Samuel Beckett

Short Plays for the Stage

Collected Shorter Plays 1957-1984

(1957-1984)

Grove Press, 1984, ISBN 0-8021-5055-1; Paperback $15.95 [Browse/Purchase]

This essential book collects all of Beckett's short dramatic works, including Krapp's Last Tape, Play, Film, and all of his radio plays. Though all his short works are indeed included in this single volume, in order to make reviewing easier we have split Beckett's smaller dramatic pieces into two categories, "Short Plays for the Stage," and "Plays for Various Media."
Collected Shorter Plays includes:

All That Fall (Radio)
Act Without Words I (Mime)
Act Without Words II (Mime)
Krapp's Last Tape (Stage)
Rough for Theatre I (Stage)
Rough for Theatre II (Stage)
Embers (Radio)
Rough for Radio I (Radio)
Rough for Radio II (Radio)
Words and Music (Radio)
Cascando (Radio)
Play (Stage)
Film (Film)
The Old Tune (Radio)
Come and Go (Stage)
Eh Joe (TV)
Breath (Stage)
Not I (Stage)
That Time (Stage)
Footfalls (Stage)
Ghost Trio (TV)
...but the clouds... (TV)
A Piece of Monologue (Stage)
Rockaby (Stage)
Ohio Impromptu (Stage)
Quad (TV)
Catastrophe (Stage)
Nacht und Träume (TV)
What Where (Stage)

More Apmonia commentary is forthcoming.

Act Without Words I

Acte sans Paroles (1957: translated as Act Without Words I, 1958)

Beckett's cousin John provided the original music which accompanied this "mime for one player." The stage, though bright, is empty: a desert. "A man is flung backwards on stage from right wing." Such a jarring introduction compounds the creation of man with his fall as much as it recalls Martin Heidegger's ideas about Geworfenheit, the sense of having been thrown into existence. Beckett's wordless man is subjected to prompts in the form of whistles, unseen thrusts, and objects dangled from above and either kept from his grasp or quickly retracted. Given to reflecting between actions, he is simultaneously the archetypal lab rat, coldly tested and studied by unknown forces (and we the audience: are we part of the research team or ourselves being checked for reaction?) and a condemned Tantalus. Various efforts are made to reach the lowered carafe, which is ostentatiously labelled WATER (strangely reminiscent of the bottle which says DRINK ME to Lewis Carroll's Alice) but could well be empty, but eventually the man abandons all actions when even the opportunity and means to suicide are withdrawn. At last he acts no more -- "He does not move" though the carafe "dangles and plays about his face" and the whistles signal new, teasing scenarios -- and "looks at his hands." It might be argued that, paradoxically, the man's most effectual act is not to act: by not responding to the stimuli provided, he ends the show.

Play

(Spiel, 1963; Play, 1964)

Play has one of the most confusing linguistic histories of any of Beckett's works. Although it was first written in English in late 1962 and early 1963, Play was first published in German as Spiel in the journal Theater Heute in July 1963, and even its first performance was German, in 1963, at the Ulmer Theater, Ulm-Donau. Faber and Faber published Play in English for the first time in 1964.
Three characters, two women and a man, form a disjointed chorus from their face-forward positions in three large urns. Their speech reveals them to be British and of a class accustomed to having servants. A spotlight targets each speaker in turn (though sometimes all at once) as they together relate and repeat, half-fugue, half-litany, the story of their love triangle. This "mad pursuit," whether viewed as passionate or sordid, is as ancient as the Grecian urn of Keats:

More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young,
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

As ancient and as contrived. The dull mechanism of the old tale of lust, betrayal, and contrition is complemented by the on-off lighting and the automatic responses of the characters ("what do you take me for, a something machine?"). Play is Beckett at play: it is almost silly, what with the clownish, guilty hiccups, the cattiness of insults like "her photographs were kind to her," the bourgeois fascination with the Riviera and green tea. Only almost, however, for there is something sadistic at work here. The urns are ghastly, morbid confinements, the spotlight is an interrogator's lamp (the stage directions refer to its "victims"), and the title of the show is a stark command. The love in this play is in the past, forever examined despite the wishes for "mercy" and "peace" and a way out of the routine:

W1: Is it that I do not tell the truth, is that it, that some day somehow I may tell the truth at last and then no more light at last, for the truth?

[Spot from W1 to W2.]

W2: You might get angry and blaze me clean out of my wits. Mightn't you?

[Spot from W2 to M.]

