s age is also in doubt, as they muse about lessons and punishments meted out at school, but the audience cannot know if these are memories or references to contemporary events. They mention a character by name, Mahood, but then it becomes uncertain if that is the same person as the Unnamable. The occasion referenced includes a Parisian café setting with a woman who feeds Mahood, but this woman appears only in the dialogue not onstage.
A third possible manifestation is the Worm, a lender being with a sole eye; again, we cannot know the source of this being. At the play’s end, the Unnamable remains in the same state at the beginning, and the audience does not know if they will move out of that position. In addition to an existential meditation, the play calls into question the nature of author and character, as in any play, the character only exists on stage and in the situations into which the author places them.
The Unnamable, although he never calls himself that, seems to be an old male who is not certain of where he is, who he is, or if, in fact, he actually exists. Intelligent, loquacious, and sometimes very funny, he constantly bemoans his odd situation. He believes that he has been used for some unknown reason by some unknown persons who put words in his mouth, although he is not sure that he has a mouth. He is certain that the constant talk that flows through him is, in part, some kind of punishment. He believes that until he does his “pensum” (a term for a school assignment for misbehavior), he cannot get on to his lesson and satisfy his tormentors, who he hopes will let him go so that he can fall silent and cease to exist. However, he has no idea what his pensum is or what his lesson is. Instead, he presumes that in time, in constant babbling, he will by chance utter the right words or phrases and be allowed his freedom. He has trouble trying not to give in to his urge to talk about things about which he knows little or nothing.
All that he actually is prepared to accept as true is the fact that he is sitting in some unknown, dim place; he can feel the pressure on his backside from some kind of seat without a back, and he can feel the pressure of his arms resting on his thighs. He also thinks that certain male figures are passing in front of him on a kind of circular path, but since he can look only forward, he is not certain where they are coming from.
An early tale initially concerns a character named Mahood but then slides into being a tale about the Unnamable himself, who has returned from a long trip abroad and is trying to get back to his family. He is disabled and having difficulty in reaching them. He takes so long, in fact, that they are all dead when he enters...
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- Critical Essays