Farce and the Mechanical Body in Beckett’s plays

August 29, 2021 by Essay Writer

Beckett is fundamentally anti-logocentric. Throughout his work, he rejects the view that there is an essential order that can be discovered through reason. This is nowhere more clear than in Three Dialogues (1949), in which he deplores centuries of artists who, whilst ‘thrusting towards a more adequate expression of natural experience’, exhibit a foolish and mechanical ‘tropism towards the light’ (towards some imagined, rational reality). For Beckett, the relationship between the artist and his object is doubly unstable, because both parties are in a continual state of flux: the occasion is ‘an unstable term of relation’ and the artist is ‘hardly less so, thanks to his warren of modes and attitudes’. However, Beckett struggled with the ‘dilemma of expression’. How was he meant to expose the Pythagorean cover-up to his audience through the expression which he felt was so inadequate? The importance of an audience’s work is often overlooked by critics, but it is just this activity that allows Beckett to give his view, whilst avoiding expression as far as possible. He repeatedly defamiliarizes his audience through complex farcical situations and (which is entirely linked) through his conception of the mechanical body. In attending a Beckett play one should come to terms with continuously reemerging otherness in all things, and by extension with the non-essential nature of reality. One should be shocked out of ‘estheticized automatism’.

Much of the comedy in Beckett’s earlier plays revolves around simple farce. For example, in Waiting for Godot (1953), Estragon and Vladimir are constantly falling over each other, in the manner of circus clowns. One episode, in particular, displays high farce:

‘Together make a sudden rush towards the wings. ESTRAGON stops half-way, runs back, picks up the carrot, stuffs it in his pocket, runs towards VLADIMIR, who is waiting for him, stops again, runs back, picks up his boot, runs to rejoin VLADIMIR.’

Traditional farce is clearly present also in the hat-exchanging in Godot and Krapp’s humorous encounters with bananas in Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). However, this farce is never left just as it is. What appears to be farce in Beckett’s plays always assumes an important defamiliarizing character and transmutes into something far darker. At the beginning of Endgame (1957), for example, Beckett seems to be employing a simple form of farce through Clov’s actions. Beckett had read Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the comic (1900) in about 1930, and at first Clov seems merely to be fulfilling the definition of the comic as set out in Laughter:

‘He gets down, takes three steps towards window left, goes back for ladder, carries it over and sets it down under window left, gets up on it, looks out of window’

These actions are repeated many times (part of Bergson’s definition) and Clov has become more human than mechanical; he ‘nous donne l’impression d’une chose’ (gives us the impression of being a thing). However, Beckett very deliberately departs from Bergson’s model by making Clov laugh at the same point as the audience. This exhibits a certain self-consciousness which breaks down ‘the difference between same and other’, which Weller (2006) takes to be the uniting theme of Baudelaire’s, Bergson’s and Freud’s conceptions of the comic. Elsewhere in the play, Clov exhibits the same self-consciousness, which contrasts to Bergson’s notion that ‘the comic must be – more precisely, it must give the impression of being – completely unaware of its comicality’ (Weller). Most strikingly when he drops the telescope (typical farce) and the states: ‘I did it on purpose.’

The second time Clov laughs, his laughter is no longer spontaneous (he is looking at the same scene out of the window). This makes the audience question their own mechanism when watching comedy – is their laughter really spontaneous or is it manufactured? The third ‘brief laugh’ becomes very dark, and the audience is now entirely excluded from the joke. The final ‘brief laugh’ seemingly arises from the ‘blood-stained handkerchief’ covering Hamm’s face. Before any dialogue has begun, Beckett has collapsed the premise of expression upon which the theatre functions. The action on stage, traditionally, has the same (external) effect on everyone in the audience and clearly guides response. By deconstructing presumed sequences of cause-and-effect, Beckett is essentially shocking is audience out of their own mechanical ‘tropism’. In this element, Beckett’s use of the comic is reunited with Bergson’s. As paraphrased by Weller (2006), Bergson saw ‘laughter’s function’ as being ‘to recall consciousness to itself, to save the living from the non-living, the human from the non-human’. In a roundabout way, this is precisely what Beckett does.

This mutation of farce to force the audience out of their ‘automatism’ and into some more active experience is present throughout Beckett’s plays. At the beginning of Godot, Vladimir enquires how ‘his Highnesss spent the night?’ to which Estragon replies ‘In a ditch.’ This jarring of Estragon’s royal status and his sleeping arrangements produces a very straightforward comic effect. However, within a few lines the audience is lifted out of passive amusement:

‘VLADIMIR: And they didn’t beat you?

