Beckett’s dramatic counterpoint: a reading of ‘Play


Paul Lawley



The stage-picture of Play treats the human body with a violence that is unusual even in Beckett:


Front centre, touching one another, three identical grey urns about one yard high. From each a head protrudes, the neck held fast in the urn’s mouth. The heads are those, from left to right as seen from the auditorium, of W2, M and W1. They face undeviatingly front throughout the Play. Faces so lost to age and aspect as to seem almost part of urns. But no masks.


Their speech is provoked by a spotlight projected on faces alone.1


‘The source of light is single’ and ‘at the centre of the footlights, the faces being thus lit at close quarters and from below’; ‘a single mobile spot should be used, swivelling at maximum speed from one face to another as required’, ‘expressive of a unique inquisitor’ (p. 23). ‘The transfer of light from one face to another is immediate’. ‘Faces impassive throughout. Voices toneless except where an expression is indicated. Rapid tempo throughout’ (p. 9). The first section of the text, after an opening ‘chorus’, consists of the interlaced narration of a sordid story of an adulterous affair and (more particularly) its aftermath from the points of view of the husband (M), the wife (W1) and the ‘other woman’ (W2). The story begins with the confrontation by the wife of the other woman, continues with the man’s attempt to return to the bond of marriage and ends, inconclusively, with the unexplained disappearance of the other woman and a hint of the husband’s having committed suicide (‘finally it was all too much. I simply could no longer - ‘, p. 14). They speak out of - the stage-picture ‘represents’ - not so much a place as a state (‘Beckett’s ultimate version of the Protestant Hell’, Hugh Kenner has suggested2). The second section of the text is made up of the three heads’ own speculations about the reason for this apparently meaningless inquisition by the light and how it might be terminated. What does the ‘unique inquisitor’ require? A story which focuses on the Eternal Triangle will also focus on some kind of truth-telling, so it seems inevitable that the light should be asked (by W1): ‘Is it that I do not tell the truth, is that it, that some day somehow I may tell the truth at last and then no more light at last, for the truth’. (p. 16) Is this a moral truth? Does the ‘Play’ consist of the atonement for the sin of adultery? W1 declares: ‘penitence, yes, at a pinch, atonement, one was resigned, but no, that does not seem to be the point either’ (p. 20). At-one-ment (‘one was resigned . . .’) with what? The ‘inquisitor’ is apparently not listening, cannot listen, it is ‘mere eye. No mind. Opening and shutting. . .’ (p. 21). ‘Am I as much as . . . being seen?’ (p. 22) asks M. Again it is W1 who confronts the situation: ‘If only I could think. There is no sense in this . . . either, none whatsoever. I can’t.... And that all is falling, all fallen, from the beginning, on empty air. Nothing being asked at all. No one asking me for anything at all’ (p. 18).


The unique feature of Play is, of course, its da capo structure: ‘Repeat play’. It is here that the analogy with music is unavoidable. We know that when producing his Plays in the theatre Beckett is apt to talk about their structures in musical terms,3 so it is not surprising that Play, with its ‘toneless’ voices, the ‘rapid tempo throughout’, the ‘trio’ which opens the ‘action’ (in a note Beckett even ‘scores’ this section) and its final da capo instruction, should seem at times less a dramatic text than a musical score. The musical characteristics of the Play’s structure have the effect of pushing the language to the borders of abstraction. On the first run-through the heads’ speculations about the nature and meaning of their present state do seem, despite the specified tonelessness of delivery and uniform tempo, evidence of ‘how the mind works still to be sure!’ (p. 18), but in the repeat our sense of this diminishes drastically: everything now seems fixed, absolutely cyclic, and our already con­siderable awareness of words as opaque blocks or aural artillery is made even more acute than it was during the initial run-through. What we are witnessing is not a quest for ‘truth’ (of whatever kind) but a frantic struggle for survival against the light. Yet although for the heads the words they speak are stone-dead, entirely without semantic ‘charge’ (the toneless delivery seems to confirm this), for the audience the words can never empty themselves entirely of meaning - even second time round. The Play tends towards the condition of music but, as far as we are concerned, can never get there. For the heads communication is never a concern, since each is apparently oblivious of the presence of the others. ‘They face undeviatingly front throughout the Play’ towards a ‘mere eye’, which does not hear them, and never address each other directly. It is the same hell, but each is in it alone. For us, however, there are ‘connections’ which serve to charge and vitalise the words. Indeed, the further structure and stage-picture press towards abstraction the more surely do they endow the text with a capacity for a strange life of its own. This life is a counterpoint-life.


