31 Mar BECKETT’S THEATRE AND THE AVANT-GARDE

INTRODUCTION

At the beginning of the nineteenth century and in the 1920’s in particular, a universal avant-garde movement had taken over. New experimental techniques were being used in the visual arts, literature, music, films and architecture. Even philosophy, psychology and science were being transformed. However, according to Ionesco, not all literature followed this movement at the same pace: “the theatre was the most behindhand” (IONESCO, 1960)

Dramatists experimented for a long time, and the plays that resulted were characteristically different to any plays written in the past. In France, there were many exciting new dramatists at the time, such as Jean Genet, Beckett, Vauthier, Pichette, inter alia. Beckett is the writer that I will focus on in this paper, as he represents one of the “points of departure for the development of a free and living theatre”: a new theatre, an anti-theatre, a theatre of the absurd. A theatre of avant-garde: “for the avant-garde stands for freedom.” (IONESCO, 1960)

Samuel Beckett occupies an ambiguous place in the history of literature. To label Beckett a modernist, postmodernist, avant-gardist, or any other “-ist” would be a gross simplification of the philosophically ambivalent nature of his work.

Marcin Tereszewski, The Aesthetics of Failure: Inexpressibility in Samuel Beckett’s Fiction.

To label Beckett might be a simplification, but to ignore the artistic context in which Beckett was writing would also be a simplification. I intend to analyze Beckett in the context of the European Avant-garde and in particular in the context of the theatre of the absurd. Furthermore, I will analyze Theodor W. Adorno’s interpretation of Beckett’s Endgame and the importance of repetition in this play. . And finally, I have opted for a creative option to lead to my conclusion.

ACT 1

BECKETT IN THE ARTISTIC CONTEXT OF THE EUROPEAN AVANT-GARDE

In the late 1950s there was a group of European playwrights which puzzled and outraged most critics and audiences. The works were labeled as “anti-plays” because by all the traditional standards, they did not even deserve the name “drama”. They were confronting their public with “wildly irrational and nonsensical going-ons” (ESSLIN, 1960)and by doing so, they were opposing themselves to the conventions of traditional theatre. They were also called “theatre of the absurd” because they expressed the absurdness of the world and of the human condition. And finally, they were also considered as “avant-garde theatre” because they intended to take distance from the official aesthetic criteria (BALLESTEROS and VILVANDRE, 2000) The world of the mid twentieth century had lost its meaning and had ceased to make sense: previous certainties had been dissolved after the wars and man found himself facing a world without hope nor optimism: a world which was frightening, illogical and absurd. Maybe the most remarkable characteristic of the plays which were written during this period is that they are a continuous reminder that theatre is life. Everything that happens in these plays seems to be beyond a rational explanation: they deal with the lack of meaning and purpose of human existence, illustrating how all communication can break down, leading towards irrational and nonsensical speech, and finally concluding in silence. In other words, they represent a post-war world which can not be represented with any of the pre-war aesthetics:

When an author writes something, a play for instance, he has the clear or confused impression that he is fighting a battle, that if he has something to say, it is because others have not said that thing properly, or that they no longer know how to say it. He wishes to say something new, otherwise why would he write? […] The language no longer correspond to reality, no longer expresses a truth, he must endeavor to capture reality, to express it better.

Eugène Ionesco, The Avant-Garde Theatre.

Ionesco describes the act of writing as an impression of fighting a battle: a battle in which language no longer corresponds to reality, because after all, in mid twentieth century, man was having trouble finding a logic in the world: what was reality? “They no longer knew how to say it”. Language could not represent what had happened in the first half of the century, and the “anti-theatre” or the “theatre of the absurd” was seeking a way of communicating the feeling of failure which was predominant in the post-war chaos.

Samuel Beckett’s cryptic declarations about an aesthetic of “failure” have been taken to refer to everything from the universal human condition to a postmodernist dissolution of the writing subject, the more mundane meaning of failure should not be overlooked. […] After the war Beckett managed to take stock of this failure, chose a new language and audience (French), and developed both a new narrative point of view and a significantly different attitude toward writing as a communicative act. In so doing, he transformed failure into a stunning success.

David Weisberg, Chronicles of Disorder. Samuel Beckett and the Cultural Politics of the Modern Novel.

