Published in Modern Drama - Volume 43 Number 3.

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Beckett’s Dying Remains: The Process of Playwriting in the Ohio Impromptu Manuscripts 1


Samuel Beckett’s works originate as highly personal accounts of the author’s life and gradually evolve into elusive, enigmatic texts. In Beckett’s oeuvre, autobiography provides the foundation for writing that then undergoes a painstaking process that purges the text of the author’s identity. It is as though Beckett records aspects of his past with the conscious intent of undoing them, paradoxically developing his texts out of the erasure of autobiography (Abbott 1–3; Gontarski). Far from creating works of “cryptobiography,” that is, works in which the author only remotely disguises his identity, Beckett aims “not so much to disguise autobiography as to displace and discount it” (Gontarski 4). The progression of Beckett’s manuscripts exposes this refusal to accept the very autobiography that spawns his creative material. In particular, the manuscripts of the late play Ohio Impromptu (1981), including the many unpublished false starts now housed at Reading University’s Samuel Beckett Collection, exemplify Beckett’s attempt to unwrite himself through what he once called his “literature of the unword” (“German Letter” 54).2 This essay focuses on these recently acquired manuscripts to illustrate how Beckett’s unique process of self-erasure informs his final text. In order to elucidate this process before turning to the specific manuscripts, I introduce the concept of “derangement” and its contribution to Beckett’s dying presence in his works.

“The Old Ego Dies Hard”

In Beckett’s creative process, the eraser rivals the pencil, until Beckett the editor eventually supplants Beckett the writer. Through editing, Beckett reshapes the text in order to rid it of any explicitly personal accounts that appear in the initial writing as he labors to write himself out of the text. Indeed, undoing autobiography proves a difficult struggle for Beckett, a struggle that he identifies in his monograph on Marcel Proust. Written long before any of his substantial creative works, Beckett’s argument anticipates the problem of self-erasure that he would confront later in his own writing:

The old ego dies hard. Such as it was, a minister of dullness, it was also an agent of security. When it ceases to perform that second function, when it is opposed by a phenomenon that it cannot reduce to the condition of a comfortable and familiar concept, when, in a word, it betrays its trust as a screen to spare its victim the spectacle of reality, it disappears, and the victim, now an ex-victim, for a moment free, is exposed to that reality – an exposure that has its advantages and its disadvantages. It disappears – with wailing and gnashing of teeth. (21)

The only way for an author to experience reality without mediation is to destroy his established identity. If, however, the author does not challenge his old ego, his writing regresses into an expression of that dull and secure self. Thus the author faces the predicament of being able to say what he means only by not being the one to say it. “I” interferes with clear and immediate expression – “I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me” (The Unnamable 293) – and does not disappear willingly. The “wailing and gnashing of teeth” of the authorial ego shows that its presence refuses to die, haunting the text with echoes of its cries.

The author’s struggle to escape the old ego’s constrictions resonates with T.S. Eliot’s statement that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” (43).3 Beckett takes this concept one step further by claiming that such an escape effectively unveils one’s true self: “Our first nature, therefore, corresponding […] to a deeper instinct than the mere animal instinct of self-preservation, is laid bare during these periods of abandonment” (Proust 22). Beckett strives to lay bare this “first nature” by erasing personal details that he initially includes in the earliest drafts of his compositions. In this way, rather than aspiring to the condition of immortality, the ultimate in “self-preservation,” Beckett aims to bury himself in his own creative process.

The Deranger

Beckett uses his craft to efface, rather than immortalize, himself. Unlike that of his chief literary mentor, James Joyce, his writing is not about the apotheosis of the word but about its degradation into extinction (“German Letter” 52–53).

It is worth comparing Joyce and Beckett briefly, as the distinction between the two illuminates Beckett’s creative process (see Mercier 8–9). Joyce sets up a unique contrivance between himself and Ulysses that David Hayman dubbed the “arranger” of consciousness (69–100).4 The arranger’s function is to incorporate multiple layers of consciousness into a heterogeneous narrative without reducing them to a single voice. As a result of these multiple strands in the novel, the reader can no longer locate a specific narrator, a phenomenon that becomes even more evident from the multifarious voices of Finnegans Wake. Yet if Joyce posits an arranger of consciousness between himself and his work, Beckett creates a deranger to cancel out his authorial presence, a term that also speaks to the sheer strangeness of his writing. This deranger undermines the text considerably, accounting for the confounding footnotes in Watt, such as “The figures given here are incorrect. The consequent calculations are therefore doubly erroneous” (101). The deranging presence is more than just an unreliable narrator – it estranges the text from both author and reader. Once again: “I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me.” Here The Unnamable cancels out his identity by fragmenting his own thoughts. For every utterance there is an equal and opposite counter-utterance – an antiphonal antinomy – creating a contrapuntal stasis.

