Review: Two views of Purgatory: Beckett and Yeats

at the Edinburgh Festival, 1977


Richard Cave


It is a vexed question just how much freedom a director and cast can take with a dramatist’s instructions about performing his work. This is especially so with Beckett whose mastery of the various media for drama is such that his directives are rigorously exacting. Complete submission to these demands does not generally suppress the performer’s powers of invention; rather it encourages him to discover new possible means of expression. Invariably the discipline brings compensations; and this is true of the audience’s experience too. Deprived of our sight, with at least two of Beckett’s radio plays we discover a rich potential for seeing with the eye of the mind. With Embers, as Beckett conceived it, the listener is required to submit his imagination to the command of Henry; it is to be the stage he vitalizes with voices and sounds; as he wills, so the listener experiences. The play becomes through this submission an adventure in the labyrinth of consciousness, an exploring with Henry of the many planes of reality: memories, obsessions, unspecified but urgent fears, wish-fulfilling fantasies, moods, sudden waves of guilt at self-betrayals or moral evasions, the flow of artistic inspiration which draws on these other forms of experience and strives to order them and transmute them into an objective correlative. Always there is the insistent perception of life in time represented by the rhythm of the sea, beside which Henry is seated, which echoes the rhythm of the blood-pulse and of breathing and which fills the pauses in Henry’s thinking, however freely it may appear to range, constantly displacing his order with its regularity, challenging and inspiring him and compelling in him both fear and fascination. By insisting that his audience make the effort to stage the play in their minds, Beckett, in fact, communicates the objective correlative for Henry’s condition which constantly eludes Henry’s own attempts at definition; what appear to him as disconnected fragments of experience are invested with a pattern of meaning through the audience’s imaginative engagement with them.


Much depends here on the way every aspect of the play has an ambivalent status: the sea is both literal and symbolic; Henry’s account of Bolton has a vivid immediacy, though it is only an imagined tale, until, that is, Ada’s repetition of Holloway’s name intimates that Bolton is a dramatic projection of some inner need of Henry’s; the sound of the sea now becomes the dying fall of the embers in the pauses within the tale; Henry’s father’s exasperated dismissal of him as a ‘washout’ is instantly turned by Henry—‘Wish to Christ she had’—into a wish that his mother had never borne him and further, through his simultaneous recollection of Addie, that he had not perpetuated his miserable self in his daughter. Every detail of the play has a complex allusiveness in this way and in the imagination of the listener the ambivalences are fruitfully sustained and not resolved: fruitfully, because it is through them that the listener apprehends the pattern of meaning for which Henry searches in vain.


Just how skilful Beckett’s handling of his listener’s responses is and how calculated and fundamental a part they are of Beckett’s total conception of the play as a radio drama was shown when the Drama Society of the French Graduate Circle of Edinburgh University attempted a literal staging of the play at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. Giving a specific visual realization to the words deprived them of their resonances and obviated the audience’s need to respond creatively to the material and the manner in which it is presented. Having taken this momentous step, the group made some perplexing decisions: Ada, Addie and her two instructors were acted, but the ominous silent presence of Henry’s father was not realized, nor were Bolton and Holloway in Henry’s tale. This had the unfortunate effect of making evaluative distinctions in Henry’s experiences, suggesting that some had more substance and authenticity than others. The performance was given in mime to a recording of the text (the mime and the speaking of the text, it must be admitted, were superlative in their execution); while the intention was no doubt to indicate that what we were watching was the activity of Henry’s mind, the performing style for all its beauty made the experience seem utterly unnatural and remote; we observed but were wholly unengaged; the very overt sense of performance in mime prevented the establishing of the required degree of intimacy. One admired the performers’ skill at the expense of the subject. Moreover, once Ada and Addie acquired a visual identity, one began concentrating on what the play revealed of the family relationship and their evident anguish and pain, whereas with the radio play one’s attention is fixed exclusively on how Henry copes with his perception of their concern for him and their suffering, as his mind fluctuates between a sense of having failed in his responsibilities and a questioning of whether these responsibilities have any meaning anyway. Ada’s voice over the radio, ‘low and remote,’ represents at once the solicitous wife exhausted by her anxious care whose comforting Henry resents because it cannot touch the real source of his unrest and also an expression of Henry’s own fears for his sanity projected as Ada’s admonishing presence, showing that for all his angry attempts to denigrate their relationship he does need her, as desperately as Bolton needs Holloway. The moment Ada’s presence is withdrawn, Henry is frantic. Similarly with Addie: on stage her brief episodes seemed implausible and intrusive moments of black farce; over the radio they are fantasies expressing at once Henry’s sadistic hatred of the child and a counter-balancing despair at his own cruelty in giving birth to another life when living seems to him to offer only torment.


