University of Oxford

Samuel Beckett as an absurd dramatist

Samuel Beckett as an Absurd Dramatist

Samuel Bracelay Beckett (1906-1989) is concerned as one of the leading dramatists of the post-modern era. He brought revolutionary changes in the standards and rules by which a drama has been appreciated from many centuries and introduced a new kind of drama that Martin Esslin labelled under the title of ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’. The theatre of the absurd presents the anxiety of man that arises from the fact that he is surrounded by the areas of impenetrable darkness. In this chaos, he will never be able to know his true nature and purpose and no one can provide him the ready-made rules of conduct to follow. Marking the difference between a good play and an absurd play, Martin Esslin opines:

If a good play must have a cleverly constructed story, these have no story or plot to speak of : if a good play is judged by subtlety of characterization and motivation, these are often without recognizable characters and present the audience with almost mechanical puppets; if a good play has to have a fully explained theme, which is neatly exposed and finally solved, these often have neither a beginning nor an end; if a good play is to hold the mirror upto nature and portray the manners and mannerisms of the age in finely observed sketches, these seem often to be reflections of dreams and nightmares’ if a good play relies on witty repartee and pointed dialogues, these often consist of incoherent babblings. (21-22)

     Beckett’s canon of drama is large and varied. He had written two mime plays, six radio plays, one movie, six television scripts, one actorless play and seventeen dramas with speaking actors on the stage. His long series of dramas are collection of jewels in the storage of literature. About his interest in plays Bair says: “It was like a game for him to put speeches on paper, envision the way characters should move and speak – all within the confines of the printed page and his mind. It was much like chess: plotting moves, foreseeing changes and intellectualizing interactions.” (381)

     His first output for stage was an unpublished historical play named Human Wishes. It was planned to be a four act play that discussed the life of Dr. Johnson. After another unpublished play Le Kid his pen lost its fluency on papers due to war. Immediately after which he provided Elutheria which was thought to be elaborated in three acts but never felt the presence of theatre. His masterpiece Waiting for Godot gave him a distinctive voice as a playwright. It came with two acts as Beckett suggested, one act would have been too little and three would have been too much. The play was severely criticized but its depth and its uniqueness were recognized. It is a play about two tramps waiting on a country road for unknown Godot who will reward them for their waiting at the rendezvous. 

After this, Beckett abandoned stage for many years and indulged in translating French version into English. But the notoriety of Waiting for Godot enforced him to write something new and the fruit came in the shape of radio play named All That Fall, followed by Endgame. All That Fall took him into the new world of radio, a different medium but with day to day characters. Endgame presents claustrophobic set, the terminal situation and characters of unidentifiable origins. The play began with the thought of two acts but the interval was deliberately dropped as Beckett thought there was no structural justification for it. There is an ordinary family with everyday quarrels and attachments. The catastrophe of Endgame led Beckett to write down a mime play – ‘Act Without Words’ that presents a mute figure who is struggling to learn the futility of motion.

The experience of mime and radio play inspired him to write Krapp’s Last Tape in which a tape recorder recalls the image of radio play and Krapp’s lonely figure resembles to the image of mime. It brilliantly conveys the agonising poignancy of decrepit old Krapp’s lost to his middle aged self. With the exception of Happy Days that demands interval for technical reasons of planting Winnie in the ground, all his plays since Krapp’s Last Tape are pictured in one act with single scene. Other radio plays such as Embers, Words and Music and Cascando removed all the fog of challenge for Beckett in this media and he moved to film with Film (1965) and television play Eh Joe (1966). He searched affinity with the informality of the small screen and the feasibility of using the camera.

     The invention of new technique of using theatrical space is witnessed through Happy Days (1961), Play (1963), Come and go (1966) and Breathe (1969). Happy Days displays how a woman is engrossed by her grave. This play depicts the courage of human race, who in spite of all disasters, welcomes death happily. Happy Days prepared platform for Play, if the reader/audience can accept a woman buried to her neck under scorching sun, they can easily welcome three urn bound figures with a spotlight. The marriage of Winnie is followed by a love triangle in Play that presents the non- realistic vision of hell where three died persons are suffering the torments for their misdeeds. They are narrating what has happened to them long ago swiveling by a spotlight. The innovation is marked in the twice repetition of the whole play they have just run through. Come and Go and Breathe reduce drama to a very shot length. Come and Go ends only in three minutes and shows the circularity of time during such a short span of time. Breathe presents the brevity of life just in thirty seconds. It presents just an inhalation and exhalation on a bare stage.

