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The Divided Self in Samuel Beckett's early plays and Film

Garry Gillard, Honours dissertation, 1973

In defining his terms at the beginning of The Divided Self, R. D. Laing refers to

an individual the totality of whose experience is split in two main ways: in the first place, there is a rent in his relation with the world and, in the second, there is a disruption of his relation with himself. Such a person is not able to experience himself 'together with' others or 'at home' in the world, but, on the contrary, he experiences himself in despairing aloneness and isolation: moreover, he does not experience himself as a complete person but rather as 'split' in various ways, perhaps as a mind more or less tenuously linked to a body, as two or more selves, and so on. (Laing 1960: 17)

Laing's book 'attempts an existential-phenomenological account of some schizoid and schizophrenic persons' (17), and Beckett's oeuvre may be read, to some extent, as a literary account, from the inside, of some aspects of the experience of such persons. This paper is not an attempt to psychoanalyse Beckett's characters (nor Beckett himself), and the writer does not claim any special psychiatric knowledge. However, it is argued that running through a number of Beckett's earlier works is a thematic pattern of characters who express an awareness of a weak or threatened sense of themselves, who see themselves as divided or partial, needing some other part or complementary factor to make up a complete personality, and who wish to escape their consciousness of self. The main interest here is in Film and in the earlier dramatic works.

Waiting for Godot

A great deal has already been written about the relationship of Vladimir and Estragon, indicating the incompleteness of their separate personalities and their interdependence, and also their self-awareness. Eva Metman draws attention to the reverie of Vladimir's which concludes

VLADIMIR:          ... Moi aussi, un autre me regarde, en se disant, il dort, il ne sait pas, qu'il dorme. (Un temps.) Je ne peux pas continuer. (Un temps.) Qu'est-ce que j'ai dit? (Beckett, 1952: 157)

Metman writes of this speech that Vladimir

expresses a faint awareness of the sin of unconsciousness and the notion of a knowing witness. The words: 'at me, too, someone is looking' indicate that a spontaneous image has arisen within Vladimir and that, for a short moment, he is outside the sphere of habit and conventional expectation. He is aware of an inner witness, 'in store in him'. But this he cannot endure. (E. Metman, 1960)

Vladimir of 1952 is a precursor of the protagonist of Film of 1965, who also cannot tolerate his awareness of self. Whereas Estragon, with his desire to escape into his unconscious, is an antecedent of Krapp.

( ... Estragon s'endort. Vladimir s'arrête devant Estragon.)
VLADIMIR:          Gogo ... (Silence.) Gogo ... (Silence.) GOGO! Estragon se réveille en sursaut.
ESTRAGON:          (rendu à toute l'horreur de sa situation.) Je dormais. (Avec reproche.) Pourquoi tu ne me laisses jamais dormir?
VLADIMIR:          Je me sentais seul.
ESTRAGON:          J'ai fait un rêve.
VLADIMIR:          Ne le raconte pas!
ESTRAGON:          Je rêvais que...
ESTRAGON:          (geste vers l'univers). Celui-ci te suffit? (Silence.) Tu n'est pas gentil, Didi. A qui veux-tu que je raconte mes cauchemars privés, si non à toi?
VLADIMIR:          Qu'il restent privés. Tu sais bien que je ne supporte pas ça. (23)

Metman stresses the line 'Celui-ci te suffit?' and makes this comment.

Just as Vladimir almost discovers the inner witness, Estragon almost discovers the inner universe. But the interplay between the two figures prevents any lasting move towards consciousness.

Another to comment on the flight from self is Ethel F. Cornwell. Her argument is that a Beckett character '... does not seek his identity, he flees from it; his quest is for anonymity, for self-annihilation'. In her view, he cannot tolerate his existence, but neither can he end it. (In Molloy this situation is summed up by the happy invention of the 'hypothetical imperative'.) He would therefore wish to return to the life before life—that in the womb. Cornwell supports her thesis with many examples of the reversing of conventional procedures, and concludes that the movement of the Beckett hero is a retrogressive one. This could perhaps be said to be the pessimistic view. The present view is that it is a richer source of meaning to regard the Beckett hero as divided in one way or another, and that integration always remains a possibility, though it rarely and fleetingly becomes actual.

