Structure and pattern in ‘That time’


Antoni Libera


Samuel Beckett’s That time divides naturally into three parts separated by two pauses (both lasting ten seconds). In each part twelve statements are uttered with each of the three voices marked by the letters A, B and C speaking four times, thus:


        I   ACB ACB ACB CAB




In the first two parts the initial arrangements of the series (AC13 or CBA) undergoes inversion in the fourth repetition. This change occurs in the order of the voices within the series in the first and second positions (AC becomes CA; CB becomes BC). Only the third part, which does not follow this principle, remains the same throughout. It is worth noting that if the rearrangement had also taken place here (according to the principle established in the first two parts) the position reached (ABC) would have been the last in the collection of combinations which could have been formed from the three elements. Beckett’s reason for not following the principle in part three was, we must assume, to avoid a closed globular construction, since a final ABC, becoming for the first ACB from part I what CAB was for CBA from part II (and BCA for BAC from part III) would have closed the circle and suggested that the voice was revolving in an endlessly circular manner.


The flawed formalism of That time—announced by the CAB of part I and the BCA of part two—is a reminder, if one were needed, that art, for Beckett, is not a purely formal game that the author plays. Each of the voices develops its own theme according to an order which, after three statements by each voice, undergoes a sudden disturbance, as if the form had outdistanced the story: something that ought not to have been said until later unexpectedly appears earlier. Each voice, apparently developing its own peculiar story, is actually participating in one and the same rite—the rite of gradually decreasing and finally dying out. The only difference between them is that each one accomplishes this in its own language, with the help of other accessories relating to the defined reality which is being spoken of at a given time.


Voice A speaks of the last visit made by the protagonist (who is also the Listener) to the town where he spent his childhood. The different stages of the visit are clearly defined. In part one the voice speaks of his arrival (‘straight off the ferry and up to the high street’) and immediate departure, looking ‘neither right nor left,’ for the suburbs ‘to look was the ruin still there where you hid as a child.’ In part II he climbs to the top of the hill where ‘the truth began to dawn’ and visits a now derelict railwaystation, ‘all closed down and boarded up . . . and the colonnade crumbling away.’ Finally, in the third phase of the visit the protagonist sits on someone’s doorstep and ‘forgetting it all’ waits for the night ferry, in order to leave ‘and never come back.’ Voice A, recounting the protagonist’s last visit to his home town, at the same time transmits certain scenes from his childhood. The child comes across as a loner, seeking to avoid the presence of others (‘slip off when no one was looking’) and hiding in secluded places ‘where none ever came,’ spending whole days by himself, sometimes `well into the night.’ All of these glimpses of childhood find the figure in solitude: hidden in the nooks and crannies of the ruin he sits ‘on the stone among the giant nettles with the light coming in where the wall had crumbled away’ or looks at his picture-book or carries on ‘loud imaginary conversations’ with himself, speaking now in one voice and now in another in order to give himself the impression that he is not alone (‘being together that way’).


Voice B describes certain love scenes in which the protagonist finds himself in an emotional daze. But here, compared with the utterance of voice A, the phrase ‘that time’ does not refer to the moments when the given situation is supposed to have taken place, but rather to the time when it was being contemplated by the protagonist. For these recollected scenes are not a reflection of reality, but originate rather from the protagonist’s imagination. In short, they are dreams and not memories, and dreams in a double sense: a passive and involuntary mental occurrence and an active and voluntary imaginative construct. In the dream there is a vision of two people: a man (the protagonist) and a woman, motionless against a deserted and equally motionless landscape, ‘vowing that they loved each other.’ Most frequently they are seen as two silhouettes at the edge of a small wood, sitting at each end of an elongated stone, seeing before them waving fields of wheat turning yellow and a cloudless sky above. The other images sustain this same mood and express the same idea as the first image, to which they bear the relationship of variations to a theme: in the first, the silent and motionless couple stand on the towpath watching the flowing river and setting sun; in the second, they are ‘stretched out parallel in the sand’ gazing up at the blue sky or closing their eyes. All of these images undergo reduction gradually. First the woman’s silhouette disappears; only the protagonist’s silhouette remains in the landscape (‘or alone in the same scenes’). Finally, ‘that time in the end . . . by the window in the dark and the owl flown,’ the scenes themselves fade away and the protagonist loses the ability to recall them (‘you tried and tried and couldn’t any more no words left . . . so gave it up gave up’). At this point he is overwhelmed by the great emptiness which he has tried to fight off the whole time: ‘a great shroud billowing in all over you on top of you.’ This last stage of the dream (announced earlier in part one in the series CAB) suddenly reveals its significance. The dream was not only an expression of a gradually disappearing yearning but also, and perhaps primarily, a form of defence against the emptiness always present within the protagonist, or rather against the powerful illusion of emptiness, since—when it does eventually overwhelm him—he claims to feel ‘little or nothing the worse.’


