Beckett and Pinter: towards a grammar of the absurd


B.S. Hammond


At the time when Godot was first done, it liberated something for

            anybody writing plays. It redefined the minima of theatrical validity.

            It was simple as that. He got away. He won by twenty-eight lengths,

            and he’d done it with so little—and I mean that as an enormous

            compliment. There we all were, busting a gut with great monologues

            and pyrotechnics, and this extraordinary genius just put this play

            together with enormous refinement, and then with two completely

            unprecedented and uncategorisable bursts of architecture in the

            middle—terrible metaphor—and there it was, theatre.1


This is Tom Stoppard speaking in appreciation of Samuel Beckett, his ancestor of the absurd. Dialogue is the dramatists’s major resource and the dramatic theorist’s major problem. First-generation absurdists—Beckett, and then Pinter—did indeed usher in a new era for dramatic dialogue, rescuing the modern theatre from the tyranny of wordiness that even John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had failed to slough off. But little progress has been made in analysing the new language of the theatre. Critics have not understood the nature of the absurdists’ emancipation; and nowhere is the misunderstanding more flagrant than in the assumption that Beckett’s dialogue moves in the same direction as Pinter’s, that it tries to realise the same objective—greater realism. Pinter’s stripped-down idiom is that of genuine speech faithfully reproduced, mimetic both of the free rhythms and punctuating silences of spontaneous discourse. Gone is the orchestrated language that created the sense of discussion or debate even in the dialogue of dramatists, like Ibsen, labelled ‘naturalistic.’ So free of embellishment and rhetoric is his dramatic speech that it has been paid the compliment of being thought banal by the unobservant: the dramatic contexts within which it operates ensures that it never is so. But even alert critics, in assimilating Pinter’s art to Beckett’s, have failed to see that the linguistic effects created by Beckett work on antithetical principles. To liberate the modern theatre, Beckett first liberated himself from over-dependence on ordinary language, abandoning mimesis to the invention of a unique idiom, the very grammar of which is different from that of everyday speech. No-one speaks quite like Beckett’s characters do, not because the playwright has got it wrong, but because he has given up the holy grail of realism altogether.


Critical myopia in this regard is a curious phenomenon, since the techniques of stagecraft developed by Beckett, as opposed to those of language, have never been mistaken for trompe l’oeil social accuracy. Arthur Miller has pointed out that the kind of questions an audience will ask of a character appearing on stage will depend on the degree to which his dress, speech and environment are seen to be realistic.2 Thus, questions which are appropriately asked of his own characters—who are they, what is their trade, calling or profession, what sort of upbringing might they have had, where do they live—are entirely ruled out of court by Beckett’s way of presenting his characters to the audience. It is quite inappropriate to ask Miller’s questions of characters embedded in sand, neck-deep in funerary urns or buried in dustbins. Such a restriction of theatrical resources as Beckett’s plays increasingly countenance is a very conscious and important decision on the dramatist’s part. The withdrawal of the potential for expansive movement from plays like Happy days, Play and Endgame has the consequence that minute changes in position and minimal gestures will assume disproportionate importance. Another consequence of this attenuation will be a greater focussing of attention on the dialogue. In this article, I propose to examine some of the grammatical effects that obtrude themselves on the spectator’s consciousness in the play that, to my mind, most profitably combines Beckett’s linguistic and theatrical skills—Endgame. In this play, Beckett invents constructions that reinforce both his view of experience and his staging techniques. The strangeness, power and profundity of his dialogue derives, I suggest, from the imposition of a grammar that imparts to the language an extra layer of significance. The grammar itself becomes an image of the human predicament as the playwright conceives it; local linguistic effects directly reveal aspects of the experience at the heart of the play. Language in Endgame is self-advertising, arresting, continually drawing attention to its own curious properties, noticeable because in precise respects it departs from the ‘language such as men do use.’ Let us proceed to examples.


When Clov says: ‘If I don’t kill that rat, he’ll die’3 (44) we are arrested at first because the grammar has played a trick on us. The sentence poses as a genuine disjunctive of the form, ‘If not - x, then y,’ but it does not turn out to be so. There is no true juxtaposition of alternatives here—or is there? On closer inspection, it appears that the grammar and syntax have imposed on the passive verb ‘die’ an active role and this is quite appropriate to a Clov’s eye-view of experience. To Clov, dying is the supreme expression of freedom possible in the austere, debilitated world he and the rat inhabit. Suddenly, because of the way Clov frames the sentence, dying seems like a gloriously malevolent act of will on the rat’s part, the more so because it deprives Clov of a chance to act—to kill him. Here, the very grammar of the sentence is a concrete embodiment of an existential statement. Just as every movement of Nagg’s or Nell’s counts, given the constraint of the bins, this sentence has created room to move, room to act or be acted upon in a world where being killed and dying seem to be the exclusive alternatives. Earlier in the play, we come across another example of this richness in surface texture:


            Clov: You shouldn’t speak to me like that.

