The schismatic self in ‘A piece of monologue’


Linda Ben—Zvi


The theme of the fragmented nature of the self is not new in Beckett’s writing. As far back as his essay Proust, Beckett recognized the ‘unceasing modification of . . . personality whose permanent reality, if any, can be apprehended as a retrospective hypothesis,’1 and the common human experience ‘not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are other.’2 If the theme has not changed, however, the method of corroboration of self has altered. In earlier works, the verification of self often took the form of external testimony. One of the functions of the Beckettian couple was to provide evidence of an ongoing ego through the witness of an ‘other.’ If a character could not remember yesterday, there was always a companion to act as verifier to another time and another place. The friends Mrs Rooney meets on her arduous trek to the train station may reinforce her own sense of a ‘lingering dissolution’3 but they do indicate a commonly shared past, just as her question to her husband— ‘Will they pelt us with mud today, do you suppose?’4 implies a common past, if only of victimization.


In the more recent works, the semblance of unity in the self is less easily proven, the characters more products of what Ruby Cohn has called an ‘antecedentless life,’5 and the verifier when present not a family member or friend, but usually a chance acquaintance. For example, in Theatre I, the crippled B, that most recent avatar of Hamm, asks for verification of self—‘What does my soul look like?—ironically from a blind man whom he has just met.6 In two other works, Theatre II and Radio II, the verifications also come from strangers, who act as recorders of the facts of being. In Theatre II characters identified as A and B pore over evidence of a self to fill the ‘inner void’ of C (91). They have ‘been to the best sources’ and ‘checked and verified’ (95) but they finally declare their mission impossible confronted as they are with ‘a black future, an unpardonable past—as far as he can remember’(96). In a similar way the animator and stenographer in Radio II seek evidence of an ego in Fox, a character who is bound fast and tortured into speech by a silent figure wielding a bull’s pizzle. The best that Fox can offer is to refer to another (‘my brother inside me, my old twin’ [121]), although since the information does not satisfy the recorders, they finally create their own ‘facts’ about Fox.


The notion that Fox articulates—the me inside an I that can never be merged with the I—becomes the most dominant motif in Beckett’s recent writing. However, the vantage point shifts; sometimes Beckett focuses on the articulating I, sometimes, as in the third fizzle,’ on the inner me: ‘It was he, I was inside.’7 This part of self does not directly experience life: ‘I’m inside, it was he who wailed, he who saw the light, I didn’t wail, I didn’t see the light’(25) And yet the inner me exists, even thinks: ‘It’s impossible I should have a mind and I have one’ (26). What this inner self does not have is a means of articulating itself: ‘He is still, he seeks a voice for me, it’s impossible I should have a voice and I have none, he’ll find one for me, ill beseeming me’ (25). From this position the submerged self realizes: ‘he will never say I because of me’ (27).


This refusal to say I because of a me that cannot be covered by the personal pronoun and cannot be verbalised explains the vehemence with which the speaker in Not I refuses to drop her third person singular position. This refusal is less a rejection of self—as it is often explained—than an inability of the speaker to merge the inner and the outer parts of the ego. Voice C in That time echoes the same idea: ‘Did you ever say I to yourself in your life come on now . . . could you ever say I to yourself in your life’ (31). At the very question the eyes of the face projected ten feet above the stage close.


 This schism in the self differs from the Cartesian duality between mind and body often found in earlier Beckett writing, but it bears close resemblance to the duality of language described by Fritz Mauthner, the Austrian philosopher whose three volume Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache Beckett read in 1930.8 Mauthner denied the existence of a unified ego precisely because of the failure of language to articulate both aspects of self. The problem for Mauthner, as for Beckett, was linguistic:


            Mankind at present no longer supports the consciousness of its

            existence with Descartes’ pedantic I think’ but much more humbly

            and in a childlike way with the feeling ‘I am.’ I am conscious of

            myself, I feel that I am the centre for so and so many perceptions of

            vision and hearing which simultaneously clamour for my attention.