Whereas Joyce arranges many voices in his texts, Beckett deranges a single consciousness into several counteracting, self-negating voices, thereby making it impossible for any coherent voice to exist. This process closely resembles Hamm’s reminiscence of his childhood in Endgame: “Then babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together, in the dark” (Complete Dramatic Works 126).5 Their whispers, however, result only in a dissemination of indecipherability.

The Dying Man

Ultimately the authorial ego endures in the face of derangement, and yet Beckett persists in his struggle to write himself out of the text, as in Ill Seen Ill Said: “And if by mishap some left then go again. For good again. So on. Till no more trace” (Nohow On 96). “For good again”: the fear that a trace of the ego will survive “for good again” elicits the impulse to eliminate it “for good again.” The double entendre of this phrase captures the movement away from self-preservation and toward self-effacement that shapes Beckett’s writing. However, as a result of the enduring traces, the finished texts of Beckett’s oeuvre are not a palimpsest of his autobiography where all personal details have been erased; rather, they present these details under erasure. Deranging the authorial persona, or, for that matter, writing in another language, will not accomplish the complete self-burial for which Beckett yearns (Esslin 38). As is so often the case with Beckett, the process pervades the text – the process of being reduced to absence, the process of dying – so that over the course of composition the process gradually becomes the work.6 The way in which Beckett produces meaninglessness is that meaninglessness itself. The process is the message – the method, the madness.
the ohio impromptu manuscripts7

1. “I Am Out On Leave”

Beckett wrote Ohio Impromptu at Stan Gontarski’s request for a dramatic piece to be performed in May 1981 at an academic symposium in Columbus, Ohio, in honor of Beckett’s seventy-fifth birthday. Beckett hesitantly agreed and began work on the play at the end of March and the first week of April, 1980. Unsatisfied with what he produced at this time, he abandoned these early dramatic fragments (Knowlson 584–85), which comprise the false starts now collected at Reading.

I am out on leave. Thrown out on leave.
Back to time, they said, for 24 hours.
Oh my God, I said, not that.
Slip into on this shroud, they said, lest you catch your death
of cold again.
Certainly not, I said.
This cap, they said, for your deaths head skull.
Definitely not, I said.
The New World outlet, they said, in the state of Ohio. We
cannot be more precise. Pause.
Proceed straight to Lima the nearest campus, they said, and
address them.
Address whom? I said.
The students, they said, and professors.
Oh my God, I said, not that.
Do not overstay your leave, they said, if you do not wish it to
be extended.
What am I to say? I said.
Be yourself, they said, youre [ ] say8 yourself.
Myself? I said. What are you insinuating?
Yourself before, they said.
And after.
Not during? I said. (MS 2259/1, holograph on verso of leaf 1)9

The autobiographical elements of this early monologue are obvious – far too obvious for Beckett. The speaker’s “I” is virtually indistinguishable from the author himself, as both were asked to present something in Ohio. In MS 2930/2, on the other hand, this allusion to location appears in a different form: “Take the New World outlet, they said, proceed straight to Austin and show them what you were made of.” Here the speaker/Beckett humorously refers to donating his early drafts to the Humanities Research Center in Texas, which holds many of Beckett’s manuscripts. Indeed, through manuscript study, academics have come to know the many false starts, deletions, and strokes of brilliance which make up the author’s oeuvre, or what he is “made of” – his literary corpus. This sort of reference to the Beckettian academic world made its way into the final text of Ohio Impromptu in a less explicit fashion and appears, appropriately enough, at a particularly pedantic moment in the play. In keeping with his role, Reader reads aloud the following to Listener: “Now with redoubled force the fearful symptoms described at length page forty paragraph four. [Starts to turn back the pages. Checked by L’s left hand. Resumes relinquished page.] White nights now again his portion” (446). Just as I sift through countless papers in Beckett’s archives to interpret his texts, or as the author himself must have examined and re-examined his earlier drafts, Reader searches for an earlier section in his book. Thus it is fitting, after this pause, to hear Reader reading “White nights,” a pun on “Whiteknights,” the location of Beckett’s manuscripts at the Reading University Library (Brater 132). Requested by the academic world, Ohio Impromptu in many ways grew to be about it.

