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Visual metaphor in the plays of Samuel Beckett

Garry Gillard, English 33, UWA, 1972

This essay examines some aspects of the settings, properties and stage directions of Samuel Beckett's plays in an attempt to say in what way they contribute to the metaphorical statement made by Beckett of his view of the human predicament.

This may seem a rather perverse task to set in view of the fact that Beckett is concerned to eliminate as far as possible these elements as they have been traditionally used in the theatre. However it is just this eliminative process which is interesting in Beckett and which exposes his sceptical method.

If this essay sometimes strays from its prescription into areas more conceptual than visual, this is explicable by the close interrelation of all Beckett's methods and images. This concision of expression and unity of vision may be exemplifies by the fact that Jacobsen and Mueller (3) have found it possible to talk about the Beckett protagonist and to give him a provisional name, ‘Q’, as if he were always the same character.

Beckett's first published and most famous play was actually preceded by an earlier play, written about 1947, called Eleutheria. Kenner informs us, (the play remaining unpublished), that this play was an ambitious project, entailing "a large stage, two sets simultaneously on view, a place and a time uncharacteristically specified, and seventeen speaking parts including a Chinese torturer, an officious member of the audience, and the prompter."

That Beckett, although writing for what is basically the traditional theatre, was even then beginning to feel a need to reshape the nature of theatre is perhaps suggested by his use of alienating devices such as the characters mentioned above. Be that as it may, the appearance of Waiting for Godot on the stage in 1953 signalled a new direction in theatre.

The indication at the beginning of Waiting for Godot is for a country road with a tree. The ‘country road’, as Kenner points out, means that there is no set, and the tree is an indicator of place: that it is at this particular spot that the tramps must wait.

It gives no sense of place however. This minimisation of setting has the effect of generalising what is being shown. The place is anywhere. The characters therefore are everyone. As Vladimir says: "But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not." The empty landscape recalls the terrains of the novels over which the various protagonists ride, walk or drag themselves.

It is easy to make too much of the symbolic value of the tree. But it would be hard not to make something¬† of it when watching the play for two hours with this tree as the only item of setting. Kenner (4) points out in a footnote that "The one stable item of Noh decor is painted on the back of the stage: ‘a pine tree, symbol of the unchanging'." This may not be relevant but the suggestion by the tree of the Cross probably is. This is introduced into the play by Vladimir's reference to the story of the two thieves, a favourite of Beckett's, one of whom was saved, and therefore to the possibility of redemption. This followed almost immediatel by this exchange:

ESTRAGON: ...You're sure it was here?
VLADIMIR: What?
ESTRAGON: That we were to wait.
VLADIMIR: He said by the tree.

And when Estragon asks Vladimir about the time of the appointment, Vladimir says "He said Saturday. (Pause.) I think."

The coincidence of these ideas and images should not limit us to a too narrow interpretation of the significance of the play to a religious context, but as Jacobsen and Mueller (3) point out, Beckett "is using the biblical allusions for their long-standing connotative value, for their rich suggestiveness." The suggestion is of what Jacobsen and Mueller call "the Enduring Saturday of Samuel Beckett", the time of waiting between the Friday of the death of God, and the Sunday of his projected Resurrection. In Beckett's world, this Sunday never comes. The tree on the stage is the visual correlative for this symbol of hope/despair.

Another tree, the one in the Garden of Eden, is also perhaps suggested by this passage:

VLADIMIR: Suppose we repented.
ESTRAGON: Repented what ? ...Our being born ?

The idea of Original Sin, of being born not into a state of grace recurs by implication: Hamm curses his parents (in Endgame): "Accursed progenitor", and Clov wants to kill the boy because he is "A potential procreator." And much of the interest at the end of All That Fall hangs on whether or not Mr Rooney has killed a child. Mr Tyler in the same play speaks of "... cursing ... the wet Saturday afternoon of my conception". Examples multiply.

Unlike the Noh tree, Beckett's tree is not changeless. In the second Act, it has sprouted "four or five leaves" (in English anyway: in the original text "L'arbre est couvert de feui1les". In the years between 1947-9, when he wrote the play and 1952-3, when he translated it, Beckett had further minimised his effects. Compare the change in the translation of Endgame pointed out by Esslin (1) by which Beckett has considerably tightened the passage in which the boy appears near the end of the play.) although Vladimir says "And now it's covered with leaves". When this is noticed by the tramps it induces even more uncertainty in them than they were already feeling; but aside from this it makes the tree more clearly a symbol of the possibility of rebirth and therefore of hope - "hellish hope", as Moran calls it, in Comment c'est. It is somewhat analogous to the carafe of water in Act Without Words, a cruder symbol of hope, offered and tantalisingly withdrawn. It is a symbol of the "hypothetical imperative" of Molloy, that life must go on, however perilous and senseless.

