Birth astride a grave: Samuel Beckett’s ‘Act without words 1’

Stanley E. Gontarski

Samuel Beckett’s first mime, Act without words 1, is one of the few slighted works in the Beckett canon. Often ignored, the play has generally not fared well even with those critics who do treat it. Ruby Cohn dismisses the work as ‘almost too explicit,’1 and Ihab Hassan has noted that the first mime seems ‘a little too obvious and pat.’2 John Spurling concurs: compared to Godot, ‘Act without words 1 is . . . over-explicit, over-emphasized and even, unless redeemed by its performer, so unparticularized as to verge on the banal.’3

The play’s directness is almost a source of embarrassment for critics and has prompted some forced interpretation. Martin Esslin, for one, has argued that the protagonist is ‘drawn to the pursuit of illusory objectives . . .’4 Ruby Cohn echoes the view, suggesting that the ‘sustenance and tools are man’s own invention, and his frustration the result of the impossibility of ever being able to reach what may be a mirage.’5 But the objects certainly seem substantial. The protagonist stands on the cubes and engages in a tug-of-war with a force outside himself, presumably the same force which threw him on stage. The scissors and rope may be man’s own inventions, but they are nonetheless real; if they were not, the exterior force would have little reason to confiscate them. Rather than an obvious, unparticularized mime about illusion or mirage, Beckett has created here one of his most compact and concrete images of the birth of existential man, of the existential artist, with all the ironies implicit in the coincidence of birth and death.

Admittedly, the mime is obvious in many respects. It appears to be a behaviouristic psychological experiment within the framework of a classic myth. The protagonist (Adam, Tantalus, Everyman) is thrown, forced, born into a hostile environment where he can neither have nor succeed. What nature exists is apart from man and is alien, the curse of thistles and thorns. From the first the protagonist is a thinker, but inadequately made to deal with the hostile forces. He is pathetic, born, indeed created to fail, a caged rat frustrated by an inept or malicious handler. He examines his hands, his primary tool; his prehensile thumb opposes the fingers. Armed with two natural tools, mind and hands, those tools which separate him from lower orders of animals, he tries to survive, to secure some water in the desert. The mind works, at least in part: he learns—small cube on large; he invents, or is given inventions—scissors, cubes, rope. But when he learns to use his tools effectively, they are confiscated: the scissors, when he reasons that in addition to cutting his fingernails, he might cut his throat; the blocks and rope, when he discovers that they might make a gallows. So far, a rather obvious allegory: Tantalus punished, the offence uncertain. G. C. Barnard argues the prevalent interpretation of the ending; the protagonist does not move because he is simply crushed: ‘. . . the man remains, defeated, having opted out of the struggle, lying on the empty desert.’6

The play, however, contains some anomalies that warrant investigation. This is not the usual Beckett world. No words, for one. Or more properly, one elemental word, water. While much has been made of the names of Beckett’s characters, especially his M’s, this protagonist is nameless. And he is, throughout most of the play, active and healthy, neither an avatar of Belacqua nor one of the cripples. Although his progress is toward immobility, he suffers no visible physical deterioration. Unlike Godot where we are never sure of Godot’s existence,7 here a force outside man certainly exists; the protagonist, like Jacob, wrestles with it to illustrate its substance. Finally, the action of the mime is linear, terminal, not the usual Beckettian circle.

In the end the superior force defeats the inferior, rather predictable, pathetic stuff. With this climax, the play appears more traditional and didactic than Beckett’s other dramatic work. The mime seems to lack characteristic Beckettian innovation. But within this obvious, traditional ending, Beckett works his consummate skill, for the real play begins with its terminus. The climactic ending of the mime may signify not a pathetic defeat, but a conscious rebellion, man’s deliberate refusal to obey. Lucky has finally turned on Pozzo. Ironically then, the protagonist is most active when inert, and his life acquires meaning at its end. In this refusal, this cutting of the umbilical rope, a second birth occurs, the birth of man. The protagonist has finally acquired, earned, a name, Man (another M). As he refuses the summons of the outside force, as he refuses to act predictably, in his own self-interest, as he refuses the struggle for the most elemental of man’s needs, Man, in a frenzy of inactivity, is born. If at first we saw man created by another, we end with man creating himself. In his refusal to devote himself to physical existence, solely to survival and pleasure (shade, the off-stage womb), the protagonist has created a free man, a separate, individual self. He has said with Camus’s rebel, so far and no further. Rebellion is, of course, dangerous business. The master may indeed physically destroy his rebellious slave. In the final dramatic image of Act without words 1, the moments of birth and death virtually coincide in an echo of blind Pozzo’s insight. ‘They give birth astride of a grave.’ Tension here is produced by inaction, a corollary to the tension produced by silence in the wordplays.

In addition to an ending that is at least ambiguous, a series of brilliant visual allusions adds to the richness of the play. The protagonist’s similarities to Tantalus, the patriarch of the troubled house of Atreus, and Jacob, the patriarch of Israel, have already been suggested. And the former myth provides most of the dramatic framework for the play, not unlike, on its own small scale, Joyce’s use of the Odysseus myth to shape Ulysses. Moreover, the playlet contains several other Joycean echoes. The struggle between the protagonist and the more powerful outside force suggests not only Jacob’s wrestling with an angel, but Joyce’s artistic quest for (at least in Beckett’s eyes) omniscience and omnipotence. The protagonist of the mime, like Stephen Dedalus, finally says non serviam. The image of man paring his nails suggests (and perhaps parodies with Joyce) Stephen’s aesthetic theories. Like Dedalus, the protagonist in Act without words 1 is an inventor and consequently an artist, a ‘fabulous artificer.’ If the inventions fail, that failure is inevitable and consistent with Beckett’s attitude toward art. As Beckett suggested to Israel Shenker, Joyce is ‘tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I’m working with impotence, ignorance.’8 The artistic associations of the protagonist are further reinforced with the reference to tailor’s scissors. The tailor is himself a craftsman, a maker, and the scissors call to mind Nagg’s story of the Englishman and the tailor from Endgame, the point of which is the imperfection of the world when compared to man’s creations.

Act without words 1 then is a not-so-banal dramatic image of rebellion, of artistic rebellion, of Sartre’s man freeing himself from outside forces that may be god, instinct, tradition, mythology, human nature, and the struggle is punctuated with a series of visual images suggesting the artist’s plight. As the mime closes, man is free of his instinct for survival, free of the limitation of acting according to his nature. The freedom may only be the spiteful freedom of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and the victory, as Thomas Barbour suggests, ‘may be hollow,’9 but perhaps there are no meaningful victories. The ending is an existential and artistic triumph for whatever that is worth. Act without words 1 may finally be Beckett’s portrait of the artist as a young (man, dog) rat.


1 Ruby Cohn, Samuel Beckett: the comic gamut, New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers UP, 1962. 247.

2 Ihab Hassan, The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1967. 192.

3 John Fletcher and John Spurling, Beckett: a study of his plays, New York, Hill and Wang, 1972. 118.

4 Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd, New York, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1961. 38.

5 The comic gamut, 247.

6 Samuel Beckett: a new approach
, New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, Inc., 1970. 109.

7 In fact, in the early versions of Godot, the existence of Godot is more certain as Didi and Gogo have a note from him. In revision, the note is excised, the existence of Godot open to question.

8 Israel Shenker, ‘A portrait of Samuel Beckett, author of the puzzling Waiting for Godot,’ The New York Times, 6 May 1956, Section 2, p. 1, p. 3.

9 ‘Beckett and lonesco,’ Hudson Review, 11, Summer 1958. 273.