ESTRAGON: Beat me? Certainly they beat me.’

Throughout the play, the audience is made aware of their own reactions by a consistent suppression of laughter on stage (‘VLADIMIR breaks into a hearty laugh which he immediately suppresses’) and by reminders that, within the world of the play, laughter is prohibited (‘One daren’t even laugh any more.’). In Act Without Words I (1957) Beckett’s playful mutation of farce is pushed to its most extreme articulation. A man in a desert is subjected to slapstick farce at first: he tries to exit the stage and is ‘[i]mmediately flung back on stage’. He attempts this twice in a row, befitting Bergson’s conception of the comic. However, the farce becomes much darker. The dramatic space cruelly withholds the carafe of water from the man, who then thinks to hang himself, but the bough of the tree folds away. He then intends to stab himself with scissors, but these ‘disappear in flies’. The audience are made complicit in the man’s torture. After all, this is a scene composed of comic tropes which they would usually laugh at. Beckett seems to be asking the audience: ‘At what point does your simple farce become suffering? I dare you to laugh now.’

Beckett’s most renowned play, Godot, ends in a cuttingly appropriate way: Estragon’s trousers have fallen down, and, after some stock-farce-miscommunication, Vladimir succeeds in making him pull them up again. This episode fulfils an archetypal farce form. The fact that a play which has been filled with so much suffering, restlessness and even mentions of suicide should end in this way leaves a bad taste in the audience’s collective mouth. If Beckett were ever capable of being moralising, this is the point at which he is. He holds up the mirror to his audience, and shows them an ugly mechanical reflection.

In contrast to these complex, interrogative (and wordless) scripts, is Beckett’s first play Eleutheria (1947 – edition trans. Barbara Wright). The play was never performed, and Beckett did not want it to be published. The reasons for Beckett’s dissatisfaction with the script are clear, when assessed on the level of the comic. Simple farce is used throughout the play, especially manifesting in the character of Jacques (who punctuates the dialogue with his knocking on the door and obsequious replies), and in the comedy duo of the glazier and his son, Michel:

‘GLAZIER: Pass me the rule.

MICEL: But you’ve already got it.

GLAZIER: Monsieur.

MICEL: Monsieur.

GLAZIER: So I have.’

Farce in Eleutheria, for the most part, works on the most basic level. The audience is sure that, regardless of how disturbing Victor’s situation may get, the glazier and his son will always be on hand to lighten the mood. Furthermore, Eleutheria fails to create the defamiliarizing effect of Beckett’s other, more successful plays. Whereas in Endgame there is a disconnect between the audience’s response (repulsion and confusion at the sight of the bloody handkerchief) and the response on stage (Clov’s laughter), in Eleutheria there is a comforting alignment which creates a sense of security for the audience. For example, when Dr Piouk ‘laughs to himself’ when Violette Krap discovers that her son knows his father is dead, he is reprimanded on stage (Madame Piouk: ‘André!’). For Beckett, Eleutheria fails to escape the conditional expressive conventions of the theatre, and therefore fails.

Beckett also defamiliarizes his audience through a mechanical conception of humanity. In ‘Dream of Fair to Middling Women’, excerpt e., Beckett writes that ‘[t]o read Balzac is to receive the impression of a chloroformed world […] he has turned all his creatures into clockwork cabbages and can rely on their staying put wherever needed or staying going at whatever speed in whatever direction he chooses.’ The characters in Beckett’s plays, by contrast, cannot be relied on for any kind of logical continuity. Two exchanges from Endgame demonstrate this quality particularly well:

‘HAMM: The alarm, is it working?

CLOV: Why wouldn’t it be working?

HAMM: ‘Because it’s worked too much.’

‘HAMM: …it’s not worth while opening it [the window]?

CLOV: No.HAMM: [Violently.] Then open it!’

In Eleutheria, by comparison, human behavior is far more predictable. Indeed, the directions for the marginal action of Act I read: ‘[Victor’s] movements, although vague, nevertheless follow a fixed rhythm and pattern, so that the audience finally become more or less aware of where he is without having to look at him.’ This is yet another way the play fails by Beckett’s standards.

Humans are not a familiar species in Beckett’s plays. They are seen covered in dustsheets (Endgame), reduced to urns (Play, 1964), and periodically show themselves to be ‘unnatural’ (e.g. when Violette Krap calls her own son a ‘monster’). Beckett’s plays are, it seems entirely, set in some kind of dystopian future, in last last days of the human race. Humanity, rather than being a benevolent and loved species, becomes almost taboo:

Mme. Krap: ‘Marguerite told us that you love humanity. Is that possible?’

