Get to the Point(less): the Absurdist Short Plays of Samuel Beckett

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.

WORKS CITED

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.

Battle of the Sexes: A Look at Gender Relations in Hedda Gabler and Pygmalion

This paper was written for Professor Victoria Lantz’s Modern Drama class at Sam Houston State University on September 23, 2013.

Battle of the Sexes: A Look at Gender Relations in Hedda Gabler and Pygmalion

In both Hedda Gabbler and Pygmalion, gender roles as well as the relations between the two sexes are discussed. The evident tensions between males and females at the time of each play are brought to light – tensions that range from sexual and emotional to financial and social. In order to fully understand the text, these tensions must be identified and discussed. The “battle” between the sexes is a long-standing theme of many works of literature, art, and theatre. It is only fitting that this theme is utilized in Hedda Gabler and Pygmalion.

From the beginning of the play, the main characters in Hedda Gabler are captured in a constant power struggle. This fight is not always easily readable on the surface, however. For instance, Hedda’s insistence that her husband, George, should advance in his career pleases him and causes him to believe that she loves him. Beneath the surface lies the truth of the matter: she only desires his success because it means that she will acquire his wealth. As a former general’s daughter, Hedda is accustomed to life in the upper-middle-class, and George’s lower-middle-class life does not suit her. As a woman, Hedda knows that she cannot provide for herself and so she must attain a husband in order to retain any wealth. She only marries Tesman because she felt that her time was running out and he was “a thoroughly acceptable choice.” (Ibsen 220) He struggles to provide adequately for her, saying that he “simply couldn’t have her live like a grocer’s wife.” (Ibsen 215) This statement goes far beyond the fact that his husbandly duties require him to take care of her. Hedda is not only a wife, but also an upper-middle-class woman who is used to her former lifestyle. Nothing but the best will do for her. This is displayed when Hedda talks to George about the piano, saying “I’m just looking at my old piano. It doesn’t really fit in with all these other things.” George suggests that they trade it in for a new one in order to appease her, but Hedda refuses his offer. Instead, she tells him that they will “put it there, in the inner room, and get another here in its place. When there’s a chance, I mean.” (Ibsen 208) George is cast down, but accepts her demands. This reaction is seen throughout the play, signaling his obvious lack of power in their marriage. Hedda is clearly the head of the household, though George is the breadwinner. Again, he displays his submission to her when she complains of being unable to have a butler, a horse, and various other things that she desired. She dreams of the beautiful ideal – a romanticized and unattainable view of life – much like Emma does in Madame Bovary. And, as Ibsen believed, “The single-minded desire to achieve an ideal life wreaks destruction.” (Gainor 198) Her disillusionment leads to her inevitable downfall.

This battle is also evident in the couple’s different views of their current situation. “While Tesman thinks he has provided an ideal house, his wife from the bottom of her heart despises it and the life it offers. Gradually we learn that Hedda married Tesman and encouraged his purchase of the house only out of boredom and because she felt that her time and options were running out. But now she finds herself trapped in her marriage, and in the house.” (Gainor 197) Tesman is happy with what he has and Hedda is the complete opposite – she has different expectations. As showcased in her ridiculous outburst regarding sunlight coming into the room and the smell of too many flowers, Hedda is never satisfied, and will never be such as she requires something that is completely unrealistic and unattainable. Hedda lives in a dream world, while George accepts his reality and remains content within it. In order to “deal” with her situation, Hedda manipulates the people around her “as if they she were the director of a play.” (Gainor 198) Boredom, she says, is her reason for such actions. Shooting at Judge Brack is an action that comes out of Hedda’s boredom. When he criticizes her for her rashness, she says, “Well, what in heaven’s name do you want me to do with myself?” (Ibsen 218) George, on the other hand, loses himself in his work in order to deal with reality. He even says, “One should never go off and lose oneself in dreams, uh?” To this, Hedda replies, “Do you do that?” This shows her complete denial of her disillusionment with reality. George responds, “No use denying it. It was living in dreams to go and get married and set up house on nothing but expectations.” (Ibsen 217) Again, this is where the couple’s problem lies – in expectations. While Hedda is lost in a fantasy world of what marriage should be, George is firmly grounded in reality. He understands that Hedda’s dream is unattainable and does what he can to please her, even though he will forever come up short. He does all things “for Hedda’s sake,” while she does everything for herself, even if those motivations are hidden under lies and manipulation.