                However, on the needle point of the moment I can impale only one

            impression, and so the ego in ‘I am’ would be lost again if I did not

            have memory of the fact that being remained in the flux of becoming,

            that I was. Thus, my ego plunges from the full of life of the present

            into the black nothing of the past in order to find itself. And he who

            wants to clarify to himself this most common process either stands

            unconscious and silent, or he must erect bogeys of words as if he

            were a philosopher. 9(italics mine)


Not only does time make the ego merely a series of vaguely perceived selves, but even if the ‘black nothing’ were to offer up a view of the ego, there would be no means of articulating this inner self. Mauthner argued, ‘We have bodily organs and senses for the observation of the movements of bodies; but we have no sense beside our organs of thinking for the observation of thinking. The so-called self observation has no organ.’10 Beckett’s characters,particularly in such later works as Fizzles, Rough for radio, Not I, Footfalls, That time and the most recently completed A piece of monologue, seek in the ‘black nothing’ and continually reach the linguistic impasse which Mauthner describes: no means of self-articulation for both aspects of the ego. The very structures of these works derive from the interplays between the two views of self and the battle for pronoun dominance: I or she in Not I, May or Voice of mother in Footfalls.


In the fiction the battle between the two voices of self is straightforwardly handled. For instance in ‘Still,’ a voice close to the traditional notion of a narrator describes a silent and immovable figure: the voice speaks about the figure, the figure remains otionless and inaudible. In drama, however the rendering of the duality of self is more difficult to project. As Alain Robbe-Grillet noted long ago, on the stage the presence of a figure is paramount, his ‘thereness’ most significant. How then is it possible to portray the self as multiple, and—a fortiori—the inability of the self to articulate itself? ‘Bogeys of words’ may be spoken by one character in traditional monologue, but then the sense of the duality of self is lost. If two characters speak as visual embodiments of the two aspects of  self, the audience will tend to think of two discrete persons and not of one fragmented ego.


This confusion can be seen in critical reactions to Footfalls. In the play Beckett has the central character May engage in dialogue with a voice, presumably that of her mother. The voice speaks of May’s obsession with ‘revolving it all’ (44) and indicates that it exists within the troubled brain of May, an echo of the past, a ‘faint tangle of pale grey tatters’ (47) that May replays as she retraces the configuration on the strip of floor she paces. Yet the nature of the byplay between the two women is difficult to ascertain because of the difficulty in ascribing to the visible May the voice of the invisible spectre of the mother. Is the voice a ghost of the past or rather the now permanent inner voice of May? Or have May and mother become one? It is understandable that criticism has felt unwilling to pronounce definitively on these issues.


In Beckett’s most recent work A piece of monologue, written for the actor David Warrilow, presented by him at the La Mama theatre in New York in December 197911 and printed in the summer issue of The Kenyon review,12 Beckett effectively attempts to achieve on stage what he has previously achieved in fiction: to allow the two parts of the self to exist simultaneously. In many ways the play resembles several works which immediately precede it. The central figure is an old man with ‘white hair, white nightgown, white socks,’ (1) who arguably constitutes the rest of the body attached to the face which appeared in That time; the night spectre of the man in . . . but the clouds . . . is here totally confined to his ‘little sanctum.’13 He has survived ‘two and half billion seconds’ and ‘thirty thousand nights’ (1). This actually works out to 79 years of seconds and 82 years of nights, a typically Beckettian calibration that doesn’t quite work—similar to Watt’s mathematical calculations. The setting is a room with a window facing west, a bare wall once covered with pictures on the east, and the white foot of a pallet just visible extreme right. It is much like the room in the television play Ghost trio, although without the mirror. One additional object has been added however, and it becomes the focal point of the work: a standard lamp the same height as the actor, with a skull-sized white glove. The central physical action described involves the lighting of the lamp at nightfall, a routine that takes on the ritualistic nature of May’s walking in Footfalls: ‘So nightly. USocks. Nightgown. Window. Lamp. Backs away to edge of light and stands facing blank wall’ (2).


Despite the description of action, however, there is no indication of any movement in the play. This is because the speaker is not the I, the macrocosmic figure facing the world and claiming the use of the first person pronoun, but rather the inner me, that objective self that watches and reports but has no means of independent articulation of being. Unlike That time, where the figure at least opened and closed his eyes and smiled while the voices of self talked, and unlike Footfalls, where May moved as Voice spoke her thoughts, here there is a figure that remains impassive, like the figure in the fiction ‘Still,’ while the voice within describes the man without.


The play is perhaps closest to Not I, where Mouth used the third person pronoun, refusing the acknowledgement of I. However, in that play Beckett made clear that the two voices of self existed simultaneously, albeit unheard. The constant interruptions, the questions, the reminders, came from the schismatic self. In A piece of monologue, although the speaker uses ‘he,’ the pronoun is questioned only twice, and the speaker seems at ease with his role as inner voice of the external, silent figure.


