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Critical Essay by Shimon Levy
In a play "you have definite space and people in this space. That's relaxing" Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett, 1973. But the actual locations Beckett chooses for his characters and for the actors who play them, is anything but relaxing. In the first plays there is at least something an actor can relate to spatially—a country road and a tree; an empty room with two windows, two ashbins and a wheelchair; a mound in the middle of a "trompe l'oeil" desert. In later plays the actors find urns, a narrow-lit strip to pace on, a hole in the backdrop to stick a head as a mouth through. In some plays pieces of furniture are deliberately detached from the room to which they might have belonged—a bench, a table, a rocking chair. The rest of the stage space is referred to in words, lights, gestures and movement, etc. Some of the characters dwell on the very edge of the stage, suggesting that their existence is psychologically interior and real rather than exterior and fictitious.
Beckett characters are well aware of their spaces and stage locations; they go through precise routines of examining their whereabouts. In most plays they refer to their location first and foremost as a stage in a theatre; only then might they make other suggestions to where they are. There exists a whole range of unease between a Beckett character and his space—from slight discomfort to excruciating pain and suffering. In actually referring space to themselves, or describing it as a space of themselves, the plays manage to turn the public event of a theatre performance into a highly private matter. Lack of specificity on stage naturally avoids the realistic fallacy; rather, it calls for a process of "gap filling." Indeterminacies in the text … can here be seen in theatrical-performative and actual terms rather than as just "reading" into lines. In presenting a stage full with emptiness, Beckett activates the audience's imagination and involvement, and extends an invitation to make this stage space their own: a well-furnished fully decorated stage is perhaps more appealing at first sight, yet it cannot compete with the suggestiveness of an empty one….
The play most concerned with space is Endgame, where the stage is presented as the only still barely living place on earth. The main motif of waiting in Waiting for Godot is here replaced with "I'll leave you—you can't," justified by the "objective" statement "there's nowhere else." Waiting is associated mainly with time; location is of lesser importance. Perhaps the meeting with Godot is to take place somewhere else on the open-ended road. Accordingly, the activity in a "waiting for … waiting" play is a centrifugal pressure toward the outside. With all its variations of inner and outer places, psychological spaces and many "voids in enclosure" (which serve as spatial metonyms), Endgame examines the confinements of a location "finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished."
The characters in Endgame embody three stages of immobility, each governed by a corresponding limitation of space. Clov confines himself to his relatively large kitchen space (10m. × 10m.); Hamm is confined to his armchair on castors but can be moved; Nagg and Nell can only raise their heads out of the ashbins. In addition, the characters are all closed in by the stage, actors and audience are closed in by the theatre, and so on, ad infinitum; no one can escape.
Clov's opening moves in the play establish stage space by examining it. Stiffly staggering through the room, Clov defines the shape and size of the playing area; he moves sideways and downstage-upstage, and climbs up to the windows. His moves are related to the inside and outside worlds, and to the various "lids" and curtains that lie between them. He completes his trip in stage space by dryly commenting: "Nice dimensions, nice proportions."
The outside is said to include "earth," "sea," "hills," "nature," "flora," "pomona." Inner or closed space is represented by covers, and by closed and covered props and objects—ashbins, windows, the handkerchief on Hamm's face, the sheets over the bins—and in the dialogue: "here we're in a hole" or "put me in my coffin." Significantly, body and heart are also described in terms of closed space: "last night I saw the inside of my breast" and "the bigger a man is, the fuller he is … and the emptier."
It soon becomes clear that the concept of outer space and the possibility of escaping there is illusory. "Outside of here it's dead," says Hamm. Morbid imagery dominates references to the outside: "corpsed", "extinguished", "zero", "ashes" and "grey." Reversing the picture of Creation, in which Light, Earth and Water were the beginning of life, Beckett here reduces life to a blood-stained "old stancher." The room, grim as it is, remains the last source of life. In order to avoid a new beginning, a re-creation of the world, the rat will die outside and the little boy will not be allowed in. The colorful and lively scene of fishing on open seas dissipates into "there is no more nature." Nature exists, but only as a negative force: "We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!"
Through his manipulation of space, Beckett implies that spatial relationships and structures on stage correspond to the relationship between stage and audience. The characters are provided with various "lids" which reveal or unveil: a telescope, glasses, sheets, curtains. Through the curtains, however, one sees only death, the telescope detects nothing but extinction, and the sheets, once removed, reveal the pitiful sight of Hamm. All are momentary glimpses into closed and open spaces. Inasmuch as Clov brings Hamm information from the outside, he brings the same information to the audience. Opening lids, uncovering sheets and drawing back curtains suggest a person looking inside himself, and a stage being opened and exposed to the audience. The audience is drawn into the act of looking out, but the audience is on the "outside" and so ends up looking at itself. Like Clov, the audience cannot escape. Relationships among the characters mirror their spatial arrangement on stage. Clov's yearning to leave Hamm is counteracted by Hamm's paralysis and lack of will; Nagg and Nell echo this oppressive bond. The outer space for which Clov supposedly longs is suggested on stage by the two windows facing away from the audience. But the audience is also on the outside. Thus a third parallel is implied in the relationship between audience and actors, whereby the audience's yearning for freedom is counteracted by the actor's entrapment, or vice versa. Nagg and Nell, confined to their bins, often fantasize about far and open places. They speak of the Ardennes, the road to Sedan and Lake Como. Hamm, just a little more mobile than his parents, is interested in his immediate surroundings rather than in distant places. Clov, the most mobile character, is obsessed with his closed-in kitchen space. He says: "I love order. It's my dream. A world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the last dust." Beckett thus endows his most stationary characters with memory and imagination that can compensate them for their immobility, while his more mobile characters yearn for close and closed spaces.
Ultimately, the stage in Endgame is a self-reflective metaphor of internal or inner space. Because Hamm is blind, his perception of space is already interior; he can indeed look only inside his breast. Throughout the play, Hamm's gaze is directed inwards, whereas Clov looks outwards—sometimes with the help of a telescope—and mutters vague remarks as to what he observes. Neither the audience nor Hamm is convinced that the objects he describes exist in reality. Does he invent them? Does he speak of them in order to aggravate Hamm, console him, or both? The audience, with Hamm, is forced to depend on Clov's eyes, on his repeated walks to the windows, and on his reports about "offstage."
In Waiting for Godot, Pozzo remarks, "The blind have no notion of time. The things of time are hidden from them too." But the blind do have a sense of space. By referring to its own use of space, Endgame brings us closer to the concept of internal or inner space.
Shimon Levy, in his Samuel Beckett's Self-Referential Drama: The Three I's, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1990, 137 p.
This section contains 1,393 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)