            Hamm: (coldly) Forgive me. (Pause. Louder.) I said, Forgive me.



Here Beckett exploits the peculiar feature of the verb ‘to forgive,’ that it has a form resembling a genuine imperative, which is in fact, at the strongest, ‘vocative.’ At the simplest level, Hamm is requesting forgiveness in a tone as brusque as the one that gave the original offence and this is amusingly paradoxical—‘forgive me, or I’ll beat your brains out.’ You can’t ask for forgiveness with menace. But in addition, he seems to be assimilating the locution ‘forgive me’ to the class of commands like ‘shut the door!’ which expect some performance for their satisfaction. But what would constitute the performance, in virtue of which Hamm could be satisfied that he had been forgiven? Some act of ritual absolution, perhaps? God alone is entitled to use the word ‘forgive’ as a genuine imperative as in ‘forgive thine enemies!’: perhaps Hamm is playing God and trying to arrogate to himself some of the Divine authority. At all events, this is, like the previous example, a very suggestive use of grammatical ambiguity, seeming to point beyond itself to the deeper pre-occupations of Beckett’s drama.


We might fomulate the deeper preoccupation of Endgame, tentatively, as follows: in a world no longer rendered purposeful by Christian conceptions of eschatology, time is experienced not as a linear development towards a goal, but as a yawning vacuum, a black hole without structure. Structure has to be imposed from without through routine and, for Beckett’s characters, through the playing of games. The games Hamm and Clov play are futile, but they are all there is. The dramatic tension of the play derives from Clov’s regularly threatening to stop playing—to upset the board—throwing Hamm back on his resources in inventing new games and devising new moves. Throughout the action, the advantage is constantly changing hands, and often, making a successful move depends on the adroit manipulation of language. In the following passage, Clov has again threatened separation, an action as decisive, if it could ever be performed, as is the killing of the child in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf:


            Clov: I’ll leave you.

            Hamm: No!

            Clov: What is there to keep me here?

            Hamm: The dialogue. (Pause.) I’ve got on with my story. (Pause.) I’ve

                  got on with it well. (Pause. Irritably.) Ask me where I’ve got to.

            Clov: Oh, by the way, your story?

            Hamm: (surprised). What story?

            Clov: The one you’ve been telling yourself all your .  .  . days.

            Hamm: Ah you mean my chronicle?

            Clov: That’s the one.


            Hamm: (angrily). Keep going, can’t you, keep going!

            Clov: You’ve got on with it, I hope.

            Hamm: (modestly). Oh not very far, not very far. (He sighs.) There

                  are days like that, one isn’t inspired. (Pause). No forcing,

                  no forcing, it’s fatal. (Pause.) I’ve got on with it a little all the

                  same. (Pause.) Technique, you know. (Pause. Irritably) I say I’ve

                  got on with it a little all the same.

            Clov: (admiringly). Well I never! In spite of everything you were able to

                  get on with it!

            Hamm: (modestly). Oh not very far, you know, not very far, but

                  nevertheless, better than nothing.

            Clov: Better than nothing! Is it possible?



In answer to Clov’s challenge, Hamm introduces the set-piece topic of his story. Clov recognises that this move is legitimate and binding, yet he fails to give Hamm the mileage they both know this topic merits. Conversation in this play is a rule-governed activity. Hamm’s irritation is entirely warranted because Clov is trying to cheat by refusing to ask all the old questions. There are again in this exchange some arresting linguistic constructions. Beckett’s characters often try words out for size, put on words as one would put on a new pair of shoes, to see if they feel comfortable in them. Clov’s line: ‘The one you’ve been telling yourself all your . . . days’ has a momentum which demands the word ‘life’ to achieve itself fully: ‘days’ is a bathos, deliberately substituted because, of course, Hamm and Clov do not possess anything as meaningful as a ‘life.’ They possess only ‘days’—empty, undifferentiated sheets of time. Following this line is Hamm’s: ‘Ah you mean my chronicle?’ Suddenly the word ‘chronicle’ fits. It is right, and Hamm is happy with it. ‘Chronicle’ is superior to ‘story’ because the Greek word confers a superior status on Hamm’s pursuit, but also because a chronicle, unlike a story, does not necessarily have an end and is the record of passing time. Hamm is issuing a timely warning to Clov that conversations like the one they are having, that they have had so many times in the past, will recur in the future. The word ‘chronicle’ is a show of power on Hamm’s part, an astute move. Clov’s last line is another brilliant example of Beckett’s subversion of the pat phrase, his pressing of common speech into the service of a bleakly comic pessimism, as in:


            Clov: Do you believe in the life to come?