The counterpoint in Play is of two kinds. Firstly, the interlacing of three independent narrative voices, each. one of which is unaware of the other two, provides the opportunity for a witty Play of phrase between voices of the kind exemplified in the opening moments:


M : So I told her I did not know what she was talking about.

Spot from M to W2.

W2 : What are you talking about? I said, stitching away .... I smell you off him, she screamed, he stinks of bitch.

Spot from W2 to W1.

W1 : Though I had him dogged for months by a first rate man, no shadow of proof was forthcoming . . . (pp. 10-

11, my emphases).


The ‘shadow of proof’ casts us back to the first words of W2 in the opening trio: ‘a shade gone, just a shade, in the head’ (pp. 9-10). Both of these phrases also register in the terms of the other, more important, kind of counterpoint in Play: that between text and stage-picture. Too much in the light as they are, these figures need any shade or shadow they can get - above all, the shade of words, the only means they have to keep themselves out of the light. And the effect of ‘just a shade, in the head’ coming from the mouth of a body with only its head visible is as bizarre as it is hard to explain.


This last example is typical in the way the stage-text counterpoint revitalizes a cliché which involves the body. For the body, by its very absence from the stage-picture, is the Play’s most potent presence. Having presented the audience with a visual image of extreme physical constriction - ‘the neck held fast in the urn’s mouth(!)’ so that only mouth and eyes can actually move - Beckett proceeds to draw extensively on the rich vein of body-clich6s to grotesque and occasionally poignant effect. Sometimes this is a matter of the cruel, simple contrast between the extravagance of the actions described and the constriction we see in front of us:


Give up that whore, she said, or I’ll cut my throat -


One morning as I was sitting stitching by the open window [itself a counterpoint to the light] she burst in and flew at

me. (Both p. 10)


So I took her in my arms and swore I could not live without her .... She did not repulse me.


Judge then of my astoundment when one fine morning, as I was sitting stricken [a glance back at W2’s ‘sitting stitching’] in the morning room, he slunk in, fell on his knees before me, buried his face in my lap and . . . confessed (Both p. 11)


I suggested a little jaunt to celebrate, to the Riviera or our darling Grand Canary. (p. 14)


Clichés which involve physical actions or anatomical details issue from the mouths of ‘characters’ who cannot hold, offer, show, stoop or run (any more than they can burst, fly or slink) and who have no perceptible breasts, stomachs or hearts:


I swore by all I held most sacred -


Seeing her now for the first time full length in the flesh .... (Both p. 10)


Fearing she was about to offer me violence I rang for Erskine and had her shown out. (p. 11)


Then I forgave him. To what will love not stoop! (p. 12)


Then I got frightened and made a clean breast of it .


. . . I had no silly threats to offer - but not much stomach for her leavings either. (Both p. 13)


At home all heart to heart, new leaf and bygones bygones. I ran into your ex-doxy, she said one night .... (p. 14)


The irony sometimes consists in a more general, though hardly less cruel, contrast between what we hear about and how we hear about it:


She put a bloodhound on me, but I had a little chat with him. (p. 12)


So he was mine again. All mine. I was happy again. I went about singing [Cf. ‘our darling Grand Canary’?] (p. 14)


Meet, and sit, now in the one dear old place, now in the other, and sorrow together, and compare - (hiccup)

pardon - happy memories. (p. 18)


In almost all the examples I have listed the counterpoint is created by the implicit contrast of stage-situation and textual detail. The resulting irony would seem to be entirely at the expense of the um-bound ‘characters’. The implications of this are important, for if this were true of all the Play’s ironies, we could legitimately consider Beckett’s intentions - and his achievement - to be satirical. To do this would be, in effect, to identify the Playwright with his ‘unique inquisitor’, the light: he places them in a hell from which they cannot escape and torments them by obliging them to speak.