The speaker’s ghostly condition in MS 2930/2 accentuates the relationship between presence and absence that is critical to the development of the play. The only stage note at the top of this holograph calls for an invisible high stool for the actor, which would create the appearance of a floating character. Following this note, the opening line explicitly refers to the uncertainty of the speaker’s presence: “Let me first explain my pretense my presence in your midst.” It is appropriate that “pretense” was Beckett’s first choice of words, because this monologue is a pretense for Beckett’s own voice, just as the actor, at this stage of composition, provides a theatrical disguise for Beckett. Furthermore, phonemically, the speaker’s “midst” falls on the ear like mist to enhance the ambiance of illusion in the piece.
Toward the end of the piece, the monologist calls attention once more to his presence, this time by demonstrating his supernatural abilities:

Now I may sit.
Sits abruptly.
Halo please!
Light on head above & immediate periphery.
Before we begin do not be alarmed if I disappear go from time to time. Thus.
Light suddenly out & on suddenly again.

In this passage Beckett allows his character to experiment with identity; however, as is true of so many of Beckett’s characters, the core of his identity has disappeared (if it existed at all) while his mind and speech persist. The monologist tests the limits of his nonidentity with his brief disappearing act, only to find the evanescence, rather than essence, of himself. Thus he asks, partly to himself and partly to “they” who asked him to present himself, “what was I made of?” and an even more troublesome question in MS 2259: “Myself?” In light of this vague identity, the speaker often alternates between what “they said” and what “I said,” thereby creating an internal dialogue of two distinct voices within his monologue. This marks early stages in the derangement of the character’s identity as the collective voice of others interferes with his own.

In response to the speaker’s question about who he is, “they” provide a response that reveals that a character’s identity and his temporal domain are intertwined at this stage of composition. “Myself? I said. What are you insinuating?/ Yourself before, they said./ Pause./ And after./ Pause./ Not during? I said.” (MS 2259/1, holograph on verso of leaf 1). Before and after what? Judging by the speaker’s ghost-like presence, and knowing that he has already died in the past, the demarcating event must be death. In “their” response, the speaker’s past and future selves are accounted for – that is, before and after death – but, he seems to ask, “What about myself in the present? What about myself during death?” This question reveals the character’s wish to apprehend his moribund condition. Were there an hourglass at the core of his identity, he would try to behold the grains of sand in the process of falling.

Within this volatile temporal framework, Beckett searches for the right tense with which to conceptualize his character. A lengthy deletion in the opening line of MS 2930/2 shows the author, through his speaker, vacillating between tenses: “Let me first explain my pretense my presence in your midst this evening, or perhaps this afternoon, or even this morning.” Already, in the first line, Beckett deletes any references to time because none evokes the time(lessness) he wants to establish for both play and character. Thus, when “they” command the speaker to return “back to time” for an “indefinite period time” (MS 2930/2), the author is struggling to find the proper tense for his work. Throughout these early drafts Beckett strives to shape a domain of temporality in which narrative relates everything that occurred, will occur, and is occurring – a “mythological present,” if you will. The term is from Molloy: “I speak in the present tense, it is so easy to speak in the present tense, when speaking of the past. It is the mythological present, don’t mind it” (26). Molloy’s present tense is mythological in that it relates a story from the past that continues to be told. The mythological present finds the balance, or progressive stasis, between The Unnamable’s final words – “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” – wishing to stop and become part of the dead past but inexplicably committed to forging ahead. Furthermore, a myth is a story of unknown origin, and this lack of an absolute author fosters infinite variations on its narrative (Derrida 258).10 For without a definitive text, the mythographer will inevitably neglect certain details, embellish others, and confuse characters. The myth remains bound to the present because it does not stem from a specific author at a specific point in time but, rather, is recreated with every retelling in the here and now, especially when presented on stage. This mythological present is a critical feature of the published text of Ohio Impromptu, in which the majority of what Reader reads to Listener describes the recurring events in their lives, including at once their past, future, and present relationship. Ultimately, the two main elements with which Beckett grappled in the early drafts, namely, a character’s presence and the tense used to describe it, merge in the mythological present tense.