According to Weisberg, Samuel Beckett was a “profoundly postwar writer” and his dramatic plays have commonly been categorized as examples of Theatre of the Absurd, a concept which was coined by Martin Esslin in an essay he wrote in 1960, in which he mentions Beckett already in the first sentence: considering his plays to be characteristically absurd. According to Esslin these absurd plays “confront their public with bewildering experience, a veritable barrage of wildly irrational, often non-sensical goings-on that seem to go counter to all accepted standards of stage convention” (ESSLIN, 1960) Furthermore he states that each writer has their own type of absurdity, further defining Beckett’s absurdity as “melancholic, colored by a feeling of futility born from the disillusionment of old age and chronic hopelessness” although he also considers that they all share a concern for the “irremediable character of the human condition” (ESSLIN, 1960)

Dada and surrealism did not intend to merely create artistic objects, but they were seeking a way of breaking down the distance between art and life. Beckett’s works are somewhat close to surrealism in that sense: by choosing to take a step away from rational and conscious composition and therefore getting a step closer to actual life and reality. His “first professional recognition arrived not on the crest but in the wake of the modernist and avant-garde movements that have come to define our ideas of innovation and experimentation in the modern arts” (WEISBERG, 2000) Which is why it is necessary to consider Beckett in the context of the avant-garde: his innovations emerged from the aesthetic and cultural values which were in a process of transformation at the time. And it all lead to Beckett experimenting, reducing the elements of the scenic language, trying to achieve the biggest impact possible with the least resources possible. He wrote plays that were named “absurd”, but why this absurdness? What happened in the twentieth century which made it possible for Samuel Beckett to write in the way that he did? And what was he trying to represent in his absurd plays? The staging of the absurdness in which the world has decayed after both World Wars: a world without hope nor optimism: a frightening, illogical and absurd world.

Theatre is life.

ACT 2

TRYING TO UNDERSTAND BECKETT

Theodor W. Adorno’s Trying to Understand Endgame was published in 1961 in the second volume of his Notes to Literature. It is an essay in which he made an interpretation of Beckett’s play from a particular philosophy of history: leading towards questions such as what happened in the twentieth century which made it possible for the creation of a work of art such as Beckett’s?

After the Second War, everything is destroyed, even resurrected culture, without knowing it; humanity vegetates along, crawling, after events which even the survivors cannot really survive, on a pile of ruins which even renders futile self-reflection of one’s own battered state.

Theodor Adorno, Trying to Understand Endgame.

A few years before publishing his Notes to Literature, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, delated the failure of the Enlightenment project. The human being was supposed to be the key for the improvement of techniques which would enable an emancipation of nature and an abolishment of misery in the world. Instead, the technical advancements were used for the complete opposite; for the destruction of humanity. This culminated with the Holocaust, a process in which technical and administrative developments allowed the capability of organizing big masses of people. In other words, a modern society which should have culminated in the Enlightenment project, instead returned to phases which were supposedly overpassed. Because of the improvement and perfection of techniques and tools, there was a lack of sense and understanding of the big picture: the individual subject would not ask himself what was the use of those tools and techniques which he is perfecting (TAFALLA, 2003) The dialectic of Enlightenment was a dialectic of a rational history, in which reason occupied a central place: instigating unity and order. It was based on rationality, control and domain of nature and society.

Theodor W. Adorno’s conceptual idea of the absurd was quite similar to Beckett’s representation of the absurd; what Adorno explains in his philosophy is what Beckett illustrates in his plays. For Adorno modern society impulsed by extreme rationalization lead to a catastrophe, and Beckett represents his characters on a stage in which the catastrophe has already happened. They are already wounded: there are many references to the fact that they are “almost finished” or “at the end”, which indicates that the initial unnameable loss occurred long ago. The audience is presented with what seems to be the last stages of a deteriorating process, (RAPONI, 2003) but due to the incomprehension of what the characters have lived, they are unable to put it into words, because one can only speak euphemistically about what is incommensurate with all experience. (ADORNO, 1982)

HAMM: Have you not had enough?

CLOV: Yes! (Pause) Of what?

HAMM: Of this … this … thing.

Of this…this…thing. There are no words to explain what this thing actually is. Everything that happens in the play seems to be beyond a rational explanation: illustrating how communication fails and leads towards irrationality and absurdity, and concludes in silence. For instance, Hamm cannot find the words for telling his story, which he insists on repeating time after time, although without really understanding nor remembering the story:

HAMM: It’s time for my story. Do you want to listen to my story?

CLOV: No.

HAMM: Ask my father if he wants to listen to my story.

[…]

HAMM: One! Silence! (Pause.) Where was I? (Pause. Gloomily.) It’s finished, we’re finished. (Pause.) Nearly finished (Pause.) There’ll be no more speech.