Which brings us to the last point of discussion on the subject of this so fruitful tree: the point at which it threatens to become part of the action of the play. The question of suicide is discussed quite early and arises again when Estragon suggests that they hang themselves from the tree. The tree, inevitably, is probably not strong enough, and the idea is shelved. When it is taken up again the next day, it is the cord, Estragon's belt, which is palpably not strong enough, as it breaks. In Beckett's world there is a canon against self-slaughter; this is the hypothetical imperative at work: the protagonist must go on with his existence until its natural end. Compare in this regard the revolver in Happy Days. Winnie addresses it thus: "Oh I suppose it's a comfort to know you're there, but I'm tired of you. (Pause.) I'll leave you out, that's what I'll do. (She lays revolver on ground to her right.) There, that's your home from this day out." The possibility of suicide is so remote that the means of effectuation is mere dead weight. The point is made again, as so often in Beckett, at a higher level of intensity, in the second act. Winnie can now move nothing but her eyes. The revolver is "conspicuous to her right on mound" (my emphasis). Suicide is now impossible physically as well as morally.

The visual aspects of Endgame, if anything, probably even more striking and reverberative than those of Waiting for Godot, because the setting of the former is so closely related to significant central images in a great many of the prose works. The set for Endgame is "Bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn."

"Clov's first act is to uncurtain the two high windows and inspect the universe;"... writes Kenner (4) and continues: "This is so plainly a metaphor for waking up that we fancy the stage, with its high peepholes, to be the inside of an immense skull." This might seem merely a brilliant but possibly misleading and too narrow interpretation of the setting, had not this author already presented collaborative evidence in the forms of images from the novels of similar metaphors for the human experience: from Comment c'est: "And it would not surprise me if the great classic paralyses were to offer analogous and perhaps even still more unspeakable satisfactions. To be literally incapable of motion at last, that must be something! My mind swoons when I think of it. And mute into the bargain! And perhaps deaf as a post! And who knows blind as a bat! And as likely as not your memory a blank! And just enough brain intact to allow you to exult! And to dread death like a regeneration."; from Murphy: "slowly he felt better, astir in his mind, in the freedom of that light and dark that did not clash, nor alternate, nor fade nor lighten except to their communion ... Soon his body would be quiet, soon he would be free."; from Watt: "... my friend, in whose mind, ... all, I am convinced, is an ecstasy of darkness, and of silence."; and, most strikingly, from The Unnameable: "... 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."

If Kenner (4) does not go on and draw the mechanical conclusion from the insightful observation, perhaps it is because Esslin (1) had already done so. If at one level of meaning the setting can be seen as representing a skull, then it follows that the characters represent parts or aspects of a man's mental processes. Esslin puts it like this: "Is Clov then the intellect, bound to serve the emotions, instincts, and appetites, and trying to free himself from such disorderly and tyrannical masters, yet doomed to die when its connexion with the animal side of the personality is severed? Is the death of the outside world the gradual receding of the links to reality that takes place in the process of ageing and dying? Is Endgame a monodrama depicting the dissolution of a personality in the hour of death?" For this reading, Nagg and Nell would represent memory, often suppressed by the emotion of fear.

(And the picture, "Hanging near door, its face to wall."? A rejected picture: an ambition, an ideal, a happy memory, the idea of beauty ? It is just as well to have a mystery tucked away in one's mind - like Madame Sosostris:" ... and this card,/Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,/Which I am forbidden to see.")

A more literal reading would show a claustrophobic interior, apparently the last place, containing, apparently, the last of the human race. More specific placing than this is as usual not indicated. Indeed, the fact that Clov can see land through one window and sea through the other effectively removes the building from the literal world, placing it, as it were, on the junction of sea and land, and giving it symbolic status as a place from which it would seem the whole world, sea and land, can be observed.

One point which the settings of these plays, although respectively exterior and interior, have in common is the quality of the light. In Waiting for Godot, it is twilight which is indicated by the script; in Endgame the direction is for "Grey light". In both cases the characters are waiting for night, oblivion. Life is seen as in the grey light of despair, awaiting the release of the absolute darkness of death.

Clov's efforts with the ladder are worthy of note, as, not merely comic business reminiscent of the circus clown, they seem to be related to the efforts of other Beckett characters to do things efficiently, by computation and reasoning. Outstanding examples are Molloy's calculations to rationalise his stone-sucking procedure; Mary's symmetrical gluttony; Watt's various ratiocinations about the juxtaposition of Knott's dog and its food, about Erskine's key, and about the piano-tuning Galls; or, in the plays, the reasoning involved in Lucky's motives for not putting down his bags; and the business with the hats. Clov enjoys tidiness: "Nice dimensions, nice proportions, ..." His difficulties in bringing together telescope and ladder at the appropriate window suggest, rather than that he is careless, that there is a perfectly efficient way of going about the procedure, which somehow eludes him.

