Repetition in Samuel Becketts Plays
Published 27 Feb 2017
Samuel Barclay Beckett (12 April 1906 to 22 December1989) was an Irish dramatist, novelist and poet. Beckett’s work is stark, fundamentally minimalist, and, according to some interpretations, deeply pessimistic about the human condition. The perceived pessimism is mitigated both by a great and often wicked sense of humour, and by the sense, for some readers, that Beckett’s portrayal of life’s obstacles serves to demonstrate that the journey, while difficult, is ultimately worth the effort. Similarly, many posit that Beckett’s expressed “pessimism” is not so much for the human condition but for that of an established cultural and societal structure which imposes its stultifying will upon otherwise hopeful individuals; it is the inherent optimism of the human condition, therefore, that is at tension with the oppressive world. His later work explores his themes in an increasingly cryptic and attenuated style. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969 “for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”.
Beckett’s attempt to capture the process of creation of a text requires the dramatic structure of endless repetitions. The endless repetition in Beckett’s plays can be seen as a quest for the true text where a character gropes for his true “self.” Repetition is not only a technique in Beckett; it is also a theme, which means that repetition is spoken of repeatedly. Thus was read in his 1961 novel Comment c’est (How It Is), “He sings yes always the same song pause SAME SONG”, words that echo what the narrator of the story L’Expulse’ (1945, The Expelled) had said of any table he could possibly tell: “You will see how alike.
Now in this essay, we will critically analyse implementation of Beckett’s repetition philosophy that mainly appeared in his following short plays.
“Play” was written between 1962 and 1963 and first produced in German as Spiel on June 14, 1963 at the Ulmer Theatre in Ulm-Donau, Germany. The first performance in English was in 1964 at the Old Vic in London.
The curtain rises on two women and a man (referred to only as W1, W2 and M), in a row along the front of the stage with their heads sticking out of the tops of large urns, the rest of their bodies unexposed. They remain like this for the play’s duration. At the commencement and the conclusion of the play, all three characters speak, in what Beckett terms a “chorus”, but in the main the play is made up of short, sometimes broken sentences spoken by one character at a time. Over the course of the play, it becomes apparent that the man has betrayed Woman #1, or W1, by having an affair with Woman #2. The three characters speak of the affair from their respective points of view on the matter, in an almost contrapuntal manner. Near the end of the script, there is the terse instruction: “Repeat play.” Beckett elaborates on this in notes, by saying that the repetition might be varied, by changing the intensity of the light, giving a breathless quality to the lines, or even shuffling some of the lines around. At the end of this second repetition, the play appears to start again for a third time, but does not get more than a few seconds into it before it suddenly stops.
One interpretation of the play is that the three characters are actually in purgatory, where they are confessing their sins – indeed, one of the characters exclaims “I confess” at one point when recalling their illicit relationship. The use of urns to encase the bodies of the three players is thought to symbolise their entrapment inside the demons of their past; the way in which all three urns are described at the start of the play as “touching” each other is often deciphered as symbolising the shared problem which all three characters have endured. The spotlight, which illuminates only the face of those characters who it wishes to speak, is believed to represent God, or a Higher Power of some sort, who is weighing up each character’s case to be relieved from the binds of the urn, and having to relive this relationship which has ruined all their lives.
“What Where” is Samuel Beckett’s last play. It was written in 1983 in English, and revised over a three year period for separate stage and television productions in French and German. Four characters (Bam, Bom, Bim, and Bem) appear at intervals, all dressed in the same grey gown with the same long grey hair. Bam controls and interrogates the others, sending them off to be tortured (given “the works”) in order to confess to an unnamed crime that he, in turn, places on all of them. A seasonal cycle from spring to winter passes in the course of the play, with Bam repeating the same questions and actions: eventually Bom, Bim, and Bem have interrogated each other at least once, and the cycle begins again. Bam has an additional manifestation in the Voice of Bam (V), an omnipresent force that directs the proceedings from a “small megaphone at head level.” The voice acts something like a “voice of God”, and determines things to be positive or negative at a whim. Somewhat elusive in theme although with a definite totalitarian edge, Beckett himself struggled over its meaning: “I don’t know what it means. Don’t ask me what it means. It’s an object”.
Winnie, the main character, is buried up to her waist in a tall mound of sand. She has a bag full of interesting artifacts, including a comb, a toothbrush, toothpaste, lipstick, a nail file, a parasol and a music box. She also has in her bag a revolver, which she strokes and pats lovingly. The harsh ringing of a bell demarcates waking and sleeping hours. The play begins with the ringing of this bell and Winnie’s declaration, “Another heavenly day.” Winnie is content with her existence: “Ah well, what matter, that’s what I always say, it will have been a happy day after all, another happy day.”
