‘Three occasional pieces’ by Samuel Beckett, Faber and Faber, 1982, £1.25

 

John Pilling

 

It seems safe to suppose that no one who is not already a convert will be much moved by Faber’s publication of Three occasional pieces. But the Beckettophile, and in particular the English Beckettophile, must be glad to have to hand what his American brethren possessed, in the form of the Grove Press Rockaby  and other short pieces, for almost a year. One of Grove’s ‘other short pieces’ - All strange away  - has naturally been omitted; first published in JOBS 3, long available as a hardback, recently published in paperback, All strange away  falls outside Faber’s terms of reference, and its omission gives Three occasional pieces a logic lacking in the Grove volume, where it sat awkwardly between Ohio impromptu and A piece of monologue. Faber also, sensibly, removed A piece of monologue from last place (Grove) to first, with Rockaby  and the Ohio play moving down, as it were, to make room for it. Beckett bibliographers will not be surprised by this, nor, I think, will they find it unduly irksome. For the logistics of this enterprise are much clearer than in some other cases, notably Fizzles/For to end yet again and other fizzles, which is a truly tangled web. Faber’s rationale was to bring together three plays which, at the time of writing, were yet to be performed in England, and to print them in the order in which they were premiered in the U.S.A. Grove’s volume was obviously a much more hurried affair; Rockaby  had been performed for the first time only a few days before publication and Ohio impromptu, despite the past tense of the Grove headnote, had yet to be performed. Anyone privy to the problems which attended the Ohio production may legitimately breathe a sigh of relief that all came to pass as Grove had foretold, thereby sparing the future bibliographer yet one more minor headache.

 

In some respects, then, with what looks like hindsight but could also be called foresight, Faber produced a more satisfactory volume than Grove. But not in all. For the mention of the Grove headnote serves to remind us that, whilst still permitting themselves an admissible degree of latitude, they order these matters better in New York. Unlike Grove, Faber give no precise details as to when and where each play was premiered, despite having taken the logical decision to present them in the order in which they were actually performed. Faber’s practice in this area has, it is true, been getting more cavalier over the years; compare Footfalls, for example, with the original Happy days. But it is unclear why they should have adopted this policy at a time when all the best work on Beckett’s drama has become dependent upon the kind of details they are seeming­ly content to disregard. More important than their sins of omission, however, are their sins of commission. It is more than cavalier to say, as the Faber headnotes do, that ‘Rockaby  was written for a seminar in Buffalo’ and ‘Ohio impromptu . . . written for a seminar at Ohio State University’; it is seriously misleading. Beckettophiles who did not partici­pate at Buffalo and Columbus, of which the English are bound to outnumber the Americans, might at least have been told, as Grove obligingly report, that ‘Rockaby  was first performed at the Centre for Theatre Research in Buffalo, in association with the State University of New York’ and that Ohio impromptu was written for the largest gathering of Beckett scholars in one place at one time yet attempted, the first O.S.U. symposium in Humanistic Perspectives of May 1981. Neither play was ‘written for a seminar’ in any meaningful sense of the phrase, unless one were determined so to describe the late Alan Schneider’s splendidly adroit fielding of questions from the floor in the case of the latter. It is almost as if someone at Faber had decided that those university teachers of drama who have not been made redundant might strengthen their vulnerable position at senate meetings by being able to point to two plays by the greatest living playwright as written expressly for seminars!

 

Not that the Faber headnote is wrong to raise the spectre (increasingly spectral, alas) of academe; for Three occasional pieces, slim as it is, speaks volumes on the degree to which, especially in recent years, Beckett has become one of the primal focal points for an academic industry dominated by American professors. Without prejudice, either to them or to their English colleagues, one may, I think, feel some regret that a writer whose concerns are universal and un-elitist has become largely the preserve of a privileged and pressurized minority, even when it is evident that, in his most recent phase (since Not I, say, in drama; since How it is, perhaps, in prose), he has written in such a way as to discourage all but the most flexible of ‘common’ readers. It is difficult to believe that Beckett would have permitted either the Buffalo or the Ohio productions to have taken place if he had caught the faintest whiff of the word ‘seminar’, however amused he may have been to summon to mind the image of his most gifted interpreters, gathered in Columbus to applaud the latest evidence of his genius, and confronted in the figures of Reader and Listener with a perfect simulacrum of themselves. The Faber headnote, then, though in many ways misleading, adventitiously per­forms the service of reminding readers that at least one of these occasional pieces confronts, to some degree, the peculiar process whereby the writer, as Auden said of Yeats, ‘become[s] his admirers’.

