What Where
(Beckett on Film Project)

2000, 12 minutes, color

Directed by Damien O'Donnell

Voice of Bam, Bam: Sean McGinley
Bom, Bem, Bim: Gary Lewis

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."
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.

A work as elusive in meaning as it is curiously intriguing, What Where has been seen as everything from straight political satire to an allegory on humanity's fruitless quest for understanding. Even Beckett struggled with the meaning of What Where, once remarking, "I don't know what it means. Don't ask me what it means, it's an object." As with most self-generated puzzles, the work held his attention for quite a while, and he spend several years revising it through three different languages and two separate versions for the stage and screen. In 1985 he adapted a version for German television, and in 1987 he worked with S. E. Gontarski and John Reilly to refine that production for American television. Replacing the megaphone with an eerie, distorted face, these TV versions of What Where used special effects to render the characters as robotic, disembodied heads.
For the 2000 "Beckett on Film" production, director Damien O'Donnell returned to the original stage play, but he allowed himself a few inventive liberties with the script. Choosing to emphasize the more political aspects of the work, O'Donnell sets the play within a claustrophobic, high-tech library, its tall shelves bordered by strips of fluorescent lighting. When the Voice of Bam declares, "I switch on," the luminescent tubes stutter awake to the sound of breakers being thrown. The Voice itself is dispassionate and calm; issuing from a megaphone-shaped loudspeaker fixed above the central doors, it evokes HAL 9000 from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Indeed, if it weren't for the all-too-human portrayals of Bam and his subordinates, it would be easy to imagine the library as the skull-like core of some vast, hidden computer, endlessly rehearsing the dynamics of power like a malfunctioning god.
Whether or not they are real people or symbolic figments, Bam, Bom, Bim and Bem are at the heart of What Where, and they have beern brilliantly brought to life by Sean McGinley and Gary Lewis. McGinley's Bam is a stylized autocrat with swept-back, leonine hair and a charcoal grey tunic. His manner is restrained, but extrememely effective: while on the surface he seems the master of his inner sanctum, there's a nervous shadow in his eyes, and as the film progresses, he seems increasingly more uncertain of his authority. Bom, Bim, and Bem are all played by the same actor, Gary Lewis. Although he appears physically the same in each role – dressed in a monochrome tunic and sporting a grey buzz cut – his performance is a masterpiece of subtlety, bringing a different shade of nuance to each of the three characters. Bom, the first to appear, seems confident to the point of smugness. Like an aging former football hooligan pressed into the service of a fascist state, Bom is more a creature of cunning than intelligence, his once powerful form overripened to a comfortable softness and his lips moist with a bemused sadism. Bim, on the other hand, looks scared, a rabbit hiding behind his pursed lips and averted eyes. Bem seems the most intelligent of the three, his nervous, almost complicit awareness of the situation giving way to a spreading confusion. When Bam states, "It's a lie," Bem blinks, once: and in the space of that blink, you can see his whole universe collapsing.
Of course, O'Donnell deserves as much credit for this successful production as his two magnificent actors. Seeing the work as being "about power and the abuse of power," Donnell's setting convincingly plays on the library as a "metaphor for somebody who has control of all the power and all the information." (Quotes taken from his interview.) Opting for a more subtle approach to this idea, the film quietly builds up an atmosphere of dread through the attention to small details rather than broad strokes: the lack of titles on the ominous books, the deep shadows cast by the blue, gold, and white lighting, and the lazy slowness of the characters' interactions, their soft voices and self-conscious hesitations conveying a more sinister sense of menace than any melodramatics. There are numerous "grace notes" as well, such as the pages of a castaway book blowing desolately open as the seasons pass. The room itself has only one decoration – strips of black glass with illuminated white letters, framing the bookshelves and fluroescent lighting. Depicting the alphabet in lower-case letters, the "a" is positioned at the bottom, a barely distinguishable space separating it from the following column of letters scaling up the wall: b, c, d, and so on. Like successively smaller Little Cats B through Z emerging from the Cat in the Hat's famous chapeau, the letters suggest an infinite regression of selves, all evolving from one master Aleph: "A" is for Authority. Finally (in what must seem to you, Gentle Reader, as an even more idiosyncratic comment than the alphabetized cats!), the Irish accents of the characters strike an oddly disturbing note to my American ears. Aside from films about the IRA, it is unusual to connect Irish accents to, as O'Donnell puts it, "a brooding, palpable evil." The effect is surreal and not a bit unnerving, like witnessing a cell of Castle informers elevated to totalitarian control over a futuristic police state.

Ordering Information
Beckett on Film Project
Blue Angel Films, 2001, 4-DVD set; $149.95.

Additional Resources

Apmonia "What Where" Commentary -- My God, what does it all mean? The Quail's commentary on What Where, online here at Apmonia.

BoF "What Where" Page -- From the Beckett on Film homepage, this sections contains a synopsis, talent biographies, a video clip, and a brief interview with director Damien O'Donnell. (The banner image above is from this site.)

Channel 4 "What Where" Page -- From the Channel 4 Learning site, this page contains some commentary on the play's structure, characters, and theme. Recommended.

IMDB "What Where" Page -- The entry for What Where at the Internet Movie Database.

Review of Gontarski & Beckett's "What Where" -- The Apmonia review of the first US television production of What Where, directed by S.E. Gontarski with the cooperation of Samuel Beckett.

--Allen B. Ruch
1 May 2003

Email Apmonia -- Send email to Tim Conley and the Great Quail -- comments, suggestions, corrections, criticisms, submissions . . . all are welcome!

Return to the "Beckett on Film Project" Page.