Published in Modern Drama - Volume 43 Number 3.

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Space, Time, and the Self in Beckett’s Late Theatre


“Let’s just say you’re not all there.”
Beckett to Billie Whitelaw during rehearsals for Footfalls1


Samuel Beckett’s late plays are, it might be said, both immediately, engrossingly present and troublingly absent, unfinished even while they are rigorously formed. They are theatre pieces that seem to pick apart the seams of the theatrical event; they both involve and baffle the spectator, giving her or him both the promise of physical immediacy (for, if nothing else, the late plays are troublingly there; each one relies for its effect on the precise delineation of a carefully crafted stage image) and the frustrating certainty that, in this world, few if any conventional dramatic processes are in operation.

Any Beckett scholar, reading the paragraph above, might be tempted to ask what is so remarkable about it. After all, the plays, from Waiting for Godot onwards, call into question those relations that exist, unremarked, in conventional theatre: the role of the spectator in decoding the text; the status of the image and of the text; and the relation between the two. It has also been widely noted that Beckett’s dramas, from the first, rely on a reconfiguration of the conventional idea of time and space normally encountered in theatrical performance (one thinks of Ruby Cohn’s persuasive term “theatereality,” for example, a term that identifies a fundamental confusion in the plays between the time and space of the drama and the time and space of the actors on the stage [30–31]).

This, of course, raises a fundamental question about these characters’ subjectivity: Is the character in a Beckett text occupying a world mapped out by the text or one delimited by the confines of the stage? Is he or she immediately present or infinitely removed from presence? How can she or he be understood by an audience, if the form of the play itself makes such an understanding problematic if not impossible? How can we, as audience members, make sense of these “people” (Beckett’s own preferred term) if we are unclear about their precise location and of their precise position in what is normally considered to be the linear narrative of life? In the canon of Beckett criticism, a standard answer has evolved, one that relies implicitly on a conventional idea of the way in which subjectivity is fixed in dramatic space and time. It is fair to say that, in most pieces of theatre, the relation of space to time follows a standard pattern: the timespace indicated in the play exceeds the timespace of performance, but the two are sequentially related. That is, the enacted events are themselves excerpted from a larger number of events, imagined as taking place offstage. Similarly, the setting of the play is to be imagined as only one of a number of simultaneously existing settings that together form the world described in the text. The spatial and temporal hierarchy thus established will, if described in a manner that is internally consistent, allow the audience to accept the subjectivity of the characters presented; they exist in performance timespace because they are firmly rooted in dramatic timespace – because they have a coherently and sequentially described existence outside the immediate confines of the performance. A consistent narrative, therefore, relies on the sequential ordering of events in two timespaces, simultaneously invoked by the dramatist and understood by the audience.

