Samuel Beckett

It if took the Russian Revolution to drive theatre into Realism, then it could be argued that the dropping of the bombs Hiroshima and Nagasaki -the abdication of reason - brought Absurd theatre to the fore. Absurd
Theatre presented life as meaningless, and one that could simply end in casual slaughter.

This was reflected in the society of the time where:

a) the mechanical nature of many peoples lives, lead them to question the purpose of their existence.
b) time was recognised as a destructive force.
c) one had a sense of being left in an alien world. [A world that can be explain even with bad reasoning is a familiar world. But a world from which logic and insight have been removed is a strange world].
d) one sensed being isolated from other beings.

This sense of meaninglessness became a critical insight in the philosophical movement of the era "Existentialism"
We, proclaimed the existentialists, are the sum of our acts. The idea that we do something because we are that sort of person, was replaced by the idea that we make ourselves that sort of person by doing such and such an act. As one of the high princes of existentialism, Jean Paul Sartre said: "we are nothing and in action become conscious of that original nothingness".

eg: "Huis Clos" [In Camera] by Jean Paul Sartre
Set in hell… on earth.
Three Characters. Two females, one male. Each is unable to bear the complete responsibility for their own acts and wishes to seen by the others as having "character/essence"-being of worth. This makes each dependent on the others, and when two of them come to some sort of agreement, this agreement is immediately distroyed by the presence of the other. Hell is literally other people! And in the words of the final line of the play.. "lets get on with it"

Within this consciousness all we can do is resume our acts and our life, fully aware of the world's absurdity, happy in accepting the crushing responsibility of giving the world a meaning, that comes solely from ourselves.

eg: "The Myth of Sisyphus" Albert Camus

Sisyphus was, according to Homer, a wise mortal who scorned the Gods, loved life, hated death and was absurdly punished -to a life in the Underworld, where he was given the task of spending eternity pushing a ball of dung up a hill ..seeing it getting bigger and bigger, and when he finally reached the top, only to have it roll back down, and his task start again. It didn't take him long to realise that this was absurd…but the knowledge that all of life's tasks were equally as absurd,because they were all subject to Death, gave Sisyphus victory. We must imagine Sisyphus as happy….for he has escaped the dilemma of his existence and is to be seen as heroic.

If Existentialism was the philosophical model of a universe that has lost its meaning and purpose….

-then the Theatre of the Absurd was one way of facing up to that universe. If there is a sin of life "it is not perhaps so much to despair of life, as to hope for another life and to lose sight of the implacable grandeur of this one".[Camus]

In order to begin an understanding of any artistic movement it's always useful to try and locate it historically.

Absurd Theatre emerged during a moment of crisis in the literary and artistic movement of Modernism -which itself began in the closing years of the last century, becoming most prominent in the early decades of this century, and going into decline in the 30's and 40's. Economic and political upheaval, lasting roughly from the rise of Hitler to the Death of Stalin forced the movement to almost disappear. However it was to re-emerge in the 50's through the 60's and even into the early 70's -at which time the prosperity that developed countries had enjoyed since the end of the Second World War was to be threatened by another protracted era of strife that was to have a profound impact on the arts. This was to become know as post-modernism and was probably responsible for the end of the second phase of Modernism. It was during the 50's and 60's, with its drugs, sexual revolution, anti-war protest, student up-risings, sit -ins, ban the bomb marches, Oz Magazine, Feminism, Performance Art, The Black Panther Movement, the Hippies, and existentialism, that the Theatre of the Absurd emerged.

If Elizabethan Theatre [Shakespeare] explored the political and moral dilemmas of the Renaissance, and Naturalism gave expression to the ghosts which haunted the bourgeoisie of Capitalism, then Absurdism found the means of exposing the metaphysical doubts that tormented our existence. Doubts that at first surprised us then began to seem natural and inevitable.

At the beginning of Modernism, specifically in the theatre of Hendrik Ibsen [ turn of the century -"Hedda Gabbla", "The Wild Duck"] the plays were performed just as if an audience were not watching; indeed it needed to be so performed if the desired tension was to be achieved; any hint of a gesture towards the audience would destroy the illusion.