This view of Play is uncomfortable if only because one does not necessarily have to accept it unreservedly to feel that there is something disturbing in the way Beckett treats the beings he has created. It is also uncomfortable because it alerts us to the way the theatrical experience itself tends to identify the spectator with the light: we expect them to speak, to ‘make a Play’, and our expectation amounts, under the sanction of theatrical convention, to an obligation upon the heads. They are indeed, to answer M’s question, being seen. We may feel ourselves to be conspiring with the author and his agent of interrogation the light. This is an unavoidable truth because it is a truth of the medium made manifest - Play, any play, is theatre. But it is not the whole truth. Play is no more a satire on (presumably) bourgeois sexual morality, a piece in which the author invites the complicity of the audience in ridiculing his victims, than Happy days is a satire on optimism. However, the need to explain why it is not provides a convenient standpoint from which to conduct the enquiry into what it is. And returns us to counterpoint.


If bitterly ironic humour is the result of counterpoint in which the element of contrast - what might be termed difference-in-likeness - is dominant, the effect of counterpoint in which parallelism -likeness-in­difference - is uppermost is in general more sober and less apparently satirical. We see the heads locked away from each other, each in a private hell, and we hear: ‘there is obviously nothing between you any more. Or is there?’ (p. 12) We see the light tormenting them and hear: ‘I know what torture you must be going through she said, and I have dropped in to say I bear you no ill-feeling’ (p. 13). ‘Dropped in’ indeed. Other examples need only to be listed (emphases are mine):

What have you to complain of? I said. Have I been neglecting you? How could we be together in the way we are if there were someone else? Loving her as I did, with all my heart, I could not but feel sorry for her. (p. 11)


He was looking pale. Peaked. But this [‘a little jaunt to celebrate’] was not possible just then. Professional

commitments. (p. 12)



She was looking more and more desperate.


I felt like death.


Some fool was cutting grass. A little rush, then another. (All p. 13)


In the meantime we were to carry on as before. By that he meant as best we could.


Then I drove over to her place. It was all bolted and barred. All grey with frozen dew. On the way back by Ash [are these funerary urns?] and Snodland. (Both p. 14)


I made a bundle of his things and burnt them. It was November and the bonfire was going. All night I smelt them

smouldering. (p. 15)


There is no future in this. (p. 16)


. . . not even a squeeze of lemon. (p. 17)


Perhaps she has taken him away to live . . . somewhere in the sun. (p. 19)


Penitence, yes, at a pinch . . .

Gazing down out over the olives, then the sea, wondering what can be keeping him, growing cold. Shadow stealing over everything. Creeping. Yes. To think we were never together. (All p. 20)


The last line of the play must be one of the most terrible of all curtain lines, spoken as it is out of a state which is at once an eternal together­ness and an eternal separateness:4 ‘We were not long together - ‘ (p. 22; the words are, of course, literally true of the brief theatrical event, but only in such a way as to make us conscious of the difference between ourselves and the heads - the sense in which the audience is excluded from the ‘we’).


