"Nothing to be done" are the opening words of Waiting for Godot, and the line characterizes the entire drama. Likewise, the opening words of Endgame: "Finished, it's finished . . ." set the theme for this drama. These are the last words that Christ murmured on the cross: "It is finished." It is the end of the game. Beckett himself once described Endgame as being "rather difficult and elliptic" and as "more inhuman than Godot."
Part of the difficulty of the play lies in the condensation of the language. Act Without Words I, of course, has no language in it, but in Endgame, Beckett reduces language to its smallest denominator. It is even difficult for many to glean even the barest essentials of the drama. First, we cannot even be certain as to the nature of the setting itself. On the stage, we see a rather sparse, dim room with two small, high windows, one that looks out on land and the other on sea. There are two "ashbins" (ash cans) and a large object covered with a sheet. At first, the ash cans are also covered with a sheet, and thus the opening setting resembles a furniture storage house without any sign of life. The setting alone suggests various approaches to the play. The characters are confined to this bare room, which could suggest such diverse things as the inside of the human skull with the windows being the eyes to look out onto the world, or as one critic has suggested, we are within the womb. Outside the room, there is only devastation, with no sign of life (except maybe a small boy, if he exists, who (perhaps) appears towards the end of the play). The setting, therefore, is typical of Beckett; it is bizarre and unfamiliar, one that can evoke multiple associations and interpretations.
Against this decaying setting, the action (or non-action) of the drama is enacted, and it begins as it ends, with the words "it is finished," and the rest of the play deals with the end of the game. Unlike traditional drama, Endgame has no beginning and no middle; it opens at the end of a chess game, or at the end of life, or at the end of the world, and there is only "the impossible heap" that is left outside. In addition to the biblical echoes of Christ's last words, there are also various allusions throughout the play to the Christian story and to other biblical parallels. There are also Shakespearean allusions, along with multilingual puns and various, strategic chess moves. (For example, at the end of a chess game, only a few pieces remain on the board. Clov, with his cloven feet, hops about the stage as does the chess knight (or horse), and he is seen moving the "king" (Hamm) about the board one square at a time, but essentially he allows the king to remain stationary (whenever possible). Consequently, among the difficulties of the play are the non-action and the language, which has been reduced to a virtual non-language, but which is nevertheless filled with allusions to a great body of diverse literature.
At the opening, Hamm, who is blind, and Clov, who cannot sit, speak disjointedly about their life together; they are bored with one another and have lived together too long, but Clov can't leave because there is "nowhere else," and he can't kill Hamm because "I don't know the combination of the cupboard." Hamm controls what food or sustenance there is — thereby forcing the others to be subservient to his wishes. After Hamm inquires about his pain-killer and asks some seemingly irrelevant questions about some nonexistent bicycle wheels, Clov departs; the lid on one of the ash cans lifts, and Nagg, Hamm's father, looks out and asks for food. We hear that Nagg has no legs, only stumps, and is always kept in one of the ash cans. Clov returns and gives Nagg a biscuit, and as Nagg begins to nag about the biscuit, Clov forces him back into the ash can and closes the lid. After a brief discussion about Clov's seeds, which "haven't sprouted" (an allusion to Eliot's Wasteland), Clov departs.
Nagg reappears in his ash can and knocks on the adjacent ash can. Nell, Nagg's wife and Hamm's mother, appears and they reminisce about how they lost their legs in an accident on a tandem bicycle in northern France. Then they remember another incident which happened long ago, when they were engaged and were rowing on Lake Como. Then, Nagg told a story about a tailor who took longer to make a pair of striped trousers than it took God to make the world. But, according to the tailor, the trousers were better made than is the world. Hamm then whistles for Clov, who returns, and Nagg and Nell are forced back into their ash cans and the lids are replaced.
After Clov takes Hamm for a spin about the room and returns him to the exact center of the room, Hamm wants Clov to look out a window and report to him. Clov must get the stepladder (he has either shrunk or else the windows have risen) and the telescope. He looks out and reports that there is "Zero . . . (He looks) . . . zero . . . (He looks) . . . and zero."
