The body in Beckett’s theatre


Pierre Chabert


The body is always present in those forms of theatre which use actors, but it may be present and active in many different ways. In theatre based on characters (the majority of existing plays), the actor’s body is subjugated to psychological factors: the actor must incarnate different character types and express different psychological states. In this context the body is a means, entirely subordinated to the plot and to psychological description. It is not approached for and in itself; it supports the action and acts as a relay for bringing the character to life.


In Beckett’s theatre, by contrast, the body is considered with minute attention. He approaches it—just as he approaches space, objects, light and language - as a genuine raw material which may be modified, sculpted, shaped and distorted for the stage. The words ‘raw material’ must be taken literally. Whereas the actor’s body is usually a ‘given’ which does not vary—aside from that part which contributes to the ‘composition’ of the role (costume and make-up)—in Beckett’s theatre the body undergoes metamorphoses. It is worked, violated even, much like the raw materials of the painter or sculptor, in the service of a systematic exploration of all possible relationships between the body and movement, the body and space, the body and light and the body and words.


The body may be deprived of movement, immobilized like a statue, hidden from the spectator’s view, fragmented to the viewer’s eye. Winnie, a cardinal example, is buried to the waist and then up to her neck. Before Willie’s appearance at the end of the play, we see him only in pieces or fragments (the back of his head, one hand). In Play we only see the three heads of the ‘characters,’ their faces almost obliterated, hardly more distinct than the jars in which they are planted, plunged into darkness as soon as the projector turns towards another face to interrogate it. In Not I, one sees a mouth which has gone mad, unable to control the words it utters, words which literally seem to pierce the aperture through which they are emitted.


The body may be hidden and unveiled, the unveiling being a condition of the play. Thus, at the beginning of Endgame, Clov must take off the sheets which cover Hamm and the trash cans. The unveiling in Endgame takes place in two stages: once the sheet is taken off, the spectator does not yet see Nagg and Nell, who must in turn lift the covers of their trash cans to become visible. Furthermore, one perceives but partially the outline of Hamm’s body, for his face is covered by a handkerchief—an extension of his body—a kind of veil. The body appears but it may also disappear, as in the case of Nagg or Nell or the faces of Play, or even like Willie in Act 2 of Happy days. The body in Beckett’s theatre is not, as in conventional dramaturgy, exposed once and for all; we might almost say that it is never presented in its totality, only fragmentarily.


The Beckettian body is not only fragmented to the viewer, eroded by shadows, covered and closed in, annulled or or annihilated; it is also, in its most typical manifestation, deprived of the faculty of movement. Beckett never takes the attribute of movement for granted. The attribute is characteristically exposed or explored only in relationship to the difficulty or impossibility of moving. The bodies of Beckett’s characters always exist in a state of lack or negativity: unable to be seen, or to move, or to see (Hamm is blind, Krapp is nearsighted and has no glasses) or to hear (Krapp is hard of hearing), etc. And yet it is precisely this lack which gives the body its existence, its dramatic force and its reality as a working material for the stage. The body in good health, with the conventional beauty of the conventional stage, does not really exist. As in life, so in Beckett’s drama, one’s body exists all the more strongly when it begins to suffer. Rather than regard Beckett’s theatre as a portrait gallery of cripples, one must understand it as a deliberate and intense effort to make the body come to light, to give the body its full weight, dimension, and its physical presence. In putting physical defects on the stage, Beckett, as we might say, kills two birds with one stone. Not only does he show and render visceral for the spectator the physical and metaphysical defects of man, but he also uses these defects to systematically explore theatrical space, to construct a physical and sensory space, filled with the presence of the body to affirm cruelly (as Artaud would have said) a space invested by the body.


In Beckett immobility becomes a scenic entity: it introduces force and dramatic tension, if only by contrast with the uselessness and insignificance of movements in most plays: ‘When I follow back my stream to its source I find two dominant desires: I wanted still that words might keep all their vividness - and I wanted vivid words . . . . It was certainly a day of triumph when the first act of The well of the saints held its audience, though the two chief persons sat side by side under a stone cross from start to finish,’ writes W. B. Yeats in An introduction for my plays. And Yeats elsewhere says that he closed his actors up in barrels in order to help them eliminate all useless gestures. How prophetic of Beckettian immobility and the jars of Play!