M: I know now, all that was just... play. And this? When will all this –

There is something of Dante's voyeurism in Play, for we are permitted to glimpse and hear souls in a distressing yet comic stasis. Unlike Dante, though, who can accept the tableaux of poetic punishment he beholds, Beckett never affirms that his are just. They just are. (TC)

Not I

1973

Often pointed to as a stark example of the minimalism as well as the emotional force of Beckett's stagecraft, Not I was written in English in 1972. A woman suspended in darkness babbles, only her mouth (she is called Mouth in the script) visible high -- "about 8 feet"-- above the stage. Below at left stands a sexless Auditor, "enveloped from head to foot in loose black djellaba." As the play begins, Mouth can be heard behind the curtain, though her words are unintelligible until the curtain rises and her first clear word is "out." This word has the same etymology as "utter," and in this play the corollary sin of being born is the compulsion to speak. The "godforsaken hole" reviled by Mouth is at once her mother's sex, the miserable world into which she has been thrust, and her own unstoppable mouth. Each word is "out before its time" just as she was, and she frequently amends a phrase with another:

. . . imagine! . . whole body like gone . . . just the mouth . . . lips . . . cheeks . . . jaws . . . never-- . . . what? . . tongue? . . yes . . . lips . . . cheeks . . . jaws . . . tongue . . . never still a second . . . mouth on fire . . . stream of words . . . in her ear . . . practically in her ear . . . not catching the half . . . not the quarter . . . no idea what she's saying . . . imagine! . . no idea what she's saying! . . and can't stop . . . no stopping it . . .

If Molly Bloom's famous monologue is an affirmation of life and assertion of female identity, Not I is its opposite. Mouth cannot quite negate herself; she cannot find the right last word. The "stream of words" does not stop, is filled with contradictions -- she laughs briefly at "merciful" before having a good laugh at "God," but then tries to persuade herself by repetition that "God is love" -- and winds up back where it began. Whereas Krapp's taping is accumulative and entirely self-focussed, Mouth is continually revising her narrative, the perfect or ideal form of which would omit her altogether. When her "vehement refusal to relinquish third person" suffers from a moment of confusion, she cries out, "no! . . she! . ." and the Auditor makes "a gesture of helpless compassion" that grows weaker with each instance. When the fifth such incident occurs, the Auditor makes no move at all, and Mouth blubbers about "what she was trying . . . what to try . . . no matter . . . keep on . . ." as the curtain begins to descend. At last she is confined again to the unintelligible, but not before giving us an image of spring and renewal:

. . . new every morning . . . back in the field . . . April morning . . . face in the grass . . . nothing but the larks . . . pick it up--

Mouth's fortitude here is much like that shown by Winnie in Happy Days when she declares, "Another heavenly day." The Auditor may surrender, but Mouth does not.
Performing the part of Mouth is a real challenge: besides having to deliver a winding monologue whose pacing is everything, an actress must endure the physical discomfort of being literally locked in place, including a head restraint, so that only her mouth remains always visible. (Hugh Kenner has suggested that Beckett may be recalling one of the unusual conditions to the license granted to Ireland's Abbey Theatre in 1904: besides being prohibited from staging exhibitions of wild beasts, the managers were not "to allow women or children to be hung from the flies or fixed in positions from which they cannot release themselves.") When the play premiered in New York, Jessica Tandy was puzzled and asked Beckett whether the woman had been raped in the field. Beckett was startled: "How could you think of such a thing!" There is no need to invent external incidents to justify, as it were, Mouth's dilemma. Existence is trauma enough, and narrative is consolation by way of disappointment. (TC)

