Review: ‘Theatre Workbook 1, Samuel Beckett: Krapp’s last tape’, ed. James Knowlson, Brutus Books Ltd., London, 1980, 176 pp.


Kevin O’Malley



Some may find in this short piece a fundamental truth. I see in it only a gracefully-written but tiny and obvious metaphor. Mr. Wall is well up to conveying its small point... (Milton Shulman, Evening Standard, 4 December, 1975.)


. . . perhaps the most original and important play of its length ever written. (Roy Walker, Twentieth century,

December, 1958.)


If there were one agreement which might be said to bind together Yankees, Royalists, Fascists and Republicans alike, it would be that, in a civil war, even the most Kafkaesque of citizens will ineluctably man one side of the barricade or the other, sensing prior to Sartre that the refusal to choose constitutes in itself a choice.


This first ‘Theatre Workbook’ pointedly collates critical reviews, inter­views and interviewlets with actors and directors, scholarly articles, and most irreplaceably of all, sets of production notes from the Schiller­-Theater Werkstatt (1969), the Récamier (1970), the Théâtre d’Orsay (1975), and the San Quentin Berlin Festival (1977) productions, all directed by Beckett himself.


When density is a synonym of vacuity, when it is obviously a matter of indifference as to where we predicate the topography of Krapp’s last tape, one man’s Manichea will be another man’s Lilliput. (Irresistibly, Pascal makes himself much more our contemporary when he apologises for not having had the time to make the Pensées shorter: Beckett wrote the play in about three weeks flat.} Had the exacting microscopy of this modest but indispensable volume been available at the time, one of our reviewers might have reset his sights. Certainly, no serious director or performer of the play from now on will be able to escape its exquisite rigour.


Beckett once told me: ‘Playwriting started as a game. I needed a rest from writing prose. In the theatre there are certain data. There’s the state to begin with, and there’s the audience. In prose there’s nothing. You have to invent everything’ (September 1971.) For Jean Anouilh, the Paris production of Godot was the Pensées as performed by the Fratellini Brothers, and it is a matter of amazement to some of us that these Pascalian ‘divertissements’ should occupy such a prominent place in the evolution of nothing short of the Western dramatic tradition. There’s Godot, naturally, derouting Aristotle more uncomprisingly than Chekhov (or Brecht) ever did with its creation of the action of stasis: `. . . that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning, a middle and an end, as in the well-built phrase’ (Molloy, p. 31) - and perhaps a fortiori as in the pièce bien faite.


But there’s also Krapp with its genial suppression - more perfectly articulated than in Evreinov, Strindberg or Cocteau - of the second incarnated interlocutor, derouting practically everybody who has written for the stage since Aeschylus’s actor took that first maieutic step of falling out of the chorus line for dramatic discourse to begin. In this opus exiguum sed magnum, Beckett has created what looks from this side of the barricade like the most definitive duologue of schizoid selfhood since Hamlet. Krapp is the mimetic enactment of Rimbaud’s ‘Je est un autre’, and I note that Ruby Cohn arrives independently at this view also (Just play, 1980, p. 246.) Krapp the character is at once the subject of Beckett’s `ontospeleology’and the object of Laing’s ontological insecurity (cf. The divided self, Pelican, 1965, p. 45: ‘The image of fire recurs repeatedly, Fire may be the uncertain flickering of the individual’s own inner aliveness’.) One of Beckett’s letters almost strikes the eery note of a Laingian case report: `Incarceration in self. He escapes from the trap of the other only to be trapped in self’ (p. 127.)


For Krapp, the reincarnation of the Rubek of When we dead awaken, is the vidua-bird of his own fictional dictionary, widowed from himself with­out ever having been united. The closest he gets to past self-recognition, let alone present self-identification, lies in a stage direction. ‘(He looks up. With relish.) The vidua-bird!’ When he switches the tape back on, and this is a measure of the scrupulous genius at work here, what does he hear but the death of his mother and the most funereal perambulator - Watt’s pained enumeration of the awful eternality of the ages decanted into a single image.