Murphy is a clear example of a dis-integrated character.

Thus Murphy felt himself split in two, a body and a mind. They had intercourse apparently, otherwise he could not have known that they had anything in common. But he felt his mind to be bodytight and did not understand through what channel the intercourse was effected, not how the two experiences came to overlap. He was satisfied that neither followed from the other. He neither thought a kick because he felt it nor felt a kick because he thought one. ... (Beckett, 1973: 64)

He was split, one part of him never left this mental chamber that pictured itself as a sphere full of light fading into dark, because there was no way out. But motion in this world depended on rest in the world outside. (64)

The different conventions of the novel allow for a greater degree of specific insight into characters' mental states, so it is useful in this context to read them together with the plays.


The starting point for the discussion proper, however, is Beckett's Film, a work realised in 1964, although the script was not published until 1967. Film develops in a straightforward way the idea of the dual nature of the self, as perceived and perceiver. The two main 'characters' are actually these aspects of the same self.

A man flees from the camera, which the script calls E ( = Eye), the man being called O ( = Object). The camera Eye remains tolerable to O when it regards him from behind, when he is not necessarily aware of its perception of him. As it tends to come to his side, into his angle of vision, it becomes intolerable. In the words of the script, when E exceeds the 'angle of immunity', O experiences 'anguish of perceivedness'. He cringes aside, hides his face. E, at these points, seems content to drop back, allow O his immunity to continue on. It is not until O falls asleep in his room that E moves around to confront him full face. When he opens his eyes, exhibiting an expression of horror, the audience sees E, which is now not a camera but O himself, although wearing a different, severe expression to indicate that it is a perceiving aspect of the self. O is overcome with despair, and rocks with his head in his hands, as the film ends.

The reader of the script has these notes to assist his understanding.

Esse est percipi.
All extraneous perception suppressed, animal, human, divine, self-perception maintains in being.
Search of non-being in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in inescapability of self-perception.
No truth value attaches to above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience.

Although Beckett adds the disclaimer in the last sentence quoted, it is clear that the search for non-being is major preoccupation which runs through much of his work. If Film does not show the value of the 'truth' that self-perception is inescapable, it is hard to see what else it is 'about'.

On the other hand, it is not necessarily tragic: 'Climate of film comic and unreal' says the script. (It is interesting to speculate, by the way, how much difference it might have made to the film had Jackie McGowran been available, as Beckett wished. McGowran's face is less terrible than Buster Keaton's.) But it is possible to assert that Beckett at his best is capable of plotting a confident course along the border between tragedy and comedy, and illuminating his subject by the light of whichever mode is expedient at any given moment.

The crucial final scene falls into three sequences, each with its prevailing mode. O wishes to avoid being perceived by anyone or anything. We know that this is because this gives him a awareness of being, which he wishes to avoid, as he wishes to not-exist. This has been established in the earlier part of the film, by O's attempting to avoid people in a 'normally 'neurotic way. There is nothing laughable in this activity, which is a recognisable misanthropic syndrome. To make it clear that there is more in O's behaviour than this, to move the exposition from a psychological to a metaphysical plane, as it were, Beckett allows his character to be seen in a different focus. O behaves in a way that is excessive to such an extreme point that it becomes funny. This first sequence, then, is essentially comic.

After inspecting the room and all the possible 'perceivers' which it contains: dog, cat, mirror, window, parrot, goldfish, chair, print, O begins by approaching the window from the side to draw the curtain. He approaches the mirror in the same way in order to cover it with the rug from the couch. Meanwhile, the dog and cat are intercut with these shots, watching him attentively. It is indicated that the cat is to be larger than the dog, thus reversing the usual state of affairs, a basic comic technique.Also intercut with the sequence of O's activities are shots of the parrot staring at him, and also the back of the rocking-chair which has a design suggesting eyes.

 O puts out the dog and the cat. In the notes, Beckett says that he made what he called a 'foolish suggestion': as O put out the cat, the dog was to run back in, and vice versa and so on for a seventeen phase sequence, the cat and dog being caught a little closer to the door each time, until eventually both are evicted. Alan Schneider, the director of Film, comments:

This was straight slapstick, a running gag, the little man versus a mutely mocking animal world.