Ohio Impromptu

1980

Ohio Impromptu was written in English in 1980 and first performed in 1981 at Ohio State University, as part of a celebration of Beckett's 75th birthday.
The curtain rises on a bleak space, dimly lit and containing only a white table and two chairs, each occupied by an identical figure dressed in black with long white hair. They are separated by a lone hat placed on the center of the table. It is an immediately familiar Beckettian landscape: at the tail end of spiritual apocalypse, we are presented with an internal stage where a coming epiphany will signal a final collapse. The two figures are identified as Listener and Reader, and we will soon come to understand them as aspects of the same person, an elderly man plagued by sleeplessness and haunted by the memory of a tragic loss. The story of this loss, and of his life following, is the subject of a worn book read aloud by Reader to the silent Listener, who occasionally checks his progress with a sharp rap on the table, imploring Reader to pause and repeat a poignant passage. The autobiographical tale itself is cast in the third person, the "I" of immediate experience transformed into the less painful "he" of objectified memory. As with Not I, there is a resistance to the complicity of self-identification, and the intensity of self-agency is attenuated by a series of filters: the objectification of the storybook, the mediation of Reader, and the silent (but porous) abnegation of Listener, who is the closest representative of the subject himself.
Even though we enter the drama on the last few pages of the book, we quickly develop an image of the man's past. Once, when he was younger, he lost a "dear name" deeply loved. Seeking to escape the pain of this separation, he retreated to an unfamiliar world, a fruitless attempt to "obtain relief alone." Now, years later, the man is again suffering from the sleeplessness and fear of night that afflicted him during this time, when he ignored the dreams that advised him to remain behind, seeking comfort in the "shade" of his parted companion. (Whether this "dear name" is a woman, a friend, or someone else is open to question. Some critics have pointed to the Parisian references and "Latin Quarter hat" as allusions to James Joyce.) Recently, however, he has been visited by Reader, who softens his isolation in the insomniac night by reading to him (or at least the part of him called Listener). Reader vanishes at dawn, returning again at "unheralded" times, until "with never a word exchanged they grew to be as one." Although there is little doubt that Reader has been self-generated by the man, at one point, it is indicated that Reader is a messenger sent from the "dear name." Perhaps Reader is the "shade" intended to "comfort" the man, now transformed into the likeness of himself, as if the passing of time has eroded the memory of "the dear face," uncovering only the contours of his own solitude. Indeed, the fact that Listener is merely identified as "Listener" and not, say, "Krapp" implies that both are ghostly projections of the same soul, winding down a lifeless rehearsal for oblivion.
Although we don't know how long this joyless ritual of regret has been going on, tonight may be different from previous visitations. Tonight, "nothing is left to tell," and the storybook seems to enter a self-reflexive present, heralding an end to the cycle: "Till the night came at last when having closed the book and dawn at hand he did not disappear but sat on without a word." After a silent pause, Reader then continues reading from the open book: "Finally he said, I have had a 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 if it were in your power." At this revelation, Reader goes on, still reading from the book:

So the sad tale a last time told they sat on as though turned to stone. Through the single window dawn shed no light. From the street no sound of reawakening. Or was it that buried in who knows what thoughts they paid no heed? To light of day. To 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. The sad tale a last time told. Nothing is left to tell.

Reader then finishes the "sad tale a last time told" and finally closes the book. The two hold each other's gaze, unblinking and expressionless, each mirroring the other like a frozen statue.
Although this is the conclusion of the play -- and so the shutter is thrown across our window into their unhappy world -- we are left with a disquietude that seems deeper than just the emotional impact of the story itself. Ohio Impromptu does not so much conclude as it does stop, and part of its power to unsettle is drawn from several unresolved ambiguities. First of all, Beckett engages in a subtle bit of theatrical sleight-of-hand, and the final moments of the play deserve additional attention. Reading from the book, Reader describes an eventual night when, upon closing his book, he will not vanish. Rather, he will speak directly to Listener, informing him that their time together has ended forever; after which the two will sit still, "as though turned to stone." We hear this foretold, then we see Reader closing the book, meeting Listener's gaze, and the lights fade out. We do not in fact know what is coming next, whether Reader will vanish, or whether he will speak the fateful words of farewell. It is even possible that every reading ended like this, with Reader describing their last day and then pausing before disappearing, each incident bringing Listener closer to the dread day of reckoning. By ending the play during the anxious pause after the book is closed, but before Reader breaks his silence, Beckett allows us to experience the "worst of both worlds." Having heard the bleak ending described, our emotions superimpose it upon the ending we see, and in a strange sort of reverse-memory, the two moments become one: foreshadowing and revelation. This creates the impression, almost the emotional certainty, that this is indeed the final reading. Through Beckett's craft, we simultaneously experience the sadness of both worlds -- the knowledge of impending loss, and the loss itself.
Although the structure of Ohio Impromptu undermines any attempt to resolve its conclusion, an additional sense of ambiguity leaves the meaning of its ending open to interpretation as well. While the feeling of sadness in the play is indisputable, once we accept that Reader and Listener must part ways, we have to ask ourselves whether this is a positive or negative development in the life of the subject himself. After all, why does the "dear name" forbid Reader from returning again? Beckett leaves this an open question. Has memory finally become exhausted, and the shade completely lost its identity and ability to provide comfort? Has the old man ceased to become anything but Listener and Reader, and has therefore surrendered to "mindlessness?" Or was the termination of Reader a mercy killing in the name of self-defense? (Quite literally so!) Will there be some sort of spiritual resurrection after the "light of day" is finally recognized, burning through the "profounds of mind?" Despite the many ominous signs of regret and hopelessness, Beckett does leave some room for a more positive slant. After all, Reader's book itself poses the question, "Or was it that buried in who knows what thoughts they paid no heed? To light of day. To sound of reawakening." This implies that an objective universe of "light" and "reawakening" does exist, is at least subconsciously recognized by the subject, and has the eventual capacity to exert itself. But whether or not the man eventually heeds these symbols of life, realizing perhaps "I can't go on I'll go on," for now, "nothing is left to tell." Thrust out of sight of Reader and Listener, Audience is left only with uncertainty and uneasy thoughts. (ABR)