S.E. Gontarski ferrets out much fascinating primitive detail. How can any future interpreter, for instance, fail to register that throughout three early drafts of the play Krapp prayed for a fuller sex-life?


It’s true that a number of commentators have remarked upon the metaphysical poets’ notion of the eyes of the beloved being the mirror of the soul, but here the connection is confirmed by the other poet in his own way: “The eye is the organ of interruption between light and dark, therefore it is important in the play” (p. 134.) And as a ‘Workbook’, it’s only proper that the locating of the various allusions—some of them familiar only to the polymath—should have a performative as well as a scholarly resonance.


Thus ‘Now The Day is Over’, the evening hymn by Sabine Baring-Gould, was later cut decisively by Beckett. ‘He might sing something,’ Beckett commented to Knowlson, ‘but not that’ (p. 26.) ‘Farewell to Love’ is also the title of a poem by John Donne—a warning to the incautious here as Dr. Knowlson sternly reminds the tragedians that ‘The turning of the page produces, of course, a comic effect’. Then there’s the ‘muckball’, which can’t be uncontaminated by Voltaire’s ‘philosophical tales’. We dust off Candide (1759) immediately, not least for its satire of Leibnitzian optimism; but the Berlin Micromégas (1752), with its pre-Endgame sneer at merely terrestrial war and thinking, may not be precluded; post-Lucky excavator, depuis la mort de Voltaire, take up thy mattock and dig. Likewise, the use of a single word, chrysolite, as a ‘quotation’ (p. 27) seems arresting until we realize that Othello too has just smothered love.


On ‘Let me in’, the three most crucial words of the play, Knowlson is most elegant, distinguishing between the ‘appeal’ of the English and the ‘attainment’ of the French. Or could the ripples from the Beckettian punt travel even further?  What comes to mind is the potential ambivalence, or better multivalence, of the (original, we sometimes forget) English test, puzzingly ironed out by the French. There is a putative imperative, insufficiently noticed I believe, lurking behind the spare furniture of ‘Let me in’. It is perhaps reminiscent of Molloy’s ‘hypothetical imperative’, but it is also as it were disinfected by the French, and if it exists compounds the doubt attached to an exclusively sexual interpretation. Hugh Kenner discusses elsewhere the relationship between Beckett’s syntax and human dignity—could it be that the syntactical arm of this particular appeal represents a significant token of the ‘less engrossing’ life which appeared over successive versions? We might recall here that the late Richard Admussen surmises (The Samuel Beckett Manuscripts, p. 39) that the earliest French drafts were done by Pierre Leyris alone. By going along with the frankly Kierkegaardian either-or expedient of ‘M’ont laissé entrer’, Beckett seems- as a translator of reluctant genius himself - to be demoting the ratio of despair between self and other, character and creator, love and solipsism, Effi if you like and Fanny. Whim would be most unusual, given that gnosticism and its twin sister agnosticism are Beckett’s favourite relatives.


If the attainment which appears in the French is beyond recall, then the validation of the single adverb in the stage direction becomes equally puzzling. Beckett, with the Quaker frugality of this play (‘I nearly called the play "Ah Well", it is very important in the play’), does after all write ‘Low’, not, let us say ‘Softly’ or ‘Gently’ - both of them instructions which would have clearly obliterated any likelihood of an interpretation other than that of an unequivocal tenderness. In other words, ‘Low’ still seems to me to indicate that the tension between mute appeal, hopeless imperative and the tristitia of attainment remains intuitively unresolved in the original, thereby adding to the poignancy of the moment in question, and - in three short words - to the impossibility of the existential dilemma of the macrocosm. The unilateral specification of the French can only be indicted as robbery by proxy - the play’s most crystalline mystery burglarised by Romance syntax - and I confess that I am left awarding priority to the Old Testament over the New. Perhaps it cannot be done in French: ‘Laisse-moi entrer’ is no less univalent than ‘M’ont laiss6 entree . ‘Let me in’, by contrast, comes closer to the nexus precisely because of the Janus-like syntactical imprecision of the English. It may be also that we should have been forearmed by the earlier analogue of ‘Ah!’ following ‘We’re waiting for Godot’. ‘Ah!’ was of course the elected equivalent of ‘C’est vrai’, which John Fletcher tells us (Samuel Beckett’s Art, p. 64) ‘Beckett says he found impossible to translate adequately’.


