Just Play: Beckett's Theater

Just Play: Beckett's Theater

by Ruby Cohn


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691616025
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

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Just Play: Beckett's Theater

By Ruby Cohn


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06410-9



Beckett's plays are just play for precise performance. They are play as opposed to unmediated reality, but play is its own mode of reality.

Just play is a phrase in Beckett's Play, spoken twice within a moment of stage time, by a man in an eternal triangle:

I know now, all that was just ... play.

All this, when will all this have been ... just play?

Sentence and question, rhythmically monosyllabic, point to past and future, the world and limbo. The sentence acknowledges the acquisition of wisdom through experience; it is a stripped version of Aeschylean pathos-mathos, and yet the wisdom is undercut by the three dots that denote hesitation after the reductive "just." The question combines past and future in that arresting tense, the future perfect; wisdom seems to dissolve in interrogation as these three dots convert "just play" into a postscript on a concern with the very possibility of "all this."

What I propose to do in this book is play with Beckett's plays — devices of "all this" in his twenty-one complete plays ("Through Views") and enactment of "all that" ("Performance"). This examination is not an introduction to Beckett's drama; still less is it a summary, paraphrase, or substitute. Rather, it is an implicit appreciation through isolation of functional devices and theater aspects. Between these two critical approaches, I focus briefly on three abandoned or revised plays.

Like Lucky in Waiting for Godot, I resume. Beckett has produced or published twenty plays — ten for theater, four for radio, three for television, two for mime, and one for cinema. Various abortive efforts and the three-act Eleuthéria are unpublished or unproduced. Critics usually discuss Beckett's plays in chronological order, and my chapters in "Through Views" will follow custom, but I now glance at Beckett's drama achronologically, moving outward from the silence he cherishes.

Breath (1966) lasts thirty-five seconds on the rare occasions it reaches a theater. Between five-second periods of faint light at the end and beginning, we hear two faint human notes — birth-cry and death-rattle. Between these identical sounds, light and breath rise in ten seconds to maximum, hold for five seconds, fall away in another ten seconds. Beckett has called this briefest of plays "a farce in five acts," and they form a symmetrical whole. Act I is repeated by Act V — the cry; Act II is repeated by Act IV — breath and light, but moving in opposite directions; only the apex Act III is unique. Metaphoric rather than metonymic, the play etches human life against infinity, a voice against the void, breath-light of classico-Christian tradition against expanding space of modern science. The brief play contains Beckett staples — symmetry, repetition, inversion, the wresting of sound from silence, a flicker of light against the dark, dying but no definable death.

Not so stark, Act Without Words I (1956) is "a mime for one player." As in playerless Breath, the mime concentrates a whole life. After birth into the bright world-stage, the "one player" performs during his breath-light maximum, which lasts somewhat longer than the five seconds' hold of Breath. The mute actor is tempted by tree, scissors, carafe of water, rope, and three maneuverable cubes. These objects defeat the player's ingenious efforts to bend them to his purpose. Exit from the world-stage proves impossible too, since the player is thrice flung back from the theater wings. By the end of the mime play the character learns to live without will; to all blandishments he reacts by not moving. Palliatives for the syndrome of living vanish from his reach until the actor stops reaching. Exploiting stage space — wings and flies — Beckett's first mime play illustrates one of his favorite sayings, the Latin of seventeenth-century Arnold Geulincx: "Ubi nihil vales ibi nihil velis" — where you are worth nothing, there you should want nothing, "where" and "there" being the world-stage.

Act Without Words II (1956) is subtitled "a mime for two players," and Beckett might have added "of opposite temperaments," since the play displays this opposition. The scenic directions specify that "A is slow, awkward ... absent. B brisk, rapid, precise." Each in turn is goaded to his day's activities. A prays, takes pills, dresses, eats, laboriously carries two sacks, but mainly he broods. B exercises, grooms himself, eats, laboriously carries two sacks, but mainly he confirms his schedule by his watch. On our watches A's day lasts exactly as long as B's. Purpose is devoured by process as the cycle starts again to end the mime play. Although A and B do not communicate, they are the simplest of Beckett's contrapuntal couples, A reluctantly bound to this world and B eagerly participating in it. Different as they are, however, A and B wear the same clothes; they respond (differently) to the same goad.

These wordless dramas are Beckett's morality plays, theatrical allegories. But unlike medieval moralities, they show us man from the outside, without penitential self-examination. When Beckett admits words into drama, he admits self-awareness, but in the wordless movie Film (1963) he already contrasts an exterior with an interior view of man. (To be accurate, the script dwells on that contrast, which the camera realizes imperfectly.) Beckett is unusually explicit about the idea behind his movie script, whose point of departure is Berkeley's "Esse est percipi." (To be is to be perceived.) Beckett continues: "All extraneous perception suppressed, animal, human, divine, self-perception maintains in being. Search of non-being in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in inescapability of self-perception." Non-being is the goal of O, Buster Keaton's main role, and the film traces several suppressions of perception — not only the eyes mentioned in the script but eyelike shapes on a large envelope and on the headrest of a rocking-chair. After tearing up photographs from his past, Keaton as O feels his pulse, that testimony to being, from which he cannot retreat. Self-perception, meant to be rendered by blurred focus, maintains the Keaton-figure in being. As the film ends, O rocks back and forth, back and forth, head bowed in the defeat of self-perception.