2. Needle and Thread

In the 1980s Beckett suffered from Dupuytren’s contracture, a hand disorder that leads to fixed flexion of the fingers. These symptoms appear overtly one year after Ohio Impromptu in Catastrophe, a short play that refers to the “fibrous degeneration” that causes the “clawlike” hands of the main character (Complete Dramatic Works 458). Beckett explained to James Knowlson that when he was composing Catastrophe, “In my mind was Dupuytren’s contracture (from which I suffer) which reduces hands to claws” (Knowlson 597). In the second group of drafts, the figure of a man tenuously gripping a needle and thread shows that Dupuytren’s contracture was also on Beckett’s mind during the writing of Ohio Impromptu. The presence of Dupuytren’s in these early drafts leads to speculation about certain aspects of Listener and Reader in the final play; Listener’s hand might be limited to knocking because it is permanently clenched, or Reader’s function could exclude writing because he is unable to grip a pencil. As a result of his contracture, Beckett’s arms had thinned out considerably, which could explain the metaphorical and actual references to arms in the final play. Another autobiographical element that Beckett incorporated in his early drafts of Ohio Impromptu was his failing vision, which continued to trouble him throughout his later years, especially after he underwent cataract surgery in both eyes in the early 1970s.
The sole typescript of the MS 2930 series offers the clearest exposition of the motifs Beckett was shaping at the time. Here is the opening block paragraph of the monologue:

{in hand} White face
Black eyelids

(Raises shaky R.H.) In his right hand, for he is – (Lowers RH.) Too loud. (Raises RH. Equally loud.) In his right hand for he is – . (Lowers RH.) Good. Now he may seem to be communing. With himself. (Raises RH.) In his right hand, for he is left-handed, he grasps the needle. (Raises shaky LH.) In his left the thread. (Pause.) Between forefingers and thumbs, mercifully spared by his contracture. Till now. (Pause.) Next he brings them propinquous >close<. Thus. (Does so.) Before his one good eye, the right – no, wrong, the left, against whatever light there may happen to be, at the time, and steadies himself for the attempt. (Pause.) Could he now close his right eye matters would be improved. But he cannot. For if he did, the left would close too. Thus (Moves hands apart.) Thus.

It seems as though Beckett wants this character to provide his own direction and generate his own personal qualities, yet at this stage the author’s voice remains tied to that of his character. Essentially, Beckett is thinking out loud through the character’s voice, and he offers several changes during the monologue. Hence the character frequently corrects himself by going over words and repeating them at different dynamic levels. Rather than establishing a degree of autonomy, his voice emerges as the voice of Beckett’s writing process. Thus, in the same way that Beckett refines the rhythm and nuances of these drafts by reworking entire passages of text almost obsessively, this character strives for tonal accuracy by repeating certain phrases.

The dichotomy of visual imagery that pervades the typescript is one element in the false starts that strongly influenced the final text. The white face maintains the ghostly aspect of the drafts discussed earlier, while the contrasting black eyelids introduce a morbid quality that those drafts did not possess. The image of the incomplete union of needle and thread, which consistently appears in this series of manuscripts, establishes the isolation of Reader and Listener in the published play. The description of sewing also symbolically suggests the creative process of weaving together various threads of a tale, an act that is readily apparent in the final play from Reader’s ritualistic reading. The visual contrasts continue with the juxtaposition of the operational left eye versus the failing right eye, reflected by the fact that the character is left-handed. With all of these contrasts, it is appropriate that the same typescript describes a situation in which the character suffers from “the mirror image of his present predicament” and that Reader and Listener in the final play mirror one another as doubles, or, alternatively, together constitute the right and left aspects of a single persona.

As in the first group of drafts discussed earlier, time remains linked to a character’s identity, accounting for Beckett’s struggle with tense in these drafts. On the back of the typescript quoted above, Beckett draws an interesting correlation between time and space in reworking a particular passage: “This means that he is gone. From himself. Or to. For a time space. (Long Pause. Head & spots up.) This that he is back. To himself. Or from. For a space.” Here time creates a space in which Beckett’s character develops with the ghostly qualities that defined the character in the preceding drafts. Within this space/time framework a voice speaks in the third person, searching for the identity of this ghost-character from without. Yet, unwilling to correlate time and space directly, Beckett deletes “time,” revealing his skepticism toward the representation of temporality in his work. In the first half of MS 2930/3, practically all references to time are under erasure, but toward the conclusion of this dramatic fragment time tends toward more of a “mythological present” that distinguishes much of Beckett’s writing: “For this needle were it now to drop, as it has >done< so often in the past, and will [ ] do often more & more in what I hope little time remains.” The event is recurrent and will continue to occur in the future, thereby establishing an all-encompassing temporality at the conclusion of the monologue.