Finally, there will be no more speech. Repetition becomes a key concept for understanding the Endgame, besides determining and fixating the idea that we have of existence. The centrality of repetition can be seen in Samuel Beckett’s works in the way that protagonists desperately attempt to futilely escape habit: even though it is the protagonists themselves who enslave themselves in that habit (CONNOR, 1988). Repetition is seen in Beckett’s use of language: the repetition of words, sounds, sentences and syntactical and grammatical forms, all of which draws the spectator’s attention towards the materiality and the arbitrariness of language. It is the repetition which allows the characters to survive and therefore continue speaking, even though there is nothing new to be said (CONNOR, 1988)

If our one certain reality is that “we breathe, we change! we lose our hair, our teeth! our bloom! our ideals!”, this truth is very difficult to accept emotionally. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the time is always “the same as usual”. Time does not pass in this world; rather, the characters have to find ways of passing the time. One solution adopted by Beckett’s characters is mechanical repetition, re-enacting situations without perceiving any significance in these repeated actions. […] The object of these games is not fun but defense against a world they do not and cannot comprehend or accept.

Michael Worton, “Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame”.

A world they do not and cannot comprehend. The characters are inside a world which reduces itself as the play goes on; for instance, objects such as the wheels of bikes, pap, nature, tides, navigators, rugs, pain-killers and coffins disappear as the play takes place. And the characters have less and less to tell each other, and less things to do: they just wait as their world reduces itself to the absurd. In other words, nothing happens and nothing can happen, (FLETCHER, 1978), because everything has already happened before the curtains were drawn for the public.

The environment which is represented is the result of some previous story: everything that happened before Endgame is unknown to the spectator, and we see the absurd end result of whatever happened before. Endgame is the representation of four humans (the last? (HUEBERT, 2008)): Hamm, an invalid, blind because of rationality taken to the extreme, his parents who do not have teeth, nor legs and the live in garbage cans, and Clov, who for some reason cannot sit down. That is to say that from the beginning of the play, the characters are not fit for starting the game, but Beckett shows us the other side of the coin: the emaciated characters after a game which has already been played. Already at the start of the play there are plenty of indications that Endgame is the final stretch of this game. For instance, the title itself and the first words that are said: “finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished”, and the picture which is hanging face to the wall (which according to M. Worton (WORTON, 1994) implies a rejection of the past) and the large blood-stained handkerchief which covers Hamm’s face at the start of the play (where does that blood come from?). Among others, these examples prove that Endgame represents the end of a trajectory.

Apparently, the place is somewhere between life and death, and the time is just short of the night of earth’s last whimper. Almost nothing happens in the sense of action.

NEW YORK TIMES

29 of January, 1958

Somewhere between life and death. Hamm explains to Clov that “outside of here it’s death” and he says that “beyond is the… other hell” (BECKETT, 1957). There is a continuous awareness of death: death is represented as something desirable but impossible, there is not much appreciation for the life that they are living: in various occasions Hamm asks Clov to kill him. Nevertheless, there is only one death in Endgame, and it is Nell who dies:

HAMM: I’ll give you nothing more to eat.                                                     HAMM: Go and see is she dead.

CLOV: Then we’ll die.                                                                                         CLOV: Looks like it.

HAMM: I’ll give you just enough to keep you from dying.                        HAMM: And Nagg?

CLOV: Then we won’t die.                                                                                CLOV: Doesn’t look like it.

                                                                                                                                HAMM: What’s he doing?

                                                                                                                                CLOV: He’s crying.

                                                                                                                                HAMM: Then he’s living. (BECKETT, 1957)

The coldness and ease in which Hamm and Clov speak about Nell’s death is surprising. Nell still respected her son but had already given up on her own life: she did not complain, she did not joke, and she had lost the capacity of laughing: and for Beckett, humor is key for survival. On the other hand, the coldness in which Nell’s death is approached also can be linked to the way in which a chess player sacrifices any other piece from the board in order to protect the king:

Hamm is a king in this chess game lost from the start. From the start he knows he is making loud senseless moves. That he will make no progress at all with the gaff. Now at the last he makes a few senseless moves as only a bad player would. A good one would have given up long ago. He is only trying to delay the inevitable end. Each of his gestures is one of the last useless moves which put off the end. He is a bad player.