The next action necessary is to take a print from the wall of the face of 'God the Father', and to tear this up. Three more occlusions remain, which suggest a crescendo of obsession and absurdity. A folder which O takes from his case has a sealing device again suggesting eyes. O rotates the folder through 90°. He then covers the parrot's cage with his coat, to avoid its glance, and finally extends the coat to cover the fishbowl as well, no longer able to tolerate the fishy stare of the tiny goldfish, whose eye we see in threatening close-up.

The prevailing mode of this sequence is comic, but with an undertone of unease, conveyed by the symbolic force of the mirror, and the huge fish's eye, as well as the massive obsession of O. The alienation produced by the comedy enables us to see O's problem more objectively than emotionally, to see it as a metaphysical problem instead of, or as well as, a personal one.

Then, in the next sequence, in which O destroys the photograph in the folder,the mode becomes wholly serious again, preparing for the final climactic revelation, or 'investment of O by E'. These photographs are stages in the past of O, and it seems that the destruction of these means of its recreation are part of O's program of progressive elimination of his sense of self. This process, however, is at one remove from that of the occlusion of the various eyes around the room, and is therefore a more thoughtful or serious device than the other. It prepares for the intellectual leap which must be made by the viewer in the concluding scene.

Here he must realise that it was himself that O was avoiding throughout the film, that the camera eye represented his perception of himself; and he must also feel or understand the implication (which has been made clear to the reader at the beginning of the script) that self-perception is inexorable.

Not I

The 'Mouth' of Not I is in the throes of an identity crisis, precipitated partly, perhaps, by the fear of her imminent death. Unlike the placid Winnie of Happy Days, content in her uncomfortable present, the lady in the former play has some pressing need to find herself in the past, to reconstruct herself out of the evidence of memory. As Irving Wardle sees it:

The point of the title, I think, is that she cannot recognise herself in what is happening. Part of her mind fights to push it away; another part has been possessed, and the atavistic emotions break through in another voice which is 'not hers'.

The character, seen as an individual, probably conforms more closely to the idea of clinical schizophrenia than any other of Beckett's characters created up to this time. The play is also distinguished by having a more minimal Other than any of the earlier plays. Although said to 'flap his arms from time to time' in the New York production, the listening figure facing upstage was silent—as in the London production, in which it was motionless. Perhaps this tiny detail has significance, particularly as this latter production was directed with the assistance of the author. In its function as mere Other, providing a direction for the monologue of the protagonist, as well as implied verification of her existence, there is no need for this figure to have motivation, nor to take any part in the drama. It is not a source of conflict. Presence is its only function.

Happy Days

Unlike the chief character of Not I, Winnie seems much more able to accept her present, however uncertain of herself she may seem to be. So when her waking bell rings, she gives an indication of approval: 'Another heavenly day', and even of thankfulness: she prays. This overtly positive attitude to life is most unusual in a Beckett character. Of course, the message in Winnie's case is not the straightforward one of Krapp, say, but emerges through the irony inherent in the contrast between Winnie's situation and her ingenuous attitude to it.

Despite this positive tendency, however, Winnie still evinces the need for the security of an Other: if Willie were not there, the situation would be critical.

So that I may say at all times, even when you do not answer and perhaps hear nothing, something of this is being heard, I am not merely talking to myself, that is in the wilderness, a thing I could never bear to do—for any length of time ....... Whereas if you were to die ... Not another word as long as I drew breath, nothing to break the silence of this place. (Pause.) Save possibly, now and then, every now and then, a sigh into my looking-glass.

The juxtaposition of the looking-glass and listener is significant: if there is no-one to listen to you and possibly answer, at least you can check your existence from time to time in your mirror. There is a development of this figure in the course of the play. At its next appearance, in Winnie's gabbled speech following the long interchange with an irritated Willie, this extension occurs:

... just to know that in theory you can hear me even though in fact you don't is all I need, just to feel you there within earshot and conceivably on the qui vive is all I ask, not to say anything I would not wish you to hear or liable to cause you pain, not to be just babbling away on trust as it were not knowing and something gnawing at me. (Pause for breath.) Doubt.