Almost without exception these passages have a poignancy which is lacking in the earlier examples. This is because they rely less osten­tatiously upon the revitalization of cliche and because they give a greater sense of the heads as victims of the light - they dispose us to sympathize in a way the earlier instances do not. There is also present something which is complementary to our sense of the heads as victims: our sense of their awareness of their situation. Most of my examples, especially the earlier ones, have been drawn from the actual account of the incidents surrounding the adultery - what Beckett himself calls tile ‘Narration’5 but, as we have already noted, this section takes up only the first half of the text (to the top of page 15). Up to that point we may feel that the cruel irony which is a product of the text-stage counterpoint exists largely at the expense of the heads, and that they merit little more than our contempt. But the second half of the text - called ‘Meditation’ by Beckett himself - sheds a subtle new light on the first. In the Meditation each of the heads casts about for the sense of its situation, considers the nature of the light, probes for certainties amid the dark­ness and then makes an attempt to imagine what has happened to the other two corners of this particular Eternal Triangle (another clichd Play prods to life). That these imaginings are not without malice makes little difference to the change in our attitude. We can now see that the heads are not chained exclusively to their ‘past’, their narration(s): they are victims of the light, certainly, but not only victims, for they can recognize themselves as such and can speak of the light when forced to speak by the light. The light obliges them to speak but it does not necessarily determine what they speak - yet we only realize this in the Meditation section of the text. If the Play consisted only of the Narration it would be as though the light were obliging them not only to speak, but to speak only of these events, to tell only this story.


The da capo instruction would appear to undermine my suggestion that the contrast between the Narration and Meditation sections of Play implies a kind of freedom for the heads from the light. In the repetition, as we have noted, we are made fully aware that their speech, prompted by the light as it is, involves no creative faculty or deployment of words as anything other than abstract blocks; the humour and ‘the incon­sequential details of gossip that were savoured the moment before become stale and turn sour’.6 But why is this? Because the light determines what is said? Not necessarily. In the words of W2, speaking about her affair in poignant counterpoint with the stage-situation, ‘in the meantime we were to cant’ on as before. By that he meant as best we could’. Mechanical repetition can be regarded as a strategy for survival: they carry on as best they can, and their best is a particular text. But why this particular text, the adultery-story?


‘In Play’, writes Hugh Kenner, ‘everyone is trapped in a condemnation to repeat, repeat, versions of what happened elsewhere, long ago, not to their credit’.7 ‘What happened’ is the adultery and this, for Kenner, is the sin for which the heads are being punished in ‘Beckett’s ultimate version of the Protestant Hell’. Commenting on M’s question ‘When will all this have been . . . just Play?’ (p. 17), he writes: ‘For he can suppose that Hell itself will turn out to be a game, just such a game as he Played, without scruple, with hearts’.8 The women are similarly contemptible. For Kenner, the ‘truth’ W1 guesses might be the key to her release is emphatically a moral truth. He quotes the lines in question and asserts: ‘But the truth is not in her. She cannot forego, each time round, the old postures, the old jealous contempt, or savouring the day she went round to "have a gloat" . . . Her version, she is impregnably sure is the version. (. . .) No she does not really tell the truth, though doubtless she tells the facts’.9 Plainly the ‘truth’ Kenner demands - and sees the light as demanding -- is self-knowledge and consequent contrition. In such a reading the light needs to be considered a moral agent, yet nowhere does Kenner suggest that its ‘behaviour’ might be anything other than sense-less and mind-less. And if this is true of the light, why should moral truth, which cannot be apprehended by the light anyway, be as valuable as Kenner implies it to be?


Just as he takes W1’s speculations about what the light wants at face ­value, Kenner accepts without question the heads’ version of the sequence of events: ‘It is all very banal, drawing-room melodrama, cheapened and accelerated. And then something happened’.10 In Kenner’s view, the ultimate Protestant Hell happened. But is Play quite as straightforward as this? The idea that what the light is after is in fact moral truth is complementary to the assumption that they have died and are in Hell. But need we accept the heads’ own account as literally as Kenner does? Even if we do, it should give us pause that only a few moments after asking if ‘truth’ is what is required W1 declares that neither penitence nor atonement seems ‘to be the point’.


The ‘point’ may not be fully ascertainable. At any rate, to be as settled in one’s assumptions as Kenner seems to be makes of Play a lesser work than it is. Beckett locates his Plays in ‘places’ which may strike us as being most adequately described as ‘Hell’, ‘Limbo’ or ‘Purgatory’- and the parallels with Dante are always tempting - but to infer that any one of them is therefore about moral retribution being exacted in an after­world seems to me seriously limiting. At one time it was frequently claimed that Beckett was writing about the ‘human condition’. In criticism of the more journalistic kind one felt that this cliché-assertion was too often made to stand reassuringly in the stead of concrete demonstration rather than to follow naturally from it. Yet for all its shortcomings, such an approach to Beckett’s work does at least imply a conviction that the Plays and novels, narrow in focus though they may sometimes be, are concerned with matters central to the experience of being human, an experience of this world, rather than with the rich variety of imaginable punishments to which moral transgressors could be subjected in ghastly afterworlds.


