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Tag Archives: Samuel Beckett

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Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this saying it’s me? Answer simply. It’s the same old stranger as ever, for existence, of his, of ours, there’s a simple answer. It’s not with thinking he will find me, but what is he to do, living and bewildered, yes, living, say what he may.[1]

Yes, there are moments, like this moment, when I seem almost restored to the feasible. Then it goes, all goes, and I’m far again. With a far story again, I wait for me afar for my story to begin, to end, and again this voice cannot be mine. That’s where I would go, if I could go, that’s who I would be, if I could be.[2]

In Texts For Nothing the narrative voice subverts its subject’s resentment in the face of having no-identity, that is, for being incapable of changing the course of events in the way of having an identity, and prefers not to will at all, to will nothing, rather than will nothingness. Beckett reverses Nietzsche’s famous saying about man and nihilism: “man would much rather will nothingness than not will.” This is not an impoverishment of the will, rather, it is itself a will to nothing which turns Beckett’s writing into a motionless flight, a static genesis, and at the same time a movement of thought which spirals around and within nothing, in the process turning the absence of something conceivable into a neutral voice through which silence eternally speaks and engages in a non-identical relation with the world surrounding it.

In Waiting for Godot there is nothing at the centre of the subject; no one comes, no one goes, nothing takes place. That place is the side of a road where there is a barren tree, and there Vladimir and Estragon share an aloneness, an intimacy. They give the impression that they have been there for hundreds, or even thousands of years, associating by their clothes with Charlie Chaplin’s persona, “the universal vagabond.”

Vladimir: […] To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us. […] But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come–[3]

In Waiting for Godot Beckett continues his project of purgation, or purification through reduction of life to its bare bones. According to Alain Badiou, as he puts it in his book On Beckett, to achieve this reduction of life and truth to their most naked forms, in his novels Beckett had to write thousands of pages in the way of wiping the slate clean and getting rid of the non-generic details of daily social life. To open up a space within the existing order Beckett had to unwrite the symbolic order in the way of subtracting the Symbolic from the Real. By situating Vladimir and Estragon in the middle of now-here, which he shows to be nothingness, Beckett gives voice to the Real of being, which is non-being. Beckett shows that at the centre of the subject there is a hole. The split introduced by Beckett in-between the subject and the signifier shows the subject and the signifier as constituted by a lack of a third party outside them. There is the absence of something in-between the fantasy and the social reality and the subject is this non-being constituted through and as the gap separating them. The subject is an effect of language, and yet this effect manifests itself only in the form of gaps, absences, cuts. That is, the subject manifests itself only in the form of a negativity from the perspective of the big Other. For the big Other excludes nothingness and death. The big Other wants subjects that are something within the symbolic order.

 What Alain Badiou has written about Beckett’s writing at the time of Texts for Nothing becomes relevant here.

With extraordinary lucidity, they tell us of the nothingness of the attempt in progress. They come to the realisation, not that there is nothing (Beckett will never be a nihilist), but that writing has nothing more to show for itself. These texts tell us the truth of a situation, that of Beckett at the end of the fifties: what he has written up to that point can’t go on. It is impossible to go on alternating, without any mediation whatsoever, between the neutrality of the grey black of being and the endless torture of the solipsistic cogito. Writing can no longer sustain itself by means of this alternation.[4]

It is in this context that Beckett’s Texts For Nothing, Waiting for Godot and Lacan’s theory of the subject coincide. At the root of this coincidence is a shared way of being in relation to the unconscious and death.

After being subjected to purgatory in his novels, Murphy, Watt, Moran, Molloy, Malone and Mahood are finally shown to be the embodiments of a split subject constituted by two clowns who have no role to play, their selves separate from their consciousnesses, talking to but not with one another. Vladimir and Estragon are both no one and everyone, none of the existing things and yet all that there is left.

