This paper was written for Professor Victoria Lantz’s Modern Drama class at Sam Houston State University on December 12, 2013.
Get to the Point(less): the Absurdist Short Plays of Samuel Beckett
Playwright Samuel Beckett came to define the Theatre of the Absurd, a term later coined by Martin Esslin in 1961 with his plays Waiting for Godot (1952) and Endgame (1957). Though these plays can be classified as the chief reasons for his fame, what often seems to pale in comparison or be neglected are the contributions he made to the genre with his short plays. These works – the shortest (called Breath) being only 35 seconds long – accomplish Beckett’s desired effect in much less time than the aforementioned works of longer length. In this short period of time, Beckett still manages to reach the same goal of his other, longer works and truly personifies absurdist theatre, most specifically in Act Without Words I and Not I.
Officially referred to as Absurdist Theatre in 1961, Esslin classified the Absurdist movement as any form of theatre that strove to “express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought.” (Esslin 24) The movement is characterized by several key elements: repetition, the hopelessness of the human situation, limitations of the stage, a lack of realism in terms of plot, and senseless characterization. Beckett is among the five playwrights whom Esslin claims make up the entire movement (the others being Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov, and Harold Pinter). Though an argument can be made that other plays have absurd characteristics, these five playwrights were the main suppliers of content for the movement. Esslin goes on to point out that absurdist plays were a “bewildering experience” for the audience, who often had no clue what the author’s intent was or what the work meant on a deeper level (Esslin 3). Along with the lack of realism inherent in absurdist plays, characters often are left nameless, and thus lack a clearly defined individual identity.
Commonly referred to as “anti-plays,” these works are famous for nonsensical plotlines and themes of hopelessness, often regarding life and the inevitability of death. The happenings that occur on the absurdist stage resist and go beyond rationalizations; they transcend reality in order to make their point. Esslin claims that these plays are a great example of pure theatre, or the concept that the magic of the stage can continue outside of the framework of “conceptual rationality. They prove that exits and entrances, light and shadow, contrasts in costume, voice, gait and behavior, pratfalls and embraces, all the manifold mechanical interactions of human puppets in groupings that suggest tension, conflict, or the relaxation of tensions, can arouse laughter or gloom and conjure up an atmosphere of poetry even if devoid of logical motivation and unrelated to recognize human characters, emotions, and objectives.” (Esslin 4) The definition of the absurd is truly “meaningless;” it is that which has no purpose, goal, or final objective. The end result of this form of theatre is said to “reveal the irrationality of the human condition and the illusion of what we thought was its apparent logical structure.” (Esslin 5). Beckett’s absurdism is “melancholic,” denoting the pointless and hopeless nature of life along with the disillusionment that comes with old age. Beckett’s work, then, can be accurately defined by the aforementioned characteristics (Esslin 4).
Act Without Words I is a short play written by Beckett in 1956, which was quickly followed by Act Without Words II. Originally written in French, Beckett translated it into English himself. Its first performance occurred on April 3, 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The play is composed of very minimalistic elements. The cast is comprised of one man, and, if one wishes to make a case for it, an additional “malevolent offstage presence” which taunts the man throughout the play (Bennett 16). The setting (a desert that is illuminated by a dazzling light) also stays true to Beckett’s minimalistic theme.
Firstly, “the man is flung backwards on stage from right wing. He galls, gets up immediately, dusts himself off, turns aside, reflects.” (Act Without Words) The man is continually taunted by the off-stage presence, which hurls him backwards, teases him with food and drink, and alerts him to a new taunt with a whistle each time. No matter where he goes, he is “immediately flung back on stage” and ends up falling down (Act Without Words). The play remains quite direct and sticks to the main plotline – the man’s frustration with his inability to obtain the objects that the off-stage presence keeps offering to him. Objects offered to him include “A pair of tailor’s scissors”, “a tiny carafe”, “a big cube,” and a “rope” (Act Without Words). The rope seems to suggest suicide; with the man being able to stand on top of the two cubes and then create a noose, thus hanging himself once he steps off of the boxes. He “hesitates, thinks better of it” and chooses not to kill himself (Act Without Words).
As far as the realism of the play, nothing is questioned, only accepted; the man is just thrown into this place without reason. The silence utilized in the play drives this point home. Speech is utterly useless, another piece of the absurdist puzzle. Literally, the only word used (not even spoken) in the play is “water.” The word is on “a huge label” upon the carafe the man receives (Act Without Words). The tension that this silence creates is parallel to the tension of the man’s inaction at the end of the play. The objects offered to the man seem to be quite real (otherwise why would they be offered to him and then taken away?), though they may be a mirage.
Through this play, Beckett has compacted his perspective on “the birth of existential man, of the existential artist, with all the ironies implicit in the coincidence of birth and death.” (Gontarski) In the end, the superior force beats out the inferior man, which leaves the audience looking at a traditional, obvious ending. An obvious difference from his other works, the man does not undergo a degradation of character or an overall disintegration; he simply decides to stop trying because he realizes that it is pointless. No matter his choice, he will not receive the objects. Yet another aspect of absurdism is seen through this realization – that of the pointless and hopeless nature of life. However, as many critics fail to notice, the ending is not truly a “pathetic defeat, but a conscious rebellion.” (Gontarski) The man is an everyman; he represents man’s refusal to obey. It is seen that he is most active when he is motionless (a paradox in itself) and his life only attains meaning as it is ending. As he cuts the rope (symbolic of an umbilical cord), what could have been his death sentence becomes a symbol of the birth of man. His ending becomes his “bigger picture” beginning. In just three minutes, Beckett displays a compelling and concrete example of true absurdist theatre.