Within this temporal space, character undergoes fragmentation. In the typescript, for example, the voice in the text directs the figure on stage externally, for the most part, practically dictating his actions; and yet the voice is not completely external, since it knows personal details about the figure, such as its failing eyes. Because of this split in the voice between external and internal knowledge of the figure on stage, it seems to be a clumsy hybrid of author and character. Perhaps, then, as opposed to thinking of an authorial interjection as a digression from the character’s voice, it is more precise to consider the character’s voice a digression from the author’s, intended to derange Beckett’s personal words.

In one of the unsequenced drafts of the MS 2930 series, the fragmentation of character occurs more explicitly in the form of a division between Voice and Actor (V & A), which reflects the split between author and character in the typescript. V, like the author, dictates the proceedings on stage. He begins by calling out stage directions, first asking for the curtain to rise and then for an adjustment of the actor’s spotlight. Once the stage is set properly, V proceeds to narrate the “needle and thread” monologue in the third person while A enacts the words. However, at the beginning of the monologue A makes a mistake and is promptly reprimanded by V: “V: In his right hand – (A raises L.H. into light.) The other, fool.” Here V and A are fragmented enough to cause a breakdown in simple communication; for, as the author is connected to his characters, V and A are closely related but estranged from each other. This separation and consequent differentiation of V and A marks a significant step in the derangement of a single consciousness, which will evolve into two separate characters (i.e., Reader and Listener) by the final play. One of Beckett’s general notes in the MS 2930 series provides the first sign that he was considering two separate people for his play. The note vaguely indicates that there are two characters who are “seldom united,” and either one has Dupuytren’s or Parkinson’s. Although there is no clear indication of either of these disorders in the final play, the note shows that Beckett began generating two entities out of what was initially a single voice.

3. Last Drafts and Ohio Impromptu Itself

Dupuytren’s contracture, failing vision, ghostliness, visual dichotomies, Gontarski’s request – these aspects of the earlier drafts influenced the final text, where they appear in an aesthetically transformed state. The details of Beckett’s relationship with Joyce are the most heavily autobiographical elements of the final text. The wide-brimmed black hat, described in Reader’s book as “an old world Latin Quarter hat” (Ohio Impromptu 446), is reminiscent of the hat that Joyce used to wear on the left bank in Paris (and Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses). Many of the real geographical sites of Paris where Joyce and Beckett spent time together take on a more abstract form in the imaginative landscape in Reader’s book. For instance, the two river arms in the book that “conflowed and flowed united on” (446) near the Isle of Swans recall the two arms of the Seine merging after flowing around the Allée de Cygnes, where Beckett and Joyce used to take long walks together (Knowlson 107).
The position of Reader and Listener, both hunched over an old volume, each with a hand on his forehead in deep meditation, is perhaps the strongest clue that the play draws on the relationship between Beckett and Joyce, suggesting the days when Beckett served as Joyce’s amanuensis in the early 1920s. At that time Joyce was nearly blind, and he occasionally dictated passages of his Work in Progress to Beckett, who would then read the words back to him. Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s biographer, relates a humorous anecdote about a dictation session that could very well have influenced the staging of Ohio Impromptu:

[I]n the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in’?” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.” He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator. Beckett was fascinated and thwarted by Joyce’s singular method. (649)11

While Knowlson contends that this claim is difficult to substantiate (106), Beckett still must have known from the Ellmann and Deirdre Bair biographies that the story was commonly told. Thus (perhaps in jest or tribute toward these biographers and other academics who perpetuate this tale) knocking made its way into Ohio Impromptu through Listener, who knocks either to make Reader repeat a section of the book or to acknowledge that he follows the narrative. The close resemblance of Listener and Reader also calls to mind Joyce and Beckett, in that the latter, only in his early twenties when he befriended Joyce, was at a stage of “hero-worship” and imitated Joyce by “wearing shoes that were too narrow for him, drinking white wines, and holding his cigarette in a certain way” (Knowlson 108). Moreover, both men partially fit the role of Listener, since both developed ocular problems in their old age.

The elaborate derangement of what began as a monologue by “I” – that is, by Beckett himself (or at least the closest imaginable record of Beckett’s voice) – is precisely what enables the text of Ohio Impromptu to evolve beyond mere autobiography. This fragmentation occurs in three basic steps, converting the heavily autobiographical monologue of (1) “I” into a monologue about (2) “he,” and finally evolving into a story about (3) “they.” The author’s self-fragmentation diffuses into his writing, so that the play he writes contains a deranging impetus that carries on this process within the play. That is, just as Beckett transformed himself into the “they” (Listener and Reader) of Ohio Impromptu through the process of writing, Reader or Listener becomes two people through the narrative within the drama. In the final text, Reader reads from an autobiography in the third person. From this vantage point, Reader is the (1) “I” who reads about a (2) “he,” who simultaneously resembles himself and Listener, or (3) “they.”