Beckett seeks not only to minimise his effects but also the physical capabilities of his characters. This is an aspect of Beckett's work in which a continuing tendency may be seen. As he defines more precisely his view of the human condition, always polishing and refining a similar metaphor, so do his strictures on the movement and abilities of his characters increase.

The afflictions bf the tramps in the first published play are minor: sore feet and a bad memory for example, although the other two main characters are not so fortunate: by the second Act Pozzo has become blind and Lucky dumb, losing just the faculties they needed to perform their particular turns: Pozzo to admire the sunset, and Lucky to 'think'. In Endgame the situation is even more serious: the two progenitors have lost their legs before the beginning of the play, and at least one is dead by the end; Hamm, as well as being blind, cannot stand, while Clov cannot sit. (If I may make my own little addition to the Endgame etymological game: the hammer is always bent; the nail should never be.) Mr. Rooney of All That Fall is in a similar predicament to that of Hamm; but Winnie in Happy Days is worst off, being completely immobilized in her heap of sand, to her waist in the first act, and her neck in the second. Willie can crawl about, but being immersed in his newspaper, apparently prefers to remain in his hole, into which he must carefully insert himself backwards. In Play, Beckett has taken the idea further, having the three characters completely motionless and impassive in three-foot-high (funerary) urns. However we are probably not meant to think of these characters being 'alive' in the same way that Winnie is. They are more like the residual consciousnesses of the newly dead.

Another reducible element forming a tendency in Beckett's theatrical work is the number of characters he needs to use. Concerned as he is basically with the individual human consciousness, it is fascinating to see how he weaves drama, the stuff of which is conflict, from what can be seen to be essentially the single strand of monodrama.

Eleutheria had seventeen speaking parts for conventional characters. In Waiting for Godot the five parts are still differentiated from each other, although the main characters can be seen as two pairs of complementary types. (By this reading Pozzo-appetite and Lucky-reason can be seen as corresponding to the pair of Hamm and Clov.) In Endgame, as discussed above, the four characters are even more closely related. Act Without Words is a monodrama, a mimed parable about the futility of the pursuit of material objects, but it is very short, and there is the presence, offstage, of unseen malevolent forces to provide the conflict.

Happy Days has only two characters to get through its two acts and one of these has very little to say. Winnie tells herself stories to pass the time, rather like Nagg's joke of the trousers and Hamm's ‘narration’ in Endgame or Pozzo's speech on the twilight and Lucky's thinking in Waiting for Godot. She also sings, to fill in what Jacobsen and Mueller call the "Enormous Time", and attends to her person while she can. The main tension then, for Winnie as for many other characters is the tension of time, whether of nostalgia for the past, or of apprehension for the future.

It is Krapp's Last Tape, however, which is the most ingenious of the stage plays in this respect, the tension being that between old Krapp as he is now and the man of thirty-nine whose voice we hear with him on the old tape. With only one character, and the brilliant device of a tape-recorder as property, Beckett has explored the idea of the continuity of self and the tragedy of the passage of time.

Respecting this tendency, it is no coincidence that the title of Beckett's most recently published work, in which the ‘characters’ spend their time climbing ladders up the sides of the cylindrical hole which they seem not to be able to leave, is Le d√©peupleur.

The tendency in the work of Samuel Beckett is always away from superficial 'realism' and towards the depiction of mental states, dreams, needs and predicaments. What we see in Beckett's plays, the methods he uses, the directions he gives his actors, the properties he allows them to use, and the situations in which he places them are part of the message which he gives us. As Martin Esslin (2) puts it: "The realism of these plays [of the Theatre of the Absurd] is a psychological, and inner realism; they explore the human subconscious in depth rather than trying to describe the outward appearance of human existence." Or as Samuel Beckett puts it: "Ah the old questions, the old answers, there's nothing like them!" (Endgame)

Works by Samuel Beckett

En attendant Godot, Paris, Minuit, 1952.

Waiting for Godot, N.Y. Grove, 1954; London, Faber, 1956.

Fin de partie, Minuit, 1957.

Acte sans paroles

Endgame, Grove, 1958; Faber 1958.

Act Without Words

All That Fall, Faber 1957.

Krapp's Last Tape/Embers, Faber, 1959.

Happy Days, Grove, 1961; Faber 1962.

Play etc., Faber, 1964.

Excerpts from the fiction as quoted by Kenner.

Critical works referred to

1. Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Penguin, 1968, (first pub. 1961).

2. Esslin Martin, Introduction to Absurd Drama, Penguin, 1965.

3. Jacobsen, Josephine & Mueller, William R: The Testament of Samuel Beckett, Faber, 1966.

4. Kenner, Hugh, Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study, Calder, 1962.

5. Knowles Dorothy, French Drama of the Inter-War Years 1918-39, London, Harrap, 1967.

6. Pronko, Leonard C., Avant-Garde: The Experimental Theater in France, London, C.U.P. 1962.

7. Scott, Nathan A., Samuel Beckett, N.Y., Hillary House, 1965.


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