The relationship between Vladimir and Estragon is in the form of a conversation with no centre, for both of the subjects of this conversation are constitutive of one another. The gap that separates them is the constitutive non-relation between them.  Beckett has taken almost all the measures required to concretely present the journey of being in time as being outside time. It is from Vladimir and Estragon’s perspectives that we see the nothingness outside the frozen image of two vagabonds in their immobility. It is from this gap that new thought emerges; out of this nothingness arises a generic multiplicity. Beckett stages this generic multiplicity by employing the asymmetrically dialectical encounter with the other. To do this he had to remove the character configuration and logical plot development, if not the pattern, from the scene of theatre. Reduced to their minimal needs the Beckettian characters confront the symbolic order and challenge the immutability of Cartesian discourse. Of the One, there is almost nothing left in Beckett’s work.

Man has nothing left to say and yet if he stops saying this nothingness the sublime objects will fill the unconscious and occupy a space that should remain empty. Vladimir and Estragon know that although they are not integral parts of each other they nevertheless cannot do without one another. They are doomed to share this irreconcilable and endless movement against themselves. As they speak they are moving further away from their intended meaning, and yet if they ever stopped saying words they would be immediately in touch with the Real which would be inordinately painful.

The Real of desire is a mystery even to the subject which can only be spoken around and yet never about; this nothingness at the centre of the subject should remain unoccupied for the subject to survive trauma and get free of the past. Freedom cannot be freedom if it is not experienced as a forced-choice. For freedom is the right not to choose to do something; saying, “This is not it!” And yet what is there to do but choose the least worse of all the alternatives. And rather than not will, for that would be total destruction for them, Vladimir and Estragon choose to will nothingness; as empty shells they shall remain free of the symbolic order by introducing a split between one another, within themselves, and between themselves and the social reality.

What’s at stake in Beckett’s project is finding the ways and the means of presenting a time outside time, another space, something unnamable outside the existing symbolic order. Beckett’s meaning is very fragile and it is precisely this fragility that makes a new beginning possible. Governed by the death drive the subject splits the given unities and continuities, introduces splits between the past and the present, and out of this tireless and yet exhausted activity of splitting new signs, signs of other signs, emerge.

Vladimir: […] Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. [He listens.] But habit is a great deadener. [He looks again at estragon.] At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. [Pause.] I can’t go on! [Pause.] What have I said?[5]

Pozzo: [Suddenly furious.] Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day he’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, in the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? [Calmer.] They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. [He jerks the rope.] On![6]

Only in one single instant all is lived and died. But this single instant takes a lifetime to pass. For Beckett its end comes when one confronts death. The characters in his Trilogy, Molloy, Malone, and finally the Unnamable, are all narrating their processes of deterioration, they are trying to give a voice to that time-space where it all ends and yet something other than the all of life in the symbolic order begins. Beckett writes how subject and the death-drive overlap. But he writes this event in such a way that this overlapping of the subject and the death-drive turns into a life force and splits the given unities including the Cogito. After all is said and done away with there emerges the not-all, that which remains after all is said. To say this not-all one has to expose the void within the symbolic order, to show that this void is constitutive of the symbolic order, and that without it all meaning would collapse. What happens in Beckett, therefore, is the process of self-deconstruction which shows the inconsistencies within the text and uses these inconsistencies against the intended meaning of the text. In Beckett we see that in the place of the transcendental signifier there is nothing. The subject is portrayed empty and the subject becomes a signified itself, an empty signifier, a signifier that signifies nothing but is itself signified. So where there was the transcendental signifier now there is nothing, as itself a signifier. We can see how it becomes possible to say the unconscious is a signifier, or as Lacan would say, “the unconscious is structured like language.”


[1] Samuel Beckett, Texts for Nothing (London: John Calder, 1999), 22

[2] Beckett, 24-25

[3] Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot,” The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 74

[4] Alain Badiou, On Beckett, ed. and trans. Alberto Toscano and Nina Power (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2003) 15

[5] Samuel Beckett, “Waiting for Godot,” The Complete Dramatic Works, (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 84-5

[6] Beckett, Waiting For Godot, 83

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Harold Pinter as Krapp, in Krapp's Last Tape, ...