What Where

1983

Written in 1983, Beckett's last work for the stage is one of his most enigmatic, and involves four characters "as alike as possible," Bam, Bom, Bim, and Bem. Bam, who seems to be in charge, has an additional manifestation in the Voice of Bam (V), an omnipresent force that directs the proceedings from a "small megaphone at head level." Like the God of the Old Testament, V acts as the voice of creation, bringing forth light by remarking "I switch on" and judging subsequent events as "Good" or "Not good." V may also be seen as a director-within-the-play, a phenomenon common in Beckett but always uniquely deployed, such as Pozzo "directing" Lucky in Godot, the interrogative spotlight in Play, Listener in Ohio Impromptu, or the Director in Catastrophe.
After preparing the stage through a wordless rehearsal, a quadrille of identical figures entering and leaving, V calls Bam to the stage and sets events in motion. Bam, who will remain onstage until the last moments of the play, greets Bom, and asks him for the results of his interrogation of an unnamed subject. The answer is not good -- although Bom gave him "the works" until he wept, screamed, begged for mercy, and finally "passed out," Bom was unable to make his subject "say it." Bam accuses him of lying, and V summons Bim. After asking Bim "Are you free?", Bam orders him to give Bom "the works" until he confesses that his subject said "it," and "what." After a season passes, Bim reports back to Bam, but he's had the same results -- though Bom wept, screamed, and begged for mercy, he passed out without "saying it" or saying "where." Ever mistrustful, Bam also accuses Bim of lying. V summons Bem, and the process goes through yet another iteration, with Bem torturing Bim to reveal what Bom was hiding from Bam. After another season passes, Bem returns with the same negative results. Now the only one left, Bam is forced to give Bem "the works" himself. Bam leads Bem off the stage, returning alone after another season has passed, his head bowed in obvious defeat. Satisfied, the Voice remarks, "Make sense what may" and switches off.
There are many ways to make sense of this ballet of torturers, perhaps the obvious being a political interpretation. Taken at face value, What Where may be seen as a subdued black comedy, a "who's on first?" vaudeville on the banality of evil and the sterility of power. Occupying a central position of authority, Bam is isolated from not only his subordinates but himself as well -- indeed, the most self-aware part of him, that which directs his power, is present only as his Voice, detached and remote but ultimately in control. Bam's subordinates exist at a lower remove -- faceless reflections of their master, they are interchangeable and serve as oppressor and victim alike, torturing each other with a perfect, willing blandness. This is Orwell's 1984 a few generations later, when even the eternal boot in the face becomes commonplace, making Bam's question to each new subordinate -- "Are you free?" all the more ironic. There is no freedom here, there is nothing but the reflexive application of power, and not even their collective failure elicits any emotional response from Bam -- just a vague, irritated resignation. Finally, Bam must face the fact that the instruments he uses to gain information have become useless, his resources exhausted: turning upon themselves, they only expose their hollow impotence. Indeed, it is likely that there is nothing really to confess. Left with only himself, Bam is the inheritor of a totalitarian regime of emptiness.
But What Where is more than an elusive meditation on oppression and confession; its very abstractions invite multiple readings, and its aura of mystery suggests hidden depths. Beckett's final play may also serve as an allegory for human understanding, the fruitless quest for meaning repeated endlessly throughout the history of mankind. In this light, the Voice of Bam may be representative of human consciousness, endlessly interrogating existence for answers to barely formulated questions. Season follows upon season, but still: "No good. I start again," each false start heralding an almost insignificant refinement of technique. The cyclical nature of the play is reinforced by several textual clues, most notably the initial silent rehearsal, the ritually repeated lines of dialogue, the passing of seasons, and the odd mantra that introduces each character: "In the end, B–m appears. Reappears." Additionally, there's the implicit mystery of the first subject -- just who exactly is that unnamed prisoner, the fellow being interrogated by Bom? Is it Bum, making an uncredited off-stage appearance? Or is it Bam himself? After all, logically, Bam would be the next victim at the end of the play, but there's no one left to interrogate him. Perhaps he's been alone all the time, generating the necessary Bom at the beginning of every new cycle. (And Bom begets Bim, who begets Bem, etc.)
Either way, whether political burlesque or epistemological riddle, whether infinite chain or clockwork paradox, the play concludes "without journey." Inquiry turns on inquiry in an endless cycle, learning what? and going where? (ABR)

Go To:

Works Main Page -- The main Works page with the Quick Reference Card.

Fiction -- Novels and novellas.

Short Prose -- Short stories & fragments.

Dramas -- Long plays for the stage.

Plays for Various Media -- Pieces for radio, TV & film.

Miscellaneous -- Essays, poetry, translations and nonfiction.

Bibliography -- A complete bibliography of Beckett's work.


--Tim Conley
& Allen B. Ruch
20 April 2003




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