His later plays seem to be the study of meaning of theatre – about co-ordination between character and background, light and sound, words and silence. His next play Not I (1972) shows this co-ordination in which light beam and buzzing become the part of discourse. This ten minutes monologue with a spot – lit female mouth against a dark stage recalls the image of Play. Mouth is narrating the story of a woman who finds herself in a limbo to be punished for some unknown sin. It is a challenging play for an actress who has to articulate so rapidly as to be barely comprehensible. That Time makes its existence in 1976, and presents a lit face with three pre- recorded monologues by the same actor. Footfalls presents the slow voice story of a woman and her daughter. The television plays Ghost Trio, ….but the clouds…. and Quad are added in the store of his dramatic canon.

In his last period plays became occasional that were written for specific reason or event. In 1982, Catastrophe supported the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel and A Piece of Monologue gave chance to David Warrilow whose acting had impressed Beckett. His next play Ohio Impromptu staged two identical characters with a book. One of them leads the play and another remains a mute listener. Even in his last days, his plays were inventive and unpredictable. Nacht and Traume televises a dream and his dramatic career was graved with What Where (1984).

     His plays seemed to be esoteric in the beginning and a flurry of articles and letters were written after the first performance of Waiting for Godot. Critics tried hard to interpret his plays but none of the interpretations either Christian or mythological or otherwise fit all the facts. Beckett remained silent and did not confirm a particular explanation. Leonard C. Pronko has acknowledged his talent and comments:

Only the most crassly insensitive person could fail to feel intensely the essential meaning of Beckett’s work. And if he is wakeful he will comprehend the basic dramatic situation, and the issues involved. Beyond this may be “headaches” for the overzealous analyst. (36-37)

He has given imagery not interpretation and now it is up to audience/reader how he interprets the network of his plays. Eliopulos supports this view when he says “the impact of Beckett’s plays lies not in what they say to the world but in what they do to each spectator. Beckett has prepared an “experience” and personal reactions to any experience must be varied.” (33) Originally written in French most of his plays are translated in English by Beckett himself. He also assisted directors of his plays in the setting of stage dimensions. The combination of writer and director made his written text alive. He described each and every physical action if that is not implicit in the speech and recurring pauses and silences mark the rhythm of speech. This contact enables him to be more economical in the use of both language and scenery. He eliminated everything that is of no use for the image he wanted to portrait. The plays of Beckett display most of the features that Martin Esslin has defined for an absurd play.

‘Plot’, a string of events which are well organised to achieve particular aesthetic and artistic effects, finds no developing events which could lead to finale in Beckett’s plays. He had freed the genre form compulsion of two-three hours performance and effectively presented tauter, tighter and polyphonic dramatic structure. In absurd drama, action does not move from one point to another as in other dramatic conventions instead it builds up the concrete and complex patterns of poetic images that the play reflects. The spectator has to wait for the gradual completion of this pattern because only after that he can view the whole image. The completion of image leads him to explore, to ask questions and to search out what the play exactly means.

In Waiting for Godot, until the second coming of messenger boy, the audience/reader is not sure that he is visiting a play which will never end. This kind of drama creates a higher level of dramatic tension and provides more relief when satisfied. It is irrational to argue that to construct irrational poetic image of absurd drama is easier than to build up a rational plot because there is an immense difference between artistically valid nonsense and just nonsense. There is always the presence of reality itself while creating a realistic plot. While in absurd drama, the author requires the capacity to invent images and situations that have no counterpart in nature. He has to establish a new universe with its own logic and rules which should be intelligible to the audience. Mere combination of irrational images without any logic will merely produce banality not a work of art. The author has to realize the fact that only incoherent fragments of reality are not sufficient but the ability to transpose them into valid imaginative whole is equally essential.

     Beckett was well aware of all these facts and constructed his plays very carefully. In the traditional plot there is a beginning, middle and an end but Beckett’s plays lack such development. There is no sequence of events or resolution of some problem but a static situation in which nothing happens. All the plays documented in Beckett’s canon have circular structure. In Waiting for Godot, the frequent closure followed by a new opening rejected the idea of definite end of the play. The second act seems to be identical to the first act only with slight variations. The second act displays no solution of the problems of tramps and the play ends suggesting infinite series. The end of the second act may be the beginning of third, leading to fourth and fifth act and so ad infinitum. Endgame deals with the same situation when Clov tries to close the action by borrowing traditional form of theatre finale-‘song’- he is stopped by Hamm with the command, ‘Don’t sing’ and the play moves on and ends with the same situation in  which it begins, giving the idea that it may begin again with the same routine. The twice repetition of Play clearly indicates its circularity. Beckett’s plays are presenting the miseries of life, man’s fight for existence and as far as these problems persist how can there be an end of Beckett’s plays. At the end of the play audience/reader’s mind always trouble about whether it is a proper end or more is going to happen.

