Review article: Beckett’s fine shades

Play, That time, and Footfalls

Katharine J. Worth

How better could Beckett’s seventieth birthday have been celebrated than in the marvellous demonstration of his vitality and inventiveness the Royal Court Theatre gave us in May, 1976 with their triple bill, Play, followed by That time and Footfalls, new plays specially written for two of his favourite actors, the remarkable Patrick Magee and Billie Whitelaw? Freshness was the note throughout; that work of thirteen years back, Play, came up as fresh as paint in a virtuoso, high speed production by Donald McWhinnie which brought out the fun and absurdity without losing the awesome sense of spiritual ordeal, easily drawing the audience from ready laughter the first time of the purgatorial round to absorbed and troubled attention the second. This was a warming prelude to the more sombre That time and Footfalls, a lively pointer to the variety of mood and style that Beckett can achieve within the seemingly cramped limits of his purgatorial form.

The two new plays kept the audience bound in darkness, concentrating on a single point or strip of light, listening hard to the voices that came so strangely out of the dark at a mysterious distance from the just visible beings on the stage. The narrow visual focus, the pressure of the dark had a deeply disorientating effect. By the time we reached Footfalls Beckett had already got us into a state, appropriate to that ghostly piece and the play took us further into the twilit zone, with its slow, inexorable alternations of dim light and thick dark, its fading in and out of sight and sound. ‘Just what exactly, Mother, did you perhaps fancy this . . . strange thing was you observed?’ How easily we could take that line to ourselves, coming to us as it did from the crepuscular figure who so regularly vanished into the stage darkness, was so like ‘strange thing’ she describes walking by moon or candle light; the ‘faint tangle of pale grey tatters?’

But if our reliance on our senses was subtly undermined, it was also exercised: by being deprived of so much we were made to concentrate hard on what we had; words, cadences, the relation of things heard to things seen: we were brought to a state of hyper-sensitivity which made possible perception of an order rare in the theatre. There were some hazards in this condition; a creaking chair became a distraction, a cough a real horror; one began to wish for a concert hall discipline, all coughs and sneezes to be held back to the interval! We did in a way need to listen as to music, to catch the fine nuances of sound that carried so much dramatic meaning; changes of timbre, the length of a silence, the weight of a footfall. Both plays had a strongly musical character; a chime introduced each sequence of Footfalls and, in That time, Patrick Magee’s rich, melodious voice could certainly be enjoyed for the sake of its sound.

But it would have been impossible to take it in that way alone. The musical analogy soon breaks down, for here, as in Footfalls and all the stage plays, sound is intricately and crucially related to sight and everything is related to human feeling and to a situation that is always dramatic, always makes us want to know more about the beings involved in it.

The sense of situation was conveyed in That time through a powerful stage image; the face floating in its white hair in the stage dark, panting for breath. Someone was in extremis. We could not forget it; the face was always there, the laboured breathing renewed at intervals. However removed the dulcet voice that addressed him in the second person, from its three locations in space, we never ceased to be aware that it was his, that there was a painful and yet mysteriously consoling relationship between the gasping, helpless being at the centre and the soft, assured flow of sound that circled him, speaking of times past: ‘that time you went back that last time to look was the ruin still there where you hid as a child when was that?’ For one reviewer the whole meaning of the play was in that contrast: what the voice said was less important than the soothing tone that stilled the desperate panting. But the voice has more than that to say; something to do with separateness and unity, so the curious disposition of sounds suggests, one voice coming from three points; divided, and yet, as Beckett says, ‘no solution of continuity.’ And so with what it tells of: it is hard to know whether we are most aware of continuity or division. According to its physical location, down or up stage, to the right or left of the face, the voice broods on a particular time of life: the child on the stone among the giant nettles, with his picture book and imaginary playmates; the lovers in their ecstasy; the old man going on his journeys and burrowing into free libraries and picture galleries to get out of the rain. Time that has separated him from the child is making it harder to go back even in thought; the tracks are rusty where the trams once went. In the vanishing landscape ruin is superimposed on ruin; the man seeking the crumbling tower where the child played takes his way by the boarded up Doric terminus of the Great Southern and Eastern, with its crumbling colonnade. This is Time the destroyer, reducing everything to rubble and dust.