Her husband Willie lives in a cave behind her, sunk into the back of mound. Unlike his wife he can still move, albeit by crawling on all fours. During the course of the first act he comes out of his hole to read the newspaper and to masturbate, sitting behind the mound with his back to the audience. Despite Winnie’s constant chatter and requests that he speak, he says little to nothing —quotes from a newspaper, affirmations that he can hear her, the word “formication”, and the explanation that hogs are “castrated male swine, raised for slaughter.”
Winnie’s increasingly restricted movement can be interpreted as many things, but is most likely a metaphor for the aging process itself. Throughout the play she distracts herself from her true condition by both consistent denial and through the toys in her bag and conversation with both an imagined listener and Willie (although the amount that the fourth wall is actually broken can be reasonably controlled by the director). While presented with the option of suicide early in the play, it is not one that she seriously considers, or refuses to overtly reference. In Act 1, she notes that she has the gun because Willie begged that she take it from him out of fear that he would use it, and the play concludes by exploring his mentality further. As he attempts and fails to mount her mound (an overt sexual reference, and one of several throughout the show that hint at Willie’s impotence), it is unclear whether he is attempting to reach her for a kiss or the gun in order to make an end. Because he cannot climb the slope, we are left with the tableau of two characters who are meant for each other trapped in hellish circumstances and unable to escape.
“Footfalls” was written, in English, between March and December 1975 and was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre as part of the Samuel Beckett Festival, on May 20, 1976. Footfalls is about the relationship between a mother and daughter, played by Martha Hill and Barb Lanciers, respectively. That Time is a solo performance featuring Mike Mathieu as a character known only as “Listener.” In Beckett’s Footfalls, we watch an old woman, dressed in a tattered wrap, pacing up and down a track, while a voice off tells us of a young girl who paced with a similar intentness and desperation, and eventually asked her mother to take up the carpet, explaining: ‘the motion alone is not enough. I must hear the feet, however faint they fall.’ Hearing the feet establishes the young girl’s sense of being there, in the sensation of the faint impact on the ground and its answering resistance. In Nauman’s work, the ground is similarly a place of last resort, the lowest common denominator, both a continuous threat, and also a place of trust, a generalised securing or orientation of the sense of place. A human body moves between many different experiences of different floors and plots of ground, but is nevertheless orientated always just to one ground, just to ‘the ground’, spreading, various, but everywhere singular. As the ‘hypostasis’, that which lies beneath, or ‘understands’ all being and beings living on earth, even and especially creatures of the air like birds, and of the midair, like spiders, the ground has its say in every action and experience. The ground is limit itself; the hereness, or present condition that underwrites every elsewhere, the actual of every possible. It is time thickened and slowed into space, a stay against the passage of time. It is that towards which all movement tends. The dimension of downness, or underness can never be fully in mind, or in view, but is always at work.
“That Time” was written, in English, in 1975 and was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, as part of the Samuel Beckett Festival, on May 20, 1976. In this play only thing seen on stage is a face and the only things heard are three voices. The voices, A, B, and C, alternate throughout the play with only two pauses, which consist of the termination of one of the voices’ monologues, the listener’s eyes opening, one of the voices starting to speak again, and the eyes closing. The distinctions between voices are not always clear because some of the text is the same and some images are common among them, such as a stone or slab which the speaker sits upon or remembers sitting upon. The voices seem to represent the same person at different points in his life: voice A in middle age trying to remember his childhood, voice B in childhood, and voice C presumably in old age (Acheson and Arthur 121-126). The play is entirely lacking in punctuation, and because of this and the switches from voice to voice, the meanings of the narratives given by each voice are ambiguous. The text of play is difficult to read and understand due to the style in which it was written and the organisation, and similarly, the end does not seem to really conclude the play: the eyes open after the voices stop, and 5 seconds later, the face smiles. After rereading the text, themes and images are easier to pick up, and different meanings can be found.
Beckett’s hero is a sisyphusean type of man waiting for the fulfilment of his fate, which seems to be eternal through his suffering and hoping. He is alienated from the world, which is unknown, remote, and indifferent, and from which he is isolated by the walls of his self. The conflict between two different substances – the world and the human subject, leads to the feelings of Absurdity and to fundamental existential questions about the meaning of human life in a world where he lives as a stranger. We find the whole greatness of Beckett’s absurd man in his intractability with which he continually fills up his precarious fate, and although his suffering increases as time stops he does not live without hope and joy in life.
- Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. New York: Da Capo Press, 1997.
- Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. Vintage/Ebury, 1978. ISBN 0-09-80070-5.
- Understanding Samuel Beckett By Alan Astro, Published 1990 Univ of South Carolina, Press, ISBN 0872496864
- Burnt Piano, by Justin Fleming, Xlibris, 2004 (Coup d’Etat & Other Plays)
- Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove Press, 1996.
- Mercier, Vivian. Beckett/Beckett. Oxford University Press, 1977. ISBN 0-19-281269-6