Let us ask again why the heads tell this particular story. In Kenner’s reading they do so because they are-obliged to recount their sin (of adultery) in perpetuity as punishment: ‘. . . what happened elsewhere, long ago, not to their credit’. But did it happen elsewhere and long ago? We have been considering the incidence and character of counterpoint in the Play, and I have felt it necessary to list instances in order to suggest the pervasiveness, the omnipresence even, of this feature. As we have seen, almost all the counterpoint is between the `past’ as told in the Narration and the `present’ as seen in the stage-picture. Yet the very omnipresence of the counterpoint mechanism should make us hesitate to adopt, as Kenner does, a simple diachronic perspective with a settled past/present dualism.


By its very nature counterpoint enforces a synchronic perspective: it functions only by our simultaneous perception of likeness and difference-in-likeness. In other words it is as though the adultery-story were a version of what we are seeing in front of us, and vice-versa. Consider one recurrent detail of counterpoint - the duality coming/­going with the related in/out:


. . . she burst in and flew at me. (p. 10)


. . . if he is still living, and has not forgotten, coming and going on the earth,11 letting people in, showing people out .


. . . he slunk in . . . (Both p. 11)


I can’t have her crashing in here, she said . . .


She came in. Just strolled in. (Both p. 12)


And I have dropped in to say I bear you no ill-feeling. (p. 13)


. . . you’re well out of that.


When he stopped coming I was prepared. (Both p. 14)


In all these instances the ins and outs and comings and goings are those of the characters in the Narration. But the same terms are used in the Meditation, this time in speaking of the light, for if the adultery-story is one of comings and goings and ins and outs, so too is the stage­ ‘story’:


When you go out - and I go out. Some day you will tire of me and go out . . . for good. (p. 16)


What do you do when you go out? Sift?


Have I lost . . . the thing you want? Why go out? (Both p. 19)


What the common terminology reveals is not just the accumulation of more counterpoint (accumulation is what we have been concerned with up to now) but a true counterpoint-structure which subsumes the accumulated detail. The central structural pivot of Play is the counter­point between, not just textual detail and stage-picture, but the adultery­-story and the dramatic mechanism of the work, the operation of the light:


W1 : When I was satisfied it was all over I went to have a gloat. Just a common tart. What he could have found in her when he had me -


Spot from W 1 to W2.


W2 : When he came again we had it out. I felt like death. He went on about why he had to tell her. Too risky and so on. That meant he had gone back to

her. Back to that!


Spot from W2 to W1.


W1 : Pudding face, puffy, spots, blubber mouth, jowls, no neck, dugs you could -


Spot from W 1 to W2.


W2 : He went on and on . . . (p. 13)


The effect of particular details (W1’s insult-description, for example) is typical, but the important moments are those at which the ‘spot’ shifts. These moments register synchronically (that is, in terms of the stage-­situation) as well as diachronically (in terms of the narration) so that, for an instant, the ‘he’ becomes for us the light, going ‘on and on’, coming ‘back’ to ‘have’ each of the women in turn. Of course, this is not to identify the light with M. Though potent, the effect is verbal and momentary. All three are victims. The first thing we hear after the opening chorus is W1’s ‘I said to him, Give her up’. W2 remembers: ‘Give him up, she screamed, he’s mine’; and M: ‘Give up that whore, she said . . .’ These might almost be - they register momentarily as -appeals to the light and its urns (‘Give up . . .’). It is also plain that the counterpoint-structure is not just a matter of dramatic technique, a convenient scaffolding, for if sex is central to the adultery-story it is also insidiously present in the ‘relation’ of the light to its victims: ‘Some day you will tire of me and go out . . . for good . . . Give me up, as a bad job. Go away and start poking and pecking at someone else’. (p. 16) The inquisitor is a lucent incubus: ‘Weary of playing with me. Get off me’. (p. 21) It seems that the obligation to speak which is visited on the heads by the light is conceived of as a sexual violation. Play is, among other things, a gross parody of love-play.