But the great recurring phrase from which the play takes its title is not ‘Time’ but ‘That time,’ a very different thing; ‘That time’—when we did this or that, remembered this and that; times the mind dwells on, delights in evoking; times good and not so good, times that Time has not taken along with the trams, the places, the physical presence of the loved ones: ‘on the stone together in the sun on the stone at the edge of the little wood . . . by the window in the dark harking to the owl not a thought in your head . . . gave it up gave up and sat down on the steps in the pale morning sun . . .’

That last time has to be corrected—’no those steps got no sun somewhere else.’ Stops and starts of the mind; something is always there, sifting, getting the scenes right; it is an active, creative process. And then we become aware of lines out from one location to another, have to modify the first impression of separateness. The voice that is taken up with the child turns aside to recall the loved woman indeed, that image of love cannot be kept out: ‘one thing would ever bring tears till they dried up altogether that thought when it came up among the others floated up that scene.’ All phases are seen in retrospect, ‘that time’ glimpsed through another, layers upon layers of a life, not finally to be separated; the far-off child no less—and no more—vivid than the man seeking the place where the child was, the decrepit character in the green coat with his needless nightbag. Any time may have moments of high intensity: it is out of old age that the voice draws a transcendent experience which was for us in the theatre a moment of great haunting beauty; the old man in the picture gallery peering at the vast oil painting, making out a romantic shape ‘such as a young prince or princess black with age behind the glass’—and then the face appearing in the glass, his swivelling round to see whose, and the sudden cut-off to the other region: ‘on the stone in the sun gazing at the wheat or the sky or the eyes closed nothing to be seen but the wheat turning yellow and the blue sky vowing every now and then you loved each other . . .’ A movement into another dimension, this; a transfiguration of time.

Youth and age run together in the end, unity asserts itself over separateness, as the steady tolling out of key words like ‘stone’ suggest it must; the stone the child crowds with imagined playmates—’there was childhood for you ten or eleven on a stone’—becomes the lovers’ seat and then the slab where the old man rests. The words have mournful undertones of gravestone and morgue, but always too they are associated with continuance and creativity; the child’s marvellous inventive power, the old man’s tenacity, searching for ways ‘out.’

There is, as there must be in life, a sense of decline and loss; from time to time nightmare and fear; fear of the shroud and the void ‘not knowing who you were from Adam’—fear of irreversible change—’never the same after that.’ But to the last phrase the voice says dryly, ‘never quite the same but that was nothing new if it wasn’t this it was that common occurrence something you could never be the same after.’

What a force for survival in that humour, how sustaining for us, and for the panting listener in the stage darkness. Even that painful inability to speak in the first person is smiled at: ‘did you ever say I to yourself in your life come on now.’ The humorous tone, dry, quizzical, sane, is a great unifier, and an anchor to earth when we might seem farthest away. It somehow guarantees the authenticity of the transcendental experiences, the lovers strange ecstasy—’no touching or anything of that nature always space between . . .’ and the apocalyptic vision at the end, of time rolling away when the whole world is reduced to dust: ‘then suddenly this dust whole place suddenly full of dust . . . what was it it said come and gone was that it something like that come and gone come and gone no one come and gone in no time gone in no time . . .’ Death, perhaps; but also the way ‘out’ that has been sought for so long, the release from Time, maybe the restoration of those other times. We can imagine something like this without straining because of the freedom from strain in the voice, its humane and humorous perspective. And at the end the face manages, for all its panting, a smile; ‘toothless for preference,’ the stage direction charmingly adds, with the relish for realism that gives one such faith in Beckett’s mystical imaginings.

Footfalls is also about separation and unity though more obliquely and oddly: for one or two reviewers it remained an unreadable mystery, though all agreed, as surely they had to, on the extraordinary spell-binding quality of Billie Whitelaw as the daughter. Surrounded by darkness, in silence broken only by the sound of her own footfalls, she created one of Beckett’s most overwhelming visual images; a sculptured figure of tragic grandeur, in her trailing robe, dimly grey in the dim light, painfully bowed, arms crossed over breast, pacing her nine rhythmic steps (seven in the printed text) to and fro on the narrow strip of stage she is confined to. A terribly exposed, solitary role, such as the actress of Not I could do, but how few besides; Beckett wrote it as her play, and in her performance she made it so.