After a discussion about the state of the earth (they wonder what would happen if a rational being came back to the earth), Clov discovers a flea on himself, which occupies his complete attention. Afterwards, Hamm wants to get on a raft and go somewhere, and he reminds Clov that someday Clov will be "like me. You'll be sitting there, a speck in the void, in the dark, forever." (The blind Pozzo in Waiting for Godot also says approximately the same thing: "One day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf . . . one day we shall die . . . is that not enough . . .") Hamm then promises to give Clov the combination to the cupboard if Clov will promise "to finish me." When Clov refuses, Hamm reminds Clov of the time long ago when Clov first came here and Hamm was "a father" to him. This thought causes Hamm to ask for his toy dog to play with.
Suddenly, Hamm asks about Mother Pegg and if her light is on and whether or not she is buried, but Clov replies that he has had nothing to do with her or her burial. Then Hamm wants his "gaff," or stick, to move the chair; also, he wants the wheels (casters) oiled, but they were oiled yesterday, and yesterday was like all other days — "All life long the same inanities." Hamm wants to tell his story, but when Clov refuses to listen to it, Hamm insists that he awaken Nagg to listen to the story.
Hamm's story involves a man who comes crawling towards him on his belly. The man wants "bread for his brat." Hamm has no bread, but maybe there is a pot of porridge. The man asks Hamm to take in his child — if the child is still alive. Hamm can still see the man, "his hands flat on the ground, glaring . . . with his mad eyes." The story will soon be finished unless Hamm decides to "bring in other characters."
Hamm whistles for Clov, who excitedly exclaims that he's found a rat in the kitchen. Despite the fact that Clov has only exterminated "half the rat," Hamm says that can wait; for the present, they must all "pray to God." After several futile attempts to pray, Hamm concludes: "The bastard! He doesn't exist."
When Hamm's father begins wailing for a sugar plum, he reminds his son of how he used to cry in the night. Nagg and Nell let him cry, even moved him "out of earshot" so they could sleep in peace. Someday, Nagg warns, Hamm will cry out again for his father. He then sinks back into his ash can and closes the lid behind him.
Clov begins to straighten up the room ("I love order"), and he wonders how Hamm is progressing with his story (his chronicle). Hamm says that he has made some progress with the story up to the point where the man wants to bring a small child with him to tend Hamm's garden, but the creative effort has exhausted him.
Hamm then inquires about his parents. Clov looks into the ash cans and reports that it looks as though Nell is dead, but Nagg is not; Nagg is crying. Hamm's only reaction is to ask to be moved by the window where he wants to hear the sea, but Clov tells him that this is impossible. After he checks on Nagg once again, refusing to kiss Hamm or even to give a hand to hold, Clov exits to check on the trapped rat in the kitchen.
Alone, Hamm ruminates almost incoherently about life and possible death and then blows his whistle for Clov; he inquires whether or not the rat got away and about his pain-killer. It is finally time for it, he says, but now "there is no more pain-killer." Hamm then wants Clov to look through the windows and give him a report. Clov looks out "at this muckheap," but it is not clear enough to see anything. Hamm wonders "what happened." For Clov, whatever happened doesn't matter, and he reminds Hamm that when Hamm refused to give old Mother Pegg some oil for her lamps, he knew that she would die "of boredom."
Clov, when ordered to get something, wonders why he always obeys Hamm, and Hamm suggests that perhaps it's because of compassion. As Clov is about to look out through the telescope, Hamm demands his toy dog. When Clov throws it to him, Hamm tells Clov to hit him with an axe or with his stick, but not with the dog. He would like to be placed in his coffin, but "there are no more coffins." Clov looks out the window toward "the filth" and says that it will be the last time; this is to be the end of the game. Suddenly, he sees something that "looks like a small boy." Clov wants to go see, but Hamm is against it. Hamm then announces that "it's the end, Clov; we've come to the end." Hamm says he doesn't need Clov anymore, and Clov prepares to leave. He makes a final speech to Hamm: "You must learn to suffer better . . . if you want them to weary of punishing you." Clov then exits while Hamm asks one last favor, but Clov doesn't hear it. In a few moments, Clov reenters, dressed for traveling. He stands impassively while Hamm continues his chronicle about the man coming to him, wanting to bring a child. At the end, Hamm calls out to Nagg and then to Clov. With no answer, he then covers his face with his handkerchief as the curtain falls.