 

The primary theoretical interest of this new collection revolves around the degree to which, or the sense in which, the plays may be called ‘occasional’. In this connection one cannot but recall some key utterances in Beckett’s longest contribution to the Three dialogues with Georges Duthuit of 1949:

 

The analysis of the relation between the artist and his occasion, always regarded as indispensable, does not seem to have been very productive. . . , the reason being perhaps that it lost its way in disquisitions on the nature of occasion. It is obvious that for the artist obsessed with his expressive vocation, anything and everything is doomed to become occasion... But if the occasion appears as an unstable term of relation, the artist, who is the other term, is hardly less so, thanks to his warren of modes and attitudes.

 

Van Velde, it will be remembered, is described by Beckett as ‘the first whose painting is bereft, rid if you prefer, of occasion in every shape and form, ideal as well as material’. As these remarks suggest, the third of the Three dialogues is, in its way, a ‘disquisition on the nature of occasion’; its very fervour is an index of how much Beckett would like to move beyond such things and how ‘bogged’ (as Belacqua would say) he remains. It seems appropriate therefore, that it should be the third (in Faber; second in Grove) of the Three occasional pieces which is most likely to revive memories of the Three dialogues. For here, if anywhere, Beckett seems to have surrendered wholeheartedly to a singular event, advertizing its singularity (and even its ephemerality) in the title bestowed on the play

Ohio impromptu. The Ashby-de-la-Zouch Amateur Dramatic Society, to name only them, is likely to fight shy of such specificity, and put on Rockaby  instead. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely this play which transcends its ‘occasion’ most triumphantly. And - fatally, it would seem, for the position adumbrated in the Bram van Velde dialogue - it is precisely Ohio impromptu which shows Beckett to be ‘obsessed with his expressive vocation’, just as he obviously was at the time of his conversations with Duthuit.

 

Ohio impromptu begins, somewhat like Endgame, with a proposition designed to situate us towards the end of a sequence whose inception we have not been privileged to witness. Clov’s ‘Finished, it’s nearly finished’, however, seems rhetorical and rhapsodic by comparison with the open­ing words of Ohio impromptu, and Clov’s words initiate a sustained discourse and exchange which are quite alien to Beckett’s more recent manner. In the Ohio play, as if fearful that we might switch off on finding that yet another endgame is to be played, Beckett refuses to let us do so, and at the same time insists that it is the only game worth playing. This pre-emptive strike, as one might call it, is lent a special resonance by the fact that it stems from the figure on stage who embodies the fundamental reality of those on the other side of the footlights, the figure called Listener who, as it were, acts the auduence, is silent like them, and (again like them, and again like Endgame) makes a dialogue out of a monologue:

 

R: (Reading) Little is left to tell. In a last –

(L knocks with left hand on table.)

 Little is left to tell.

(Pause. Knock.)

In a last attempt to obtain relief...

 

Of course there is ‘nothing new’ here, nor should we expect there to be; like the sun at the beginning of Murphy, Beckett really has ‘no alternative’. Ohio impromptu is as much of a metadrama as, say, the radio plays Cascando and Words and music. And what is true of the dramaturgical strategies in this impromptu is no less true of its raw material, or its subject matter, or its content, or whatever we elect to call it. For the tale of which little is left to tell - of two who have ‘been so long together’ and who have separated - is, at least in part, Krapp’s tale retold. Krapp, a ‘listener’ if ever there was one, has here been transmogrified into a Reader, an aged figure whose gaze is intently fixed upon the large ledger-like volume propped up by his palms and arms. But Ohio impromptu is also Neary’s tale retold, for this conjured protagonist suffers from a ‘terror of night’ much like that which afflicted Neary in chapter ten of Murphy. And, since the great virtue of Beckett’s new specificity is that ‘less means more’, it is also Stephen Dedalus’s tale retold, and by extension Joyce’s most celebrated odyssey recalled:

 

Day after day he could be seen slowly pacing the islet. Hour after hour. In his long black coat no matter what the weather and old world Latin quarter hat. At the tip he would always pause to dwell on the receding stream. How in joyous eddies its two arms conflowed and flowed united on. Then turn and his slow steps retrace.

