Review: ‘The lively arts’: three plays by Samuel Beckett on BBC 2, 17 April 1977


John Calder


            Birth, and copulation, and death,

            That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks:

            Birth and copulation and death.


            T.S. Eliot, Sweeney Agonistes


These three plays, one of them, Not I, adapted from the stage, and the other two, Ghost trio and ... but the clouds . . ., written for television and given their premičre here are three fascinating examples of theatre that on different levels communicate to the viscera, the emotions and the intellect. Ghost trio, like Footfalls, is a new Beckett, full of puzzles, certain to keep the academic Beckett industry fully stretched, planned with a mathematical neatness and a technical and dramatic mastery on different levels that no other living dramatist could even attempt.


These words, written after a preview in January, are almost certainly the first written attempt at unravelling the new plays, although others will appear in print earlier. Ghost trio is composed entirely in units of three and seems to have three objects: to reduce as always the human condition to a simple definition in terms of new allegory; to give the academics a good puzzle to solve; and thirdly to make some wry personal statements about the author himself and his own past work and present situation. The play itself is conceived within three frames, each containing another frame and another world like a chinese box. The outer frame is that of the television screen itself, the rectangular shape of which gives the play its most striking visual aspect other than the human figure. The voice of a woman announcer, that of Billie Whitelaw, operates on this plane, explaining what is seen in the second frame, that of the visual narrative. The third plane is interior, that of the inside of the mind of the protagonist and of the music that comes from a small cassette-recorder, Beethoven’s ‘Ghost trio Op.70, no.1.’


The announcer’s voice tells the viewer that hers is a faint voice that will not be lowered or raised and that the predominant colour of their picture should be shades of gray. She describes three of the rectangular objects that can be seen, a door, a window, and a pallet or simple bed on the floor, all of which are the same rectangular shape. I take these to represent in the author’s mind, birth, copulation and death: the door (entry) being birth, the window (which shows teeming rain outside on a black night—a clear enough sexual image) procreation, and the pallet (coffin-shaped like every other rectangular object to be seen) death. There are also three other rectangular objects not described, the cassette-recorder, the stool on which the man sits and a mirror. Each contains a reference to an earlier play, which becomes evident later. There are also three other rectangular shapes shown and mentioned: a section of floor, a section of wall and another view of the pallet, this time resting against the wall. So, visually the rectangles are three times three, the first a statement on the basics of the human condition, the second on the author’s work or career, the third images of space without life, observed but not inhabited. The narrator also describes the sole inhabitant of the room, a man.

The man is immersed in listening to three musicians playing a trio, the sound emanating from inside a cassette-recorder, and he is observed from outside the television set by the television audience and the narrator, a part of her observation and consciousness. He is also listening for another sound, for ‘her’ to come. Is she the narrator? Is she his loved one? Is she Nemesis, Death, Hope? What he sees, after twice opening the door and the window, and looking in the mirror, is a surprise to him. The steps coming down the passage, the imperious knocks of a stick are no surprise to him. He might well be expecting death. Instead, it is a boy who comes, fresh-faced, dripping from the rain, like a cupid deus ex machina from a Gluck opera, although obviously reminiscent of the boy in Godot, who indicates, smiling, a negative, and retires down the passageway. He is the last of three elements who have observed him and the reiteration of esse est percipi (Bishop Berkeley’s dictum on which Film is based) applies to all three. He is perceived by the narrator and the audience, he is perceived by himself, not without surprise, and he is observed by the boy, who may represent many things, but who certainly indicates a future continuity and a guarantee that he will be remembered. So the three observers become in a sense past, present and future. But now it is clear that the author is making a number of personal statements associated both with his past work and his present life. We are told by the narrator that the light never changes, never dims, that the room contains no shadow. The man is observed and cannot hide: this is the situation of the most studied, harried and pursued writer of our time, a Nobel Prize winner, who although intensely private by nature, is doomed to be observed and never to be able to hide; the never-failing light would seem to be the glare of publicity and world recognition. His surprise at seeing his face still reflected in the mirror, underlined by the little cry given by the narrator as he peers at his aging face, is the surprised cry of Krapp, who has survived his seventieth birthday, his biblical expectation, and is still in touch with life (the boy), creative fertility (the rain) and pleasure (the music). This again is the actual situation of the author. But he also makes sly allusions to his past dramatic work: the boy instantly conjured up both Waiting for Godot and Endgame; the face in the mirror brings back Film and Eh Joe; the music, which comes and goes, the sound effects, the narrator’s voice, all belong to the world of the radio plays. The three aspects of his dramatic work, for stage, for film, for sound radio, all have their allusions, ironically, and perhaps self-mockingly, intertwined with a terse recognition of his present situation.