            Hamm: Mine was always that. (Exit Clov.) Got him that time!



By answering a question about the ‘meta-future’ with a statement in the past tense, Hamm excruciatingly emphasises the uniform greyness of all time-past, present or to come.


The seemingly innocent incident of the toy dog also gains thematic significance from its peculiar linguistic and logical structure:


            Enter Clov holding by one of its three legs a black toy dog.

            Clov: Your dogs are here.

                  He hands the dog to Hamm who feels it, fondles it

            Hamm: He’s white, isn’t he?

            Clov: Nearly.

            Hamm: What do you mean, nearly? Is he white or isn’t he?

            Clov: He isn’t.



The question, ‘He’s white, isn’t he?’ allows Clov to equivocate, thus forcing Hamm into asking a second question which is too comprehensive to elicit the information he actually requires. There is too much ‘overkill’ in the question, ‘Is he white or isn’t he?’; what the blind Hamm needs to know is what colour the dog is rather than what colour he isn’t, and the pause must be a moment for recapitulation as Hamm retraces his steps to find out where he made the gaffe. In this exchange, we see very clearly the sinister potential the sighted Clov has for constructing a totally false picture of external reality with which he can amuse himself or torture Hamm. The grandiose ‘Your dogs are here’ is perhaps harmless enough, Clov posturing as butler to the English Milord. But towards the end of the play, there is something of a crux when Clov discerns a small boy in ‘the without,’ but Hamm refuses to allow him to investigate further:


            Hamm: If he exists he’ll die there or he’ll come here. And if he

                  doesn’t . . .


            Clov: You don’t believe me? You think I’m inventing?


            Hamm: It’s the end, Clov, we’ve come to the end. I don’t need you     

                  any more.



Perhaps Hamm is accepting defeat here, accepting that Clov’s trump card is his ability to dominate Hamm’s experience even to the extent of peopling his world with strangers, phantasms of Clov’s own imagination. Earlier Clov demonstrated his capacity to withhold information (about the dogs) and now he demonstrates his capacity to falsify it. Whether there is or is not a small boy, whether Clov is or is not inventing, Hamm has no means of knowing.


Beckett’s language demands from the audience a heightened form of attention. The way in to understanding a play like Endgame is the scrutiny of such oddly baroque constructions as Clov’s description of the three-legged dog—‘He lacks a leg.’ Why does this sound so strange to us? What, precisely, is the effect of such an utterance? Language like this conveys no information about the ‘character’ or ‘personality’ of its employer and this is consonant with Beckett’s purpose, since he deals in theatrical beings more Protean than characters. By contrast, any attempt to understand Pinter’s language is liable to result in the conviction that the significance of his plays exists somewhere other than in the text. Theatre audiences of the sixties were often puzzled by stretches of dialogue like the following, subsequently deemed ‘Pinteresque’:4


            Stanley: So you’re down here on holiday?

            McCann: A short one. (Stanley picks up a strip of paper. McCann

            moves in.) Mind that.

            Stanley: What is it?

            McCann: Mind it. Leave it.

            Stanley: I’ve got a feeling we’ve met before.

            McCann: No we haven’t.

            Stanley: Ever been anywhere near Maidenhead?

            McCann: No.

            Stanley: There’s a Fuller’s teashop. I used to have my tea there.

            McCann: I don’t know it.

            Stanley: And a Boots Library. I seem to connect you with the High


            McCann: Yes?

            Stanley: A charming town, don’t you think?

            McCann: I don’t know it.


Such dialogue is disturbing because although it is mimetic of very familiar speech patterns, as Beckett’s dialogue seldom is, the context within which it occurs differs from a ‘normal’ context in significant ways. At cocktail parties or in other situations where two people meet, it is common for them to attempt to mesh their experience together, to accommodate the other person into their lives in a ‘Haven’t I met you somewhere before?’ conversational gambit. Normally, the two strangers will struggle helpfully and co-operatively to plaster over the cracks in their insufficient memories and arrive at consensus. (‘Could it have been . . . ?’ ‘Yes . . . that’s possible.’) Seldom do we encounter such a trenchant denial as Stanley meets from McCann and this, coupled with his territorial attitude to his strips of paper, alerts us to the sense of a normal encounter having overstepped its bounds and generated unnatural tension. Of course, in the context of the entire play, the motivation behind this exchange is easier to understand. Stanley is trying to establish a relationship with McCann by gaining purchase on his human sympathies, whereas McCann is rejecting this bid, rejecting Stanley and asserting his right to lobotomise him later on in the play. In this example, as in so much of the dialogue of the earlier Pinter plays, language is being used by the characters to establish the balance of power in a relationship, to negotiate respective status, to stake out a psychological or a physical territory. The spectator will be puzzled if he thinks the ‘facts’ under discussion are of primary importance; that is to say, if he thinks it important to establish whether or not the two men ever really did meet in Maidenhead. Such ‘facts’ often seem to be more fugitive in Pinter’s plays than they actually are in the life of a person of average competence.