It is precisely this model, it has been argued, that Beckett’s theatre invokes and then frustrates.2 The characters are simply present. Vladimir and Estragon may not know precisely what happened yesterday, but they know that their present existence is confirmed, if only by the presence of each other; similarly, Hamm and Clov are adrift in the present moment, relying on the dialogue to fix them in place. Krapp’s past is, it seems to him, the tale of another man; Winnie’s past drains away from her as she sinks into the earth; but both confirm themselves in the present timespace of performance each time they utter or move. All these characters exist in a dramatic timespace that is indistinguishable from the timespace of performance. They cannot rely on a past history to confirm their own existence, their own subjectivity; but they can define themselves, even if it is only from moment to moment, in the actions and the words that they perform day after day and night after night. However, I would argue that, in the later plays – from Not I (1972) onwards – the relation between time, space and the self changes yet again. The nature of this change is prefigured in an area of Beckett’s work that has arguably yet to attract the dedicated study that its importance in his canon merits: the texts created for the electronic media in the 1960s. In Words and Music: A Piece for Radio (1962), Film (1965), Eh Joe: A Piece for Television (1966), and Cascando: A Radio Piece for Music and Voice (1963/64),3 Beckett, at first schematically but with a rapidly increasing ease and sophistication, uses the technical resources of the form to explore the fragmentation of the self. In Film, most obviously, Buster Keaton is pursued by himself. In Eh Joe, more interestingly, Joe tries to stifle a voice that is both his (it may, it says, be coming from his head [364]) and not his (the voice is a woman’s; it is tied in some unexplained way to a moving camera and to a light that rises and falls with the voice). In the radio plays, the creation of the text is presented alongside the editing of the text. Words and Music play at the bidding and direction of Croak; in Cascando, Opener breaks the last, gasping efforts of both Voice and Music into separate sections. The net effect of these texts is to render any notion of the single subject, present to itself in the timespace of performance, profoundly problematic. As an example of this, take the relationship between the camera, the voice, and Joe in Eh Joe. On paper, it would seem to be unproblematic; the camera and the voice both home in on Joe’s face, presenting the viewer with a simple visual analogy for the inner workings of his guilt-ridden but defiant mind. However, as filmed, the relations are by no means as clear. Both voice and camera are experienced by the viewer as external, but not necessarily linked (in the original BBC production, Jack MacGowran looks to the camera’s left in an attempt to locate the voice; a subtle gesture, but enough to invest the camera with an unstated but insistent agenda of its own). In Cascando, Opener would seem to be simply an editor; but the character displays momentary flashes of a subject never fully incarnated elsewhere in the text, and Opener’s spatial and temporal relationship to both words and music is never made clear. In fact, one might say that Opener’s editing function in the text creates an ambiguous spatiotemporal relation to that text; detached for much of the performance and then disturbingly engaged at the end, when it seems as though Words and Music may finally finish the tale of Woburn. Similarly, the late plays employ the idea of the editor, still working on the text, and the idea of a voice whose relation to the image is unfixed; the remainder of this essay will explore the implications of these ideas on the timespace, and hence on the audience’s knowledge of the subject, in four of the late plays: Not I (1972), That Time (1976), Footfalls (1976), and Catastrophe (1982).4


Not I begins with a movement from incoherence to coherence; the text instructs the actress to ad-lib from the text until the image – Mouth, gabbling away upstage to the audience’s right, suspended in the darkness, auditor dimly lit downstage to the audience’s left – is revealed (376). The text proper begins at a conventional moment (the birth of the character); we seem to be at the beginning of a comprehensible, if extreme, narrative. But then, almost as soon as this story is begun, it seems on the point of ending:

Mouth: … out … into this world … this world … tiny little thing … before its time … in a godfor– … what? … girl … yes … tiny little girl … into this … out into this … before her time … godforsaken hole called … called … no matter … parents unknown … unheard of … he having vanished … thin air … no sooner buttoned up his breeches … she similarly … eight months later … almost to the tick … so no love … spared that … no love such as normally vented on the … speechless infant … in the home … no … nor indeed for that matter any of any kind … no love of any kind … at any subsequent stage … so typical affair … nothing of any note till coming up to sixty when – … what?..seventy?.. good God!.. coming up to seventy … wandering in a field … looking aimlessly for cowslips … to make a ball … a few steps then stop … stare into space … then on … a few more … stop and stare again … so on … drifting around … when suddenly … gradually … all went out … all that early April morning light … and she found herself in the – … what?. .who? .. no!.. she!.. (376–77)

Within the play’s first minute, we have moved from birth to a state close to death: we have no sooner learned that the girl’s parents have both vanished, than we are with her at the age of (perhaps) seventy, at the moment when the world in which she has lived in the intervening time fades to nothing. A conventional departure leads to a conventional ending (birth moves to death), but the movement is abrupt, disorienting, unsignalled.