Samuel Beckett

Each of his gestures is one of the last useless moves which putt of the end. As Beckett affirms, Hamm the king in a chess game, who needs the protection of all the other pieces and who’s only function is to avoid the échec et mat. Throughout the play Hamm insists on being placed in the middle of the room, he asks Clov to move him around and afterwards he asks to be left exactly in the same place where he was initially. This can be read as a representation of the very limited moves of the king in a chess game. It is as if Hamm considers his possible moves on the board, but as he returns to his initial spot, probably meaning that he is in a pat échecs situation, in which any movement from his side implies putting himself in check mate.

There is nothing to be done.

CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly): Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.

HAMM: Have you not finished? Will you never finish? (With sudden fury.) Will this never finish? (BECKETT, 1957)

ACT 3

ALL THE WORLD IS A STAGE.

A woman (W) and a very old man (B).

A large, empty room with two chairs. A blackboard. A dustbin in a corner.

The curtain is drawn. W walks around the room at a slow pace during the whole act, B sits on one of the chairs. Voices faint, largely unintelligible. Five seconds.

W: (…) If all artistic avant-gardes are characterized by their formal experimentation and the search for new ways of expression, then Samuel Beckett’s works are paradigmatic of the avant-garde.

B: (Yawns)

W: In 1961 Beckett told Harold Hobson that “he was interested in the shape of ideas even if he did not believe in them… it was the shape that mattered”

B: (Takes off his glasses, wipes his eyes, his face, the glasses, then puts them on again)

W: It was obvious that after writing Waiting for Godot in 1953, Beckett wanted to reduce the elements of the scenic language, trying to achieve the biggest impact possible with the least resources possible. Making it smaller on the principle “Less is more”

B: God, I’m tired, I’d be better off in bed.

W: For Beckett form is content, content is form.

B: No sense in this…

W: …sense? In Beckett? No! None at all!

B: What?

W: Although there have been critics trying to find sense in Beckett’s works. Searching for a totalizing interpretation… for instance, Theodor Adorno and his interpretation of Endgame… (she starts to write on the blackboard) Beckett’s work is an example of writing that resists a totalizing interpretation. (Reads out loud what she had written):

A problematic aspect of Adorno’s analysis of Endgame is that while he recognizes the difficulty of interpreting Endgame, in the end he seem to provide a determinate, unifying interpretation. He himself seem to have no difficulty uncovering “the” meaning of Endgame as he reads the play not his own account of contemporary society. What makes Endgame enigmatic is that it suggests a multiplicity of possible meanings, overall, and with respect to particular signifiers. […] Endgame resists being encapsulated by a definitive, unifying interpretation.

Sandra Raponi, Meaning and Melancholia in Beckett’s Endgame.

B: Little is left to tell…

W: Beckett’s work is an example of writing that resists a totalizing interpretation.

B: (Yawns)

W: If all artistic avant-gardes are characterized by their formal experimentation and the search for new ways of expression, then Samuel Beckett’s works are paradigmatic of the avant-garde.

B: (Takes off his glasses, wipes his eyes, his face, the glasses, then puts them on again)

W: As from Play which was written in 1962, he started to reduce the elements of the scenic language, trying to achieve the biggest impact possible with the least resources possible.

B: Do my best. All I can.

W: This minimalist reduction of scenic language didn’t have precedents in the history of theatre, and it lead to his most avant-gardist works.

B: (Sighs loudly) I’m tired.

W: He was questioning all the conventions of traditional theatre, unravelling the fundamental concepts: the characters, action, argument, stage and even duration! His play Breath from 1969 only has a duration of thirsty seconds!

B: Rubbish…

W: Thirty seconds! Can you believe it?

B: (Trying to take off his boot) Not now, not now.  Let me go to sleep.

W: Or his complete reduction of the scenic space to a mouth in Not I in 1972!

B: (Takes off his glasses, wipes his eyes, his face, the glasses, then puts them on again) Nothing is left to tell…

W: What Beckett does with theatre is so bizarre that it has to be seen in line with the avant-garde. His theatre was trying to create a break with previous tradition. He was breaking theatre up into its minimal elements, creating some of the most original plays of all time.

B: This is just absurd… please let me go to bed… (Frowns)

W: Absurd! Exactly! Beckett’s theatre was saying so much with so little… He had the ability to concentrate without ever becoming schematic or abstract.

B: Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.

W: (Continues to speak unintelligible as she walks away)

(Silence for five seconds)

B: Finished! (Lies down on the floor) What? … the buzzing? …yes …all the time the buzzing.  (As he wraps his arms around himself). You… remain.

Curtain.

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