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Thursday, 12 November 2009

Beckett the tinkerer (part two)

Here’s a link to Part one if you missed it.


What Where was Beckett's last play produced following a request for a new work for the 1983 Autumn Festival in Graz, Austria. It was written between February and March 1983 initially in French as Quoi où and translated by Beckett himself. My Wikipedia article was thoroughly researched and is quite comprehensive but let me explain the gist of the play for you, at least how the play stands on paper. I'm referencing the (you would have thought) definitive Grove Centenary Edition here. First a summary courtesy of The Modern World:

After preparing the stage through a wordless rehearsal, a quadrille of identical figures entering and leaving, V calls Bam to the stage and sets events in motion.

Bam, who will remain onstage until the last moments of the play, greets Bom, and asks him for the results of his interrogation of an unnamed subject. The answer is not good – although Bom gave him "the works" until he wept, screamed, begged for mercy, and finally "passed out," Bom was unable to make his subject "say it." Bam accuses him of lying, and V summons Bim.

After asking Bim "Are you free?" Bam orders him to give Bom "the works" until he confesses that his subject said "it," and "what." After a season passes, Bim reports back to Bam, but he's had the same results – though Bom wept, screamed, and begged for mercy, he passed out without "saying it" or saying "where." Ever mistrustful, Bam also accuses Bim of lying. V summons Bem, and the process goes through yet another iteration, with Bem torturing Bim to reveal what Bom was hiding from Bam.

After another season passes, Bem returns with the same negative results. Now the only one left, Bam is forced to give Bem "the works" himself. Bam leads Bem off the stage, returning alone after another season has passed, his head bowed in obvious defeat. Satisfied, the Voice remarks, "Make sense what may" and switches off.

Beckett's descriptions of the actors are as follows:

Players as alike as possible

Same long grey gown

Same long grey hair

and even the voice has preconditions set:

V in the shape of a small megaphone at head level

He also describes precisely the layout of the stage:

Playing area (P) rectangle 3 m x 2 m, dimly it, surrounded by shadow, stage right as seen from house. Downstage left, dimply lit, surrounded by shadow, V.

and, if that wasn't enough, he adds a wee diagram:


So, what's wrong then with this production by the Silverlake Company of Angels?

Well, V has found his body for starters.

Or what about this version which was part of the 2003 Beckett on Film project which tackled all of his stage plays with the exception of the early and unperformed in his lifetime Eleutheria?

Well, there was no book in Beckett's stage instructions and would you look at the size of that megaphone and where it's located! And where's all the grey gone?

There is a clear difference with this second version. The political undertones . . . well, there's nothing 'under' about them.

This is Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four a few generations later, when even the eternal boot in the face becomes commonplace, making Bam's question to each new subordinate — "Are you free?" all the more ironic. There is no freedom here, there is nothing but the reflexive application of power, and not even their collective failure elicits any emotional response from Bam — just a vague, irritated resignation. Finally, Bam must face the fact that the instruments he uses to gain information have become useless, his resources exhausted: turning upon themselves, they only expose their hollow impotence. Indeed, it is likely that there is nothing really to confess. Left with only himself, Bam is the inheritor of a totalitarian regime of emptiness.[1]

You can read what the Damien O'Donnell had to say about directing the play here.

PlayTK400 Interrogation and torture appear in other plays by Beckett. Catastrophe is an obvious choice for those looking for a political interpretation (even though when you dig into the play this may well not have been Beckett's intention) but Play is the closest in comparison to What Where, three ghosts up to the necks in urns, answering when the spotlight shines on them.

If I can go back to music for a moment, the first version of Holst's orchestral suite The Planets I heard was one conducted by his friend Sir Adrian Boult; it's a rather stiff, very "British", performance. Later on I got to hear other interpretations — I have one with Karajan conducting and another under Andre Previn – and although I didn't hate them they weren't what I was familiar with; they were somehow wrong. To be fair Boult's recording likely is the closest to what Holst conceived but the point I'm making is that that was the version I heard first and so it becomes my base line, my definitive version and all others stand or fall by comparison to it. The first version of What Where I saw was indeed the Beckett on Film version and so when I got to see Beckett's own films they looked strange and I didn't really care for them that much. What Where was apparently shown on TV at a time when it could have been seen by school children who would have seen it and thought: This is how it should be done. This is one danger of radical adaptations.

On the surface What Where is really just an arty "who's on first?" vaudeville routine and considering many of Beckett's other plays where he includes vaudevillian touches (e.g. the hat routine in Waiting for Godot) this too is an obvious interpretation – the play is one long gag albeit a serious one. What's Beckett saying, that life is a joke?