The transition in this passage is a controlled decrease in certainty through: 'know ... theory ... fact ... feel ... conceivable ... trust ... not knowing ... gnawing ... doubt'. And the increasing doubt about the presence of Willie is related to Winnie's sense of herself. As in the direction which immediately follows the passage quoted above:

Doubt. (Places index and second finger on heart area, moves them about, brings them to rest.) Here. (Moves them slightly.) Abouts.

This must suggest to a sensitive reader or audience Winnie's doubt of her existence, feeling as she does for her heart, symbol—as it is an everpresent reminder of—life, and being uncertain of its location, and therefore, function.

The necessity of the Other is made explicit in a passage at the beginning of the second Act.

One speaks of it all... I say I used to think that I would learn to talk alone. (Pause.) By that I mean to myself, the wilderness. (Smile.) But no. (Smile broader.) No. No. (Smile off.) Ergo you are there.

The circularity of Winnie's logic is evident. Although it seems quite probable to her that Willie is dead or has left, Winnie is not prepared to learn to talk to no-one, and she must talk, therefore Willie is there. Q.E.D. Winnie must believe in her own existence. For this purpose, she needs the perception of an Other. Therefore, she believes that one exists. In fact, of course, Willie is still there, though not because of Winnie's logic.

Winnie would also like Willie to be able to see her if possible.

Can you see me from there I wonder, I still wonder.

However, she appears to be not quite sure why she wants to be perceived. Apparently confusing Jesus and Berkeley, she goes on:

Oh I know it does not follow when two are gathered together—(faltering)—in this way—(normal)—that because one sees the other the other sees the one, life has taught me that ... too. (Pause.) Yes, life I suppose, there is no other word.

At one level, this could be taken to be saying something about relationships and the relationship of Winnie and Willie in particular. They do not see each other in the same way, or are not aware of each other simultaneously. But the tone of Winnie's speech suggests a wider sphere of reference than that, taken together with her hesitating diction. And many people would catch the reference to Jesus's 'When two or three are gathered together in my name...' implying a more significant level of utterance; as does the emphatic reference to 'life'.

The most important reference is to esse est percipi, which Winnie either has not properly grasped, or else has ceased to believe in. Her freedom, limited by the increasing heap of sand, decreases as her sense of self decreases.

It is not only by Willie that she feels herself to be perceived. She has a vestigial sense of some more cosmic observer.

Strange feeling that someone is looking at me. I am clear, then dim, then gone, then dim again, then clear again, and so on, back and forth, in and out of someone's eye.

A sense of being implies a watcher, but the sense of being watched waxes and wanes with the sense of being.

This interpretation is open to the charge of bias, in that the sense of being watched may simply apply to the conventional religious feeling, and to the object of the prayer with which the play opens. This seems to be suggested by the tone of these lines from the opening of the second Act:

Someone is looking at me still. (Pause.) That is what I find so wonderful. (Pause.) Eyes on my eyes.

But quite soon after this, she make this revelation:

I used to pray. (Pause.) I say I used to pray. (Pause.) Yes, I must confess I did. (Smile.) Not now. (Smile broader.) No no.

And the point is made clearer if the quotation is continued.

Then ... now ... what difficulties here, for the mind. (Pause.) To have been always what I am—and so changed from what I was. (Pause.) I am the one, I say the one, then the other. (Pause.) Now the one, then the other.

The problem of identity seems to have reached such a critical point that her words, as her thoughts, are becoming incoherent. This kind of statement suggests, from the examples in Laing's book, the kind of statement which might be made by a schizophrenic. Compare this utterance taken from near the end of the play:

I used to think ... (Pause.) I say I used to think there was no difference between one fraction of a second and the next. (Pause.) I used to say ... (pause) ... I say I used to say, Winnie, you are changeless, there is never any difference between one fraction of a second and the next. (Pause.) Why bring that up again?

One tends to overlook a particular realistic reading—for the sake of the total significance of the play, which creates its own metaphorical totality—but if one hears Winnie's speech as being uttered in a realist mode, it is possible to comprehend her words as those of a woman who is, or is going, mad.