For one of the peculiar properties of immobility is that it can acquire further tension by virtue of a physical defect, as in Krapp’s last tape. Krapp’s deafness intensifies the tension of listening, because the character is obliged to make a sustained effort not to miss anything said by the voice coming from the tape recorder. He thus appears in a very special position, glued to his tape recorder, gripping it with his whole body tense and immobilized, in an intense physical and visceral relationship with this object, this other ‘body’ which is the tape recorder.


The one irreducible component of dramatic tension is conflict. In Beckett, this tension no longer stems from a psychological conflict, but rather from a conflict which is genuinely physical (for example, Clov wants to leave Hamm, physically, so as to return to his kitchen). On the one hand, stage movement is seen in terms of the resistances against which it must struggle: Clov, for example, the only mobile character in Endgame has difficulty moving (he can no longer sit down), he walks in a curious manner, with a ‘stiff and staggering walk.’ On the other hand, movement is continually being contrasted with immobility: Clov’s rapid and difficult movements are set against the helpless immobility of Hamm and the two old people in the trash cans. Theatrically speaking, the lack of movement has the function of bringing out, through contrast, the movements undertaken by a single character, Clov. His smallest gesture is thereby invested with immense significance; the most minute movement in spaces becomes an event. Movement and immobility operate reciprocally and dynamically, each enhancing the dramatic effect of the other.


Just as there is an intrinsic tension between silence and words, so there is an intrinsic tension between immobility and movement. Words emanate from silence and return to it; movement emanates from immobility and returns to it. All movements, all gestures move, so to speak, within immobility, are a victory over immobility and have value only in the tension they maintain in relationship to immobility: ‘There I’ll be, in the old shelter, alone against the silence and . . . (he hesitates) . . . the stillness. If I can hold my peace, and sit quiet, it will be all over with sound, and motion, all over and done with.’


However much we may wish to interpret this tension metaphysically, we should never forget that it is the distinction of the Beckettian stage to translate everything into specific physical terms. The Beckettian actor, more than any other, must undertake an apprenticeship in economy of movement, concentration and tension in gestures and movements. His gestures and movements must always be seen to arise out of immobility and to return to it, incessantly interrupted or suspended by it, as in the ‘dream sequences’ of Krapp’s last tape. The ‘dream’ is prompted by the evocation of a woman: Krapp stops listening, unplugs the apparatus, his body rises, he cries out, his focus goes elsewhere, and he becomes immobile once again to pursue his dream. Movement here occupies a space between two moments of immobility, which inevitably confers significance upon the physical postures the forms assumed by the body - which here becomes indistinguishable from a statue. One’s attention is naturally concentrated upon the musicality and rhythm of the movements and the gestures. The Beckettian body is at once, with its misery and its infirmities, an everyday natural body, and at the same time a formal or musical body.


The immobilization of the body, the elimination of all movement in space, as in Happy days, or of all gestures, as in Play, reduces the actor and the stage to words alone. Beckett is thereby liberated to explore all the possible relationships between words and the body. One possible relationship is non-relationship; the body may play all alone, with words entirely eliminated, as in the silent pantomimes which begin and end Endgame, or in Krapp’s last tape, or in the numerous mimes which interrupt the course of a play (the game with the hats in Godot, Krapp’s disappearances into the storeroom upstage, etc.). Or else, the few gestures which remain, like Winnie’s gestures with the objects in her purse, may become a musical and rhythmic punctuation of or counterpoint to the words. But even when apparently reducing the stage to words alone, as in Play or in the second act of Happy days, Beckett’s attention remains focussed upon what is relevant to the body, for example, the minuscule movements made by Winnie (the smile, the sticking out of her tongue, the look to the side), movements which take on full dramatic value because of the immobility they define themselves against.