Film, Breath, and the two Acts Without Words are far less subtle than Beckett's verbal plays. Collectively, the wordless plays imply Beckett's mistrust of language. In none of them do we find the hesitations, interrogations, fluctuations, contradictions, and ambiguities of the plays with words. Gesture is apparently keener and cleaner than phrase.

Since Beckett has written four radio plays, a converse generalization might be expected — that Beckett mistrusts the evidence of his eyes. However, the radio plays refer vividly to the visual — especially All That Fall and Embers. Confined so largely to words, these plays dramatize the difficulties of verbal composition, a metaphoric blind search. This is only an incidental aspect of All That Fall, since Dan Rooney's autobiographical story is a subterfuge to evade answering his wife's question about the delay of his train. In Embers Henry's story of Bolton and Holloway relates obliquely to his own predicament. The other radio plays center on the process of verbal creation, twice blending words with music.

In his three television plays Beckett boldly writes against a medium that thrives on close examination of surfaces. Limited by the camera to exteriors, Beckett's scripts probe like X-rays through a language at the edge of image. Eh Joe anatomizes guilt in nine slow zoom moves of a camera, gradually distorting Joe's face in self-revelation. In Ghost Trio, named for Beethoven's Fifth Piano Sonata, a man in a monastic room expectantly waits for a woman; instead, a boy comes and twice shakes his head — as negative as Godot. ... but the clouds ... elevates a woman to muse or madonna; empty of grace, however, she is a still presence to the man's murmur of the final lines from Yeats' Tower. The zoom moves in Eh Joe give place to repetitive back-and-forth motions in the recent television plays, describing different crosses for similar passions.

Mime, radio, television, film are of course not the dramatic genres of Beckett's greatest impact. That remains theater — actors speaking words in stage space. Beckett's theater pieces pivot on death, and yet we witness no actual death on stage — "Outside of here it's death" (my italics). Beckett is agonizingly aware that when we begin to live, we begin to die, and he shades that awareness theatrically.

In his shortest play with words, Come and Go (1965), death is not mentioned, but it is the invisible fulcrum for this mortal equilibrium. A Beckett blend, the three Graces coalesce with the three Fates in this alternation of tableau and ballet. These Fates are themselves doomed, and the grace is that they do not know it. Sentenced mysteriously, they still dream of love, imagining perfect circles — like us all.

In Beckett's three full-evening plays — Waiting for Godot (1949), Endgame (1956), and Happy Days (1961) — death is variously beyond the horizon. For Vladimir and especially Estragon, death is the alternative to waiting for Godot. In the preplay past Estragon threw himself into the Rhone River, but Vladimir fished him out. In the present — the play — Estragon suggests that they hang themselves. In Act II, echoing Pozzo's Act I line about Lucky, Estragon advises Vladimir: "The best thing would be to kill me." Although the play's logic prohibits death, Vladimir expands on the joys of hanging; he also hints at death when pondering the two thieves who reviled the Savior, or when singing the round about the dog who was beaten to death. Both friends pitilessly converse about Lucky's possible death, and in Act II both evoke a Hamlet graveyard through bone images. Occasionally, we hear the words "dead" and "death" robbed of fatality; Estragon reacts to Vladimir's offstage urination: "He'll be the death of me," and he mock-warns Pozzo: "You'll catch your death." Vladimir sighs: "We're bored to death." Pozzo utters a nostalgic tribute to his lost watch "with deadbeat escapement." The play's most poignant image of death has been widely quoted — blind Pozzo's outburst: "They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more."

In Endgame the "instant" is almost over. The light outside has sunk, and Clov apparently watches his light dying offstage in the kitchen. Within and without is gray: "Light black. From pole to pole." Not quite yet the dark black of mourning for universal death, for which Clov holds Hamm responsible. The stage is a temporary shelter from death — at least for its human inhabitants. "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life ...?" asks Lear, and Hamm's pupil Clov tries to take life from a flea and a rat.

Hamm announces the time for "it" to end, and yet he hesitates to end. That hesitation accommodates the asymptotic action of Endgame, approaching the night but not quite reaching it. Hamm will distribute just enough food to "keep ... from dying," but he encourages Clov to kill him. Again and again, Hamm and Clov brood about death, but old Nagg and Nell recall death only verbally. Nell is "perished" with cold, and Nagg tries to convince his wife that she nearly died laughing at his story. Her stage death is, however, only probable: "Looks like it." Noting how quickly Nagg stops weeping for Nell, Hamm realizes: "The dead go fast." For Hamm and Clov, death is alternatively a menace and a consolation: "If I could kill him I'd die happy." Before Clov dresses to leave the shelter, he describes life as a lingering death: "What skilled attention they get, all those dying of their wounds." Hamm's despair is deeper; for him life is more dreadful than death. Hamm's painter-engraver had a vision of universal death, but his story-protagonist implies a worse holocaust; offering the fictional father "a nice natural death," the protagonist then berates him: "[The child] doesn't realize, all he knows is hunger, and cold, and death to crown it all." The sentence leaves unspoken what adults realize — perhaps an impersonal infinity in which humanity will leave no trace.