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It is a characteristic of Beckett’s plays to give the impression that there is nothing outside the stage. In Beckett’s plays God is never allowed to die altogether, but rather God is made to be felt by the audience as his absence, as the nothingness outside the stage. Krapp’s Last Tape is a good example of this recurring presence of God as an absence in Beckett’s plays. It is very rare not to have a couple, or more than one couple in Beckett’s plays, and Krapp’s Last Tape comes especially handy as a Beckett play with a single individual in it; locked in the past and trying to figure out not only how he has become what he is, but also why he is in general. There is no concern at all with the future in Krapp’s Last Tape, unlike Endgame for instance, where Hamm and Clov, although they don’t seek salvation from misery, they at least, just like in Waiting for Godot, expect a message from without, from some unknown external source about which they know nothing as to its relation to their future. They do strive for the unattainable knowledge of the nothingness outside. It is as though all their thoughts, actions, and speeches are governed by the nothingness off the stage. Whereas in Krapp’s Last Tape there is no sign of will, rather than willing nothingness, Krapp prefers not to will at all.

The tape recorder is the projection-introjection machine in Krapp’s Last Tape. Krapp is now introjecting what he had projected over the years, likewise the tape recorder is projecting what it had introjected over the years. This change of roles between machine and man reflects a perhaps often-neglected aspect of Beckett’s work, that aspect being the ambivalence of Beckett’s relation to projection-introjection mechanisms as exemplified by the tape recorder in Krapp’s Last Tape. Krapp oscillates between rejecting the past and affirming it.

During the sixties we see Beckett’s plays getting shorter and shorter, and the subject deprived of the unity of mind and body, the conscious self and the unconscious. Beckett progressively shortens the text and moves towards theatrical, or visual expression. The characters’ experience on the stage is limited to people once able to live dramas and capable of remembering those dramas. Dispersal of the subject, disappearance of the body, the subjects reduced to bodies in jars, to a mouth, or merely a voice, are some of the characteristics of Beckett’s final period of writing. Now his characters are no more capable of doing anything other than trying to remember those days in which they could still express their thoughts and feelings on stage.[1]

At the beginning of Krapp’s Last Tape Beckett announces that it is “a late evening in the future. Krapp’s Den. Front centre a small table, facing front, i.e. across from the drawers, a wearish old man: Krapp.”[2]

Krapp is an old and lonely man. He is shown on his 69th birthday listening to tapes he had recorded on his previous birthdays. As usual he will listen to the tapes and then record his voice telling what happened throughout last year. Krapp is the analyst and the analysand at the same time. He listens to his past from his own mouth through the speakers.  The play opens with Krapp who has always lived alone, reducing his life to a few physical actions carried out in a ritualistic way. This is Krapp’s daily routine; a few meaningless actions. Sometimes Krapp goes inside and drinks, eats a few bananas, takes a few steps in his “den,” and as he says, he sleeps with the old bitch who comes around once in a while.

Krapp lives his life neither by writing his mind games as Molloy and Malone do, nor talks as Hamm and Clov do. Krapp has no memory at all. Besides, he does not construct stories for himself. His tapes are his memory. But like all the other Beckett characters engaged in a play of consciousness Krapp deconstructs his story by using the rewind, play, and f.forward buttons. All that remains is a mass of misery pieces of which are not even imperfectly remembered, a multitude of unrelated and disconnected thoughts and impressions about the past.

Throughout the play we watch the three stages of Krapp’s life. The most important stage is the one narrated by the voice of Krapp at 39. The tape he recorded at the age of 39 contemplates the tape that he had recorded at 29, and Krapp at the age of 29 contemplates the period corresponding to his youth. And all the past periods of his life are judged by Krapp at the age of 69, which is “the present.”

Krapp at the age of 29 looks down on his youth and at times mocks himself for being the way he was. He is very happy to have done with that earlier period of his life. That Krapp at the age of 39 does not remember that he used to sing shows that he does not want to remember those unhappy days of childhood and adolescence. Krapp at the age of 29 is at a stage in his life where he has to make choices and decide what to do with his life. (This is matter of laughter for Krapp at the ages of 39 and 69).