Be all that as it may, the heart of Dr. Knowlson’s contribution lies rather in the second half of his piece, analysing as it does modifications to stage business, set, costume, props, lighting and design. (Those who combine adulation of the architect with disdain for the quantity surveyor should take a look at Beckett’s own comments here.) The first half of Knowlson’s piece, in which not one stone is sucked twice, but where there may just be one or two stones left unsucked, is exclusive almost to the point of sadism - or maybe our narrator-editor is pulling the reader’s internal leg by insisting on choosing only 39 words or phrases for comment: ‘Thirty-­nine today. This is not an arbitrary figure, since it is a multiple of 13 (a favourite number with Beckett)’.


Beckett’s own ‘Suggestions for TV Krapp’ reappear by dint of the imagin­ative industry of the editor and Clas Zilliacus. And very revealing they are too, giving us the closest look we’ll probably ever get at Beckett’s own priorities in the play, in particular his evaluation of Krapp’s ‘levels of intentness, or listening values.’ Inter alia, Zilliacus observes that ‘the five specific points at which Beckett calls for a freeze all rekindle erotic memories’.


Other scholars, usefully brought together again here, also have their say. Bernard Dukore reminds us, as do the actors Jean Martin and Pierre Chabert that it is Krapp’s last tape; but the piece is a solid commentary on the tragicomedy in its own right. Arthur Oberg and Rosette Lamont both correct the surprisingly widespread temptation to canonise Proust, and especially Proust; Lamont gives a penetrating account of the punt playback.


In the beginning, Vladimir had scoffed: ‘Tied to Godot? What an idea! No question of it. (Pause.) For the moment’. Hegel remembers that the master too is tied since he must hold the rope; Nietzsche rejoices that as the sun he is the source of light, but laments also that being the source, he can receive none himself. Krapp more than Pozzo is constrained both by the Hegelian rope and the Nietzschean light: the other end of his rope of selfhood is concretised in performance by the centrifugal noose of the tape, and his only halo is that of the uncertain light from above. Little wonder, then, that Kierkegaard’s shrewd inmate from San Quentin Rick Cluchey accidentally causes the black conical lamp to swing wildly in rehearsal, leaving Krapp’s head alternately in light and darkness, silence and motion, as Michael Haerdter valuably records for us (p. 137). The author-director barely hesitates. ‘Try to keep that’, he says simply, and even qualifies the altemance as ‘divine’.


The post vitam of Krapp, that is, prefigures the post mortem of Play much as the Testament (not certainly, but certainly possibly written in Roussillon) prefigures the Ballade des pendus - and with a complex of nuances which would have delighted the first poet of ghastliness: the célèbre inconnu in an atrocious duet with the bien renommé Villon, chanting in asymptotic unison their savage litany of the damned. For Krapp is the response of our times to the Ballade des pendus, or to give it its proper title L’epitaphe Villon (Ibsen had similarly subtitled When we dead awaken ‘A dramatic epilogue’). Beckett, our tatter-day, just a slip of the typewriter, povre petit escollier concludes in sardonic harmony with the Testament: `Je connais tout sauf mot-même’.


‘The next day when the play is over’, Beckett says during one rehearsal, ‘he is dead at his table’. Or as one of his performers has it: ‘Yes, this is, I suppose, Sam Beckett’s idea-that basically he is a clown, basically we are all clowns really. It’s the old Pagliacci, isn’t it?’