Reader himself causes the erasure of his own “I” in the narrative when he repeats a phrase for Listener:

I saw the dear face and heard the unspoken words [ ]
Saw the dear face and heard the unspoken words [ ] (447, emphasis added)

By the time the narrative repeats what the “dear face” said, “I” has vanished. Furthermore, in light of the sentence preceding the quotation above, the initial statement by “I” turns out to be the voice of a certain “he”:

Finally he said, I have had word from and here he named the dear name that I shall not come again. I saw the dear face and heard the unspoken words […]
Saw the dear face and heard the unspoken words […] (447, emphasis added)

“He said” prefaces the statement related by “I” because over the course of the narrative “he” supersedes “I” and contributes to the erasure of the first person. The subsequent jump from “he” to “they” does not require much linguistic artifice, since the two characters mirror one another onstage, a visual doppelgänger that elegantly dissolves the difference between singular and plural identities.
Within the first three complete sentences of Ohio Impromptu this fragmentation of “I” into “they” takes place:

R: [Reading.] Little is left to tell. In a last –
[L knocks with left hand on table.]
Little is left to tell.
[Pause. Knock.]
In a last attempt to obtain relief he moved from where they had been so long together to a single room on the far bank. From its single window he could see the downstream extremity of the Isle of Swans. (445, emphasis added)

“I” has no part in this opening. After the introductory disclaimer, the narrative focuses on a subject in the third person and quickly conjoins “he” with “they” in a smooth syntactical stream of mixed subjects. Is it simply,“he moved from where they had been so long together | to a single room,” or is it “he moved from where they had been so long | together to a single room”? The former is more logical; however, the rhythmic alliteration of “together to” invites the pairing of these words. Moreover, the lyrical rhythm of the phrase suggests ending with the four even, iambic feet of the latter, invoking the sound of four feet, Beckett’s and Joyce’s, walking in harmony.
So who moved: he or they? Well, both he and they, because this phrase successfully confuses these pronouns to reflect the striking visual resemblance of the two characters on stage. This volatile relationship between “he” and “they” sets up the synecdoche for the remainder of the play, as “he” is the central part of “t-he-y” and, appropriately, stands in the collective’s stead. The interchangeability of these pronouns is reinforced by the visual nature of the play, in that the two characters, although human in form, are hardly more animated than the words they study. Indeed, they are little more than an embodiment of these pronouns in the text. Subjected by the text, or, perhaps more precisely, objectified by it, Reader and Listener possess the dynamism of these dead nouns, “as though turned to stone” (448).
The confusion of “he” and “they” reveals that although “I” has disappeared, its substitutive pronouns still refer to it, and this lack of a central referent results in their frequent interchange (see Derrida 260); or, they are unstable electrons that replace or bond with each other but, ultimately, cannot complete their element because they circle an absent nucleus. This endless interchangeability provides the linguistic foundation for the derangement of a single consciousness into the two entities of Ohio Impromptu. True, toward the end of the narrative these fragmented dramatis personae “grew to be as one” (447), implying some cohesion of their identities, yet they have consolidated around a nonexistent “I.” In this way a single consciousness has undergone fragmentation and left behind its remains for readers and audiences to examine the archeology of a presence that once was. The opening line in an earlier draft captures this perfectly: “Little remains to be told.” Such an introduction not only highlights traces of the past in this narrative, but also evokes corpses and, most appropriately for this essay, fragments of the author’s writings left unpublished at his death.

Gone is Beckett’s “I,” which appeared in the earliest drafts of Ohio Impromptu; yet, while his creative process has undone many personal details, the final play contains no less of the author. Derangement does not elicit a chain of infinite regression that obscures the work’s original source. Quite the opposite: it is precisely Beckett’s insistence on removing himself from his texts that provides an indication of the author’s personality, for the residual signs of his working method reveal how, rather than who, he is.