Having explored the nature and effects of counterpoint-structure in Play we are now in a position to consider its meaning. Let us begin by examining implications of the synchronic perspective prompted by counterpoint. The diachronic approach to Play, exemplified by Hugh Kenner’s reading, accepts the duality, proposed by the heads them­selves, of narrative-past and stage-present - in a present reality they recall a past reality. The synchronic reading must be seen as com­promising the reality of the past (though without, it must be emphasised, denying it altogether) by suggesting that the narrative is less memory then fiction - a story originally invented to counterpoint the light-torture. But it cannot do this without similarly compromising the present-ness and reality of the ‘present reality’, the stage-situation, for if we reject dualities we must eliminate not only past/present but also fact/fiction. This is perhaps to state the case too baldly; nonetheless we must ask in what sense the figures we see on stage, jammed up to their necks in urns and visible only when their heads are spotlit, their ‘faces so lost to age and aspect as to seem almost part’ of the urns, are present. The answer is, surely, that they are both less and more present to us than ‘ordinary’ human beings: the urns, the light, the aspect and the toneless delivery of the text remove them from the sphere of the recognizably human, but this very dehumanization constitutes a brutalization into

another, stranger and more terrible state. The figures are emphatically present precisely because their situation dehumanizes them. Indeed theirs could be thought of as a parody of presence.


It is the inquisitor-light which confirms and reveals, indeed in a sense creates, this parody of presence, so that release from the light would mean release from this state: ‘When you go out - and I go out. Some day you will tire of me and go out . . . for good’. W1 reasons that, since she can only use language, it can only be something in language which is required by the light: ‘I can do nothing . . . for anybody . . . any more . . . thank God. So it must be something I have to say’. ‘But’, she con­tinues, ‘I have said all I can. All you let me’ (p. 17). Their capacity for inventing is exhausted and now, in order to survive, they say the same things over and over. They are imprisoned within language as they are imprisoned within the parody of presence; as we watch the Play we realize that the one kind of imprisonment determines the other. The desiderated ‘truth’ is not a moral truth the opposite of which is a lie (the word is significantly absent from the Play) but an ontological truth, a ‘truth’ of being the opposite of which is the parody of being we are wit­nessing. This, it seems to me, is why the narrative is about the events surrounding an adulterous affair. Such a narrative cannot help but be concerned with concealment, deceit and pretence, with, in a word, playing. And the language of concealment, deceit and pretence, the language of Play, is cliché: ‘At home all heart to heart, new leaf and bygones bygones. I ran into your ex-doxy, she said one night, on the pillow, you’re well out of that. Rather uncalled for, I thought. I am indeed, sweetheart, I said, I am indeed. God what vermin women. Thanks to you, angel, I said’. (p. 14) In the essentially moral terms of the narrative M could have told the truth instead of ‘Playing’. But in the ontological terms of the stage-situation the truth is not possible because it is not something language itself can attain to. ‘I have said all I can’ declares W1, but even if she were to say everything anyone could say she would not be any closer to release, for it is the very nature of language, the only means they have to maintain what being they have, which imprisons the figures in this parody of being. By endowing dead metaphors with a strange life Beckett, as in all his best writing, makes us intensely aware of the metaphorical nature of language as a whole. Every metaphor, every part of language, we are made to realize, is potentially a cliché. The mode of signification re-presents rather than presents (makes present), and this re-presentation is felt in Play as a parody of presentation.