What Beckett contrives, through his mastery of the potentials of radio as a medium for drama, is to release his listener from any need to effect judgments so that he can in sympathy encompass the ambivalence of all human responses, motives and relations, the horror of which has crippled Henry’s sensitivity and reduced him to solipsistic apathy. Embers renders the movements of consciousness and as such cannot be adequately realized in simple transference to the stage. The Edinburgh group’s intentions were frankly experimental and as such had a value: not only did they show by default how complete Beckett’s plays are in their original design (which many would acknowledge anyway) but, more importantly, they demonstrated through the failure of their stage-presentation the profundity of Beckett’s respect for his audience’s imagination and his considerable dependence on it in achieving that completeness of design.


A more worthwhile and creative venture at the Festival was a staging of Yeats’s Purgatory in a Beckettian style by the Project Arts Centre from Dublin under the direction of Sé Sheridan. The true extent of Beckett’s debt to Yeats the dramatist is still a matter for debate and this production did much to highlight some essential analogies and differences. The group were not, of course, primarily pursuing experiment in the interests of scholarship. Rather, in trying to solve the chief problem facing anyone wishing to revive Yeats’s play—namely how to give due weighting to its supernatural and metaphysical elements, while avoiding spooky melodrama - they had chosen to adapt the play to a performing style evolved by a contemporary writer with similar preoccupations. In Purgatory Yeats most closely anticipates Beckett’s abiding themes: the Oedipal tensions that are generated between members of a family causing all generous impulses to atrophy; man’s loathing of his physical and instinctive self; the violence of his disgust at human frailty; and the futility of his struggling against the consequences of his mortal condition. Together these reveal purgatory to be a self-created state of being. Yeats explores these ideas through the tale an old man tells his tinker son in the ruins of a great house. As he speaks of how his mother dishonoured her family in marrying her groom and how he killed his father for his barbarous abuse of the family’s heritage, the ghosts of the old man’s parents materialize in the ruins. Trying to free his mother’s soul from what he believes is her purgatorial torment occasioned by the outcome of her miserable passion, he now murders his son, arguing with insane logic that ending the family line will relieve her burden of guilt. But the ghostly trysting continues and the old man is left appalled at the extent of his own evil: ‘Twice a murderer and all for nothing.’


The ghosts are a brilliant dramatic device making for a tightly compressed exposition: they are a poetic evocation of the past as the old man perceives it and, when he acts upon those assumptions, they become an image of an implacable nemesis. The problems arise only in the theatre. Yeats asks for the ghosts to be realized by actors, but it is difficult to suggest they inhabit a different plane of reality without resorting to theatrical trickery that will distract the audience’s attention from the psychological and poetic implications of their appearance. They can easily become a rival focus for the old man. An alternative is to allow the old man’s words and reactions to conjure up the ghosts in the audience’s imagination; this preserves the necessary focus on his consciousness but it risks intimating his insanity too soon, thus robbing the murder of the boy of its climactic intensity. It is Yeats’s intention that the audience share the old man’s logic, accepting the apparent generosity of his motives so that in the terrible outcome their shock activates a psychological and metaphysical revelation in advance of the old man’s discovery of the truth. The final moments are finely calculated so that the audience’s horror is gradually transformed into a profound pity as the man realizes his cosmic loneliness in contemplating his past with revulsion and his future in terror. If the old man is dismissed too soon as merely mad, the end, though it may not lack a melodramatic power, will lose its intricate subtleties of effect. Much then depends in Purgatory on the controlled theatrical evocation of the supernatural. Rather than confront this dilemma head-on, Project Arts Centre contrived brilliantly to by-pass it by turning to Beckett for help and particularly to the theatrical method of works like Play, Not I and Footfalls. At this point perhaps some account of the production is necessary.


Darkness gives way to a hellish half-light revealing four short, black plinths. Darkness again; a frail spot illuminates the first plinth; beside it is a pool of blood; two shadowy silhouettes seem to melt into the prevailing gloom. Darkness again. As a spotlight strengthens on the second plinth, two men seem to materialize beside it, crabbed figures of indeterminate age. One sits, one stands, though within the confines of the spot they never lose a close physical contact; their faces are waxen and lifeless; their eyes protruding are fixed in a stare of unspeakable terror. In a low rapid monotone they utter fragments of Yeats’s text giving the bare narrative framework of the play; stillness and near silence are broken only when the seated one rises on seeing the male ghost (neither ghost is actually represented) and is viciously stabbed by the other—‘My father and my son on the same jack-knife!’ The murdered one lurches forward; blood pours from his gaping mouth. The light slowly contracts to focus on the pool of blood and the figures seem to vanish. Darkness. Then a faint spot on the third plinth as the two figures again materialize exactly as on their first appearance; in remote dull voices, they now speak Yeats’s play in its entirety; the stillness and even flow of sound are broken only by the savage climax. Again, as the old man is left praying in despair to God to appease his misery and remorse, the light contracts to the pool of blood. Darkness again; a fourth cycle establishes itself briefly; then a rapid blackout.


