Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747
A. Alvarez has described Words and Music as “a brilliant, witty, and utterly original dramatization of the labor and frustrations of creation, the poet alternately bullying and despairing, his instruments inept, unwieldy; then the final letdown when there is nothing more to be done. It also illustrates vividly that split between the music the poet hears in his head and the leaden words at his command, and the slow, unwilling process of disciplining and refining these two elements until they finally chime together in a single work of art.” This is a plausible, even perceptive, and in a way remarkably comprehensive reading of Beckett’s brief but puzzling play, but it is also decidedly partial, for although Words and Music may be read as an allegorical representation of the creative process, as Alvarez, a poet as well as a critic, maintains, it cannot be said to be only that.
Despite its brevity, Words and Music is, as all Beckett’s imaginative writings are, to be thought of less as the means by which the author expresses or transmits a certain content than as a machine for generating meanings, for provoking responses from its bewildered audience of listeners and readers. Something surely happens in Words and Music—or at least seems to happen—but exactly what it is is impossible to say. Like its characters, its audience may well prefer that “something” not be “nothing.” Meaning nothing itself, Words and Music can mean anything and everything; it can accommodate those partial readings it invites yet resists.
This multiplicity of interpretive possibilities derives in large measure from Beckett’s willingness to divorce form from content, emphasizing the one while very nearly eliminating the other altogether. “It is the shape that matters,” Beckett once said of a sentence of which he is particularly fond, and one can learn much about the effect Words and Music has on its audience (and therefore about its meanings) by looking at its shape. Here is a play based on repetition rather than progression, permutation rather than elaboration or development. It is a drama of stasis ending in closure and involving abstract voices rather than realistic characters.
If the medium is the message, as media observer Marshall McLuhan has claimed, then the message of Words and Music is its “medium of pure audition” (Hugh Kenner’s apt phrase). Kenner’s description nicely sums up the futility of the characters’ efforts, the endlessness of a performance that must always be penultimate. The languages they employ—verbal and musical—prove similarly ineffectual. However, although communication is always impossible in Beckett’s world, the need of characters and author alike to go on performing—speaking and playing—remains. Words and music may convey no meanings, but they do exist, if not as vehicles then as pure forms, in and for themselves, and they do evoke responses. Read along conventional lines, the play may seem to be about Sloth, Age, and Love. Such a reading is, like Alvarez’s, plausible but partial, for the fact that Words uses these subjects interchangeably, freely substituting any one for any other, turns attention away from their referents to the words themselves—to, that is, language and humanity’s relationship to it.
The play circles around a number of vaguely related ideas, images, and situations. Language (speaking and playing) is the most pervasive; imploring, pleading, inviting, accompanying, submitting, dominating, trying, failing, and repeating are others. Together they contribute to the play’s movement away from the intolerable burden of endless performance, of meaningless existence, and toward the release to be found in the stasis of a final and perfect performance, or of death. Words and Music long to be released (presumably by Croak) from having to speak and to play. That is, they long to be released from the burden of having to be what they are (the one words, the other music) and released too from consciousness of self (incomplete, dependent, unsatisfied, and unsatisfying) and of the other, especially of the tyrant other they serve, Croak, who appears to be driven by an identical longing which, paradoxically, only his tormentors can fulfill. The poem heard near the end sums up the nature of their quest well: through trash and darkness, beyond words and need, to “one glimpse of that wellhead,” to, that is, one glimpse of the very source of life itself in the perfect wordlessness of nothing, free at last of their own desperate need to speak, which is to be.