Thursday, June 12, 2014

Further Notes on Samuel Beckett

Collected Shorter PlaysCollected Shorter Plays 


"That sound you hear is the sea. [Pause. Louder.]  I say that sound you hear is the sea, we are sitting on the strand. [Pause.]  I mention it because the sound is so strange, so unlike the sound of the sea, that if you didn't see what it was you wouldn't know what it was." (87)

My recent reading of Beckett's plays included Happy Days, Embers, and Not I, the last two of which are included in this excellent collection of his shorter plays. The length of these plays does not diminish their brilliance or depth of meaning.
In these short plays Beckett focused even more tightly on the inner experience of humanity. In Embers, a play written for the radio Beckett presents a man named Henry who shares his thoughts, both through attempting to tell a story and through memories of his past. With creation of characters his imagination presents these others, including his family, with an intensity that makes them seem alive. Yet it is their ghostly and ephemeral character that takes precedence. In the background the sound of the sea provides an ostinato that is haunting. Henry's imagination, however, weakens over the course of the short play. We first experience this as his story is interrupted more than once, yet he returns to it only with more and more difficulty. 
The memories of his past include scenes with his daughter and his wife, who may be present although her weak monotone voice suggests otherwise. "Not a sound" is a recurring phrase; but more important is the sound of dying embers. Henry tries to make us hear this but cannot project it:
"not a sound, only the fire, no flames now, embers. (Pause.) Embers. (Pause.) Shifting, lapsing, furtive like, a dreadful sound" (90). It is a sound (the title of the play) that we are denied. It represents death and extinction and to give it sound would be to give it life.
Beckett's prose has a serene, almost poetic quality and must have been extremely effective on a radio broadcast.

Happy DaysHappy Days 

"Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!  (Pause. Joy off.)  Another happy day." (23)

Happy Days presents a bleak landscape that is severed from anything like the real world. A woman, Winnie, is buried up to her waist in a mound at center stage. There is one other character, Willie, who for most of the play is hidden behind the mound, burrowing head first into it. However unrealistic this sounds there is a certain realism from  her handbag that contains some of the detritus of everyday life that plays an important role for Winnie. She is a seemingly irrepressibly cheerful woman whose incessant optimistic prattle provides a counterpoint to her situation. She tells a story of a man and woman (Shower or Cooker) who, passing by, speculate as to why she is there and why Willie does not dig her out. This emphasizes the oddness of her situation but does not explain it. The situation is particularly perplexing because the cause of her confinement is indeterminate. It is just as indeterminate as the situation of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. In fact this indeterminacy is one of the overriding themes in the plays of Beckett.
The second act begins with her buried further up to her neck and, combined with her memories that suggest a previous life when she was not buried, present a degenerative condition that is inevitable.
The play is one of contrasts with the chief one being that between Winnie's optimism and the gravity of her situation. In other plays Beckett's characters have recognised the bleakness of their situation and while they do not always strive to face their existence they do not deny its awfulness. Winnie's cheerfulness includes maintaining normal daily rituals like brushing her teeth and cleaning her glasses. The contrast with these rituals and the abnormality of her situation may represent the essence of her need to distract herself from her terminal helplessness. In the second act she has even less to be cheerful about yet still refers to life as "a mercy". She says to Willie, who is trying to crawl up to her level, "Have another go, Willie, I'll cheer you on." (63) It reminds me of the famous quote from the end of Beckett's novel, The Unnamable, "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on,"

Each of these plays further the poetic and comic world of Samuel Beckett though each present a bleak horizon that is delimited by indeterminacy.  Perhaps this is the indeterminacy of the post-modern world or rather, it is the nature of our home in the universe.


Brian Joseph said...

Great post James. I especially like your concluding paragraph.

I really should read these. These ruminations about existence are particularly interesting to me. Oddly they do not usually depress me but they get my mind working.

James said...

Thanks for your kind words. Your observation is great as Beckett, with his sparse prose, is more suggestive than most writers.