 

The large book, or ledger, from which Reader reads, seems to contain all books, in which respect one is bound, like this Joycean spectre, to ‘dwell on the receding stream’. For in the wake of registering Joyce’s Latin quarter hat (here placed, as the initial stage directions remind us, ‘at centre of table’), the Beckett expert - the bulk of the Ohio audience, after all- may recall his poem of 1938, ‘Dieppe’:

 

again the last

ebb the dead shingle

the turning then the steps

towards the lighted town

 

And no-one familiar with Beckett’s profound love of Dante could forget that The Divine Comedy is also a retracing of steps, undertaken by two writers who are ‘so long together’ that their differences merge, one of whom (Vergil) might well have said to the other (Dante), as the aban­doned one of this narrative says to its quondam companion, ‘my shade will comfort you’. Does this mean that only the Beckettophile can derive pleasure from Ohio impromptu? One is bound to ask oneself whether or not the ‘receding stream’ of analogies and allusions is a mere indulgence of Beckett’s penchant for infinite regress. Yet the ‘long black coat’ of the narrative, like the Latin quarter hat, is on stage, available to anyone with eyes to see, worn by both Reader and Listener who, in this respect at least (even though the latter halts the former with his imperious knocks on the table), flow, like the two tributaries of the narrative, ‘united on’. The dramatic image in Ohio impromptu, as indeed in all Beckett’s great plays, is so riveting that not even the academic mind, the corporate academic mind in this case, can miss the fact that it is to the here and the now that it must ultimately, having exhausted itself in the vicious circles of infinite regress, retrace its steps.

 

The play encompasses this truth, articulates it rather, in its very structure. For at the mid-point of Ohio impromptu, with the figure solitary, ‘white nights now again his portion’ like one of Dostoevsky’s ghostly protagon­ists, sleepless and full of fear, the play -like Play (or, of the prose works, Lessness and Imagination dead imagine) - begins again. Before doing so, however, with an exquisite care for detail and a deliberation far beyond what a mere ‘impropmtu’ would require, Beckett brings the first part of the play to its muffled climax. Precisely at this point of fulcrum, in other words, in yet one more paradox, the play is at its most animated. Even the stage directions possess a vitality elsewhere neutralized into the ubiquitous ‘Pause. Knock.’:

 

In this extremity his old terror of night laid hold on him again. After so long a lapse that as if never been. (Pause. Looks closer.) Yes, after so long a lapse that as if never been. Now with redoubled force the fearful symptoms described at length page forty paragraph four. (Starts to turn back the pages. Checked by L’s left hand. Resumes relinquished page.) White nights now again his portion. As when his heart was young. No sleep no braving sleep till - (Turns page.) -dawn of day.

(Pause.)

Little is left to tell. One night -

(Knock.)

Little is left to tell.

(Pause. Knock.)

One night as he sat trembling head in hands from head to foot a man appeared to him and said, I have been sent by - and here he named the dear name - to comfort you. Then drawing a worn volume from the pocket of his long black coat he sat and read till dawn. Then disappeared without a word.

 

The paragraph previous to the reiteration that ‘Little is left to tell’ has, as perhaps can only be made clear in performance, the ‘redoubled force’ of which it speaks. There is a certain logic in the subtle stress on the simple word ‘again’ (itself reiterated at the moment of greatest poignancy in part two of the play), preparatory to reverting to the words with which the play has opened. And the parody of the academic attitude is much less gratuitous than it seems at first glance or first hearing, though liberally greeted by guffaws at the premiere. It is as if Beckett is guying those commentators on his work who are intent on labeling him an ‘artist of the void’ with a hunger for the non-being to which he has so frequently testified. And he is certainly warning the assembled academics, through the agency of their representative on stage, not to indulge their natural or acculturated tendency to turn back the pages and to verify the evidence they have laboriously accumulated. Yet at the same time Beckett is also, plainly enough, dramatizing his own deep need for’close inspection’, for that microscopic scrutiny which is embodied in The lost ones and in Still, both of which works, like Ohio impromptu, disclose conditions of ‘extrem­ity’ and trauma beneath their apparently imperturbable surfaces.

 

The solitude dramatized previous to the narrative being re-begun is initially appeased in part two of the play by the advent of a mysterious and anonymous visitant who, after discharging himself of his duty, disappears into the void out of which he originated. Once again the Beckett expert will seek avatars in earlier works. He is somewhat like the Gaber of Molloy, in part two of that work - extraordinary how mathematics helps you to know

 


Beckett, one is minded to interpose, in a reflex revision of How it is. He also bears some resemblance to the figure Horn of the fizzle ‘Horn came always’. Again, the whole situation is strongly reminiscent of the moment which precedes a markedly similar ‘reiteration’ complex in As the story was told. Thus far at least the academic mind may pursue its fondness for infinite regress. But once again the ‘common reader’ may be in the best position to appreciate what is happening or has happened. For if the first part of the play has spoken of disjunction and extremity, the second speaks of conjunction and comfort. And the dramatic image and the verbal fabric of the play are not so much at odds, as is true of part one, as reflections of one another, `So from time to time unheralded’, says Reader, ‘he would appear to read the sad tale through again and the long night away. Then disappear without a word. (Pause.) With never a word exchanged they grew to be as one’. Yes, says the common reader, or the uninitiated member of the audience, that is something which I do not require to be verified by appeal to any authority other than my eyes : it is empirically true, as it was true for my ears in the case of Cascando on the radio. That they need not always be ‘as one’ is clear from the way in which the Listener has prevented the Reader from turning back to page forty paragraph four. But that is an isolated incident. The two figures, without ever surrendering their individuality (nowhere more striking than in the fact that one never speaks, and the other always does), are becoming ‘as one’ as the play proceeds, and will grow even less distinct as the coda winds to its appointed end.