It is precisely this illusion that the political and social theatre of Bertolt Brecht [30/40's] seeked to destroy. However he did not attempt to make the stage and auditorium one continuous space…this would have simply created another illusion.

Brecht's innovations opened the way to the Theatre of the Absurd [50/60's] which self-consciously employed the auditorium as part of the plays'ontology.[time and space]

The resulting theatre, ironically, produced the effect desired by Brecht from his theatre: ALIENATION. We find it difficult to identify with the characters in Absurd Drama, but, where Brecht hoped to "activate the audience's critical, intellectual capacities, Absurd Drama spoke to a deeper level of the audiences awareness -its staging was usually very funny and very terrifying, pushing the audience forward, then confusing them, compelling a personal assessment of their reactions, and offering opposites that multiply in their minds -IT CHALLENGED THE AUDIENCE TO MAKE SENSE OF NON-SENSE, TO FACE THE PREDICAMENT OF LIFE CONSCIOUSLY RATHER THE FEEL IT VAGUELY, AND PERCEIVE, WITH LAUGHTER, ITS FUNDAMENTAL ABSURDITY.

"Absurdity presents humanity "stripped of the accidental circumstances of social position or historical context, confronted with basic choices" [Martin Esslin]
Such a theatre was involved in the relatively few problems that remained:
LIFE, DEATH, and the ISOLATION we feel through lack of COMMUNICATION.

….and presented them as only one person's personal intuitive vision of the world.

We are born, and the one thing we know is that we will die…everything else we do is just a diversion from our "destiny" and since all our actions are directed against the inevitable [death], they are absurd, and because we sense this absurdity we experience "irrationality. We, in the West, hopelessly committed to making sense of the world can not accept "irrationality"…the world does make sense, "God does not play dice" [Einstein]

The absurd has as it's underlying premise the irrationality of experience.

"You can't be rational in an irrational world, it's not rational"
[Joe Orton ]

The Absurdist's response to Death is far from nihilistic: it is a contented call for furious action…once we accept the feeling of absurdity, it becomes the springboard for action, giving us the feeling of freedom and passion….the absurd is not a beginning and not and end, it is the representation of that which is in between. What can we do, given the inescapable nature of death rendering everything as unimportant??…we could do nothing!![ not make any choices], under the misguided belief that we have no choice, but that would simply be what Jean Paul Sartre would called "Bad Faith".
Bad Faith consists in pretending to ourselves and others that things could not be otherwise, that we are bound to our way of life, that there is no escape. However we are free to choose to do all things and to choose not to do them.

eg: a the man who, while trying to commit suicide by drowning, is unfortunately at the scene of a crime. He is arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death, despite his protestations -not of his innocence but of being denied his right to choose….suicide.

1] The experience of this world [of the absurd] is never debated, it is simply presented,
shown in action;
Eg: Ionesco: was once criticised because he had no message -to which he replied "No, I am a writer, I am not a postman"
2] it presents humans "stripped of the accidental circumstances of social position or
historical context";
3] it satirises a society that is petty and dishonest;

4] it substitutes an internal [mental] landscape for the outer world;

5] it deliberately lacks of any clear division between fantasy and fact;

6] it has a healthy disrespect for the constraints of time, which can expand, contract or
back fold on itself according to subjective requirements;

7] it constructs environment which can depict/project mental conditions in the form of
visual metaphors;

8] it employs a precise use of language, constructed by an writer as their only defence
against the chaos of the experience of living.

9] it uses meta-theatricality:
a) all the world a stage
b) life is a dream
-signifying a medium totally aware of itself and involving the audience in a searching act of self-awareness.
eg: Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" Clov asks of Hamm what there is to keep him there? Hamm, while considering the audience replies: "the dialogue".
Having been spoken to directly from the stage we, as audience, are implicated in it and the metaphor of the all the world's a stage is confirmed.

10] it has a preference for tragicomedy [black comedy] rather than the classical genres of
tragedy or comedy….. this gives rise to a reality distinguished by a sense of
knowingness shared with and by the spectator, who becomes genuinely implicated in the construction of the drama.