This was not exactly the play Yeats conceived but it was a fine realization of most of his themes and intentions; there were losses but there were powerful gains. Yeats himself observed that in approaching the moment of tragic ecstasy a good actor will tend to narrow down the melodic line of his voice to ‘an alluring monotony’ which ‘runs through the blood like fire.’ This whole performance was such an experience of ecstatic reverie. The faint, rapid delivery and unmoving figures compelled an intense concentration on the language of the play; acting the material through twice activated this concentration further. In imagination we gave the words a human colour and resonance and so apprehended the degree to which feeling was being suppressed; we experienced the atrophy of a sensibility as it, like the light, ever contracted inwards obsessively lingering with horrified fascination on the pool of blood that was the one grim token of its existence, like She’s terrified recall in Not I of her recurrent overwhelming impulse to speak in however mangled a fashion to another to arouse some sympathy for her plight. The parents’ ghosts were not represented (though the indeterminate age of the men encouraged one to see the victim as a manifestation of both the old man’s father and his son; the importance of the mother’s role in the tragedy was perhaps as a result insufficiently stressed) but the whole experience of the play was now projected effortlessly into a supernatural and metaphysical dimension, while never losing contact with plausibility. This purgatorial haunting was also a lucid evocation of a movement of consciousness, trapped in a state of compulsive recall. The danger of a lapse into melodrama that dogs a near-naturalistic style of production was successfully avoided for here the shock and revulsion were less a part of the audience’s experience than the central character’s; they were the cause of his present anguish. Throughout, the audience’s response was of pity, though a pity that, as in Not I, Play or Embers, was rendered increasingly helpless and futile, for this mind was thrown beyond the reach of human care and the only hope now—and that a tenuous one given the metaphysical implications of the production—lay with God. The old man’s final prayer became here an awesome corporate recognition of the limits of human sympathy:


                                                0 God,. . .

            Mankind can do no more. Appease

            The misery of the living and the remorse of the dead.


Yeats in this play conceives purgatory to be the point in time at which the old man finally recognizes his absurdity in trying passionately to reorder the facts of his condition; we leave him struggling to find words to convey his sense of the terrible, because ceaseless, ecstasy of suffering that lies before him. Beckett in his late plays carries his characters’ consciousness right into that future, as far as human thought can reach. The horror of purgatory is not intimated but rendered. These plays are wholly tragic reveries, though ‘ecstasy’ and ‘reveries,’ Yeats’s preferred terms, do not adequately define their quality or mood. In Beckett’s purgatory the passion that governed human action is utterly exhausted; memory is drained of feeling through constant recall; the formerly involuntary moments of consciousness have hardened into a pattern that is compulsive; the mind hovers persistently over a few sparse images that seem to hold the key to identity. Yet, appalled that identity is no more than this, the mind’s activity becomes ever more frenetic in its processes of recall. This purgatory is a co-mingling of opposed states in which is found not unity of being but an exquisite torture: it is rage in exhaustion, terror in apathy, frenzy in paralysis, as past and future coalesce in an eternal present. Much of Beckett’s drama can be seen as a development of themes and techniques latent within Yeats’s Purgatory; and the Beckettian style as applied in this production to Yeats’s play, though it changed certain points of emphasis, realized the considerable range of its motifs in a more complete and integrated way than most conventional productions have done. It is good that Yeats’s plays are at last spurring directors on to this kind of invention, for his status as a dramatist will only finally be established when it is proved that his conceptions are open to renewed theatrical interpretation without any loss in their intrinsic power and intentions; that, like all the finest drama, they can exist as autonomous entities independent of the performing styles originally devised for them. It was equally rewarding to find that Beckett’s idiosyncratic vision and style of theatre have a validity independent of his actual plays in the hands of an imaginative director; that Beckett’s methods are susceptible to more positive forms of imitation than pastiche and parody. For this inspiration and challenge we have every reason to congratulate Sé Sheridan and his actors, Gerard Flynn and John Murphy.