In traditional plays, there is a tendency that the spectator identifies himself to the ‘actor’ who is performing on the stage. The theatre of the absurd successfully presents such characters whose aim and action cannot be imitated. The audience cannot identify himself with the characters who seem to be mere puppet. To communicate mysterious action and nature of real condition of man, the dramatist introduces less human character because only through him that he can freely express his views without binding himself in the chains of logic. Beckett’s characters are hardly recognizable. Albert Cook says, “Beckett’s people are negligible and identification with any class of people less than mankind in general.”(qtd. in Eliopulos 116) His characters do not preach moral and philosophical views. They are not directly drawn from the realistic world but are highly stylized one. They are living in irremediably immediate present without having definite plans for future and for whom past is a source of happiness but not achievable again.

 From his first published play Waiting for Godot to his last What Where, the image of man is shown in a declining way. Beckett from the beginning has presented the illusion of character in the form of character then dissolved the audience’s belief in the authenticity of the human image. In Waiting for Godot, the validity of the presence of Vladimir and Estragon is in doubt, when the second boy messenger denies to recognize them. In Endgame, the confusion to distinguish when Hamm performs himself and when he assumes a role diminish the sense of his presence as a human image. In Krapp’s Last Tape, he removes the presence of second person and substitutes him with a tape recorder. This play is a breakthrough in which a single character is doubled, and then trebled by mechanical invention of magnetic tape recorder. Happy Days picturizes a middle aged woman gradually consumed by a mound of earth. Till Not I, the presence remains only in the form of mouth who cannot speak the pronoun ‘I’ and presents herself in third person. The evidence of the person who belongs to the text oralized by mouth is not given. Play is staged with three urn bound faces and the series of declining image of human race goes on in Beckett’s plays. Guicharnaud opines about Beckett’s characters:

The characters in Beckett’s theatre are constantly caught between their own clumsiness and the resistance of objects, including their own bodies. Shoes that are too narrow, hats too small, car doors too low, windows too high, prostate conditions, haemorrhages, itching… Beckett’s universe is on of perpetual irritation. (116)

 Not only this, almost all his characters are suffering from physical deterioration. Estragon has hurting boots and Vladimir has paining shins. Hamm is blind and cannot move. Clov can move but cannot sit. Nagg and Nell are legless and kept in ashbins. Winnie is absorbed by earth and all the three characters in Play are caged in urns. Another distinctive feature of his characters is that they have mirrored number of alphabets in their names with contrasted characterization.   

ESTRAGON       POZZO      HAMM      NAGG        WINNIE

VLADIMIR         LUCKY     CLOV        NELL          WILLIE

This style runs in three of his major plays that the characters linked to each other have name of same number of alphabetic structure. But their demeanour is contrasted as Vladimir seems to be tolerant and intellectual type, Estragon is quick tempered and intuitive sort. Pozzo, the master of the whip, commands Lucky – a passive follower who carries former’s luggage. Like Pozzo, Beckett has set off erudite talented Hamm against Clov who parrots him. Nagg is an affectionate husband and Nell is an intelligent lady who cherishes memories. Winnie is full of life and cannot remain silent. On the other hand, Willie is introvert and speaks only few words during the whole play. In his later plays he generally removed the names of characters and assigned either an alphabet like in Play – M, W1 and W2 or just mentioned the part of body like in Not I – Mouth. Thus, Beckett has experimented with the concrete image of human actor on the stage. His characters make their entrances and departures upon the stage of life, verbalising tales full of sound and fury.

 Absurd drama deals with sombre and violent ‘subject-matter’ yet the failure of identification with characters leads it to the comic theatre. Thus it transcends the category of both – tragedy and comedy, and makes a combination of laughter with horror. It does not present some social facts, morals, political behaviour or examples of historical events but a universe- disintegrated, meaningless that has no unifying principle – an absurd universe. Beckett started writing in a world in which there is no unity, clarity, hope, rationality and where man feels himself all alone, stranger to everyone. These experiences led him to ask about the authenticity of his existence. His main concern is with human impotence, his identity, his limitations and value of his existence. He himself admitted, “I am working with impotence, ignorance. My little exploration is that whole zone of being that has always been aside by artists as something unusual – as something by definition incompatible with art.” (qtd. in Eliopulos 31) His plays present images of entropy in which the world and the people in it are slowly but inexorably running down. There is abiding concern with death and dying.  Death as an event is presented to be a desire of man but ultimately impossible whereas dying as a process is shown to be our only sure reality.

Beckett realised that he could make an expressive use of existing treasury of ‘music’ through the genre of drama. Mihalovici has described Beckett as “A remarkable musician… He possesses an astonishing musical intuition… That I often used in my composition.” (qtd. in Mercier 145) There is always a touch of music in his plays since Waiting for Godot. But the real stars sparkled with his radio plays that reminded him of the possibilities of music. Waiting for Godot comprises the round song of Vladimir and the free verse speech of Lucky’s monologue. At the beginning and the end of the play All That Fall, the music of Schubert’s ‘Death and The Maiden’ is played on an old gramophone. In Happy Days Winnie plays Waltz Duet “I love you so” from ‘The Merry Widow’.