One could easily conclude from the above that nothing happens, and this is part of Beckett's purpose. The world ends, according to T. S. Eliot, not with a bang but with a whimper. In this play, most of the things that Western civilization has stood for seem no longer to matter — God, family ties, respect for parents, love, prayer, loyalty, and religion — everything is meaningless here as the end of the game is being played; everything outside is zero. The only people remaining are sterile and despairing (one rotting); they "have had enough of this thing."
In Endgame, as in so many of his other plays, Beckett utilizes several sets of polarities which characterize most of his plays (Act Without Words I is something of an exception to the rule). Among the most obvious polarities here are
(1) Hamm versus Clov: Hamm, when he is uncovered, is seen immediately to be a mass of decaying flesh in contrast to Clov, whose name is the same of a preservative spice — thus
(2) decay versus preservative;
(3) standing versus sitting: Clov must constantly move about the stage to preserve the status quo of the situation, giving us the polarity of
(4) movement (Clov) versus non-movement (Hamm);
(5) sight versus blindness: not only is Hamm decaying, but he is also blind and must rely upon Clov to see all things for him. The
(6) master versus slave polarity is similar to the Pozzo–Lucky polarity; Pozzo and Hamm as masters are blind and must be led (or attended to) by the slaves, Lucky and Clov;
(7) inside versus outside polarities are emphasized by the
(8) left and right windows, through which Clov is able to report what is going on outside;
(9) Nagg and Nell, the parents of Hamm, seem to suggest the muckheap which Beckett sees mankind as being. Ultimately, the concept
(10) of life versus death informs most of the play.
Whereas twice in Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon consider suicide by hanging, the idea of death pervades this entire play, from its title (the End of the Game) to the presumed death of Nell during the play and includes death images throughout the play — all indicating the possible death and fall of civilization as we know it. These, at least, are part of the complex polarities and images which Beckett uses in investigating man's absurd existence in an absurd world.
All That Fall
Unlike Beckett's other works, All That Fall was commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) explicitly for radio presentation. This work can be considered as a type of contrasting companion piece to Act Without Words I, a play that has no dialogue, no spoken words, and no sound effects except the sound of a whistle; the play relies entirely on mime. In contrast, All That Fall relies a great deal for its impact on sound effects and a very careful attention to the spoken word and the various death images that run throughout the play.
In outline form, the play could be said to most resemble the structure of Don Quixote — that is, it is picaresque; in the same way that the old, decrepit Don Quixote sallied forth and encountered a series of adventures, usually of an absurd nature, in All That Fall, Mrs. Maddy Rooney (in her seventies) is found to be on a difficult journey to the train station to meet her blind husband. On the way, she has a series of ludicrous or absurd adventures. First, she meets the local dung carrier, who tries to sell her a load of dung which she does not need. After he drags his "cleg-tormented" hinny (a sterile, hybrid animal resembling a mule) and dung wagon away, we hear the sound of a bicycle bell, and Mr. Tyler, a retired bill-broker, squeaks to a stop. While telling how his daughter's operation rendered her barren, he is almost killed by a passing motor van, which covers them "white with dust from head to foot," making them interrupt their journey until "this vile dust falls back upon the viler worms." As the two travel onward, she bemoans the death of her only daughter, Minnie.
After Mr. Tyler pedals off on his bicycle, Mr. Slocum (slow come), a clerk of the racecourse, draws up beside her in his automobile and offers her a ride. She is, however, too old and fat to climb in alone, and Mr. Slocum has to push her in. He tries to start the car, but it has died. After finally getting it started again, he drives over a hen, killing her. Arriving at the station, the porter, Tommy, tries to help Mrs. Rooney down, but she is stuck. After great effort, Tommy and Mr. Slocum free her, and the latter drives away, "crucifying his gearbox."