Voice C recalls those events which might be called the ‘metaphysical adventures’ of the protagonist. This voice talks of the protagonist’s enigmatic wanderings, of the questions he asked himself on his walks, and finally of the strange visits to public places: the museum, the post office, the library. These adventures follow a set ritual and resemble each other: the protagonist, exhausted by his prolonged wandering all over the parish,’ cold and wet (since it was ‘always winter’ and `always raining’), slips when no one was looking’ into one of his refuges from which, after a period of time, he moves on to hell out of there’ to another temporary haven (‘and on to the next’), having rested and dried out. After every such visit something happens to the protagonist (‘never the same after that never quite the same . . . something you could never be the same after’). These invisible and unrecountable events are moments of an inner enlightenment thanks to which the protagonist suddenly realizes something—a truth which is both important and paralyzing for him. Each stage of revelation poses a different problem, a different type of experience.


The first revelation, in the Portrait Gallery, is the discovery and formulation of certain questions of a philosophical nature: 1. What is identity and how can one express it? (‘did you ever say I to yourself in your life . . . could you ever say I to yourself’); 2. Who are you in actual fact? (‘when you started not knowing who you were from Adam . . . no notion who it was saying what you were saying whose skull you were clapped up in whose moan had you the way you were’); 3. What does it mean, ‘to exist’? (‘trying making it up . . . how it would that for a change never having been’). These questions, once formulated, become the inseparable accompaniment to the protagonist’s winter wanderings. As questions they remain unsolved until the end, at which point they fade away (like the ‘love scenes’ in plot B), and cease to occupy his mind: ‘till the words dried up and the head dried up and the legs dried up . . . or it gave up whoever it was.’


The second ‘metaphysical adventure’ takes place at the Post Office. The revelation this time is the fact of co-existence with other living people. If the protagonist has been up until now mainly wrapped up in himself, in his own subjectivity, in what his own existence disclosed to him, during his visit to the Post Office he suddenly sees other people. He experiences the existence of others and understands that by virtue of being himself he is also living among other similar beings (‘taking a look round for a change . . . at your fellow bastards’). At the same time he discovers that the moment he turns his attention to others, their attitude towards him immediately changes. Although he previously felt that he awakened in others a certain loathing, he now finds that this has disappeared (and virtually taken his being with it): ‘for all the loathing you were getting you might as well not have been there at all the eyes passing over you and through you like so much thin air.’


Finally, the third and last adventure—in some ways the most interesting and unusual one. It is set in a library with the protagonist bent over a book ‘at the big round table with a bevy of old ones . . . and not a sound’ and suddenly hearing the voice of ‘dust’ which in this context clearly means both the dust that covers the shelves and the dry crumbling paper of the volumes and, ultimately, the whole past registered in books—the depths of accumulated history which, after taking place and passing, melts into one uniform mass, the burnt-out ashes of the past. This dust, the symbol of everything that has already happened, speaks only two words to the protagonist: ‘come and gone,’ words which refer to all the entities that have, each in their own time (and hence in ‘no time’) played out the mystery of life here on earth, where one’s existence is necessarily brief and one is indeed ‘come and gone in no time.’ The only thing that actually may be said to happen is arrival in the world and departure from it. Everything else is only the form which this fundamental and singular phenomenon adopts to give the protagonist the illusion that something is happening. The protagonist, struck by this, experiences two things. The first is summarized in the words ‘no one’ which, uttered immediately after the words ‘come and gone’ express the feeling that there is nothing left of the whole mass of entities. This experience in the Portrait Gallery may be described as ‘isolation in history.’ It means that man, having looked into the past and seen it suddenly as the only reality, all at once discovers his own existence to have been merely one element in a collectivity which is no more. The second experience, rendered by the words which also appear as the last words in the text (‘in no time gone in no time’), is completely different. This is an experience which we might designate as ‘a paradox inherent in the human perception of time.’ It means that what once, when it took place, seemed to last a long time, now when it has passed, seems extremely short; that what once, when it lasted, did not want to end, now, when it has incontrovertibly ended, appears as if it did not in fact ‘last’ at all, but was only an unattainable moment.