The relationship between words and the body is at its most intriguing when the body is reduced to the place where words are articulated, and brought back to its vital organ: the mouth in a face which utters words. There is an implacable logic in the progression from Hamm’s paralysis, through Winnie’s body being gradually covered with earth, to the heads emerging from the jars in Play, to the mouth alone in Not I. Here, physical disappearance (almost as if the mouth had eaten the body,) and total immobility are made subservient to the appearance of the movements pertaining to the articulation of words. And yet the dialectic between movement and stillness, disappearance and manifestation, is reaffirmed even here, in what would seem to have been the most unpropitious dramatic circumstances. For immobility in Beckett’s theatre is always active, dynamic, moving and theatrical; it enables us to perceive another body, even to the movements of articulating words; Beckett’s aim is not, in other words, to reduce the stage to words alone, but rather to concentrate upon those words that are incarnated and pronounced by the body. His is a theatre of elementary things, of words and bodies, words in a body, words expulsed by a body, words epitomized by a body. The immobility peculiar to the Beckettian stage is, then, paradoxical: in eliminating all the customary properties pertaining to the body Beckett reaffirms the irreducibility of the body, reminds us that it remains an agent of disclosure. By concentrating our attention on words, Beckett creates a physical space even when it is reduced to the limits of a single physical organ (the mouth which becomes, through lighting, an indeterminate physical organ). The Beckettian stage is, in the best sense of the word, rarefied; the body is diminished, its words diminished, and yet both word and gesture are restored to a primal expressive function.


The purpose of this progressive immobilization is to fix the spectator’s attention not on the whole body, but rather on a part of the body or on a fragment of the body’s language. Beckett is, in this sense, an entomoligist: he methodically breaks down the language of the body, he dissects it. This is a constant principle, concentrating attention on the outlines of a body or a walk (Clov, with the sound of his steps on the floor; compare Footfalls), or on a specific pose (Lucky, Krapp), or on the face and hand movements (Winnie, Hamm), or on the face alone and the facial expressions (Krapp, Winnie in Act 2, Play), or on the face and hands (Nagg and Nell), or again and again, on the organ pronouncing words.


The dramatic success of Krapp’s last tape, for example, is dependent upon Krapp’s position, immobile, tensely listening to his voice. All one can see is Krapp behind his table, gripping his tape recorder. When Krapp listens and does not speak the infinite nuances of emotion, anger or despair are registered on his face. In separating the voice from the face, Beckett effectively makes the act of listening a hearing of the voice by the body. The body becomes the sensitive receptacle upon which the voice engraves itself, a kind of human tape recorder.


To paraphrase Claudel, I should say that it is the eye which listens, by which I mean that the total immobility of listening and of the face (without the usual movements associated with the articulation of words) engenders something like a mask on the actor’s face, and that, within this mask, the eye is the mobile element, the eye which lives and vibrates as it listens to the voice. And in the total immobility of the mask are inscribed the ensemble of Krapp’s infinitesimal movements and facial expressions. But in tension with this Krapp, reduced to immobility and with his face a mask, is another Krapp, the Krapp who gets up to go into his storeroom to drink or the Krapp who assembles the objects used in the play. Off stage a Krapp-face becomes Krapp-silhouette, a present absence.


In Beckett’s theatre, the body is the object of an exploration and a dramatization unprecedented in theatrical history. This exploration and this dramatization derive from Beckett’s choice of a circumscribed number of esthetic options: physical defects or infirmities, immobilization, extreme body positions (being buried in earth or hidden in trash cans), restriction in space, fragmented visibility, visceral relationships with space or an object (Krapp hugging his tape recorder like the body of the girl in the boat, Hamm hugging his dog as a substitute for a human relationship), and oddly physical relationships with words (Krapp’s relishing of the word ‘Spool,’ for example). It is out of these unprepossessing raw materials that Beckett generates a dramaturgy in which the slightest detail may possess significance, thereby restoring to the stage its exceptional potential as a corporeal medium without parallel.