And Willie? Is he a complement to the personality of Winnie? Do they seem like aspects of the one personality—as their names suggest? Or does Willie merely tend to the minimal Other of Not I, who has no apparent existence in himself? Let us say that he represents a transitional stage between the two. His main function, as has already been suggested, is to provide for Winnie an audience, a perceiver, a witness; but he has also certain individual characteristics, which are unlike Winnie's essential nature.

He has an interest, however slight, in a world which is external to the one represented on the stage: he reads the newspaper. That it may be an out-of-date paper does not essentially change the direction of his interest. Winnie, on the other hand, is only interested in her own present to distract her from the unutterable tedium of her existence—or the past, when the present is exhausted.

And whereas Winnie expresses herself at times only with difficulty, Willie's very few utterances are brief and to the point. His terse, accurate dictionary definition of a hog ('Castrated male swine. Reared for slaughter.') brings great relief after some three thousand words from Winnie, allowing that particular sequence to end and the Act One curtain to fall.

Winnie needs the reassurance of Willie's presence. ('I beseech you, Willie, just yes or no, can your hear me, just yes or nothing.') But Willie expresses by his irritation that this need for security is unwarranted.

There is a slight suggestion that Willie is better educated than Winnie in the exchange about the hog, and in Willie's monolithic judgement on the activities of the emmet: 'Formication'—especially as it is also a rather fruitful play on words.

But perhaps the most emphatic demonstration is the pathetic tableau with which the play ends: the two helpless creatures in their hopeless desire for union.

Krapp's Last Tape

Krapp's last tape: the spectacle of a man reminding himself of himself. Now he is a man 'drowned in dreams and burning to be gone'. His life now is almost as vestigial as possible. We see his mode of living in the early part of the play: the strongly-lit table, the bananas. And soon we hear the thirty-nine-year-old Krapp talking about these details thirty years before, when he speaks of being back in his 'old den'. We get an impression of unbelievable stasis, a sense of meaninglessness.

Meaningless in one way: in the sense of the relative values of any actions performed. But there is a prevailing sense of reality in the awareness of the old Krapp. Thus:

Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that's all done with anyway.

In this context there is an awareness—albeit a bitter one—of a true self, in comparison with the false self of thirty years before. And this later self finds its release from itself, which it so desires before the ultimate release for which it longs, like so many of Beckett's characters, in excursions into voluntary memory, retreats into a past suffused with a sense of existence, an emotive sense of being, rather than a conceptual one.

For there are two selves in this past, two choices which lie open to the old man with his index to the past. One self we may call 'intellectual'. This is the self which experiences and records the moment of epiphany, one of the two significant moments in Krapp's life:

... that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last.

The key word in the passage which contains these lines is 'understanding'. The experience seems to have been primarily an intellectual one, characterised by phrases such as: 'What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely - ... clear to me at last ... in reality ... light of the understanding...' [emphasis added] The experience was to see clearly for the first time something which was contrary to, or obscured by, a belief which suddenly became inadequate in the light of this visionary experience.

We get a clear hint as to the nature of this belief in the lines: '... clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most— ...' There is an obvious reference in the speech so tantalisingly terminated to the unconscious life of the character, and to some internal division in the self.

Describing this as an intellectual experience is not at all to disregard the emotional intensity with which the moment of epiphany is reported. It is in fact this very integrity of response which is the conceptual content of the vision. From the evidence it is possible to imagine a man seeing in a flash and for the first time the unimagined possibilities of his totality as a person.

It is different aspect of Krapp which reveals itself in the passage about the summer's day on the lake from the year 39 tape. The acute observation implies heightened awareness.

 She lay stretched out on the floorboards with her hands under her head and her eyes closed. Sun blazing down, but of a breeze, water nice and lively. I noticed a scratch on her thigh. ... the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause. Low) Let me in.

Throughout this remarkable passage, Beckett reveals a poet's sensibility in his selection and evocation of observed detail.

We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! ... We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.

The sense of cosmic unity may remind us of The Prelude.