But language, in Pinter’s plays, is seldom used for the straightforward purpose of giving information. Austin E. Quigley, in a recent book entitled The Pinter Problem, invokes a Wittgensteinian analysis of language to call attention to this aspect of Pinter’s dialogue—that its referential function is minimal and that the meaning of an utterance more often depends on the use to which it is put by the speaker.5 Helpful as this is, I think the more familiar notion of ‘sub-text’ is equally explanatory. Conversations like the banal breakfast chatter of The Birthday Party and A Slight Ache, because they are successful theatre, call for sub-textual explanation. We can see them as attempts to manifest identity on the part of characters who, like Meg Boles, have few channels through which to do so. When she serves up to Stanley a plate of what is manifestly fried bread, she says ludicrously, ‘Well, I bet you don’t know what it is,’ to which Stanley replies ‘fried bread.’ Here, we might say that Stanley is resisting the claims of Meg’s feminine mystique expressed through her cooking, claims which become overtly sexual as the action progresses. Solemn though this may sound, it could easily be conveyed in the theatre. Discussions between a director and actor will often make clear the real nature of such exchanges, or at least, the preferred interpretation of them, and there are many non-verbal methods of communicating this interpretation to the audience. Peter Hall speaks of the need to suspect the language employed by Pinter’s characters, to treat what they say as a series of ploys and to find out about the nature of the emotions they use verbal expression to conceal; and Hall’s understanding derives not from Wittgenstein’s philosophy, but from his theatrical experience.6 Indeed, this is not so novel a use of dramatic language. In Chekhov’s plays, it is equally important to see how the ‘sub-text’ betrays, undercuts and modifies the text and if his art were not so habitually likened to Ibsen’s naturalistic drama, the sixties’ audiences for Pinter’s plays might have experienced a stronger sense of déjà vu. In a trivial sense, of course, it is true for all drama that the words a character speaks are governed by the way in which he speaks them and by what he does when he is speaking them, and, trivially, means no more than that drama is a performative art where a ‘script’ acquires its meaning only through interpretation and performance. But it is a condition of understanding Chekhov’s art and Pinter’s, that we suspect a character to have no belief in what he says and ulterior motives for saying it. In Rosmersholm, when Rebekka West confesses that she has driven Beate to suicide, we know that here, at last, is the truth. Neither Toozenbach nor Vershinin, philosophizinq together in The Three Sisters, are telling the truth or even believing that they are doing so.


Pinter’s dialogue, then, preserves the surface of realism though this in itself is ultimately subversive because the conversation encourages a penumbra of accompanying expectations appropriate to realistic theatre that the plays often frustrate. In plays like The Homecoming, an uncannily accurate mimesis of ordinary conversation is formed to conceal and to belie the extreme structure of feeling that supports it. Beckett’s art, in complete contrast, is in the best sense superficial. He has created a rich linguistic idiom as the ordinary currency of his plays, the characteristics of which is that the very diction and syntax is directly relevant to the experience at the heart of the drama. And the respects in which Beckett’s idiom is notable are the respects in which it does not occur in naturally spoken English. One final example must suffice of Beckett’s impressive ability to exploit the linguistic properties of his text in the creation of a grammar that is, in itself, a symbol of the human condition as experienced by the author:


            Hamm: Give me a rug, I’m freezing.

            Clov: There are no more rugs.



The normal linguistic expectation would be ‘We have no more rugs,’ though ‘there are no more bananas’ is quite legitimate, the distinction being that bananas are naturally occurring and their stock is not replenished in the same way as is the stock of rugs. Clov’s defeated reply is a powerful reminder that in the world beyond, the machine is grinding to a halt, that even the stock of man-made products cannot now be replenished. Grammar is once again an image of the abyss.


1 Interview with Ronald Hayman reported in The New Review, Vol. 1, no. 9, December 1974. 18-19.

2Arthur Miller, intro. to Collected Plays (London, Cresset Press, 1961) 4-5.

3All references to Endgame are to the Faber paperback edition (London, 1958, rep., 1973).

4Harold Pinter, The Birthday Party (Methuen, 1960, rep., 1966) 39.

5Austin E. Quigley, The Pinter Problem (Princeton UP, 1975).

6Interview with Simon Trussler and Catherine Itzin reported in Theatre Quarterly, November-January, 1975, 4-17.