The ultimate purpose of the adultery-story, then, is to counterpoint the image of adulterated being which confronts us on the stage, an image which the Play’s dramatic mechanism contrives to present as deter­mined by the nature of language. But how can we justify speaking as we have done of the ‘life’ in the language of Play if human language is seen by the work itself as being essentially ‘dead’? Just as dramatic counter­point depends upon our simultaneous perception of likeness and difference-in-likeness, the special effect made by the cliches in Play, whether they be thematic (the Eternal Triangle) or verbal, depends upon our simultaneous perception of a metaphor’s death and its life-in-death. It is apt and perhaps even inevitable that the Plays which come after this one, the ‘dramaticule’ Come and go, the miniature works Not I, That time and Footfalls, and the television pieces Ghost trio and . . . but the clouds . . . , are dominated by ghostly figures. Beckett has never let the ‘dead’ language rest: his supreme achievement is to realize its ghostly life.


In section 54 of Beyond good and evil (1886) Nietzsche asks what ‘the whole of modern [post-Cartesian] philosophy’ is ‘doing at bottom’:


. . . formerly, one believed in ‘the soul’ as one believed in grammar and the grammatical subject: one said, ‘I’ is the condition, ‘think’ is the predicate and conditioned - thinking is an activity to which thought must supply a subject as cause. Then one tried with admirable perseverance and cunning to get out of this net - and asked whether the opposite might not be the case: ‘think’ the condition, ‘I’ the conditioned; ‘I’ in that case only a synthesis which is made by thinking. At bottom, Kant wanted to prove that, starting from the subject, the subject could not be proved - nor could the object: the possibility of a merely apparent existence of the subject, ‘the soul’ in other words, may not always have remained strange to him ...’12


Nietzsche’s relish at the dissolution of what he regards as ‘the basic presupposition of the Christian doctrine’13 should not distract us from the identity of ‘the soul’ and the lamentably absent ‘truth’ of Play. The idea of ‘truth’, as entertained by the heads, implies a whole ontological structure in which the ‘present’ state is seen as an infernal exile from the state of true identity. As represented here, existence constitutes only a parody of ‘truth’ in which the imperfect consciousness is obliged to maintain itself by speaking, thus keeping at bay the void of non-being. Yet language serves only to recreate and sustain the parody, for its own life is ghostly, a life in death: it is at once (to alter the metaphor) refuge and prison-house (functions which are of course made explicit in the stage-picture of Endgame). This is, to use Nietzsche’s phrase, ‘a merely apparent existence’, one determined by an obligation to speak.


The obligation is represented, it seems, by the light, a mysterious impersonalization of the consciousness of imperfect identity. Yet what has been impersonalized must once have been personal. Beckett himself seems to conceive of a reciprocal relationship between the light and its victims in which the light itself is also a victim. In his recent account of the Play James Knowlson describes several minor changes which were made in the repeat of the text (including a fragment of a second repeat) to the strength and quality of the voices and the order of the speeches when Beckett was supervising (though not actually directing) the earliest performances. The most important of these changes is ‘a slight weakening of both the light and the voices in the first Repeat and even more so in the fragment of the second Repeat’. Knowison quotes a letter in which the author suggested to his director George Devine that ‘the inquirer (light) begins to emerge as no less a victim of his inquiry than they and as needing to be free, within narrow limits, literally to act the part i.e. to vary if only slightly his speeds and intensities’. 14 Beckett’s stated intention aligns Play with those dramas in which the agent of creative coercion is revealed as being itself coerced. This is the major preoccupation of the radio pieces of the early 1960’s. In Words and music Croak forces Joe (Words) and Bob (Music) to sound, in Cascando an ‘Opener’ prompts the ‘Voice’ to speak and in the sketch broadcast (though only in 1976) as Rough for radio an ‘Animator’ coerces ‘Fox’ (Vox?) in the most brutal manner (hence ‘Rough’); yet all three Plays gravitate towards the point at which the Master is seen to be subject to the obligation to create no less than his Slave(s), and to be therefore slavishly dependent upon the slave - for only the slave can create. This creative predicament is prefigured in the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot: the master beats his porter brutally and orders him to think, but during the ‘think’ he is first ‘dejected and disgusted’, then his ‘sufferings increase’ and he becomes ‘more and more agitated and groaning’ (p. 42). Throughout the Play we are conscious that the relationship is not what it seems. Pozzo and Lucky are no less a ‘pseudo-couple’ than Vladimir and Estragon. Play may be seen as an extreme transformation of the ‘pseudo-couple’ idea: light and characters are antagonistic yet complementary; like Pozzo and Lucky, Vladimir and Estragon, Hamm and Clov, they cannot do with each other, yet they cannot do without each other either. Each element depends for its existence, parodic though that may be, upon the existence of the other. Thus, finally, the light cannot be seen as the ultimate obligation, since it too is obliged (fulfilling its obligation through the heads) to ‘create’. This ultimate obligation is the vacuum of identity which would engulf both light and heads if they were to cease maintaining each other in their state of imperfect being. The charac­teristic Beckett counterpoint-structure is the dramatic realization of this creative-ontological predicament.