11] it uses silence as a metaphor…never before had moments of the fragmentary, the
inarticulate, the incoherent and the non-verbal been so extensively employed. Moments
that not only remained part of the play but commented upon it.
eg: "Breath" by Samuel Beckett

12] it deliberately employs ambiguity as a device. What is reality, what is illusion….thus
sucessfully destroying of our confidence in familiar things and places.
Eg: "Amedee"by Ionesco. He peopled a middle class apartment with an expanding corspe and covered its carpets in mushrooms until the real occupants of the apartment chose to leave.
13] it explores antagonism and violence, particularly on the psychological plane.

14] It tends towards a radical devaluation of language, towards a poetry of images. What
happened on the stage often contradicted the words spoken by the characters.
eg: the end of "Waiting for Godot" by Samuel Beckett.

BORN [FRIDAY 13] 1906 - 1989

Beckett has consistently refuse to explain his work -one of his rare utterances was the expression:

"nothing is more real than nothing" for to know nothing is nothing, not to want to know anything likewise, but to be beyond knowing anything, that is when peace enters into the soul of the incurious seeker.
The nature of his work could best be described as enigmatic and pessimistic.

His plays exhibit a lack of plot and character
CHARACTER -presumes that personality and individuality matter
PLOT -assumes that events in time have significance

Beckett rejects learning and sees language as part of the failure to know where and what we are. Language has failed us. Thus, Beckett's heroes not only deny that they are philosophers, they flaunt an ignorance of philosophy while remaining transfixed by philosophical questions that have troubled us since Socrates: the nature of Self, the world, and God.

Beckett is an agnostic. "Even if God were to exist", says Beckett, "he would make no difference: he would be as lonely and as enslaved, and as isolated as man is, in a cold, silent, indifferent universe".

It is an undeniable fact that we must sooner or later die, and many people are doubtful whether anything lies behind death. Beckett's works are not statements on this theme, but meditations upon it.
"I am not interested in any system. I can't see any trace of any system anywhere"

"Waiting For Godot" is a play/poem about a world without any divinity, a world in which man waits and hopes for something to give a meaning to his life, and relieve him of the absurdity of a death that will terminate all. But he waits in vain, and so our life is as meaningless as our deaths.
It is a monstrous paradox that an individual's life is an eternity while it lasts, but it is less than an instant in regard to cosmic time. Consciousness of the paradox is all important-but the consciousness by which we are aware of our individual existence is continually at risk from heart failure or mental breakdown. At best our consciousness is held in the prison of "time". In the prison, only forward motion is possible, and we delude ourselves that we progress towards some sort of ultimate goal….this ultimate goal [ in the case of "Waiting for Godot"] becomes anything that helps us bear our existence.

Beckett's plays avoid any definition of these goals, because he believes that "art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear, and does not make clear". All a writer can do is to attempt to distil in words, however imperfect, an intuitive vision or experience [rather than a systematic set of beliefs] of the misery and desperation of life.

Desire is the source of our misery; such happiness as is possible can only be obtained by the removal of all desire

Beckett's people have collapsed under the burden of choice, responsibility and anguish, as they struggle to answer the questions:
What am I?
What are time and space?
What are mind and matter?
.….and they are determine to answer these questions rationally [without taking refuse in mysticism]…they drive reason to a point where reason itself becomes irrational…and generally very comical.

"Do not come down the ladder, I have taken it away"

What Beckett is saying here is that one can only affirm that meaning does not exist in terms that imply that it does.
This idea is reflected in Beckett's heroes; they believe that even in a meaningless situation life must have meaning. Beckett's plays present an inability in anyone to be nihilistic, not nihilism.

Beckett has left us with a final bleak image of life in the universe: that of a woman giving birth astride a grave.


Albert Camus "The Outsider"

Jean Paul Sartre "In Camera"

Arthur Adamov "Professor Teranne"

Jean Genet 'The Maids"

Samuel Beckett "Waiting for Godot"

Harold Pinter "The Caretaker"

N.F.Simpson "A Resounding Tingle"

David Campton "The Lunatic View"

James Saunders "Next Time I'll Sing to You"

Tom Stoppard "Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead"

Edward Albee "The Zoo Story"

Arthur Kopit "Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma Hung You in the Closet, and
I'm Feeling So Sad"

Eugene Ionesco "The Bald Prima Donna"

Luigi Pirandello "Seven Characters in Search of an Author"

Suggested Readings:

Esslin, Martin, The Theatre of the Absurd, Penguin, New York, 1961.