For the duration of the play, the audience listening to Mouth’s narrative is as dislocated in time as she is; we move back and forward through the life she describes without any sense of the fragments of experience ever cohering, or, indeed, any sense that they are ever likely to cohere. When, as the voice begins to fade, it declares, “no matter … keep on … […] hit on it in the end …” (383, stage directions omitted), we as an audience are still unsure what “it” is, or, indeed, whether we or Mouth will recognize it when we hear of it. The dislocation, though, goes deeper than this. It is not simply that the timeline of the play is uncertain: the character of the woman whose story we hear seems to be alarmingly contingent, as though Mouth, at the promptings of an unseen voice, is deciding on the facts as she speaks. Note, in the speech quoted above, that the sex of the child is not immediately established; Mouth needs the prompting of the unheard voice before she decides that the child is female.

It would seem, given the play’s title and the emphatic nature of Mouth’s repeated denials, that the question of the relation of the character described to the speaking voice should be easily decided; the character described is Mouth, and Mouth’s refusal to accept this identity is evidence of her extreme mental dislocation. However, the sheer contingency of the narrative constantly undercuts the easy identification that we might otherwise be inclined to make between Mouth and her narrative. It seems as though we are listening not simply to one voice recasting its experience but to the interaction of three characters in one narrative – the narrating voice, the unheard voice that edits the narrative, and the absent subject, never entirely incarnated either in the narrative or in the narrator. This is established not only in the text but in the ambiguous spatial relations that the play in performance establishes. The auditor gazes at Mouth: its intentness is signalled only in the hopeless gestures that accompany Mouth’s denial of identity. However, the text in performance suggests the unseen presence of a third character, to whom Mouth defers. One might imagine this as an internal voice questioning and prompting her; however, it can also be imagined as external, an interrogator unseen and unheard by the audience, but ever present to Mouth. A linear narrative, establishing a character unambiguously in time and space, is fragmented not only in the matter but in the manner of its telling; the very idea that this narrative describes and incarnates a subject (even though the subject might deny subjectivity) has been fatally undermined. (One can find an interesting variation on this idea in a version of Eh Joe directed by Walter Asmus and Beckett, recorded in Germany 1989, with Klaus Herm as Joe and Billie Whitelaw as the voice. The camera pursues Joe in line with the text’s instructions; but Joe is positioned on the right of the frame, and he does not look at the camera as it moves inexorably closer. The effect is to deepen the ambiguity of the voice’s location; Joe’s posture suggests that the voice is whispering directly into his ear, but the place where the one whispering would normally sit is, the framing constantly reminds us, empty).

This same tripartite arrangement – narrator and editor embodied in voices that may or may not issue from the self, and a subject who is simultaneously present and absent – is also found in Beckett’s next play, That Time. An old man listens while three interlinking voices play his memories back to him. However, the same indeterminacy that haunts Not I haunts the narrating voices in this play; the memories of childhood, love, and old age the voices recount are not finalized but are continually twisted into questions, implicitly aimed at the listening face:

A: that time you went back that last time to look was the ruin still there where you hid as a child when was that […] grey day took the eleven to the end of the line and on from there no no trams then all gone long ago that time you went back to look was the ruin still there where you hid as a child that last time not a tram left in the place only the old rails when was that (388, stage direction omitted)

The repeated phrase “when was that” occurs in two of the three opening speeches; those words hang over the remainder of the narratives, implicitly transforming the simple description of events into something rather more indeterminate. Ultimately, they serve to distance the Listener from the memories (if indeed that is what they are) that the voices seek to assign him; as a result, the voices’ habit of repetition reveals itself as not simply a stylistic trick or a narrative idiosyncrasy but the attempt to provide a correctly editorialized version of the story they are telling. This attempt ends, if not in failure, then at least in negation, as each voice brings its narrative to an inconclusive conclusion (“B: […] a great shroud billowing in all over you on top of you and little or nothing the worse little or nothing”; “A: […] another time was there ever any other time but that time away to hell out of it all and never come back”; “C: […] come and gone no one come and gone in no time gone in no time” [394–95]). At the play’s end, the old man smiles: this smile might signal satisfaction at the final telling of the tale, but we do not have enough information ,as an audience, to settle the matter one way or the other. We do not finally know what relationship the voices have to the face; once more (as in Not I) the play suggests an unseen spatial arrangement, the voices emanating from the darkness around the head.