Before any words were spoken she had already suggested the ‘revolving it all’ which is so strangely compelled upon this soul. She seemed to be the ‘semblance’ she later speaks of, only acquiring substance when she called up her mother from her sleep. Rose Hill, as the voice of the unseen mother, gave a beautifully judged performance, striking just the right balance between ghostly remoteness and the touching ordinariness of an old lady’s voice expressing a mother’s concern for her overburdened daughter and a sick woman’s longing for relief from pain. The opening exchange between mother and daughter must be one of the most moving passages Beckett has written. ‘M: Were you asleep? V: Deep asleep. Pause. I heard you in my deep sleep. Pause. There is no sleep so deep I would not hear you there.’ In the briefest of dialogues, with marvellous economy, the ‘event’ of the play is conveyed, the painful history of the mother’s terminal illness, the daughter’s care and suffering.

The light fades, the voice goes out, to return in the second sequence with a new microphonic resonance, delicately suggestive of another dimension. ‘I walk here now,’ the changed voice says. Then she corrects herself, ‘Rather I come and stand. At nightfall,’ drawing attention to the deep ambiguity which lies at the heart of the play. Who is it who ‘walks’ like a ghost, the woman who is only a voice or the figure we actually see walking; which of them is most there, and what does ‘there’ mean? ‘My voice is in her mind,’ the mother’s voice says—and then, as if implying that she has some other existence outside the mind, ‘She fancies she is alone.’ The lighted strip of stage is no more—nor less—real than the place where the mother is: it is the place the daughter has chosen to be in since girlhood, pacing and listening, trying to ‘tell how it was.’ The mother does not understand, but sympathy makes her try: she goes over the painful history, reconstructs a revealing episode, herself asking if May will never have done ‘revolving it all,’ the daughter expressing her need to taste her experience of suffering to the full. The sleepless nights, the walking are not enough: ‘. . . I must hear the feet, however faint they fall.’

The second sequence, like the first, ends with the mother contemplating what the daughter endures: she fades away on the thought of all the pain, on the words, ‘it all’ which close each sequence. There is a suggestion here of suffering not confined to the two of them; it widens out in the mind, as the echoes spread out from the chime. Widens and fades, for by the third sequence everything is beginning to fade, the chime is fainter, so too the footfalls, a point Beckett laid great stress on in rehearsals, one of those many minute refinements of sound this, on which so much depends. The mother’s own voice is heard no more, but it is not allowed to fade out completely; the daughter will not have it so. The sequence opens with the word ‘Sequel’ to which Billie Whitelaw gave a wonderfully suggestive, long drawn out emphasis: during rehearsals she spoke of the sense of release and relief she felt in it. All that was over, the injections, the pain; but still there was something else to be said or done. And so it is: everything starts again for her; a little later, at nightfall the ‘semblance’ begins to walk ‘like moon through passing rack.’ The ambiguity comes flooding in; a strange merging is taking place; it could be mother or daughter who paces without pause, without sound, ‘up and down, before vanishing the way she came.’ Once the mother spoke for the daughter; now it is the other way round, the daughter tells their story, ‘does’ the voices, conjures up the scene but through a fiction, as if this somehow made it tolerable; an old world tale, suited to the faded girl who has never been girl-like; its theme fantastic; Mrs Winter and her daughter Amy discussing the possibility of Amy’s not being there at all: ‘Mrs W: You yourself observed nothing . . . strange? Amy: No, Mother, I myself did not, to put it mildly.’ The chance to smile here, as at other touches of Gothic humour in the strange evocation—the hissed stage direction, ‘Mrs W,’ for instance—gave a moment of relief, a resting place before the final intensity.

Then the thinning away; the pacing figure dimming, hardly heard, seeming to be acting out what the character in her story said: ‘I was not there at all.’ And yet, strangely, she is more completely there than ever, for by the end she has absorbed everything into herself, the mother’s words and pain as well as her own and the suffering outside them both implied in the echoing phrases ‘it all’ and the never-explained ‘His poor arm.’ Billie Whitelaw’s stiffly held arm wonderfully suggested a burden she had to bear, the pain of the whole world. When she evoked at the end the church service mother and daughter so oddly shared, the quiet words of the Evensong blessing fell into a theatre as hushed as a church. It was as though we had come just for that, to receive the blessing and give the response it called for, though ours too was silent, like the ghostly ‘Amen’ in the play and the footfalls without sound, ‘none at least to be heard.’

The man in extremis smiles, the woman who is hardly there binds us to her in a prayer. Beckett had brought us through the dark into an unearthly and yet touchingly human light. To be at such a seventieth birthday celebration was a privilege indeed.