Mme. Piouk: ‘You’re twisting my words.’

Dr Piouk: ‘I don’t love it.’

Mme. Piouk: ‘He’s interested in it. Full stop.’

Mme. Krap: ‘You’re interested in humanity?’

Dr Piouk: ‘I’m not indifferent to it.’

By stepping outside of humanity in this way, and by eschewing all the rhetoric that is usually bound up with the human race, Beckett successfully creates a sense of ‘otherness’. In doing so, he exposes the mechanical nature which underlies human activities. For example, in Happy Days (1961), Winnie methodically brushes her teeth, polishes her spectacles, files her nails etc. and within the intensified space of the theatre these actions begin to look like farce. This gains significance when Winnie highlights that such mindless actions have replaced effective language:

‘What is one to do then, until they [adequate words] come again? Brush and comb the hair if it has not been done, or if there is some doubt, trim the nails if they are in need of trimming, these things tide one over.’

In this way, Beckett has made the audience aware of their own ‘tropism’; their own hopelessly mechanical way of life.

Beckett’s plays are uniquely concerned with the body. There is a ‘heart’ that drips in Hamm’s head and a ‘big sore’ inside his ‘breast’. Bodily fluids swill about all the plays (‘oozing puss’ and ‘sanies’ in Elutheria, perspiration in Happy Days, an allusion to semen in Godot). The strong emphasis on the body creates an othering effect. Like Dr Piouk, Beckett insists on his audience becoming aware that ‘You are your organs […] and your organs are you.’ This ‘othering’ of the human body, is arguably at its height in Eleutheria when Victor points out: ‘‘If I was dead, I wouldn’t know I was dead […] That’s where the liberty lies: to see oneself dead.’ Beckett seems to see a complete awareness of the human body as a possible solution to the issue of expression not reflecting experience. In Not I (1973), Beckett explicitly connects the body to expression:

‘her lips moving[…]the cheeks…the jaws…the whole face […] the tongue in the mouth… all those contortions without which…no speech possible…and yet in the ordinary way…not felt at all…so intent one is…on what one is saying…the whole being…hanging on its words’

By focusing in words, Beckett says, we are distracted from our visceral experiences (which are, ironically, necessary to produce words!). Not I attempts to remedy this situation to some extent, with fragmentary, almost unintelligible words (as in Play) and a spotlight on the actress’ mouth (Stage in darkness but for MOUTH). Breath (1969) goes even further along this path, completely getting rid of words and replacing them instead with a single physiological action: a human breath.

As Ulrika Maude highlights, much of ‘[t]he humour […] begins to recede from Beckett’s writing after Happy Days’. Whilst the comic element of the later plays is indeed lost, the foundation upon which this comic element was based (the mechanization of the body, in line with Bergson’s theory) remains. For example, in Quad (1984) ‘the players […] pace the given area, each following his particular course’ and in Footfalls (1975), May is also continuously pacing. Furthermore, in Rockaby (1980) and What Where (1983), both language and bodily actions reach an almost hypnotic level of mechanism. Such features of the later plays show the extreme impacts of ‘tropism’. Humans in these plays ‘seem to be losing species, regressing to the subhuman, trying to rehearse the figures of instinct but botching the job’ (Allbright, 2003).

In his correspondence with the director Alan Schneider, Beckett wrote that ‘my work is for the small theatre’, drawing a comparison between the performance of Endgame at the Royal Court (‘like playing to mahogany, or rather teak) and that at the ‘little Studio des Champs- Elysées’ (where ‘the hooks went in’). This points towards the essential nature of the active audience in Beckett’s plays. Indeed, throughout his plays, Beckett reminds his audience that they are watching a play within a theatre. In Eleutheria, a ‘Spectator’ even climbs on stage and takes part in the action, deploring the audience for being ‘even more of a moron than [the characters] are, rooted to the spot, disgusted, bored, tired, marvelling at so much stupidity.’ In Endgame, Estragon surveys the audience (‘Inspiring prospects’) and in Happy Days Winnie sees a man, representative of the audience ‘standing there gaping at me […] What’s she doing? he says – What’s the idea? he says – stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground – coarse fellow – What does it mean? he says – What’s it meant to mean?’. Beckett sought to defamiliarize his audience, to shock them out of their automatism and to expose the greatest cover up of history: that there is any such thing as essential meaning. This is how he came closest to expressing the issue of expression.

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