Footfalls begins, if not in the real world, then in a world in some respects more concrete than that of Not I and That Time. A woman, fully (if dimly) visible, conducts a conversation with a voice situated offstage; the relationship between the characters (daughter speaking to mother) is established quickly and clearly:

M: Mother. [Pause. No louder.] Mother.
V: Yes, May.
M: Were you asleep?
V: Deep asleep. [Pause.] I heard you in my deep sleep. [Pause.]
There is no sleep so deep that I would not hear you there. [Pause. M resumes pacing. Four lengths. After first length, synchronous with steps.] One two three four five six seven eight nine wheel one two three four five six seven eight nine wheel. (399)

Not I and That Time begin in indeterminacy; we as an audience have to wait for the narratives to cohere – and we are never given the unambiguous promise that this coherence will come about. Here, we have characters fully accepting not only their subjectivity but also their relation to each other; more than this, the text exactly describes the image before us – as Beckett’s own stage directions indicate, the words synchronize with the action.

However, as the play develops, once again this identification becomes more and more uncertain. The very formality of the initial exchanges casts their status into doubt: this seems more ritual than conversation – and this sense is heightened by the near-exact repetition of the exchanges, recast into the past and into the third person, in both May’s and V’s monologues. By the time these exchanges recur, our sense of the reality of the opening dialogue has been further eroded, not only by the switch from dialogue to monologue but also by the spatiotemporal displacement of the story. From V, we hear of the prehistory and evolution of the image. The story she tells is a familiar Beckettian one: the child, marked as different from her earliest days, slowly degenerating into the ragged figure who paces before us. But the tale is clouded by the overt intrusion of the vocal tone that so characterizes Not I. As we hear the tale, we are always aware that it is being edited for us, and perhaps that the version that we are hearing is not authentic but is being adapted moment by moment:

V: I walk here now. [Pause.] Rather I come and stand [Pause.] At nightfall. [Pause.] She fancies she is alone. [Pause.] See how still she stands, how stark, with her face to the wall. [Pause.] […] Where is she, it may be asked. [Pause.]) Why, in the old home, the same where she – [Pause.] The same where she began. [Pause.] Where it began. [Pause.] It all began. [Pause.] But this, this, when did this begin? [Pause.] When other girls of her age were out at … lacrosse she was already here. (401)

The narrative begins with a momentarily confusing statement (“I walk here now”); although the impression is only fleeting, for an instant it seems as though the image of the absent mother has been transposed onto the visible image of the daughter. From here to the narrative’s end, the insistent presence of an editorializing voice is felt as strongly in Footfalls as in Not I; indeed, in this play, its impact is not limited to the audible rejoinders to an inaudible prompting. V’s voice incorporates both narrative and editorial (“But this, this, when did this begin?”).

With May’s monologue we return to the characteristic rendering of experience found in the first two plays under discussion. May speaks, apparently, of herself; but she recasts her experience into the past and narrates and edits it as though the experience were not hers. The story she has to tell, though, is far more halting and unsure than V’s; indeed, at one point it seems to be on the verge of total collapse:

M: […] The semblance. Faint, though by no means invisible, in a certain light. [Pause.]) Given the right light. [Pause.] Grey, rather than white, a pale shade of grey. [Pause.] Tattered. [Pause.] A tangle of tatters. [Pause.] Watch it pass – [Pause.] – watch her pass before the candelabrum, how its flames, their light … like moon through passing rack. [Pause.] Soon then after she was gone, as though never there, began to walk, up and down, up and down, that poor arm. (402)

M finds it nearly impossible to arrive at an adequate description of the image she embodies; the voices – narrating and editing – compete for mastery of the unfolding story until the final, haunting image (“like moon through passing rack”) is eventually reached. M can achieve this description, however, only by adopting the invocations previously used by V (“Watch her pass … ” echoes V’s “But let us watch her move … ” [401]). An adequate description, it seems, can be achieved only by abandoning all pretense to a single, unfragmented experience; M can speak of herself only by speaking of herself as other. The following sentence – “Soon then after she was gone” – mirrors the compressed prose found in Beckett’s later texts (“Still” [1976], “For to End Yet Again” [1976], and so on). It comes close to indecipherability both in word choice and in phrasing – the individual clauses seem to have only the most tenuous link to each other (“as though never there, began to walk”).