Hinchliffe, Arnold, The Absurd -from a series The Critical Idiom, Methuen, London, 1977.

Kenner, Hugh, A Reader's Guide to Samuel Beckett, Thames and Hudson, London, 1973

Webb, Eugene, The Plays Of Samuel Beckett, Peter Owen, London, 1972.

Abbot, H. Porter, The Fiction of Samuel Beckett: Form and Effect, Methuen, Berkeley, 1973.

Abel, Lionel, Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form, Penguin, New York, 1963.


The Aesthetics of Noh and its reverberations in "back to becket"

Noh is sometimes thought of as Japan's "most classical" dramatic form and often compared with Greek tragedy. And like Greek tragedy, had its origins not in theatre, in the strict sense, but rather in religious ritual. With Noh it was a ritual centred on the miraculous appearance of old gods, who could release the participants from the sufferings of this life into the pure land of the spirit world.

Noh begins with the belief that drama must be expressed in pure form.
The purpose of Noh is neither narrative nor moral…but simply the expression of beauty.
The highest ideal or purpose of Noh is expressed in the Zen term:

YUGEN = beauty that is felt.

The energising ingredient of Noh is the artistic insight that true art is felt, not understood.

In the tradition of drama that we are probably most familiar with….something happens [in order for the story to be told]
In Noh something appears [in order for the story to be told]
[reference to "Waiting for Godo" where nothing happens twice, but things and people(!) appear]

In many theatre traditions dramatic climax is sought in crescendo,
In Noh the climax is sought in stillness/silence…not an empty space but a dynamic one. [no physical movement BUT the heart and mind is working at full capacity]

Noh emerged from its ritual beginnings around, 1380 and 1420, largely through the efforts of a father and son, Kannami (1333-1384) and Zeami (1363-1443). Both men came from a rural and rustic environment but they brought Noh into the palaces of Japan's civil, military and clerical aristocracies. By the late fifteenth century Noh had become a popular and at the same time sophisticated form of entertainment enjoyed by all social classes.

So Noh's recorded/historical roots are sunk six hundred years into Japan's past -but it has even deeper roots in the minds of its characters, and in the
deepest levels of being itself.

BEING = a way of being present.

Let us consider a being that can only move in a straight line. This world of the straight line is a one-dimensional space and can be easily measured.

Lets us consider a being that can move in any direction on a flat plane. This world of the flat plane is a two-dimensional world and can be measured by two straight lines that intersect at a point.

The world in which human beings move is a three dimensional world and can be measured by three straight lines that intersect at a point.

Now if we limit the length of the straight line the one-dimensional being will be trapped.
If we draw a circle around the two-dimensional being, they cannot escape.
If human being are locked in a room we are also trapped.

Let us consider a being that can freely move in and out of an enclosed room -this is a being who lives in the fourth dimension. We cannot actually see a being that has this four-dimensional characteristic, but we can imagine its existence.

This is the ontology of Noh.


Noh recognises that the reality of the theatre is entirely a matter of the mind and imagination of the audience. In so doing retains its connection to ritual by prioritising the role of the spectator. The sparseness of the staging leaves the audience's imagination to freely turn chairs, rocks, sticks and pieces of cloth into palaces, jewels, swords and costumes needed for their story.

Noh drama is often referred to as the drama of dreams. Not simply because of its "symbolic" structure or the surreal logic of its texts, or the otherworldly music to which it is performed, but because at the very centre of Noh is the dream.
The central figure in most Noh plays is not a living person, but rather a ghost or spirit who appears to other characters, as well as the audience in a dream or vision or hallucination.
Their first appearance on the Noh stage will usually be as an old man, for even as Noh is a theatre of dreams, it is also a theatre of transformations. The old man you see in the first part of a play may become something altogether different in the last part.



THE ABSURD......AND BECKETT..a brief encounter
1906 - 1989