‘Quad I & II’: Beckett’s sinister mime(s)


S. E. Gontarski


Filmed for German television and presented on October 8, 1981, the fifteen minute Quad I & II may be Beckett’s most formal work, geometric and symmetrical. One, then two, then three, then four figures, each in pastel djellabas, appear in succession to describe a quadrangle to a rapid, polyrhythmic, percussion beat, then depart in sequence. Each describes half the Quad, tracing the incommensurability of side and diagonal, and, in Beckett’s most vivid image of post‑modern literary theory, each abruptly avoids the center, each makes a ‘jerky turn to his left as a diversion away from it’. It may first appear that ‘they were avoiding one another, but gradually one realized they were avoiding the center. There was something terrifying about it . . . It was danger’. The action at first appears comic, almost slapstick, as characters rush toward an apparent central collision, but collision is avoided by the abrupt turns. The pattern is repeated, from one to four, then back to none in an oscillation, a crescendo and diminuendo of movement which shatters whatever comic possibilities were present initially. The final effect is one of prescribed, determined, enforced motion. One is reminded of Winnie’s assessment: ‘What a curse mobility’.


The timing of the seven minute piece proved difficult to achieve, and Beckett was on the verge of scrapping the piece in rehearsals as un­workable. Instead, as the actors eventually mastered the discipline necessary to perform the intricate, rapid movement to Beckett’s satis­faction, he decided to make a second version, Quad II, this in black and white; with half the percussion eliminated (the veneer), the tempo is monorhythmic so that the figures’ movements are some half those of Quad I. The second version was a masterstroke, a second act to dramatize the entropy of the motion. And, since the figures always turn left, not only at the centre but at all the corners also, the pattern is that of the damned in the Inferno. Quad is indeed a sinister piece.


Quad, is not, however, Becktt’s only venture at overtly staging geometry. The thought dates at least from 1963 or so, when, in the same notebook which contains the precurser to Not I, ‘Kilcool’ (at the Trinity College archive, Dublin), Beckett began a mime for Jack McGowran, tentatively entitled ‘J. M. Mime’. In that work two pairs, son and father and son and mother (Beckett even entertained the possibility of ‘one carrying the other’) try to describe the greatest number of paths along quarters of a square to arrive hack at center, O. ‘Starting from O return to O by greatest number of paths’ is Beckett’s description of the action. The pattern of composition in J. IVI. Mime’ is toward greater and greater complication, an impulse which does not carry over to the revived notion. In Quad Beckett enlarges the triangles and adds rhythm. And the theme is reversed as the centre is avoided not sought, and the oppression of mobility reinforced by sinister twists.


The principal critical problem with Quad may be deciding whether it is finally a single mime or a pair of mimes, but the two work effectively with and against one another. Beckett’s late decision to double the mime has led to a singular work.