 

The last phase of this exceptionally eloquent endgame is initiated by a proposition which binds dramatic fact and putative fiction yet more closely together:

 

Till the night came at last when having closed the book and dawn at hand he did not disappear but sat on without a word.

 

The wordless Listener’s presence is here, as it were, ratified. And the intelligence which preceded, and perhaps precipitated, his wordlessness becomes the focus for the most poignant moment in the whole play, the moment at which this messenger of comfort bears news which might discomfit even the most redoubtable of solitaries:

 

Finally he said, I have had word from - and here he named the dear name - that I shall not come again. I saw the dear face and heard the unspoken words, No need to go to him again, even were it in your power.

 


(Pause.)

So the sad -

(Knock.)

Saw the dear face and heard the unspoken words, No need to go to him again, even were it in your power.

 

As before, there is ‘nothing new’ here; whatever novelty the scene may possess is dispersed by the Krapp-like repetitions, and our sudden recollection that these are not the first of Beckett’s dramatic creations to be seated at a table reflecting on a past at once shifting and remorseless. But Krapp, we recall, chose to listen to one privileged scene from his repertoire of tapes; the ‘I’ figure here -or should one say the ‘I’ figures, for it is entirely characteristic that Beckett should place two ostensibly disjunct ‘I’s in such close proximity, confirming that they have ‘[grown] to be as one’-cannot choose but listen. Listener insists that Reader re-read what he has just read; words explicitly stated to be ‘unspoken’ are spoken twice; and the promise of comfort and company with which the second part of the play began has receded to the point where, as the reiterations stress, this is unequivocally a ‘sad tale’. It may even be with some relief that one reads or hears that ‘Nothing is left to tell’, a phrase itself reiterated twice like a tolling bell, for the last fragment of narrative summons up a scene of desolation and absence which has antecedents in Beckett’s work, but which yields to none in its precision and, as one is invited to call it, its profundity:

 

So the sad tale a last time told they sat on as though turned to stone. Through the single window dawn shed no light. From the street no sound of reawakening. Or was it that buried in who knows what thoughts they paid no heed? To light of day. To sound of reawaken­ing. What thoughts who knows, Thoughts, no, not thoughts. Pro­founds of mind. Buried in who knows what profounds of mind. Of mindlessness. Whither no light can reach. No sound. So sat on as though turned to stone. The sad tale a last time told.

 

Anyone who has felt, however faintly, that Beckett’s ‘poetics of indigence’ has, in the last decade or so, impoverished his writing to the point where less has begun to mean less rather than more would do well to ponder the extraordinary achievement of Ohio impromptu, a gift to his most learned and distinguished audience of one of his most spellbinding and moving plays. Could one not, in fact, repeat what Beckett said in the third of the Three dialogues, though this time in a positive rather than a negative frame of mind, namely, that ‘for the artist obsessed with his expressive vocation, anything and everything is doomed to become occasion’? One, at least, of these three ‘occasional’ pieces must be accounted as sustained a miniature masterpiece as even this masterly miniaturist has accomplished.

 