Another of Beckett’s short absurdist plays, Not I is a very minimalistic piece. It takes place in a pitch-black area with only one thing illuminated: an actress’s mouth that is about 8 feet above the stage. All other things are blacked out and unable to be seen during the entire performance. The woman – or the mouth, rather – discusses four incidents from her life: lying “face down in the grass”, standing in the middle of a “supermart”, sitting on a “little mound in Croker’s Acres”, and “that time in court” (Not I). Each of these instances are preceded by a repetition of the first scene – which seems to be an epiphany for the girl. Whatever happened to her “back in the field… in April” seems to have affected her so much that she is forced to start “pouring it out… steady stream…” (Not I). In other words, this event that happened to her has become a trigger – something that gave her a “sudden urge…to tell, get it all out, if not a confessional, “nearest lavatory… start pouring it out… steady stream… mad stuff… half the vowels wrong… no one could follow” (Blau 457). Speak as she may, her sentences are fragmented, her words are jumbled, and her overall meaning is pretty difficult to grasp from one run-through. Though many attribute this outpouring to be a result of a prior rape, it is documented that Beckett had vehemently denied this.
She speaks of an elderly woman of about “seventy” that was abandoned by her parents following a premature birth (Not I). The woman has apparently lived a boring, loveless, mechanical life and appears to have suffered some sort of horrible trauma that is never clearly explained. The woman speaking has apparently been virtually mute for her entire life, despite the occasional outbursts – and one of those outbursts is the actual text of this play. The outburst can be considered as one of the defining characteristics of its genre. It can be seen as absurdist through its nature; critic Blau even compares her monologue to an event he experienced – a stroke.
“Some years ago, that time, I was having a late lunch with my son Dick and his partner Jane – fair food, good conversation – when I had a vague sense of their staring at me and looking puzzled at each other, as 1 kept on talking of I know not what, just talking and talking, with no sense of what I was talking about – or for that matter, who I was, at what turned out to be some logorrhoea of incoherence or a regressively aging ‘dehiscence,’ a word used by Beckett for coherence gone to pieces, but otherwise made familiar through the Oedipal fractures in the mirrcir stage of Lacan, with its drama of a specular ego, and the mirage of identity, still haunting the personal pronoun, I, not 1, as we’ll certainly see in Beckett, brought on by some primal discord, and subsequent paranoia, at ‘a real specific prematurity of birth ‘^ When they took me to the emergency room, babbling into a murmur, ‘infant languors in the end sheets,’ as in one of the Texts for Nothing,^ as if falling out of a dream, it was diagnosed as a transient ischemic attack, or momentary stroke; yet since 1 was not unable to talk, speech not blurred or impeded, but rather accelerated, as from the Mouth of Not I, ‘… but the brain still… still… in a way,’ it was more like a kind of psychogenic amnesia, what they call a ‘fugue state’ or dissociative identity disorder. If there was anything polyphonic in what I was saying, or somehow contrapuntal – ‘From the word go. The word begone.’^ – 1 have no idea, but from what 1 later heard from Dick and Jane, relieved when I came to myself, not I, my self, whatever that may be, ‘Thought of everything?… Forgotten nothing?… You’re all right now, eh?’^ I was indeed saying things over and over, to some indeterminate other, by way of anxious others, who could hardly decipher anything in the disjointed repetitions.” (Blau 453)
The description above – this ‘fugue state’ that Blau talks about experiencing during his stroke – is a fantastic comparison to that of Beckett’s Not I. The repetition and nonsensical nature of Blau’s statements alerted his son that something was wrong. He was experiencing a trauma. In the same way, the woman from Not I re-experiences this mysterious trauma and starts madly babbling because of it. Even the title is reliant on this repetition; her insistence on the use of third person is what is alluded to in the title. She continually answers some off-stage voice, unheard by the audience (which could even presumably be only present in her head), saying, “what? . . who? . . no! . . she! . .” (Not I) Her constant denial lends itself to absurdist themes like hopelessness and the cyclical nature that characterizes the genre.
Through minimalistic techniques, repetition, and themes of hopelessness, Beckett is able to portray a true absurdist piece in under an hour. This feat was probably not an easy one, but it seems that Beckett is quite definitely the master of this genre. The aforementioned works clearly show that length does not determine effectiveness by any means – content is the only thing that truly matters. Even then, Beckett defies audience and critical expectations by creating plays like Breath that are only 35 seconds long and are still able to fit in all of the above absurdist techniques. These aforementioned accomplishments truly set Beckett apart from his peers and make him a fantastic example of an absurdist dramatist/author/playwright.
Beckett, Samuel. “Act Without Words I.” Act Without Words I. Ed. Kristina Pugliese. Illinois State University, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
Beckett, Samuel. “Not I.” Vahidnab.com. N.p., 1973. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
Bennett, Michael Y. “The Response to The Offstage Presence In Beckett’s “Act Without Words I” And “Act Without Words II”.” Anq 25.1 (2012): 16-18. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.
Blau, Herbert. “Apnea And True Illusion: Breath(Less) In Beckett.” Modern Drama 49.4 (2006): 452-468. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.
Esslin, Martin. “The Theatre of the Absurd.” The Tulane Drama Review 4.4 (1960): 3-15. JSTOR. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.
Gontarski, Stanley E. “Birth astride a Grave: Samuel Beckett’s ‘Act without Words 1’.” Birth astride a Grave: Samuel Beckett’s ‘Act without Words 1’. Florida State University, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.