Pygmalion brings to light several gender strains – ones having to do with independence, money, marriage, and behavior. First of all, as Henry Higgins often explains to anyone who will listen, a lady must speak English correctly in order to go anywhere in life. Ironically, he is not held to that same standard. While Eliza has to repeatedly prove herself (which explains her constant reminder of “I’m a good girl, I am!”), Higgins is never asked to. He may be reprimanded for his lack of manners, but he certainly is never demoted in class or treatment because of them. Eliza notices this double standard right off the bat. When Mrs. Pearce tells her, “You mustn’t speak to the gentleman like that”, Eliza says, “Well, why won’t he speak sensible to me?” (Shaw 419) Higgins is often seen cursing and being rude to those around him. Mrs. Pearce even warns him to watch his tongue and his behavior in front of Eliza. He remains in denial about himself, but still agrees to her demands. It is important to note that this double standard (for men and women such as Higgins and Eliza) is evident throughout the entire play.

Men also hold true to the value of marriage – a woman is nothing, and can do nothing significant, without a man. A female’s accomplishments are all tied to the male relationships in her life. Even some women, such as Clara and her mother at the beginning of the play, seem trapped beneath this societal idea. After Freddy returns without a taxi during a rainstorm, Clara complains, “And what about us? Are we to stay here all night in this draught, with next to nothing on. You selfish pig.” (Shaw 409) These women rely on Freddy, the man, to do things for them. Why couldn’t Clara and her mother be out in the rain, looking for a taxi as well? It all has to do with gender. A true lady doesn’t get soaked in a rainstorm. A gentleman goes to get her a taxi. Men must take care of women.

Henry Higgins also holds this idea – that women are nothing without men – in high esteem. He speaks of Eliza in Act 2, saying that “the girl doesn’t belong to anybody – is no use to anybody but me.” (Shaw 422) This labels Eliza as an object – his experiment – more than an actual human being. In fact, Higgins actually buys Eliza from her father. These events signal a societal standard about gender. A woman must belong to some man somewhere, or else she is pretty much worthless. This is why Higgins takes on the challenge of making her into a lady; she cannot do it on her own and will remain worthless without a man’s help. This also applies to the end of the play when Eliza speaks with Higgins. He continues to take credit for her accomplishments, saying, “You won my bet! You! Presumptuous insect! I won it! What did you throw those slippers at me for?” (Shaw 445) As Eliza and Higgins continue to fight, he resorts to calling her a “creature” again, as he did in the beginning of the play. When she does things Higgins does not like, he reacts in this manner. Eliza knows his views of her, and even says, “I’m nothing to you – not so much as them slippers.” (Shaw 446) It should be noted that Eliza Doolittle is alone in the beginning of the play as a flower girl, and, with the help of two men, becomes successful. Thus, her decision to retain her independence shocks Henry Higgins. He is unable to accept the fact that Eliza does not have to apply the same societal standards to herself as other women have before her. Higgins loses his mind when Eliza leaves independently – making the choice on her own. When she returns to speak with him, he angrily says, “Let her speak for herself. You will jolly soon see whether she has an idea that I haven’t put into her head or a word that I haven’t put into her mouth. I tell you I have created this thing out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden; and now she pretends to play the fine lady with me.” (Shaw 454) Eliza’s lesson can be summed up in one simple quote: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.” (Shaw 455). This turns Higgins’s argument on its head, suggesting that Higgins is not a gentleman, but a common man, while Eliza has been a lady all her life. She also tells him that instead of a man making something out of her, “Perhaps [she] could make something out of him.” (Shaw 460) This reversal of traditional gender roles and loss of power frustrates Higgins to no end.

Hence, both plays discuss gender as a social construct built in different ways by each sex. While men tend to assume they hold the power over women at all times, Hedda Gabler depicts women as having the true power. Pygmalion does the same, but in a different way. Hedda never breaks through into independence; she simply masks her true self. Eliza does not use manipulation – she is honest with Higgins and herself. Once she is able to do things on her own, she relinquishes her title of “experiment” and becomes an independent woman, despite Higgins’s protests. In conclusion, the difference between the two women is that Eliza grows out of her dependency and Hedda does not.

Works Cited

  • Ibsen, Henrik. “Hedda Gabler.” 2009. The Norton Anthology of Drama. By J. Ellen. Gainor,

Stanton B. Garner, and Martin Puchner. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2009. 195-

  1. Print.
  • Shaw, George Bernard. “Pygmalion.” 2009. The Norton Anthology of Drama. By J. Ellen.

Gainor, Stanton B. Garner, and Martin Puchner. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton &,

  1. 408-70. Print.