The only way to continue is to retreat. M recasts her narrative not simply into the past, as V has done, but into a new/old story within the drama. The mother/daughter relationship established so strongly at the play’s beginning is now recapitulated in the story of Mrs. Winter and her daughter Amy, a couple trapped in the same relation as M and V. However, these characters are introduced to the audience as though they had already been encountered (“Old Mrs Winter, whom the reader will remember” [402]), and the narrative that contains them also contains echoes of the narrative reported by both M and V (the child always disassociated from her surroundings, the church in which she speaks and walks, and the repeated question “Will you never have done … revolving it all?” [400, 403]). In effect, Footfalls tells the same story three times; but with each retelling the story is distanced further and further from its original source, and its status as the unambiguous relation of direct experience is rendered increasingly problematic. The effect of this displacement is similar to that encountered in other Beckett texts, most notably the troubling prose work How It Is: the apparent suffering of one character is multiplied as mirror images of that suffering are described. As this happens, the original story is lost. At the end of How It Is, the narrator dismisses the story he has told us; at the end of Footfalls, M disappears, her story unresolved, its motivating factor – the thing “revolving … In [her] poor mind” (400, 403) – still unexplained. Retrospectively, she has cast doubt over the apparent “reality” of the opening exchange; before she disappears, she does not recreate but re-enacts a version of the opening exchange, using three registers – Mrs. Winter’s, Amy’s, and, in a low, hoarse whisper, that of a stage manager, telling the audience the speaker’s name. She has shifted herself away not only from a new incarnation as Amy but also, perhaps, from her first incarnation as May. The opening exchange, reviewed in the light of the play’s ending, now seems very far removed from immediate presence (it is worth remembering that her name in the printed play is not May but M; May may be nothing more than the momentary tag assigned to an unclassifiable entity). Catastrophe seems something of an anomaly in Beckett’s theatre. Its visual style is less obviously late Beckettian – indeed, a bare summary would indicate that the play itself is a pointed joke at Beckett’s expense: a tyrannical director treats a silent actor as an object, moulding him into the correct, if rather humiliating, final image. The dialogue consists mainly of curt instructions intended to facilitate the creation of the perfect “catastrophe”:

A [Finally.]) Like the look of him?
D So so. [Pause.]) Why the plinth?
A To let the stalls see the feet.
D Why the hat?
A To help hide the face.
D Why the gown?
A To have him all black. (457)

However, a closer examination reveals the distinctive pattern of Beckett’s late work; but this time the pattern is worked out in reverse, as it were. The three plays discussed above use a coherent spatial organization (at least in terms of the development of the image) against a temporal framework that becomes increasingly uncertain as the narrative supposedly incarnated in the text is displaced further and further from the present time of the image. In Catastrophe, we watch a text, a narrative, unfold sequentially, in a perfectly conventional fashion; the image, though, that had been so fixed in the other plays, is this time the contingent factor in the production. It cannot be trusted; it must be refined, worked on, edited:

D [Finally.] Something wrong. [Distraught.] What is it?
A [Timidly.] What if we were … were to … join them?
D No harm trying. [A advances, joins the hands, steps back.] Higher. [A advances, raises waist-high the joined hands, steps back.] A touch more. [A advances, raises breast-high the joined hands.] Stop! [A steps back.] Better. It’s coming … (459)