The four characters could be components of a split personality and Bam, the dominant one, could be torturing the others for information they are incapable of providing.

Or is it more of an epistemological puzzle? I suggest this based on how Beckett modified the play in later years. Take this example where we see Beckett caught on camera actually discussing his 1987 American TV production. There are also excerpts from the play and from the 1986 German TV production of Was Wo where Beckett first decided to do away with the megaphone and replace it with a large head (invariably blurred) which he called "a death mask"[2] the voice coming from “beyond the grave”[3] and the action taking place in a “field of memory”.[4] In other words the only character who is sentient (as opposed to alive) is the big blurry head who is remembering what happened when he was alive.

When you consider Beckett's other work from this period this makes perfect sense because he often used the motif of a ghost in his works (both prose works and plays) even if not explicitly naming them as such (e.g. the mother's voice in Footfalls). This makes sense of the fact that the Voice 'pauses' the action / memory from time to time and 'rewinds' where the initial 'memory' is not the way he wants to remember it:


But he didn't say anything?




Not good.


I start again.






He didn't say it?



To my mind it does make that one aspect of the play clearer, that the disembodied voice is what's going on inside Bam's head — a typical Beckettian conceit:

Neither representation then of Bam is corporeal, Beckett representing instead a spectre and its mirror reflection, and the rest of the figures of What Where are ghosts as well, all the more so as they are re-presented by the patterns of dots on the television screen.[5]

But does that mean all of this invalidates any later productions that stage the play? And what about the later Beckett on Film version — why take a backwards step when all the technical jiggery-pokery would have advanced to improve on what was televisually possible in the eighties? I don't have an answer for that except to underline that the play has validity in all its different realisations but I do find a comment made by Jennifer Jeffers interesting:

quad The works composed for television . . . fare poorly whenever they have been performed as live theatre. […] The figures of Quad and What Where are conceived to dwell on a flat surface, backlighted and fluorescent, quite separate from the dimensional world of the viewer. On the screen they project a ghostly depthlessness; they move in a kind of spaceless no man's land. In contrast once these figures are placed on a stage in front of an audience, their material reality cannot help but be disappointing.[6]

Ignoring for the moment that What Where was originally conceived as a stage play her point really is that the original staged version of What Where was inadequate to encompass Beckett's vision. Beckett is famously reported as saying of What Where: "I don't know what it means. Don't ask me what it means. It's an object."[7] I don't accept that when he says he had no idea what the play is about he is being serious — he often gave answers like that just to shut people up or half an answer and he wasn’t beyond actual lying.

In 1988 the composer Heinz Holliger took What Where and turned it into a chamber opera as he had done with Come and Go in 1977 and Not I in 1980 all while Beckett was still alive. Yet another interpretation, one that could expose the musical aspects that are present in all of Beckett's theatrical works.

The last thing the voice says in the play is:


I am alone.


In the present as were I still.


It is winter.


Without journey.


Time passes.


That is all.


Make sense who may.


I switch off.

And that is the point. We are the ones — and by "we" I include the directors who take on this and any other of Beckett's plays — we are the ones who have to make sense of his words.

I'll leave you to ponder that.

What Where notes by Beckett

A production note at the front of the script has the heading ‘Process of Elimination'. Elimination, that is, of colour, visual, light and sound effects, with an unchanging black background.

Further reading


[1] 'What Where', The Modern World

[2] "‘In his Stuggart notebook Beckett wrote that “S (Stimme [Voice]) = mirror reflection of Bam’s face … S’s voice prerecorded. Bam’s but changed.’ This enlarged and distorted death mask … replaced the suspended ‘megaphone at head level’ of the original publication.” – Gontarski, S. E., ‘The Body in the Body of Beckett’s Theater’ in Moorjani, A. and Veit, C., (Eds.) Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd'hui, Samuel Beckett: Endlessness in the Year 2000 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001), p175

[3] Knowlson, J., Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p686

[4] Quoted in Gontarski, S. E., ‘Notes to What Where: The Revised Text, by Samuel Beckett’ in Journal of Beckett Studies 2.1 (1992), p12

[5] S E Gontarski, 'The body in the body of Beckett's theatre' in Angela B. Moorjani, Carola Veit eds., Samuel Beckett: endlessness in the year 2000, p176

[6] Jennifer Jeffers, Samuel Beckett: a casebook, p220

[7] Much as I try I cannot find out where this 'famous' quote comes from.


Kass said...