In Happy Days Beckett moves toward staging that infinity — an invariant hellish light (which many directors soften out of consideration for their audience). In this third play of waiting for a death that does not come, Beckett shifts his basic metaphor; life is still light, but it is also heat, with resonances of a Christian Hell. Winnie, like Vladimir and Estragon before her, alternates between the compulsion to wait and a desire to die — "wait for the day to come ... the happy day to come when flesh melts at so many degrees and the night of the moon has so many hundred hours." (my italics) If the conjunction were "or" rather than "and," a long night would spare Winnie's flesh from melting under the scorching sun. "And" wishfully dissolves Winnie in a single day/night.

Melting away and long nights are both fantasies of Winnie, and, for all her attention to her immediate surroundings, she lives largely in a fantasy which enables her to pronounce each day happy. The word "die" is an "old style" word in her endless days. She literally never says "die" about herself, but she sublimates death in narration. The woman who accompanies Mr. Shower or Cooker bursts out: "Drop" in Act I, and "Drop dead" in Act II. Winnie's fictional Mildred will have memories of the womb "before she dies." In Winnie's memory Willie pressed a gun upon her: "Take it away before I put myself out of my misery." By Act ? Winnie momentarily believes that Willie is dead, but already in Act I she plays the only song of her music-box — the Merry Widow Waltz. Given her situation, literally in her grave, a Merry Widower tune might seem more fitting, but it is Winnie who remains determinedly merry.

Classical tragedy begins close to the death of the hero. Driving hard to a climax, tragic drama finally envelops the hero's death in harmonic resonance. In Beckett's three major dramas he also begins close to the death of his heroes, but they cannot attain death, and the plays arrive at no harmonic resolution.

The other stage plays live at or beyond death's threshold. Krapp's Last Tape (1958) and That Time (1975) lean on the convention that one's whole lifetime wells up into consciousness at the moment of death. In Krapp's Last Tape as originally published, that moment is less clear than in Beckett's productions. "Last" may mean "most recent" or "final," and Beckett stresses the finality; Krapp finally faces the darkness at his left, which is death. The last tape he hears (as opposed to the one he records) dwells on the death of his mother. In his last words on the tape — "No, I wouldn't want them back." — Krapp rejects the years of his life, and on stage he accepts death's darkness and silence. That Time, written nearly two decades later, might be happening a few minutes later. The head of a nameless old man is canted upward, as though we look down on a deathbed while we hear incantations shading into dust's threnody.

Hovering about death are Play (1962), Not I (1972), and Footfalls (1975). In a purgatorial ambience the suffering is distinctively cadenced. Each of the three urned characters of Play believes the other two are still alive. Although their urns touch, they are totally screened from one another. Only mildly inquisitive about the drama of their earthly lives — the Narration — they inquire deeply and vainly into the disembodied state we witness — the Meditation. They are precursors of Mouth of Not I. Although she does not permit herself use of the first person singular, Mouth nevertheless seeks to pierce her own stream of words, their direction and meaning. In Play the old metaphor of life as light is modified to light triggering an impression of purgatorial afterlife. In Not I, at the traditional terminus of life — three score and ten years — a stream of words and a theater spotlight become a buzz and a beam, continuously pulsing. More evanescent is Footfalls, where a woman whose name may be May or its anagram Amy, paces back and forth on a stage board. Her invisible mother speaks to her and about her. Each of the women asks questions about suffering in a life from which they may have graduated. The daughter walks and broods. The real mother and fictional mother intone the same question: "Will you never have done ... revolving it all?" Even after death, the mind circles round and round on suffering, and in a semblance of such circling, the feet walk back and forth — in fiction and in theater.


Excerpted from Just Play: Beckett's Theater by Ruby Cohn. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • List of Photographs, pg. viii
  • Acknowledgments, pg. ix
  • 1 Introduction, pg. 1
  • 2. At This Place, pg. 17
  • 3. At This Moment in Time, pg. 34
  • 4. All Mankind Is Us: Soliloquizers, pg. 58
  • 5. All Mankind Is Us: Fictionalizers, pg. 76
  • 6. The Churn of Stale Words: Repetitions, pg. 96
  • 7. The Play That Wasn’t Written: Human Wishes, pg. 143
  • 8. The Play That Wasn’t Staged: Eleuthéria, pg. 163
  • 9. The Play That Was Rewritten: Fin de partie, pg. 173
  • 10. Some Beckett Theatricians, pg. 189
  • 11. Jumping Beckett's Genres, pg. 207
  • 12. Beckett Directs, pg. 230
  • Notes, pg. 281
  • Bibliography of Works Cited, pg. 289
  • APPENDIX A. Beckett as Playwright, pg. 293
  • APPENDIX B. Beckett as Stage Director, pg. 294
  • APPENDIX C. Human Wishes, pg. 295
  • Index, pg. 307

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