Oh! then the calm
And dead still water lay upon mind
Even with a weight of pleasure, and the sky
Never before so beautiful, sank down
Into my heart, and held me like a dream.

Indeed, Wordsworth could have supplied an epigraph for this play.

A tranquillizing spirit presses now
On my corporeal frame: so wide appears
The vacancy between me and those days,
Which yet have such self-presence in my mind
That, sometimes, when I think of them, I seem
Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself
And of some other Being.

It is to this moment of suspended self-consciousness in the boat to which the old Krapp returns, in preference to the one on the jetty, which he cuts off in mid-flight. What he wishes to do, in his mind, is to 'be again', and he gives two further examples from his past of moments of high emotional intensity.

Be again in the dingle on a Christmas Eve, gathering holly, the red-berried. (Pause.) Be again on Croghan on a Sunday morning, in the haze, with the bitch, stop and listen to the bells.

One of the principal differences between the older and the younger man is that the latter is not yet disintegrated. This sense of an integrated self is the kind of discovery which it seems Krapp had made just prior to the recording on his thirty-ninth birthday. This is supported by the closing remarks of the younger man which linger on in the mind of the older, and of the audience, since they end the play.

Perhaps my best years are gone ... But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back.

These lines suggest two things: a recognition, firstly, of his intellectual position; and secondly, of his emotional possibilities. The young man looks forward with confidence in his integrity into the bleak future in which the old man now sits, despairing.

This, I fancy, is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that ... for the fire that set it alight.

This becomes:

Nothing to say, not a squeak. What's a year now? The sour cud and the iron stool.

The old man has lost part of himself, and he must go looking back into the past, trying to find it again. For all his present self-awareness, we know he is wilfully lying to himself, in the lines already quoted ('Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that's all done with anyway.') as he continues, after a pause: 'The eyes she had!' and because he goes back again for a third time to that supreme moment of self-forgetfulness in the boat.

All this analysis is rendered experientially meaningful by the ending of this play, a superb piece of dramatic irony: the ancient Krapp bearing false witness to every syllable of the old recording by his mere cynical presence, confronting with his putative disbelief the putative unity of his own young personality.

More emphasis is added to the irony of this effect by an earlier framing—in this Chinese box of a play. Krapp (39) tells us of listening to a recording from ten or twelve years before, and shows an earlier stage of disillusionment in his comment.

Sneers at what he calls his youth and thanks to God that it's over. (Pause.) False ring there.

So each self that we know of has looked back onto an earlier stage of development with disbelief and derision. With such an intensely cultivated sense of self-awareness, who can wonder at the latest Krapp's desire to escape from himself?


Endgame is at the centre of this discussion, in some ways. What has been said about Film is hardly needed, as far as exegesis goes: it is clear from the structure of the film itself, and is made even clearer in the author's notes. It is only necessary to link Film with the dramatic works to show it as the culmination of a prevailing theme, running through the earlier works. However, with Endgame, an interpretation in the present context may add to the understanding of the force of the play, by showing it to be one link in a chain of meaning.

It is an obvious inference from the set of the play that the action takes place inside an individual consciousness: the two windows set high up at each side of the back of the stage, whose curtains Clov must draw back as the beginning of the day, suggest the eye-sockets of a skull, and Clov's action the awakening of the consciousness after sleep. The implication is that the characters may be seen to some extent as aspects of one consciousness, as well as autonomous individuals. Critics such as Cornwell have suggested that The Theatre of the Soul by Nikolai Evreinov is a possible antecedent of Beckett's play. Translated into English in 1915, it is a one act dramatisation of a conflict inside a man we never see: between his rational and emotional selves. There are, however, abundant references to internal dramas in Beckett's prose written before Fin de Partie was published in 1957. A striking example is this passage from The Unnamable (L'Innommable published 1953).

…which is merely perhaps the inside of my distant skull where once I wandered, now am fixed, lost for tininess, or straining against the walls, with my head, my hands, my feet, my back, and ever murmuring my old stories, my old story, as if it were the first time.