These two experiences, because they are presented at the end, lose their univocal character as far as their place in time is concerned: they may equally well be either reminiscences referring to the situation in the Library, or the immediate concern of the consciousness of the Listener now in front of us who, having heard the last of the reminiscences, now for the first time experiences the ‘isolation in history’ and the ‘paradox inherent in the human perception of time’ and only now, in our presence (and therefore not as isolated as he thinks himself to be) gives these ideas a form of expression (visual or verbal). The last words of the text are perhaps the only ones in it which do not describe the Listener’s memories but in a direct way express his present thoughts and reactions.


After analyzing the statements of the three voices, it seems appropriate to observe certain relations between them, the rhythm and counterpoint of their relationship. Each plot is based on the number 3 which is also, of course, central to the structure of the play. In plot A there are three stages to the visit (arrival, reaching the top, resting on the step) which are accompanied by three modes of behaviour (or postures) on the part of the protagonist (walking, standing, sitting). At the same time there is a clear relationship, a kind of counterpoint operating between two pictures: the protagonist-child sitting on a stone and talking out loud to himself (distant memories); and the protagonist-old man sitting on a doorstep and ‘drooling away out loud eyes closed’ (more recent memories). There are also three scenes in plot B (at the edge of a wood, on the towpath, on the sand) and three dreams also (two silhouettes, one silhouette, the absence of any picture at all). In each of the scenes different postures are stressed: sitting on the stone, standing on the towpath, lying on the sand.


Finally in plot C there are the three places which the protagonist visits (the Portrait Galery, the Post Office and the Library) and three ‘metaphysical adventures’ associated with them (being oneself, being with others, being in time). The last adventure (which seems to be the most important for the protagonist) consolidates the principle of triplicity. The adventure does not so much consist of three elements, rather a theme is developed by the voice three times by reiteration of the word ‘dust.’ The first time the word is mentioned once and occurs (innocently enough) in a statement describing the Portrait Gallery: ‘all gone long ago all dust.’


The second time it appears twice, in the section which sketches, in an introductory manner, the situation in the Library: ‘something to do with dust something the dust said.’ The third time it appears three times, in a statement disclosing the crux of the event: ‘and then suddenly the dust whole place suddenly full of dust when you opened your eyes from floor to ceiling nothing only dust.’


The scene in the Library (the protagonist poring over a book) is a transformed reflection of the earliest scene in the protagonist’s reminiscences (the protagonist as a child on the stone with his picture-book). But the majority of images in That time present the protagonist in a sitting position. In the scene from his childhood and in the dream of love he is sitting on a stone, and he sits on various benches and chairs during his metaphysical adventures, once on a marble bench (or ‘slab’) in the Portrait Gallery and finally, at the end of the visit to his home town, on a doorstep (another kind of stone). Furthermore, in each of these situations he is really doing the same thing - he is imagining something. In his childhood he is having ‘imaginary conversations’; in his old age, sitting on the doorstep, he is ‘making yourself up again for the millionth time’ and haunted by unimaginable imaginings like ‘how would it work . . . never having been.’ In each of these situations the protagonist is striving not to be seen. In his childhood he would ‘slip off when no one was looking’ and hide ‘where no one ever came.’ In his imaginary love scenes he never looks at his companion nor does she look at him (‘no sight of the face or any other part . . . never turned to each other’). This pattern is, however, itself broken three times, each time in a different way. Firstly, it happens in the Portrait Gallery when the protagonist, looking intensely at a picture, suddenly sees himself in the reflection of the glass. The impression is so strong and uncanny that at first he thinks it is the reflection of someone else: ‘you swivel on the slab to see who it was there at your elbow.’ The second time it happens is at the Post Office when the protagonist begins to observe others but they seem not to notice him. The third time it happens is during the visit to his home town when, after sitting down on the step, he stops taking notice of anything or anybody and realizes that the passers-by have stopped to look at him (‘to gape at the scandal huddled there in the sun’).


There is one more common denominator binding all these scenes together: in each of these situations near silence reigns and is only broken by the protagonist’s voice. In his childhood during his walks in the rain, and on the doorstep in old age he talks or mutters to himself. Apart from the protagonist’s voice, the only sounds to be heard are the shuffling of the attendant’s felt slippers in the Portrait Gallery, the hooting of an owl when the love scenes seem to wish not to appear anymore, and the voice of the dust in the Library which seems to speak through the rustling of turned pages (‘leaves’) and the old breath of other readers at the table.


Although triplets dominate the fabric of That time, it is essentially a work made up of two substances: an image and a voice; a visual patch of light and a swarm of spoken words. The tableau reveals the head (or rather face) of an old man with grey, windswept hair hung in the darkness at a height of about ten feet in relation to one’s plane of vision. This gives the impression of a head moving independently upwards into space like some floating object. The face is completely immobile except for three changes: 1. the eyes opening (when the voice subsides into silence); 2. the eyes closing (when it starts to speak again); 3. the grimace revealing a toothless smile (once, at the end, after the last words are spoken).