“Little is left to tell.” This is the final version of the opening sentence in Ohio Impromptu, which earlier appeared in various forms that were unsatisfactory to Beckett in their representation of tense, such as “Little remains to be told tell” (MS 2259/2) and “Little remains is left to tell” (MS 2259/3). As noted before, “remains” offers an interesting, morbid tone for the work, yet it places too heavy an emphasis on the remnants of the past. Hence, after struggling with the tense of this opening line, Beckett finally settled on “Little is left to tell” to introduce the recurring mythological present. The rest of the final text shows signs of such earlier fluctuations with tense. Reader reads in the present – he is telling the story – although his tale is set grammatically in the past tense. Moreover, the narrative relates events in Reader and/or Listener’s past (moving locations and walking along the Isle of Swans), present (reading the story), and future (Reader will leave when the story ends), and it concludes in the present by describing the very scene in which they are situated onstage. In most cases, however, these clear- cut categories of tense fail to capture the all-encompassing temporality of the piece, as many connotations of time rely on the absence of tense. For example, “Then disappear without a word” (447) achieves the mythological present by introducing an ambiguity as to whether the disappearance occurred in the past, happens presently, or will eventually follow. It stretches time into an unresolved tension of tense.

The result is a language that is rather foreign, yet it is this sort of estrangement from the work that Beckett strives to achieve for himself through his intent of undoing: “What he had done alone could not be undone. Nothing he had ever done alone could ever be undone. By him alone” (446). Maybe not, but Beckett at least failed to completely efface his autobiography in good humor, with a wink in Gontarski’s direction. And later in the play, as though explaining its author’s insistence on undoing autobiography, the text states that “[r]elief he had hoped would flow from unfamiliarity” (445). In an attempt to seek refuge from himself, Beckett created a new environment with an “[u]nfamiliar room” in an “[u]nfamiliar scene” (445) to which he could escape, only to end up drawing on his autobiography once again. Yet in composing Ohio Impromptu Beckett managed to transform the personal details of his life and eventually, like Listener, to listen to a third-person biography of himself as though it were about an unfamiliar other. In this sense, Reader and Listener embody Beckett’s compositional process, in that Beckett as Reader ciphers the personal voices he hears, but by the time he listens to his own text the words are estranged from himself. In turn, this detachment enables the work to advance the disappearing act, or the dying, begun by the author. The story of the Isle of Swans in its complete form adds the final grains of sand to its creator’s burial, becoming his swan song.

Or was it that buried in who knows what thoughts they paid no heed? To light of day. To sound of reawakening. What thoughts who knows. Thoughts, no, not thoughts. Profounds of mind. Buried in who knows what profounds of mind. Of mindlessness. Whither no light can reach. No sound. So sat on as though turned to stone. The sad tale a last time told. (447–48)

These profounds of mindlessness appear in the text onstage and the text on the page, which dictate the end of Reader, Listener, and Beckett alike. Words are their end. Reader and Listener’s text states that they turn to stone, and a minute later the two characters do exactly that, staring straight at each other, “[u]nblinking” and “[e]xpressionless” (448). Their book, earlier the record of their lonely yet youthful past, now directs their demise. They are passive victims of their own text, unable to stop the inevitable conclusion that recites their eulogy while they become their own tombstones. This impending death explains the concluding sentence of the piece, which repeats twice: “Nothing is left to tell.” Yes, nothing is left to tell because the book has already announced the death both of these characters and of the text in which they exist – only the enactment of the death remains. So it is with Beckett: the end of the text lays his presence to rest at last. Yet Beckett left behind his manuscripts as a trace of the life that went into Ohio Impromptu, and these defunct drafts somehow continue to draw their eternally final breaths, for they are Beckett’s dying remains in which Beckett’s dying remains.


The Ohio Impromptu manuscripts offer a model case for the unique process of derangement described in this essay. When writing about the Ohio Impromptu manuscripts, both Rosemary Pountney and S.E. Gontarski had access to four early drafts, but not to the many false starts that the Samuel Beckett Collection at the University of Reading has since acquired, which provide a more complete examination of Beckett’s process of writing the play. Furthermore, James Knowlson’s recently published biography, Damned to Fame, makes it possible to locate the autobiographical elements in these early drafts with near accuracy. The point of this, however, is not to reduce the elusive essence of Beckett’s work to mere biographical facts but to reveal how his attempts to veil, displace, and even evade these personal experiences shape his writing. Knowlson’s biography is instrumental to this essay insofar as it presents the autobiographical germs of Beckett’s writing from which to trace his self-effacing process.

