Review: ‘Samuel Beckett’s dramatic language’

by James Eliopulos (The Hague, Mouton, 1975. 131 pp.)


S.E. Gontarski


In his study, Samuel Beckett’s dramatic language, James Eliopulos classifies rhetorical devices in Beckett’s drama and then evaluates their function, purpose and meaning: ‘In the rhetorical-poetic description of Beckett’s style, the perception of patterns, significantly recurring usage, contradictions, anti-closural devices, dystax, clichés, and any other striking surface features will be regarded as they provide insight to a unique style’ (12). But the study begins and moves ponderously. After a short overview (Chapter 1), the second chapter outlines the debate over the function and purpose of Rhetoric and the Poetic from Aristotle’s insistence on their separation to the current, generally accepted compromise clearly set forth by Northrop Frye in his Anatomy. This chapter is called a ‘necessary prelude to the descriptive analysis of Beckett’s language’ (12), but that necessity is only lamely demonstrated, and the survey seems well out of proportion to its usefulness in understanding Beckett’s drama. The third chapter, also highly derivative, is divided between a short summary of Beckett’s life, a summary gleaned from readily-available sources, and a capsule overview of the modern theatre movement, an analysis which adopts its structure from Robert Brustein’s The theatre of revolt and its core ideas from Martin Esslin’s The theatre of the absurd. But Eliopulos rarely adds to or elaborates on his sources. He quotes Esslin’s point that ‘The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being - that is, in terms of concrete stage images . . . ‘ Eliopulos then limits, without explanation, the concept to Beckett’s drama, calls it unique, and repeats it under separate categories: ‘Beckett’s unique contribution lies in his creation of a new concept of drama which was to substitute situation for story and direct experience for indirect description’; and again, .’ . . Beckett imaginatively creates situations which demonstrate rather than rhetoric which describes’ (46). Esslin’s point leads Eliopulos to conclude further that Beckett’s works defy interpretation, a questionable conclusion even if it were not presented as a solecistic, faulty analogy: ‘Defying interpretation, it is as pointless to look for a logical message behind Beckett’s work as it is to look for a message behind a sunset’ (33).


The bulk of the study is comprised of a catalogue of rhetorical devices in Beckett’s drama. The catalogue, however, at its best is too often merely a classroom exercise in categorization and at its worst is misleading. Eliopulos claims, for instance, that contradictions function ‘as an anti-clarity device,’ and in this category he includes those meta-narrative features wherein Beckett’s characters/authors are themselves in the process of composition; that is, they are commenting on and qualifying their stories. ‘In Embers,’ Eliopulos argues, ‘Henry constantly contradicts his composition’ (94); the quotations which follow, however, show Henry in the midst of the creative process—revising, sharpening, not contradicting his images. The category ‘Monologue of non-sequitur’ is also confusing, for Eliopulos calls it ‘the nonsensical monologue’ and cites Lucky’s speech and Winnie’s rambling as examples, but these are certainly not nonsense. Beckett attacks the artificial system of logic, but that is not to say that there is no sense to the word flow. Winnie’s monologues are clearly not ‘pointless chatter’ (76).


When this catalogue is finally used for critical purposes, in the slight final chapter, the analysis never lives up to the authorial promise: to show ‘the precise manner in which the eleven structural features impose upon dramatic situation, ideas, and characters . . .’ (104). Indeed, it is interesting to note that Beckett’s stichomythia does not lead to an ‘accumulative progression of thought’ (105), but such insights are rare among a profusion of questionable generalities. Eliopulos asserts that as ‘Beckett’s theatre evolved toward the monologue, a sort of poetic alienation has resulted,’ and that Beckett’s later drama is generally less poetic than the earlier. The example, Krapp’s last tape. But one need only recall the punt scene from Krapp or the rhythms of Not I to question the assertion. And the two recent plays, Footfalls and That time, belie not only the lack-of-poetry assertion, but also another of Mr. Eliopulos’s major points: that Beckett’s theatre has been evolving toward the mime, and Beckett’s theatrical purpose is ‘achieved most profoundly in the dramatic medium through the mime plays’ (108). With such a strong conclusion one might expect the mimes to be examined in detail; they are not. Finally, the emphasis on theatre of direct experience, a variation on the concept of imitative form which H. Porter Abbott argued for in Beckett’s fiction, leads Eliopulos to some outrageous conclusions about ideas in Beckett’s drama: ‘In Beckett’s theatre, a thematic development is not permitted in the traditional sense, or in any other sense . . .’ (111).


Finally, the study as a whole is unfortunately marred by conspicuous carelessness. Quotations are too frequently either not acknowledged or in error. Most misquotations are admittedly minor, a few words missed or changed here or there or ellipses omitted, but others are serious enough for comment. In one stichomythic exchange from Godot, Eliopulos erroneously has the more optimistic Vladimir say, ‘What do we do now [, now that] we are happy?’ (86). And in the Eliopulos version of Endgame, Hamm is the comedian who tells the tailor’s story (98). The problem of quotation is further confused by the author’s decision to quote from the British Godot (1956, not as Eliopulos notes, 1955) instead of consistently using the Grove editions. The original Faber Godot draws its text from the Criterion Theatre production which omits those portions questioned by the Lord Chamberlain. Moreover, the British edition differs substantially from the American. When Eliopulos quotes part of Lucky’s speech to show its discontinuity, the British edition offers him more evidence than the American since it contains the following misprint: ‘the flames the teams the stones’ (Faber and Faber, 86) for ‘the flames the tears the stones’ (Grove, 29b).


With the text’s exhaustive categories, conspicuous academic structure, and prominent jargon, one begins to suspect that Eliopulos set out to parody Watt. Sentences are repeated word for word (see pages 11 and 25, for example). And the text contains touches of Beckettian humour. The parenthetical phrase on page 31 advises us to see Appendix, but even the unusually alert reader will find the search for the Appendix formidable. A note in chapter four tells us, ‘Illustrations of the method and a discussion of the rhythms will be provided in chapter 4’ ( 49). And these curiosities are surpassed only by the reference to ‘the most prominent of Irish playwrights . . . William Synge,’ and a comment about Endgame which defies response: ‘Endgame has only two characters—one of them remains in a chair’ (108).


A rhetorical analysis of Beckett’s work which brings together and builds on the groundwork of Ihab Hassan (on whom Eliopulos relies more than he acknowledges) and Nicholas Gessner would indeed be welcome. Samuel Beckett’s dramatic language, however, is clearly not that study. It is a pastiche whose fragments never converge to form a useful whole. It has so little to offer newcomer and specialist alike that it can be safely—indeed profitably—avoided.