The real triumph of music over words can be observed in Words and Music. Music is presented as a small orchestra that can be heard tuning up as the play begins. When Croak gets fed up with Words’ pseudo – scholastic analysis, he invites music that supplies appropriate soft tunes over the ‘Audible groans and protestation‘ of Words. In Cascando, music plays the role of third character. “For Cascando… it was not a matter of a musical commentary on the text but of creating, by musical means a character, so to speak, who sometimes intervenes alone, sometimes along with the narrator, without however merely being the accompaniment for him.”(ibid, 146) In short, music has become synonymous with emotions for Beckett. It has softened the tiring and boring atmosphere of his plays. Hamm might have checked Clov from singing that will lead to finale but Winnie has closed Happy Days with a song.

Spectacle or scenic effect has much concerned with stage craft. While there used to be decorated stage in traditional plays Beckett had omitted every unnecessary prop from the stage. Stage is not crafted as a garden or a palace but barrenness occupies the stage of Beckett. Light is assigned a signified role that controls and compels characters to speak. From Classical to Elizabethan drama, plays were staged in architectural spaces. With the help of language, a playwright can develop the literal and imaginative significance of the scene. The arrangements are established for entrances, exits and an emblematic image that could be referred as a palace or public space. The audience perceives the perception of characters about scenographic image as well as creates his own conceptions. Beckett had eliminated the scenic details and confined the action in a specific context that may lead to an affirmation of the possibility of knowledge.  In plays like Footfalls where the vocal quality, dramatic posture and emotional intensity can differ from production to production, every stage should be settled with original lightening concept, costume design and even the area of movement are blocked through the map in the text. Beckett creates non-specific settings that separate his characters from any social boundations. He is picturising the generalised human condition with barrenness of the stage space. He may not specify the restrictive environments geographically or historically but he does not forget to clarify the boundaries with the suggestion that his protagonist cannot cross it because outside it is death.

In good literary theatre piece, ‘language’ is a predominant factor. Language is the main source of reflecting the thoughts and actions of the characters. There is a breakdown of language in the communication of the characters in the theatre of the absurd. Its main aim is that language must reveal authentic content rather than concealing it. This can be done only when man will leave the ossified clichés and steps further towards living language. Absurd drama introduces new dimension of stage by using the language of a scene in contrast to action, by reducing it to verbal nonsense, by expressing thought through poetic logic of association and imagery instead of discursive language. Some space is provided by theatre to the dramatist that is filled by visual and audible images. Beckett fully supported this view and possessed the capacity to express visually the silence on the stage.

Beckett’s plays are centre of language which accepts its own degradation. Dramatic speech in Beckett’s drama possesses the fundamental level of action. It is not subordinate to gestures, movements and setting. For the first time in Beckett’s play silence and abstraction are presented not as subsidiary but as main part of speech, the content of drama, and the constitutive elements of dramatic language. Beckett is conscious about the relationship between the object (Theme) and the mode of [removed]Language). He regards latter the container of the former, foregrounding the comic absurdity of the dissociation into two non-interacting elements. Language, for Beckett is not a self sufficient tool to express concepts and themes in dramas, it needs the support of paralinguistic and non-linguistic features. The capacity to speak even when the whole body is reduced to head protruding from a dustbin is the main dimension of Beckett’s theatre.

     The language of his plays is theatrical that is making efforts to break the logical sequences and association to communicate the fluidity of consciousness. Beckett’s awareness that communication is not possible lies in the belief that absolute meaning is absent from the world. So language in the form of communication becomes private in lack of any absolute external criteria. Beckett takes special care of syntax and vocabulary. His new words and ambiguous syntax are counter-balanced by simple sentences and day to day life vocabulary. If some parts of his plays are unintelligible like Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot, other parts can easily be digested as the verbal ping-pong of Vladimir and Estragon.

    To sum up, Beckett’s celebrated presence is felt not only on the French scene but throughout the international literary community. He has become one of the first absurdist playwrights to win international fame. In 1969, he received Noble Prize for literature, one of the few time of this century that almost everyone agreed that the recipient deserved it. He continued to write till his death in 1989 and towards the decay of his life, he felt each word to be an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.

Works cited

Bair, Deidre. A Biography: Samuel Beckett. London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978.

Eliopulos, James. Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Language. Paris: The Hague, 1975.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of absurd. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961.

Guicharnaud, Jacques. Modern French Theatre. New York: Yale University Press, 1961.

Mercier, Vivian. Beckett/Beckett. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Pronko, Leonard C. Avant Garde: The Experimental Theatre in France. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

 

                           

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