Play presents us not with an Inferno but with existence in this world seen as infernal - human existence as-we-know-it, or rather, as we rarely can know it (‘habit is a great deadener’). We began by rejecting the idea that Beckett’s attitude towards his creations is simply one of detached satirical disdain, in which the complicity of the audience is invited by way of the theatrical experience itself. We may now be more likely to identify the author with the victims and to confirm John Pilling’s reaction to the repeat: ‘one feels that the light should have been able to unscramble the essentials more successfully the second time around. We are as much passive sufferers of the light as the heads are.’15 But I think this needs to be qualified. It may be that to create such images is to liberate oneself, if only temporarily, from the state they represent. For us, to experience them with understanding involves not just being (‘as much passive sufferers of the light as the heads are’) but realizing (most probably, as Pilling’s remarks suggest, in the repeat of the text) the truth of this circumstances. It is this realization which will be the agent of momentary liberation. The strangeness of Play is its essential quality. In affirming that the work is about this life and not an after-life we are defining Beckett’s method as a making strange of the familiar which depends for its final effect upon the liberating realization that what seemed so distant and alien at first - the parody of presence we glimpse before us - is in fact the essence of how and what we live day in day out. We have seen how in Play both language and the theatrical medium are made strange: the cliches of both, like the `plot’ cliche of the Eternal Triangle, are given a new, ghostly life. This is done in the interests of an ostensibly negative vision. The paradox - in the form of a question - cannot help but propose itself: can that be merely negative which prompts so liberating a realization?







1 Play: and two short pieces for radio, London, Faber and Faber, 1964, p. 9. Further references are included in text.


2 A reader’s guide to Samuel Beckett, London, Thames and Hudson, 1973, p. 153.


3 See, for example, Ruby Cohn’s account of his 1967 Berlin production of Endspiel in Back to Beckett, Princeton, N.J., Princeton Univ. Press, 1973, p. 153.


4 After discussion with Beckett about an experimental radio adaptation of Play Martin Esslin confirmed that ‘however soft, however fast, the same text will go on ad infinitum, ever faster and ever softer without quite ceasing altogether’. Quoted in Beryl S. Fletcher, John Fletcher, Barry Smith, Walter Bachem, A student’s guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett, London, Faber and Faber, 1978, p. 173.


5 See Esslin’s account of Beckett’s explanation, ibid., pp. 172-3


6 Ibid., p. 179. 7 Reader’s guide, p. 153. 8 Ibid., pp. 156-7.


7 Reader’s guide, p.153


8 Ibid., pp.156-157


9 Ibid., p. 156.


10 Ibid., p. 155.


11 There is an allusion here to Satan in The Book of Job, I, vii: ‘And the Lord said unto Saton, whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the Lord, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it’. The modification in the text of Play from ‘walking up and down’ to ‘letting people in, showing people out’ suggests that the light, whose process and function is counterpointed ;n these words about M, is seen by Beckett as satanic in its ‘actions’.


12 Basic writings of Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Walter Kaufmann, New York, Random House, 1968, p. 257.


13 Ibid., p. 256.


14 James Knowlson and John Pilling, Frescoes of the skull : the later prose and drama of Samuel Beckett, London, John Calder, 1979, p. 113.


15 Samuel Beckett, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976, p. 90.