Part of the reason for the absence of tension between the two parts of self comes from the major new departure of the play: here the focus is less on a replaying of the past than on the experience of the present and the future. The shift is important. In all the preceding plays mentioned, the words have referred to past actions: that time. In this play the speaker refers ‘To now. This night’ (1). The excavation is not for the most part in the ‘black nothing of the past,’ as Mauthner called it, but rather in the black nothing of the future. And the central concern in the play is not the acknowledged blackness within but the blackness without.


The emphasis on the outer void rather than the inner is expressed by Beckett in a 1974 poem entitled ‘Something there’:


            something there


            out there

            out where



            the head what else

            something there somewhere outside

            the head14


The carefully crafted verbal balance in the poem echoes the two voices of self conducting a familiar Beckettian dialogue, but with one important difference: their concern is not with their own schism, but rather with the world outside the self. Their desire is not to plumb the nature of the world within but rather to explore the nature of the ‘something’ without, which the poem concludes is



            not life



Monologue is concerned with the same attempt. Though brief—the printed script runs to only four pages—the play is an intricately woven text, as finely balanced as the poem which precedes it. On the stage, the struggle to pierce the blackness is indicated by the images of light and dark. The stage directions indicate that the play takes place in faint light, and that thirty seconds before the play ends the lamplight begins to fail. But the stage is left at the end not in darkness but instead in barely visible diffuse light. There are actually two kinds of light in the play. There is the light that comes, the speaker says repeatedly, ‘Whence unknown’ (2). When he wakes, habitually at nightfall, and gropes to light his lamp, there is already ‘Faint light in room’ (2). This other light is always there: ‘Light dying. Soon none left to die. No. No such thing as no light. Starless moonless heaven. Dies no to dawn and never dies’ (3).


There are also two darknesses in juxtaposition to the two lights. One is the blackness of personal experience—the inner dark—which can be temporarily dissipated by the artificial lamp and by acts of the mind. And then there is the other blackness, the external blackness: ‘Stare beyond through rift in dark to other dark. Further dark’ (4). This blackness without is the ‘something there’ which the speaker strains to pierce.


The parameters of the play are set between the two blacknesses, in shadows made by the lamplight and the light ‘Whence unknown.’ The inner voice traces the route described by Beckett in a recent text entitled ‘neither’:


            to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow

            from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself

            by way of neither16


The ‘unspeakable home,’ the place between the two impenetrable states, which Beckett describes in ‘neither’ is set off in Monologue by the dual images of birth and death. In the very first lines of the play, Beckett creates this primary binary opposition: ‘Birth was the death of him’ (1). And a few lines later he contines: ‘Born dead of night’ (1). The connection between ‘born’ and ‘dead’ within a cliche is a familiar device for Beckett who often images man’s entrapment in language as a corollary of man’s entrapment in the life cycle. These tensions between birth and death are continued in the subsequent image of ‘Sun long sunk behind the larches. New needles turning green’ (1). The death of the day is contrasted with the birth of the year.


As in previous works, Beckett connects birth and life with man’s need to find words to talk about his living. Words and speech become synonymous with living: ‘Words are few. Dying too. Birth was the death of him. Ghastly grinning ever since. Up at the lid to come. In cradle and crib. At suck first fiasco,’ (1). The words in this opening speech of the play actually trace human growth through complementary speech development: the velar stops g and c, followed by the more sophisticated fricative f, and finally giving way to rhyme and more complex language structures and transpositions: ‘From mammy to nanny and back’ (1).


This initial mention of birth and the few shards of personal biography are part of an ongoing ritual that the audience enters in medias res. The speaker wakes, gropes for the lamp, lights it, and then talks—and always about birth. As is typical of many Beckett works, each reference to biography becomes more rapid and increasingly more nebulous, making the inchoate origins of speech more discernible. There are approximately two pages between the first and second reference to the word ‘birth,’ whereas the next two references are separated by less than half a page, indicating at once the acceleration of time and the parallel and growing difficulty of emitting the word with each attempt. The opening lines of the play (which relate to the ritual of speaking about birth) are short and clipped, somewhat in the style of the Voice in Not I. However, in the second cycle of speech there is more emphasis on the preparation for speech which precedes the word ‘birth,’ as if Beckett were pushing the speaker back to some preverbal area from which he must struggle to even reach the point of beginning: ‘Stares beyond into dark. Waits for first word always the same. It gathers in his mouth. Parts lips and thrusts tongue forward. Birth’ (2). In the last two attempts to evoke birth the speaker is not able to emit the word and can only describe the struggle toward speech: ‘Mouth agape. Closed with hiss of breath. Lips joined. Feel soft touch of lip on liLip lipping lip’ (4). Until finally: ‘Stands there staring beyond waiting for first word. It gathers in his mouth. Parts lips and thrusts tongue between them. Tip of tongue. Feel soft touch of tongue on lips. Of lips on tongue. Stare beyond through rift in dark to other dark’ (4).


