Chapter VII

Two Mimes :
 Act Without Words I and Act Without Words II

from The Plays of Samuel Beckett  by Eugene Webb, Univ. of Washington Press, Seattle,1974, pp.86-90.

In his two mimes Beckett presents in very simple, stylized form pictures of certain aspects of the human condition. The first of these emphasizes the problem of man's relationship with an external world that is beyond his control and that frustrates all his efforts to make it habitable. The second concentrates on man's relationship with the internal forces that drive him and which, in spite of the fact that they are within him, are equally beyond his control.
Act Without Words I,1 which was first performed in 1957 on the same program with the initial production of Endgame, seems closely related both to that play and to Waiting for Godot. In Godot the defeat of hope led to the rekindling of the same hope, a vicious circle in which rejected illusions are stubbornly clung to as the only defense against the vision of a meaningless reality.  Endgame presented the possibility, if not the act, of breaking out of that circle. Act Without Words I carries its protagonist, "the man," to a point at which he finally learns the futility of all the hopes the world holds out to him and is able to face this and to resist all temptations to return to them.
   The scene is a desert in "dazzling" light. The dry, barren setting is a symbol of the emptiness and inhospitableness of the world man finds himself in, and the dazzling light corresponds to the consciousness man is forced to have of this condition, a consciousness that is both disconcerting and difficult to avoid. It is significant that the man is "flung" onto the stage : Martin Heidegger, a philosopher with whose work Beckett seems to have some familiarity, speaks of "
Geworfenheit," the state of being "thrown" or "flung" into existence, as the basic existential situation of man.2 Man finds himself alive and conscious in a world he did not choose and with various specific limitations in himself over which he has no control. This constitutes what Heidegger calls man's "facticity." The facticity of the man in Act Without Words I  is that of a person who finds himself thrust into a human condition that makes him thirsty and hot. He does not like the situation, but when a whistle from the wings tempts him to try to leave it, he finds himself flung back into it immediately. When he responds to another whistle from the other side of the stage, the same thing happens again. Already he is beginning to learn not only that he cannot escape from his existence, but also that the world he is compelled to live in is governed by forces that are beyond his control and that like to tease him. Having learned something of this, he ignores the next whistle.
   The remainder of the mime is a sequence of further teasing offers and disappointments, and the action is the slow process of learning which finally leads the protagonist to the clear and apparently final realization that to pursue any of the goods the world offers is futile. The man is tempted with various potential delights. A tree descends from the flies, offering him the possibility of shade as a relief from the heat of the sun, and he goes and sits under it. Then as he sits looking at his hands, evidently thinking that his fingernails look as if they need a trim, a large pair of tailor's scissors descend, and the whistle calls his attention to them. He takes them and starts to trim his nails. When the palm fronds close, however, and the shadow disappears, he begins to feel a bit suspicious and therefore drops the scissors and reflects.
   Next a small carafe with the label "Water" descends and hovers some three yards above the ground. Unable to reach it from the ground, he is given first one, then another cube in different sizes which he can pile up in order to climb to it. It takes him a while to master the technique, of course -- the boxes have to be stacked with the smaller on top of the larger rather than vice versa -- and he takes a spill in the process, but finally he succeeds. The process as it works out is interestingly similar to that described by Wolfgang Koeler in
The Mentality of Apes, which tells of studying the learning process of apes by dangling bananas high in the air and providing them with sticks to pull them down with or boxes to climb up to them on.3 The difference between Koehler's experiments and those to which the protagonist of the mime is subjected is, of course, that whereas the apes were at least allowed to enjoy their bananas in peace once they reached them, man is not so fortunate.  When our protagonist is about to reach the carafe, it is pulled up a little way to a position just beyond his grasp again. A third cube is offered for another attempt, but when the whistle calls his attention to it, he makes no move, so it is withdrawn. He is learning.
   But he learns slowly ; when a rope with knots for climbing is let down from the flies, he climbs up it, only to be left fall just as he is about to reach the carafe. His situation is like that of Tantalus in Hades, but the full reality of this becomes clear to him only gradually. He will never be able to receive any substantial benefit from the gratifications that are offered to him, and to pursue them will only lead to greater frustration, but he also has to go through quite a number of attempts before he can realize how futile they are. And there is no way that he can revenge himself on his situation or escape from it. He makes the mistake of trying to cut the rope with the scissors, perhaps in an attempt at revenge, but then is pulled into the air so that when he cuts it he falls again. With the length of rope that remains, he tries to lasso the carafe, but this is immediately pulled out of sight. Then he thinks of hanging himself from the bough of the tree, but is defeated when the bough droops. Having learned something from this, he renounces the rope and the boxes he was going to use to climb up to the bough, but forgetting one of the earlier lessons he lets himself be tempted to try to walk off stage again when he hears another whistle from the wings. Of course this attempt is no more successful than the others : he is "flung" back onto the stage, taking a spill as usual. He resists the next whistle, from the other side of the stage, but makes the mistake of thinking once again that perhaps he might be able to escape by suicide. Taking up the scissors to trim his nails, he notices the sharp edges they have and opens his collor to cut his throat. Just as he is ready to do it, of course, the scissors disappear. He sits down on the large cube to reflect on all of this, but this too proves to be a mistake : the cube is pulled out from under him and then up into the flies.