This situation is similar to that of Hamm, wandering the perimeter of his room:

Right around the world! ... Hug the walls, then back to the centre again.

and at one point straining against the wall:

Stop! (Clov stops chair close to back wall. Hamm lays his hand against wall.) Old wall! (Pause.) Beyond is the ... other hell. (Pause. Violently.) Closer! Closer! Up against!

and then has himself fixed in the exact centre again, where later he will tell his 'old story', his 'chronicle'.

The central relationship in the play—that of Hamm and Clov—is a complementary one. One superficial indication is in their respective inabilities: the one unable to sit, the other to stand. Another is suggested by their names, hammer and nail (clou), which points to the sado-masochistic nature of the way they relate to each other, as in this sequence:

CLOV:       I see my light dying.
HAMM:       Your light dying! Listen to that! Well it can die just as well here, your light. Take a look at me and then come back and tell me what you think of your light.
CLOV:       You shouldn't speak to me like that.
HAMM:       (Coldly). Forgive me. (Pause. Louder) I said, forgive me.
CLOV:       I hear you.

Clov here, using perhaps the most concentrated image in the play, exposes his most essential feelings for their subsequent deriding by Ham, for which the latter immediately—but without sincerity—apologises, even insisting on acknowledgement. Hamm's cruel attitude to Clov is clearly exposed in this earlier excerpt.

HAMM:        You're leaving me all the same.
CLOV:        I'm trying.
HAMM:        You don't love me.
CLOV:        No.
HAMM:        You loved me once.
CLOV:        Once!
HAMM:        I've made you suffer too much. (Pause.) Haven't I?
CLOV:        It's not that.
HAMM:        (shocked). I haven't made you suffer too much?
CLOV:        Yes!
HAMM:        (relieved). Ah, you gave me a fright! (Pause.) (Coldly) Forgive me. (Pause. Louder.) I said, Forgive me.
CLOV:        I heard you.

Each partner in this exchange has a weak sense of self, what Metman describes as 'rudimentary ego': 'This kind of person develops only a bare minimum of adaptation to the surrounding world.' The evidence is in a number of references of this kind.

HAMM:        Clov.
CLOV:        (Absorbed.) Mmmm.
HAMM:        Do you know what it is?
CLOV:        (As before.) Mmmm.
HAMM:        I was never there. (Pause.) Clov!
CLOV:        (turning towards Hamm, exasperated.) What is it?
HAMM:        I was never there.
CLOV:        Lucky for you. (He looks out of window.)
HAMM:        Absent, always. It all happened without me. I don't know what's happened.

Hamm here presents a sense of non-involvement in events, or a shadowy sense of his own existence. Clov also uses the same image, the idea of not being 'there':

I say to myself—sometimes, Clov, you must be there better than that if you want them to let you go—one day.

The rest of the passage exposes Clov's despair, almost comparable in poignancy to the earlier 'My light dying.'

Perhaps due to the lack of integration and support in their relationship, Hamm and Clov construct synthetic roles, thus giving meaning to their world. They act, for example, as master and servant, though they seem not to understand why.

CLOV:        There's one thing I'll never understand … why I always obey you. Can you explain that to me?
HAMM:        No … Perhaps it's compassion. (Pause.) A kind of great compassion.

The roles that they play are not permanent, but fluidly created to suit the demands of the emerging situation, as here:           

CLOV:        (harshly.) When old Mother Pegg asked you for oil for her lamp and you told her to get out to hell, you knew what was happening then, no? (Pause.) You know what she died of, Mother Pegg? Of darkness.
HAMM:        (feebly.) I hadn't any.
CLOV:        (as before.) Yes, you had.

Hamm tries to make his dictatorship over Clov out to be benevolent: he characterises himself as a father-figure for the younger man. This process also gives, as it were, a socialised or normalised structure to the relationship.

HAMM:        … I was a father to you.
CLOV:        Yes. (he looks at Hamm fixedly.) You were that to me.
HAMM:        My house a home for you.
CLOV:        Yes. (He looks about him.) This was that for me.
HAMM:        (proudly.) But for me (gestures towards himself) no father. But for Hamm (gestures towards surroundings) no home.
CLOV:        I'll leave you.