Although the speaker has said that the image of birth ‘Parts the dark’ (3), there is another image after the evocation of which ‘Dark parts’ (3). This is the opposing image of death, whose contrary force is indicated linguistically by the transportation of the two words ‘parts’ and ‘dark.’ The one subject repeatedly described in the play is funerals: ‘From funeral to funeral. Funerals of . . . he all but said of loved ones’ (1). The funeral scene is repeated three times, and each time the image becomes more menacing, more directly associated with the approaching death of the speaker, and more powerful in the pull between birth and death. In the first reference, the speaker recalls ‘Grey light. Rain pelting. Umbrellas round a grave. Seen from above. Streaming black canopies. Black ditch beneath. Rain bubbling in the black mud. Empty for a moment. That place beneath’ (3). In the second he sees a ‘Coffin out of frame’ (3). Finally in the third evocation: ‘Coffin on its way’ (4).


As the speaker finds himself unable to utter the word ‘birth’ he finds himself more and more drawn to the images of death represented by the funeral scene. Just as the first mention of birth in the play is the most detailed (with each becoming progressively more vague until the word remains unuttered), such is Beckett’s attention to balance in the work that the first mention of funerals is general, whilst each subsequent reference becomes more detailed until it virtually subsumes the images of birth. On page one of the text, the word ‘birth’ appears twice, on page three three times, but on the final page not at all. In contrast, on page one the word ‘funeral’ appears once, on page three twice, but on page four it becomes the sole image. The speaker can no longer summon the beginnings of life — no word of ‘birth’—but only the now dominant image of death: ‘Nothing stirring. Faintly stirring. Thirty thousand nights of ghosts beyond. Beyond the black beyond. Ghost light. Ghost nights. Ghost rooms. Ghost graves. Ghost . . . he all but said ghost loved ones. Waiting on the rip word’ (4). This mention of ‘the rip word’ is at first sight curious. It obviously has connections with the tearing of the blackness, the attempt which has been described in the play. But there is also the pun on R.I.P., requiescat in pace, which suggests that death is the final way of ripping the dark, of piercing that ‘other blackness.’ The outer darkness, Beckett seems to indicate, may be ‘ripped’ by death, but as long as man lives, he can only temporarily part the dark. There will continue to be some faint light: ‘So stand there facing blank wall. Dying on. No more no less. No. Less. Less to die. Ever less like light at nightfall’ (2).


The play ends on the growing pull of the image of death: ‘Treating of other matters. Trying to treat of other matters. Till half hears there are no other matters. Never were other matters. Never two matters. Never but the one matter. The dead and the gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. The word begone’ (4). The two issues, birth and death, ultimately become only death. From birth, the beginning—‘the word go’—the presence of death is constant, just as the word ‘go’ is part of the word ‘begone.’ This view of the centrality of death is not new in Beckett’s works. As early as Mercier and Camier Beckett offered a similar idea:


            the long dull mawkish muddle of regrets, the dead and buried with

            the undying, you’ve been through it all a thousand times . . . It’s

            night, forenight, and there are no more sedatives. Fortunately it does

            not always last for ever, a few months do the trick as a rule, a few

            years, sudden ends have even been observed, in warm climates

            particularly. Nor is it of necessity unremitting, brief breaks for rec-

            reation are permitted, with the illusion of life they sometimes give.

            And to follow? That will be all, thank you. The bill.17


What is new in A piece of monologue is the ‘unremitting’ quality of the awareness of death. There are no ‘brief breaks for recreation’ in this play, only the feeble attempt to utter the word ‘birth.’ And this attempt fails too before the end of the play. We are left with Beckett’s most direct statement of the condition of man ‘astride of a grave and a difficult birth.’ Gone are the specific references to a biography that limit the suffering to a

particular ‘that time’ and a particular ‘it all.’