‘What Where’ is a perfect allegory for life's questions. They seem to be set in stone with sparse instructions as to motivation or realization, and as Beckett makes modifications, so do life's questions constantly change. If you subscribe to the 'consciousness theory of everything,' then it makes sense that it is all going on inside one's head. We all give ourselves 'the works' over the pursuit of meaning. Our 'baseline' could represent the tyranny of our upbringing. Everyone has a point of departure that is as hard to walk away from as it is difficult to proceed on a journey with your foot nailed to the floor. "There is nothing really to confess" is the most maddeningly accurate thing you've said (or quoted). If the torture in this play is political, couldn’t this be symbolic of our minds providing the most stunningly effective torture? If consciousness is all there is, then of course, physical reality is disappointing, but can't be blamed, as it is of our collective doing (or undoing). This song kept going through my mind as I was reading your post (not to make light of Beckett’s play – just illustrates how juvenile I am):
This Is Ponderous, Man
(that's a great article in Wikipedia, by the way)

Dick said...

Entirely absorbing, Jim, as was episode 1.

Elisabeth said...

I Beckett's unsettling, wonderful but unsettling.

I imagine that's what Beckett might have wanted - to unsettle.

I especioally enjoy his refusal to tell people his intentions with What Where. It reminds me of something Gerald Murnane wrote recently in a letter. He's had high raise from most reviewers for his latest book, Barley Patch.

'Do you suppose that every flattering review was the result of the reviewer's having fallen head over heels for my book. I suspect that several of my reviewers didn't understand Barley Patch but were too scared to say so...'

It's hard isn't it when we so long for a clear understanding of an artist's work but so often it's the unclear stuff that mesmerizes us.

I find the same thing applies to poetry. I often read a poem and scarcely understand the meaning of it. Something inside me longs for a cognitive understanding and yet the thing that thrills me is the sight of the words on the page, the sound of them as I say them to myself in my head, and the images they conjure up for me, idiosyncratic images that might well have more to do with me than anything the poet might have intended.

Beckett's pessimism distresses me and yet I love his ability to turn it into something beautiful. I read Waiting for Godot as a school girl and loved it even then. The images and the sense of it have always stayed with me. It's the haunting quality of Beckett's work that gives it its universal and timeless appeal. Thanks for this as ever terrific review.

Your copy of Barley Patch is in transit between here and Gerald Murnane for signing. Soon you should have it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Okay, Kass, maybe I'm just an old fart but I don't see the connection between the song and the article but it was a fun ditty I have to say. As for the rest of your comment, I think you've done exactly what Beckett would have wanted you to do. Rather than impose 'meanings' on his works he was very carful to give them as much scope as possible. Even when he used his own life as a basis for a work he would then go in an, to use his word, 'envaguen' it.

Dick, what can I say? Thank you, sir.

And, Elisabeth, I think you're spot on there. It's why songs like Stairway to Heaven continue to fascinate people because any meaning the piece holds is not blatant. We get bored when things are too obvious. We like to do a bit of the work ourselves. And that's how it should be, a collaboration between writer and reader.

Thanks for the update on the book BTW.

Dave King said...

Amazing. Explaining a Becket play, the effect is more powerful than you get from watching many another play.

Kass said...

Jim - you are not an old fart - that was just the song that was going through my head (as it often does when I ponder anything). I have to say that your use of language and the way your mind works has really had an invigorating effect on me. I'm going to try and "envaguen" more of my writing - or at least make up words like you do that describe more aptly what I mean. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The play reminds you of some lines from different works by Beckett -

Clov: Do you believe in the life to come?
Hamm: Mine was always that. ...


'' Where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know , you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on. ''


What do they say?
They talk about their lives.
To have lived is not enough for them.
They have to talk about it.
To be dead is not enough for them.
It is not sufficient.


.. As for the changes Sam made to the play over a period of time ,
all i have to do is look at him directing the video for the television production ,
and i easily forget about it .

Anonymous said...

'' Deplorable mania, when something happens, to inquire what. ''


Jim Murdoch said...

You're probably right there, Dave. The thing I find hard is sitting back and enjoying the play for what it is. I actually envy people coming to Beckett for the first time. I can never do that. But with some of the plays, say, or Krapp's Last Tape I don't think I could learn any more about them and so I can sit back a little and simply experience the piece, albeit not anew, but maybe afresh.

I was going to object to your suggestion that I made up words, Kass, but my wife tells me that I do so that takes the steam out of any defence I might put up. I was quite unaware that I did. Perhaps this is because many of these expressions have become so ingrained in me that I don't recognise them any more as new.

And, Dinesh, I know what you mean. Sometimes I feel that whole chunks out of one book or play could be replaced by whole chunks from another and one would hardly notice the difference particularly if that work was from the same period.

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