Of the two ‘other short pieces’- can it be symptomatic, one wonders, that Beckett no longer troubles to indicate his disgust by such arcana as ‘Fizzles’ etc.? - it is much more difficult to speak positively. The publication of Ohio impromptu must surely prompt an English company to perform it, irrespective of its off-putting title. But Rockaby , a potential companion piece (not least in that the woman in the rocking-chair issues orders which verbalize what the Listener of the impromptu restricts to gestures), is altogether slighter. The suggestive stammer of Ohio impromptu yields here to the autistic manner one associates with Beckett’s prose pieces of the late 1960s. The device of correlating the rock of the rocking-chair with the recorded words of its monosyllabic inhabitant (silent but for four requests for ‘More’) seems expedient rather than in the fullest sense necessary, and though we do indeed get’more’ (the voice’s fourth and final contribution is almost half as long again as its initial one), quantity seems to take precedence over quality. Could this be a case where, in contradistinction to Beckett’s recent aesthetic (courtesy of Browning’s ‘Andrea del Sarto’) of ‘less is more’, more is less? For one critic at least Murphy’s rocking-chair, ‘of undressed teak, guaranteed not to crack, warp, shrink, corrode, or creak at night’, provoked more subtle writing and a richer music. But Rockaby is, of course, dependent, as Murphy is not, upon a performer making it meaningful. And at Buffalo in April 1981 it enjoyed the inestimable advantage of being interpreted by the doyenne of Beckett actresses, Billie Whitelaw. Whether even this great actress can be adjudged to have succeeded with this material must remain a matter of dispute, though it would be pleasant if plans were afoot to perform Rockaby  again, so that one could test out whether the echoes of Not I, of the recent poems, of the windowed enclosures of the 1970s prose, most of all perhaps of the mother-daughter relationship in Footfalls (which, like Rockaby , uses a soundtrack to separate voice from body), is more than just a reflex action on Beckett’s part. Difficult as it may be to articulate why Ohio impromptu (and, of the recent prose, Company) is so much more than a tissue of quotations from previous works, even a supremely gifted actress like Billie Whitelaw may find it difficult to demonstrate that the same is true of Rockaby .

 

Of Rockaby it may at least be said that it has the most prepossessing title of the Three occasional pieces. For if Ohio impromptu is too specific, A piece of monologue is surely too vague and, as with all of Beckett’s monologues, it inevitably manifests that seemingly irresistible pull to­wards dialogue which is characteristically found in his drama. The Speaker of Monologue (as it will surely become known), so designated in the stage directions, is the most spectral of all the shades that inhabit the ghostly world of Beckett’s recent drama, more shadowy even than the revenants in the three pieces televised as Shades by the B.B.C., and more evanescent (despite being less mobile) than the ghostly figure round whom Footfalls revolves. ‘Faint diffuse light’ reads Beckett’s stage direction for A piece of monologue, and in the Columbus production the light was so faint and so diffuse as to threaten the existence of the play altogether. Matters were not much helped by the exceptionally slow tempo adopted by David Warrilow, for whom the play was written, which made it last almost twice as long as Beckett had presumed it would; forty minutes of ‘faint diffuse light’ and a text whose words rose only marginally above the minimum audibility level made the experience more of a strain than it might have been or need have been, a painful experience that (unlike the painful experience of, say, Not I) was no more illuminating than its lighting. Under such conditions it is natural for the ear to become the dominant sense, which makes it incumbent upon the words to reward the listener who has so studiously sought them out. And neither in performance nor as a printed text can one be sure that the words of this monologue, in Eliot’s phrase, ‘compel the recognition they preceded’. Once again Ohio impromptu exhibits a more refined and suggestive handling of cognate matters, and the comparison is effectively forced upon one (as a purchaser of this volume, if not as audience at a Beckett evening) by Speaker’s re-telling of a narrative that one might expect to find in Reader’s book. This re-telling, however, reads (and indeed sounds) more like notes toward a narrative; the carefully cadenced periods of Ohio impromptu are not confusible with the telegrammatic utterances of A piece of monologue:

 

Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. The word begone. Such as the light going now. Beginning to go. In the room. Where else? Unnoticed by him staring beyond. The globe alone. Not the other. The unaccountable. From nowhere. On all sides nowhere. Unutterably faint. The globe alone. Alone gone.

 

These, the last words of A piece of monologue, suggest that there might be some profit in identifying three competing strains in late Beckett, the first the ‘mimetic’ strain (in which what is said by the actor becomes fact on stage), the second the ‘abstract’ strain (in which what is said by the actor only takes on body from being extrapolated from stage facts), and the third a kind of hybrid or synthesis composed of the first and second. The notion is vulnerable to the objection that, having observed how often Beckett depends upon the ‘rule of three’ (as in this case), the academic mind is parasitically multiplying such triads to infinity. But what disting­uishes Ohio impromptu from A piece of monologue, if both plays are measured against this skeletal model, is the way in which the first falls squarely into the third of these categories whereas the second seems to shift uneasily between the first and second, never more so than at its end. As with Rockaby , though there is inevitably much less to mesmerize the eye, expert performance of Monologue may lull to sleep the critical faculties that remain dissatisfied by the printed text or by a mediocre production. Certainly, as prose, and as first printed in The Hudson Review (Faber, needless to say, make no mention of this), A piece of monologue provides some ammunition for those who would have it that Beckett has written himself out, that he has exhausted the narrow vein that was uniquely his, and that his future is behind him. Ohio impromptu, however, if one may be pardoned for saying so, tells a different story.