Ghost trio can be seen as his most autobiographical statement since Krapp’s last tape, and the parallels with that work are everywhere apparent from the posture for listening to chamber music (as Mr Beckett’s later work has been often described) instead of to his own voice, to the tape recorder, now in miniature, while the room is every way very like Krapp’s lodgings. There remain the three spaces, the coffin-shaped section of wall, the floor, and the pallet seen leaning against the wall. Like Pope Urban VVIII, who slept with a skull as his pillow to remind him of his mortality, the spectre of death and of space without life is never far from Mr Beckett’s consciousness: the futility of it all must be stated once again, even at this relatively benign stage of his career. Ghost trio manages to squeeze an incredible content into its twenty minutes and one hopes the BBC will not let this masterpiece disappear too long into its archives. Ronald Pickup, the latest in the succession of actors to become closely identified with Beckett’s work, and Billie Whitelaw, each turn in impeccable performances under Donald McWhinnie, who directed largely with the author present.


If Ghost trio has a family resemblance to Krapp’s last tape, his other new television play ... but the clouds ... would seem closer to the less puzzlesome directness of That time. The title comes from Yeats’s moving description of the deprivations of old age in his poem The tower, when all that is left is intellect, work and study, and when the slowing of the body is a minor nuisance compared to worse evils:


            The death of friends, or death

            Of every brilliant eye

            That made a catch in the breath -

            Seem but the clouds of the sky

            When the horizon fades . . .


The play makes its own comment on age, memory and nostalgia with economy, and with one strictly controlled camera angle and field of vision. The protagonist is mobile, coming and going between the roads that he daily walks ‘since break of day’ and the sanctum where he crouches in the dark in robe and skullcap, trying to conjure up in his mind the woman ‘with those unseeing eyes I so begged when alive to look at me.’ In his perambulations between the roads, the closet where he changes from outdoor to indoor garb, and the sanctum, all these places hidden in shadow, he must pass each time a central point lit from above, and be observed by the camera, which is very likely his own exterior observation of himself, just as the single voice we hear is his own comment on his movements as well as his induced thought.


The man would appear, once again, to be immersed in guilt towards a missed opportunity, a dead love, a regretted course of action, as in Eh Joe, but with a flatter style. Irony is subdued, stoicism more matter of fact, self-pity almost entirely absent, illusion exluded. The man is concerned with concentration, a Merlin conjuring up a ghost in his memory, Yeats’s ‘brilliant eye’ of the poem perhaps, while quoting from it to himself lines that strongly recall Mr Beckett’s recent ‘fizzle’ Still, with its pantheistic blending of thought and contemplation with nature. To Yeats the memory of friendship and love become


            . . .but the clouds of the sky

            When the horizon fades,

            Or a bird’s sleepy cry

            Among the deepening shades.


In Still we have


            Bright at last the close of a dark day the sun shines

            out at last and goes down .... Normally watch night

            fall however long .... Or by eastern window certain

            moods staring at some point on the hillside ....

            Leave it so all quite still or try listening to the sounds

            all quite still head in hand listening for a sound.


Both the television plays belong to the new Beckett whose work has developed an equanimity reminiscent of Cicero and Goethe, as well as Yeats. It would be too much to say that the agony and cruelty of the early and middle work has disappeared, but there is now a mellow acceptance of the inevitable, a poetry of comfort, projected with ever greater precision. Best of all, Mr Beckett is no longer trapped in a tunnel of his own making, but exploring a seam full of endless possibilities, without ever having once left the straight path, inevitable as it now seems, of his own very personal view of life and art, and economy of style and expression.


The third play is an adaptation for television of that astonishing tour de force Not I. The entire television screen is taken up with a mouth the surrounding skin black or dark gray on the screen, the white teeth framing the cavern of the palate and mucous membrane leading to the throat. This is what a dentist sees daily, and I had to fight a tendency to close my eyes as the spittle dribbled down, and to hear only the world of sound. But Beckett’s unhappy heroine comes totally to life, breathless, compulsively relating the life story of ‘she . . . not I’ harrowingly. The closeness of the camera brings out the warts (a hairy chin) and greater realism could only have been achieved by making the mouth toothless, or almost. Nevertheless I prefer this play on the stage. The removal of the shadowy inquisitor is both a visual and a dramatic loss, removing an important element of the mythology, and the closeness of the mouth, which will shock many television viewers, has less impact on me than when watched at a distance in a darkened theatre, where it always resembles a moving, talking vagina as the curtain rises. This remains one of Billie Whitelaw’s greatest roles. She has yet to try Happy days and one hopes for a new broadcast production of All that fall, the first radio play, which is badly overdue.


‘The lively arts’ may be a misnomer where this triple bill of Beckett is concerned, but one must be grateful to the BBC for a memorable fifty minutes.