The play does, however, contain many features that are to be found in other Beckett plays. Firstly there are the descriptions of rituals, repeated continually. In Monologue habit involves the fighting of the lamp, the act which precedes the evening attempts to pierce the dark. There are also the familiar frustrations accompanying such routines: the light is not lit until after several laboured attempts. Secondly there are the visual images which reinforce the themes of the work. The speaker speaks at length of the image of hands illuminated briefly in the act of lighting the lamp: ‘There in the end slowly a faint hand. Holding aloft a lighted spill. In light of spill faintly the hand and milkwhite globe. Then second hand. In light of spill. Takes off globe and disappears. Reappears empty’ (3). The words create a picture of disembodied elements—hands, parts of lamp—temporarily caught in light and then disappearing, at least to the eye, although they exist in the darkness. The image provides a reinforcement of the theme of brief thought (light) capturing some insight, albeit temporary, which fades back again into darkness but is still there, if unperceived.


There is also the familiar mathematical precision which provides a structuring order to the old chaos. Not for the first time Beckett plays on the number three. There are three attempts to light the lamp, three images of the advancing spectre of death, and three denials—‘No such thing as none’ (1); ‘No such thing as no light’ (3); ‘No such thing as whole’ (4). And there are the multiples of six: six references to loved ones,

six descriptions of the pictures which once adorned the now blank wall the speaker faces, and six steps in the ritual.


But more than any other feature of the play, even more than the theme of the awareness of death, it is the form of the play which is Beckett’s most startling departure. He has created a work which is completely static.18 The speaker talks about ‘he’ while the outer figure remains completely motionless. The form is the most daring experiment that Beckett has yet adopted in an attempt to create what he has described repeatedly in his fiction, the schismatic nature of man. There are obviously great risks involved in a play which seems to defy the very heart of the drama: action. But, like the stage plays which immediately precede it—Not I, That time, and Footfalls—Beckett relies on creating a striking visual image. In Monologue, it is the image of man’s dual nature. There is no misunderstanding possible this time; the voice that speaks and the figure that listens are one, the me and the I of the self. Rather than arbitrarily making the choice which Mauthner describes—silence or bogeys of words—Beckett presents the dichotomy itself: man silent and man erecting bogeys of words. And both turned to the blackness without.


1 Samuel Beckett, Proust, New York: Grove Press, 1957, 2.

2 Ibid., 3.

3 Samuel Beckett, All that fall in Krapp’s last tape and other dramatic pieces, New York: Grove Press, 1960, 39.

4 Ibid., 74.

5 Ruby Cohn, ‘Outward bound soliloquies,’ Journal of modern literature, VI, No. 1, February, 1977, 37.

6 Samuel Beckett, Ends and odds (including Not I, Footfalls, That time, Ghost trio, Theatre Radio I, Radio II, New York: Grove Press, 1976, 76. All further references to plays in this collection will appear in the text.

7 Samuel Beckett, Fizzles, New York: Grove Press, 1976, 25. All further references to the work appear in the text.

8 For a discussion of the relationship between Samuel Beckett and Fritz Mauthner see my ‘Samuel Beckett, and Fritz Mauthner, and the limits of language,’ PMLA (several points from the preceding discussion are taken from this article). For material on the life and works of Fritz Mauthner see Gershon Weiler, Mauthner’s critique of language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970; Gershon Weiler, ‘Fritz Mauthner,’ Encyclopedia of philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, New York: Macmillan, 1967, V, 221—224; Joachim Kuhn, Gescheiterte Sprachkritik: Fritz Mauthner, Leben and Werk, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1975. For a discussion of Mauthner’ s relation to the Vienna Circle and particularly to the work of fellow Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein, see Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

9 Fritz Mauthner, Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, 3rd ed., 3 vols., Leipzig, 1923; rpt. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1967, 1, 653—54; my translation.

10 Ibid., I, 248.

11 For reviews of the production see Erica Monk, ‘No banana,’ Village voice, 24 Dec. 1979, 92; New York Times, 19 Dec. 1979, Sec. C, 13.

12 Samuel Beckett, A piece of monologue, The Kenyon Review, Summer 1979, 1—4.

13 Samuel Beckett .... but the clouds. . . in Ends and odds, London: Faber, 1976, 54.

14 Samuel Beckett, ‘something there,’ in Collected poems in English and French, New York: Grove Press, 1977, 63.

15 Ibid.

16 Samuel Beckett, ‘neither,’ in Journal of Beckett Studies, No. 4, Spring 1979, [vii].

17 Samuel Beckett, Mercier and Camier, New York: Grove Press, 1974, 109.

18 The New York Times review indicated that Warrilow did move somewhat, although the printed indicates no movement. He also made certain other additions: the constant ticking of use of a microphone.