The matter of the voice is more complex than that of the image. This is because the spoken text projects its meaning in two ways: denotatively and connotatively. The voice speaks in the second person singular and in the past tense. This grammatical form, together with what is visible on stage (the source of the voice being external to the position adopted by the Listener), gives the impression of the existence of two beings, with one reminding the other of the latter’s history. The voice does, however, as the stage directions clearly indicate, belong to the Listener. The phantom of duality that is called up is only a form whose aim it is to suggest a kind of split in the protagonist. The split is between being and remembering. To be is ‘to listen’; to remember is ‘to speak.’ The active role of the voice is confined to memory. In grammatical terms it operates as the subject. Being-as-listening is merely the passive and open object which is waiting to be filled.


This idea of memory as the subject liberates the whole vision of human life. Dominant in Beckett’s formulation of the essence of man is something that may be called an ‘inner witness.’ This witness is an unconscious and unintentional ability to remember; it is necessary to consolidate and retain these traces of existence. As a result the unconscious life of man is registered somewhere, so that later he can find out what has been happening to him and what actually happened. At first, when life begins, the witness is imperceptible (‘mute’). But ultimately the witness develops to such a degree that it becomes the primary and indeed sole reality, imposing itself on the dying life. That time dramatizes this idea by showing a man who was (and still is) the carrier of life listening to an inner witness that tells him what has happened in his life and what it really consisted of.


The details of the life that has been lived are so strange, so pathological almost, that they seem finally not to concern one individual life but rather to stand as emblems, as in an allegory, of life in general. For Beckett, man finds himself in a situation of exile and alienation, from which stems an extreme need to make contact, to engage in dialogue. Since the protagonist does not exchange a single word with anyone throughout his entire life, he never satisfies this need. Or rather he satisfies it by pretending that he is speaking to someone, or imagining this is the case, or persuading himself that his voice is the voice of someone else, someone he is only listening to. For Beckett, the monologue which man is wants desperately to be a dialogue.


Life, we might say, is the story of a single desire: satisfying what one longs for with what one has. In That time three ways of attempting this are singled out. The first, typical of the era of childhood, depends on naively pretending to communicate, on simulating a belief in this method of communication. This explains the loud invented conversations of which the protagonist speaks. The second, typical of the period of youth; is the delusion that communication is a special type of connection with another person. This explains the concentration on the live dialogue which the protagonist conducts in his imagination. The third, typical of the stage of maturity, depends on treating oneself as the centre of the communication that takes place between man and the world. This explains the concentration on the voice of the dust which represents the voice of the dead, the voice of nature and the voice of God. Looking at the play allegorically, we might see it in the following terms: childhood is the period of ignorance when man can naively and almost successfully deceive himself concerning his isolation (this is why the protagonist is repeatedly returning to the place where he spent his childhood); early youth is the period of love, during which one creates the illusion of being in communication with someone else (as a result, the protagonist dreams of love all his life); old age is the period of faith, in which one treats fictitious beings as if they were real and is in contact with them as if they really existed.


On the one hand, That time is an image of the way one can talk away the emptiness that is always lurking inside one, and on the other hand it presents a model of all the ways this has previously been done throughout history. The three methods, of childhood, youth and old age, have become part of the past, and only the faculty of memory provides access to them. The emptiness has not been overwhelmed by voices, or dreams, or notions. So the protagonist seeks instead to overwhelm it with what has remained in his memory. Since the memory has kept only recollections of all the previous methods, the protagonist discovers, as the audience does, the truth about his life. The process of fighting against emptiness is dramatically rendered by the rhythms of recollection, with memories dying out and then miraculously reviving. It is as if the protagonist is trying at once to tire himself out and to evolve new methods of defence against emptiness. The moments of silence operate in a similarly bi-focal way: in the past they overcame the protagonist after each of the methods of defence had worn itself out; in the present they suggest to him a way in which the emptiness might be overcome. With the sudden opening of the eyes during these moments of silence, the audience realizes that life always was and always will be a frantic search for something from which one might learn or to which one might cling. The audible breath which breaks the silence registers the protagonist’s shock at suddenly finding himself alive, trying—like a fish out of water—to inhale the air that will allow him to continue breathing. But the final smile registers the protagonist’s resigned recognition that emptiness will ultimately overwhelm him, his consent and capitulation to it. It is an image of the soul that is leaving the terrestrial world behind. But it is a soul that takes with it the memories of its residence on earth.


Adapted by the editor from the translation from the Polish by Aniela Korzeniowska.