One of the most important decisions Krapp has to make is the one concerning breaking his habit of drinking and giving up alcohol. At this stage we see young Hamm from Endgame meeting Krapp. Krapp tells his story using numbers and statistical information. A numerical exactitude in his narration is clearly discernible. One other important decision that Krapp has made at 29 is about reducing the intensity of his sexual life. Perhaps that is why he broke up with Bianca. (However, Bianca’s loving gaze is remembered by Krapp even when he is 39). Krapp’s 29th year passes in search of happiness and eventual frustrations. 29 years old Krapp’s tape ends with a call to God to show himself? To this call to God Krapp at 39 (on the tape) and 69 (on the stage) laugh. According to Krapp at 39, from that miserable year there is nothing left apart from that lost lover.

In Endgame Hamm and Clov are the father and son repelled and yet attracted by one another at the same time. They can do nothing with or without one another, or they can neither do, nor not do anything with and without one another.

The stage decoration is such that considering the on-stage activity as taking place within a head is easy and helps to understand what Beckett and we with him are dealing with here. The portrait hanging on the wall is turned towards the wall and the two windows facing the external world are sufficient signs to associate the stage as the inside of a man’s head, with the spectators watching the play from behind the split open head. This is signified by the portrait of the father on the wall looking towards the wall with the nothing behind the picture turned towards the stage and the spectators. At some point in the play Clov even attempts to communicate with the spectators, he turns towards and addresses the spectators, which shows us that Beckett was trying to make this point clearer by making the audience aware of the inverted projection-introjection mechanism that they are caught in. In all his plays and novels, one way or another, Beckett achieves inverting the projection-introjection mechanism into the spotlight. And he achieves this precisely by putting under a magnifying glass the failures within the projection-introjection mechanism.

What Beckett wants to say by employing these unorthodox techniques in theatre is simple and yet sophisticated. He wants to say that to escape from the Cartesian mind-body dualism and the mechanistic view of the world associated with it one has to create an imbalance between the projecting side and the introjecting side, between apprehension and comprehension.

The creation of imbalance can take the form of either an excessive projection of the imaginary and the symbolic onto the real, or a lack of projection resulting in total introjection. In the first case the subject loses touch with the real and becomes a totally imaginary and symbolic construction, and in the second case the subject loses himself in the chaos of the real. In both cases there is a loss of gap between the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. And when the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real become one, the uncorrelation in-between them becomes impossible to be in touch with.  In Dissymetries Badiou repeatedly and recreatively points out that Beckett is not divided into two, but into three. To use Derrida’s words, “one plus one makes at least three.”


[1] Linel Abel, Metatheatre (New York: Hill and Wang), 82

[2] Samuel Beckett, “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 215

a very rare picture of samuel beckett… maythemusic:  en attendant… rions un peu avec Samuel Beckett

 Principal Supervisor: Laura Cull

As Beckett scholar, Mary Bryden has noted, Gilles Deleuze’s philosophical engagement with Samuel Beckett’s work is particularly focused on his early novels and latterly with his television projects, rather than on the stage plays for which Beckett is best known to theatre scholars, such as: Waiting for Godot, Happy Days and Krapp’s Last Tape. Known for his antipathy towards spectatorship of live theatrical events, Deleuze ignores these canonical plays in favour of analyzing lesser-known works such as the novel Molloy and the television play, Quad. Correlatively, there are few examples in current scholarship – either theoretical or practical – of Deleuzian approaches to Beckett’s theatre. We would be pleased to accept proposals from suitably qualified candidates who are interested in exploring the implications of Deleuze’s philosophy – beyond his specific commentaries on Beckett – for understandings of Beckett’s theatre. In turn, the project may wish to consider how Beckett’s own theorization of his theatre practice might feedback onto understandings of Deleuze. The project may be designed to culminate in a purely written thesis or in both practical and written outcomes. To apply, please use the online ‘Studentship Application Form’ (found at http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/sd/academic/sass/sasspg/pgfeedic/) and submit to Scott Burdon at az.pgr@northumbria.ac.uk
Informal enquiries are welcome – for further details please contact Dr Ysanne Holt (ysanne.holt@northumbria.ac.uk)
Deadline for applications is Friday 29 October 2010
Interviews will be held week commencing 22 November 2010

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