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Samuel Beckett’s Shorter Plays

photo by Henri-Cartier Bresson

Samuel Beckett’s shorter plays were written in the second half of his life. After the ‘Siege in the Room’ of 1946-50 produced Waiting for Godot, The Trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable) and the Stories and Texts for Nothing, his works (both prose and plays) became more stripped down, concentrated and pungent with questions relating to memory and death.

The stunning direction of his art was first signaled in Krapp’s Last Tape, 1959. In this forty-five minutes piece, Krapp, a man of seventy or so, is seen in his messy study. First he eats bananas, then a thought strikes him and he goes into his journals and then listens to audio tapes he had made of himself some thirty years before. Krapp is a failed writer, a failed human being. Most of the play concentrates on his early, taped voice. The current, broken man listens to his younger, more hopeful self and then makes his ‘last tape,’ saying:

Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.

In Rockaby, 1980, an old woman sits in a rocking chair as a voice recites a lulling litany of phrases. It is her voice but it is also an overseeing voice. She hears it day after day to make it through the day. She rocks in her chair and when the voice stops, she asks for more. Interestingly the French title, Berceuse, means both ‘rocking chair’ and ‘lullaby.’ The voice says, ’till in the end/the day came/in the end came/close of a long day’ The words are familiar, but the inversions and repetitions create resonance, an almost mythological tambourine of voice.

Beckett had always been interested in certain words and repetitions and puns, but in his final plays and prose works like Company, Worstward Ho, Ill Seen, Ill Said and Stirrings Still,  the repetitions become more extreme and more touching, as they examine the flights of memory, one’s regrets and how a person prepares for and indeed, dies.

I want to examine Ohio Impromptu, 1981 in a little more depth. The whole project is very curious. Beckett was asked to write a dramatic piece as a favor to a Beckett scholar, to be performed at an academic symposium in Columbus, Ohio on the occasion of Beckett’s seventy-fifth birthday, hence the ‘Ohio.’ Two men with long white hair and black coats, the mirror image of the other, sit at a table. One is the Reader, one is the Listener. Jeremy Irons plays them both.

The experience of Ohio Impromptu is that of a snake eating its tail. The reader reads a story but it becomes apparent the story has been told many times before and indeed, has been lived, probably by the Listener. The Listener (or Memory) demands certain sentences be repeated by a knock at the table. The Reader tells of a man who comes with a ‘worn volume’ and reads to the grieving man (the Listener). The same action that takes place in the play. An unending spiral.

At one point the Reader reads:

‘In his dreams he had been warned against this change. Seen the dear face and heard the unspoken words, Stay where we were so long alone together, my shade will comfort you.’

This is a key sentence, the Listener has the Reader repeat it. The consonance, the assonance of the long o’s. Again the words have a lulling effect.

‘Seen the dear face and heard the unspoken words, Stay where we were so long alone together, my shade will comfort you.’

The words are a directive to ‘He’ – the Listener, but they came to him in a dream. They were ‘unspoken words,’ he heard, even more mysterious. Words over the image of the ‘dear face’ in the dream. It’s very hypnotic-angelic in a way. There are many presences in this play, not just the Reader and the Listener. There is the author of the ‘worn volume’ and the man who experiences the dream, who may or may not be the Listener. Beckett’s short narrative pulls many spirits into the light.

This ten minute play has haunted me more and more over the years. Everything that is essential about life seems to be in that ‘worn volume.’ Love and lost love. Someone that meant so much and their disappearance. And another presence, a soulful being that need not be human-maybe it is nature, merging with one’s being. It arrives and brings comfort, for a time. ‘Profounds of mind’ becoming ‘mindlessness.’ I wanted to stay with the mysteries of the play for a while, but soon I was tempted to go to Wikipedia. And the article on Ohio Impromptu is a generous one, but under the heading ‘Biographical Insights’ I found something disturbing. A biographer of Beckett had questioned him on this work and Beckett answered (a very rare thing for the Irishman to do). The biographer asked about ‘the dear face’ and posited it was Beckett’s wife Suzanne, to which Beckett concurred.

I admit a fetish for author interviews and I think they serve our world today, but there will never be comments from Chaucer or Shakespeare and that only adds to the work. In interviews I have asked authors where a particular work came from, but for Beckett to have provided the answer made me cringe. The mountain of critical books about him grows every month. Many interpretations abound. Though academics have always tried to claim him as their own, Beckett cannot be held by them, he is too much of a common man with a love of Buster Keaton and scatological humor. No one can posit their own personal political propaganda on him. They can try, but they will fail, and maybe fail better the next time. (One standout though is Mary A. Doll’s Beckett and Myth. Here is an excerpt, The Demeter Myth in Beckett)

So Beckett owned up to writing about what was most meaningful to him. Don’t we all do that, to some extent? I think we would all want the work to speak for itself. His does, always.

Finally, I wanted to showcase Act Without Words II, 1960. Beckett’s love of Buster Keaton and hobos abounds and the BBC fittingly projects this play on a 1920’s type film reel.

6 thoughts on “Samuel Beckett’s Shorter Plays

  1. Thanks for this, Greg. Have you read much of the ‘Stories and Texts For Nothing’?

    What do you make of them? I mean, in terms of despair and/or hope, if that makes sense.

    1. Edward,

      I’ve read more of the 3 stories, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End – they are a nice primer for the Trilogy. My favorite is the End. But it’s been a while.

      The Texts for Nothing are very curious, along with Fizzles 1971?, they are more prose poemy/flash fiction. The Collected Shorter Prose is a good thing to have.

      Stirrings Still, the last thing he is wrote, is amazing. It’s like someone who has already dead was writing from the grave.

      I’ll have to read them again to have a clearer answer.

  2. Greg,

    Re: Ohio Impromptu

    I like how you describe the “presence” that seems to imbue itself in the atmosphere of the little room. You say, “It arrives and brings comfort, for a time.”

    Beckett offers us hope that is incredibly thin, yet real. We are fundamentally alone, he would say, yet even within that aloneness we can discover a way to process our experiences, and find meaning. That this processing is difficult, and specific to each individual, is evidenced by the eccentricity and tenderness with which the Listener and the Reader treat each other.

    …also, Jeremy Irons is great.

    1. Wonderful way to put it Edward.

      Apparently he made many false starts for the Ohio piece, including having a ghost show up at a symposium and talk. Wow.

  3. Great post. I did a sock puppet version of “Catastrophe” (for Vaclav Havel) in graduate school–as a seminar project in “Beckett and Stein”–and also received an “A”.

    Federman’s favorite Beckett, a novella, is the little-read _The Lost Ones_, notable in that it is almost completely devoid of humor.


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