Note that it is not a matter of simply refining the image: both D and A are unsure of the final version of the stationary character whose body they are manipulating. If the body of the actor is the play’s text (as it seems to be: D and A’s obsessive worrying away at the image would seem to suggest that, in Catastrophe, the actor’s body is the equivalent of Footfalls’s “it all,” That Time’s memories, or the unnamed “it” that mouth in Not I hopes that she will finally express), then it is an unfinalized text. As in the other plays, there is no predetermined narrative for the characters to unearth, no straight path for them to take. However, the play’s end overturns their efforts; and it does so by disrupting the spatial organization and the timespace that the play, to this point, has carefully established. The figure, this time, it seems, confronted with an audience, raises his head (against instructions) and gazes back at them; this simple gesture is enough to still the applause that has greeted the director’s final version of the image. However, there is some confusion over the precise provenance of this move. It seems, initially, to take place in the director’s imagination:

D: […] Now … let ’em have it. [Fade-out of general light. Pause. Fade-out of light on body. Light on head alone. Long pause.] Terrific! He’ll have them on their feet. I can hear it from here. [Pause. Distant storm of applause. (…)] (461)

But the figure’s unexpected movement seems to happen not in the director’s imagined timespace but in the timespace of performance. The moment is unsettling, both because it is an assertive act from an otherwise passive object and because it cannot be wholly understood as the assertion of subjectivity in a decisive act of defiance. We do not know why the figure has reacted like this; we do not know when the reaction happens; we do not know where the reaction takes place. The fragmented subject, shaped by the influence (visible this time) of an editor/director, has declared itself without, as would have happened in the earlier work, establishing its subjectivity through action.


Beckett’s plays are studies in absence; from the moment when Victor Krapp turns his back on the audience, through Godot’s non-arrival, through the unprovided conclusions of Endgame, Happy Days, and Play, the unacknowledged past in Krapp’s Last Tape, the missing rings in Come and Go, the plays have always relied for their theatrical effectiveness on the audience’s awareness of gaping holes in the dramatic timespace as explored in performance. In the later plays, however, the nature of that absence changes. To return to the categories briefly outlined in the opening section, it could be said that, in the plays from Godot (1953–1955) to Breath (1969), dramatic timespace equals performance timespace. All that we can be sure of in the lives of these characters, and in the lives of these plays, is what we see in front of us in performance. Similarly, the characters do not find their selfhood in a coherent past or in a planned-out future: they exist only as they act. In the later plays, even that certainty has gone. The timespace of performance is still closely structured; even the monologue in Not I betrays a pattern, a rondo constructed around Mouth’s denial of selfhood. The dramatic timespace – the constructed, coherent, organized sequence of thoughts, actions, and events that provides the basic structure of the self in conventional drama – is still being created for us, however, even as we view the play. We watch events, and listen to words, whose precise spatial and temporal arrangement cannot be finally determined; because of this, we encounter characters whose subjectivity can never be fully incarnated, since their place in the actions and the words of the play can never be grasped, even from moment to moment. As Beckett told Billie Whitelaw, M in Footfalls is “not all there.” The comment applies to all the characters in the later works, characters whose subjectivity is disturbingly evanescent, performed as it is in fragments of action that have no clear temporal or spatial connection with each other. These late plays are still studies in absence; now, though, they are studies of the partially absent self.


1 Samuel Beckett, qtd. in Kalb 235.
2 See, for example, Gontarski.
3 See Beckett, Complete 285–94; 295–304; 321–34; 359–67; 455–61.
4 See Beckett, Complete 373–83; 385–95; 397–403; 455–61.

Works Cited

Asmus, Walter, and Samuel Beckett, dirs. Eh Joe. Prod. Sueddeutscher Rundfunk/Channel 4/RTE/La Sept, 1989.
Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber, 1986.
———. How It Is. New York: Grove, 1964.
Cohn, Ruby. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980.
Gontarski, S.E. The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Drama. Bloomington:
Indiana UP, 1985.
Kalb, Jonathan. Beckett in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.
MacGowran, Jack, perf. Eh Joe: A Piece for Television. By Samuel Beckett. Dir. Alan Gibson and Samuel Beckett. BBC2, London. 4 July 1966.

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