   Now he is left alone except for the tree.  Having fallen to the ground when the cube was pulled away, he makes no effort to rise this time, but lies there, his face toward the audience. The carafe is lowered again, and the whistle tries to entice him to look at it, but this time he ignores it. The carafe dangles and moves about in front of his face, but still he takes no notice of it, and it is removed. The bough of the tree returns to its horizontal position, and the palm fronds open to bring back the shade, but when the whistle tries to tempt him to move over to it, he remains where he is. Finally the tree is removed and he is left completely alone looking at his hands. What he thinks as he looks at them we cannot know. It could be something like, "What can I do with such a situation?", or it could be, "Now I shall have to rely on myself." It could also be a little of both. At any rate, he has come to an understanding of his situation. He sees that he can rely on nothing outside himself, and is determined not to be seduced again away from this realization.
   Act Without Words II (1959) explores the internal dimension of man. If man cannot rely on anything outside himself, is there anything inside him which might prove worthy of his hope and trust? What Act Without Words II has to say about this is that man is driven by a compulsive force that will never let him withdraw for long into inaction. This is an idea that was previously set forth in elaborate detail in the trilogy.4 Here it is presented in simple form in the life patterns of two men, A and B. like Vladimir and Estragon, A and B are two very different types who, taken together, presents a composite picture of man. A is "slow, awkward," and "absent." Unlike the brisk, businesslike B, he has little real interest in this world, preferring to place his hopes in another, as his praying at the beginning and end of his sequences indicates. The action begins with the arrival of the goad, representing man's inner compulsion to activity. The goad goes to the sack in which A sleeps and pokes it to waken him. A's reluctance to begin his daily round is suggested by the fact that the goad has to poke twice to rouse him.
   A's day is not a long one, nor is it enthusiastic. He crawls out of his sack, broods, prays, broods, and so on, stopping after each of his activities to brood a few moments before going on to the next. He puts on the clothes which he shares with B and which B had evidently tended very carefully, since they are folded in a neat pile by B's sack. he starts to eat a bite of carrot, but spits it out in disgust, then carries his and B's sacks to the middle of the stage, broods, takes off the clothes, letting them fall into an untidy heap, broods, prays, and finally crawls back into his sack. Evidently carrying the sacks to a new position is his appointed task, and once he has done it he can go back to sleep.
   The goad returns, this time poking B awake. B only requires one pole and is much more enthusiastic about his day than was A. Everything he does, he does vigorously. Where A brooded between activities, B consults his watch, eleven times in all, or his compass and map. Evidently he is the type who likes to orient himself precisely in space and time. He dresses rapidly and carefully. His bite of carrot he "chews and swallows with appetite." He does not bother to pray ; evidently he finds this world quite absorbing enough and is confident of his ability to deal with it. After performing his own duty by carrying the sacks to the further side of the stage, he removes the clothes A has left in an untidy pile and folds them neatly once again, winds his watch and crawls back into his sack.
   The goad returns, goes over to A's sack and poles. no response. After another poke the sack begins to move and A crawls out, stops, broods, and prays. The round is ready to begin again. The impression we are left with is that this cycle of arousal, activity, and return to rest has been going on since the beginning of time and will continue forever, if not in the persons of A and B then in those of others who will replace them and be substantially identical with them. The world man is thrown into may be absurd, and the progress man works toward may be as meaningless as the endlessly repeated shifting of the positions of sacks, but he has no choice about living in and for it. The conditions that govern him, both within and without, see to that.    


1 Page references are not provided for either mime, since both are very short. Act Without Words I appears in both Endgame and Krapp's Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces.  Act Without Words II  appears in the latter only.
2 Beckett mentioned Heidegger in the interview with Tom Driver, "Beckett by the Madeleine," p. 23. See also Webb, Beckett : Novels, p. 18. For Heideggar's discussion of his concept of Geworfenheit see Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (halle : max Niemeyer, 1929), I, 135 : English translation, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1962), p. 174.
3 New York : Harcourt Brace, 1925. See, for example, the photograph facing page 144 which shows a chimpanzee piling up boxes in order to climb up to a bunch of bananas.
4 See Webb, Beckett : Novels, under "Compulsions, theme of" in index, p.186.