Hamm contrasts his own independence (which must be at least partly false, as his father is present on the stage) with Clov's dependence upon himself. The main irony is in the force of Clov's reception of Hamm's remarks, which shows, by effective understatement, Hamm's moral bankruptcy.

It is not necessary to force the characters of Nagg and Nell into this interpretation. However, the tone of their reminiscences, especially those of Nell, are strikingly like those of Krapp. Nagg and Nell escape from their unbearable present into the happy past of the days of their courtship. Leaving out Nagg's buildup to remembering, the sequence becomes:

NELL:        It was on Lake Como. (Pause.) One April afternoon. (Pause.) Can you believe it?
NAGG:        What?
NELL:        That we once went out rowing on Lake Como. (Pause.) One April afternoon.
NAGG:        We had got engaged the day before.
NELL:        Engaged! … I felt happy. … It was deep, deep. And you could see down to the bottom. So white. So clean.

The tone is not unlike that of Krapp's memories of boating. Krapp and Nell both remember a time when the intellectual was integrated with the emotional and physical, when intellect was subordinated to and combined in affect.

Eva Metman, speaking of writers like Beckett, gives us this psychiatrist's-eye view:

… it seems that an irresistible factor in the unconscious has declared war upon the collective pseudo-ego. The quest thus reveals itself as one for a yet unborn true ego, that is, one related to the unconscious.

That is, the present self, feeling itself divided and uncertain of its nature and even of its existence, casts around for some evidence of its real existence. One direction that can be taken is into the past. This is the direction taken by Krapp and Nell.

That Hamm too is seeking a real sense of self is indicated by this speech.

(wearily) Quiet, quiet, you're keeping me awake. (Pause.) Talk softer. (Pause.) If I could sleep I might make love. I'd go into the woods. My eyes would see … the sky, the earth. I'd run, run, they wouldn't catch me. (Pause.) Nature! (Pause.) There's something dripping in my head. (Pause.) A heart, a heart in my head.

The kind of experience sought by Hamm is like that of the Romantic poet, as characterised in this way:

… the starting point of poetry is the feeling of man's one-ness with the world. Generations of poets and artists have described even the most dehumanised pieces of nature and somehow made them a part of man's 'Home' (Emily Brontë, for example). Where a Roquentin looks at the world and finds it meaningless, alien, inscrutable, finally other, the poet, working through some intuition that lies below his conscious personality, expresses an acceptance and affirmation, a sense of the world as a home.

Wordsworth is invoked, as suggested above. What frustrates Hamm is his intellectual self-consciousness. He is aware of existence going on in his head. His heart, presumably having conventional force here as the seat of the emotions, is in his head. Among other things, the passage means that emotion, for Hamm, is subject to intellect. Hamm can never escape from the prison of himself. He tries various roles: cruel master, father, actor, raconteur. He tries the imagination. He must finally realise his position inside the skull, where all one can do is play out the never-ending intellectual game.

… Me to play … Old endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing. Since that's the way we're playing it … let's play it that way … and speak no more about it … speak no more.


Beckett, Samuel. En attendant Godot. Paris: Minuit, 1952.

Beckett, Samuel. Murphy. London: Picador, 1973 [1938].

Beckett, Samuel. Endgame. London: Faber, 1958.

Beckett, Samuel. Happy Days. London: Faber, 1962.

Beckett, Samuel. Krapp's Last Tape. London: Faber, 1959.

Beckett, Samuel. The Unnameable. London: Calder, 1959.

Cornwell, Ethel F. "Samuel Beckett: the flight from self." PMLA, Dec 1972.

Laing, R. D. The Divided Self. London: Tavistock, 1960.

Metman, Eva. "Reflections on Samuel Beckett's plays." Journal of Analytical Psychology, Jan 1960, repr. in Martin Esslin (ed.) Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

Metman, Philip. "The ego in schizophrenia." Journal of Analytical Psychology, I, 2, 1956.

Wardle, Irving. "Krapp's Last Tape/Not I." The Times, London, 17 January 1973.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude. Ed. John Doe (Edition of 1805), Oxford University Press, 1960.

Update 2015

An Odd Couple: Samuel Beckett & Buster Keaton

Garry Gillard | New: 24 November, 2015 | Now: 20 December, 2018