The Samuel Beckett Collection holds over twenty pages of Beckett’s early drafts of Ohio Impromptu, which are filed in two groups. The first group is MS 2930, titled “false starts,” which includes nine holographs and one typescript, all written on nondescript white paper, except for one passage written on half a sheet of grid-paper. Six of these manuscripts are ordered (2930/1–6) and four are left unordered, although Reading’s sequencing cannot be taken for gospel. The second group, listed as MS 2259, consists of one holograph (MS 2259/1) and three typescripts (MS 2259/2–4). (All four are published in Beja, Gontarski, and Astier.) From these two groups emerge three distinct groups of monologues: (1) “I am out on leave” includes MS 2930/1, MS 2930/2, and the verso of leaf one of MS 2259/1. MS 2930/1 is little different from the holograph on verso of leaf 1 of MS 2259/1. MS 2930/2, on the other hand, incorporates some variations on and digressions from the same themes, with generally more deletions. (2) “Needle and Thread” consists of MS 2930/3–6 and the four unordered manuscripts of the same series. (3) “Last drafts” includes MS 2259/1 (excluding the verso of leaf one) through MS 2259/4, which resemble the final text of Ohio Impromptu but differ considerably from groups 1 and 2.

The order of the manuscripts is not clear within and between groups 1 and 2, and the two even overlap in a monologue that both mentions a convention in the New World (typical of group 1) and refers to the speaker’s needle and thread (typical of group 2). So the division between 1 and 2 is not definitive and serves only to establish general thematic trends in order to aid the discussion of the manuscripts. However, group 3 clearly succeeds 1 and 2, which helps establish the basic evolution of Ohio Impromptu. My discussion first examines the three groups of manuscripts in terms of the autobiographical details at their inception, then looks at how Beckett’s writing process transforms such autobiography, and finally studies how this process itself informs the final text.


1 Thank you to Gilbert Sorrentino and Marjorie Perloff for their editing suggestions. Also, thanks to the Golden Grant Program at Stanford University for funding the original research for this project and to the Samuel Beckett Collection of Reading University.
2 Translation by Martin Esslin (Pountney 4).
3 For a different relation of this statement to Beckett’s work, see Ricks 1–2.
4 Hugh Kenner popularized this theory by devoting one chapter to it in his critical study, Ulysses.
5 The same concept of fragmentation for the sake of one’s own company arises in That Time when voice A speaks of hiding as a youth, “making up talk breaking up two or more talking to himself being together that way” (Complete Dramatic Works 393).
6 Similarly, for Beckett’s readers, the process of reading is central to interpreting the text. Marjorie Perloff champions such a process-oriented reading in her essay on Beckett’s “Fizzle 5, Closed Place”: “To read enigma texts like these is rather like being sent out on a snipe-hunt, that popular children’s game in which the players disperse in the dark, equipped with pillow cases, flashlights, sticks, and a set of rules, in search of birds they know are not to be caught. Not product as in the treasure hunt but process is the key” (208).
7 See the Appendix for an explanation of the manuscript order.
8 This word is published in Beja, Gontarski, and Astier as “stay” (192), whereas the actual manuscript reads “say,” as written here.
9 A note on the transcriptions: Crossed-out words are printed thus; a blank space within square brackets (i.e., [ ]) indicates an indecipherable word, whereas the same thing crossed out (i.e., [ ] ) indicates an indecipherable deletion; words between wedges indicate an insertion (e.g., This >insertion< makes a difference).
10 In “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966), Jacques Derrida draws on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of myths (from The Raw and the Cooked) to argue that today’s discourse bears no “reference to a center, to a subject, to a privileged reference, to an origin, or to an absolute archè [origin]” (256). This results in a “field of play,” that is, a field of infinite substitutions, because there is no definitive center to arrest and ground the play of substitutions. Moreover, using Lévi-Strauss’s assertion that “myths are anonymous,” Derrida states that “the absence of a center is […] the absence of a subject and the absence of an author” (258).
11 Deirdre Bair tells the same story in her biography (99).

Works Cited

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Beckett, Samuel. “German Letter of 1937.” Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment. Ed. Ruby Cohn. London: Calder, 1983. 51–54.
———. Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. 1955, 1956, 1958. London: Calder, 1994.
———. Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho. 1980, 1982, 1983. London: Calder, 1992.
———. Ohio Impromptu mss 2930 and 2259. The Samuel Beckett Collection. Reading University Library, Reading, UK.
———. Ohio Impromptu. Complete Dramatic Works 443–48.
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———. Watt. 1953 [completed 1944]. London: Calder, 1978.
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Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. New York: Simon, 1996.
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Perloff, Marjorie. “The Space of a Door: Beckett and the Poetry of Absence.” The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1983. 200–247.
Pountney, Rosemary. Theatre of Shadows: Samuel Beckett’s Drama 1956–76. Gerrards Cross, UK: Colin Smythe, 1988.
Ricks, Christopher. Beckett’s Dying Words: The Clarendon Lectures, 1990. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.


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