The station master, Mr. Barrell, inquires about Mrs. Rooney's health and hears from her that she should still be in bed: "Would I were still in bed, Mr. Barrell. Would I were lying stretched out in my comfortable bed, Mr. Barrell, just wasting slowly, painlessly away. . . . " We then hear of the death of Mr. Barrell's father, a story which reminds Mrs. Rooney of many of her own sorrows. Miss Fitt is then seen approaching, but she is so absorbed in humming a hymn that she does not see Mrs. Rooney, who reminds her that they worshipped together the preceding Sunday. Miss Fitt, a misfit, asserts strongly that she does not notice things of this world, and she does not help Mrs. Rooney up the station stairs.
The train is late, an occurrence that has not happened within the memory of any of the characters. An explanation is demanded of the station master, Mr. Barrell: "Please a statement of some kind. . . . Even the slowest train on this brief line is not ten minutes and more behind its scheduled time without good cause." At last, the train arrives, and Mr. Rooney (Dan), who is blind, is helped from the train by a small boy, Jerry, whom they immediately dismiss with a small tip. The Rooneys carefully descend the steps and begin the arduous journey home. Mrs. Rooney then stops to inquire about the reason for the lateness of the train. Her husband refuses to discuss the subject, and they continue on their journey.
Suddenly they feel threatened by two children hiding and jeering at them. Mr. Rooney wonders if Mrs. Rooney has ever wished "to kill a child." He speaks of his desire to live at home, simply, with no cares or tribulations. On the way, he explains how he got on the train, how it started, and then stopped. Being blind, he could see no reason for it to stop unless it had reached a station, but this was not true. After some time, the train moved on and he arrived at his home station.
Mr. Rooney then requests, "Say something, Maddy. Say something." Mrs. Rooney, to pass time, tells about a specialist on "the troubled mind" who treated a "very strange and unhappy" little girl: "The only thing wrong with her as far as he could see was that she was dying. And she did, in fact, die, shortly after he washed his hands of her." Mrs. Rooney went to the specialist, she says, because of her "lifelong preoccupation with horses' buttocks." Her concern was directly correlated with the sexual nature of the ass (or hinny) that Christ rode into Jerusalem.
In the distance, they hear faint strains of Shubert's "Death and the Maiden" song, which prompts Mr. Rooney to inquire about the text of Sunday's sermon: It is "The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down."
Jerry suddenly catches up with them in order to return something that Mr. Rooney dropped; as Jerry is about to leave, Mrs. Rooney asks about "the hitch . . . what kept the train so late." Jerry explains that it was "because a little child fell out of the carriage, Ma'am. On the line, Ma'am. Under the wheels, Ma'am."
As the action denotes, the most commonplace events are constantly surrounded by death or signs, symbols, and reminders of death. The absurdity of the play lies partly in the comic, grotesque nature of Mrs. Rooney and the other characters in the drama. But even in the most grotesque, there is something of the commonplace, and even in the most common and vulgar, there is an element that transcends the ordinary. Mrs. Rooney's speech, which is ordinary and common, is sprinkled with unusual expressions and bizarre syntax. Early in the play, she tells Christy to "climb up on the crest of your manure and let yourself be carried along." Later in the play, Mr. Rooney comments on Mrs.
MR. ROONEY: I speak — and you listen to the wind.
MRS. ROONEY: No no, I am agog, tell me all, we shall press on and never pause, never pause till we come safe to haven.
MR. ROONEY: Never pause . . . safe to haven. . . . Do you know, Maddy, sometimes one would think you were struggling with a dead language.
Likewise, there are not many things more commonplace than the fact that a chicken is often run over and killed by a car on a country road. Yet, Mrs. Rooney's language becomes a literary eulogy in praise of the dead chicken:
What a death! One minute picking happy at the dung, on the road, in the sun, with now and then a dust bath, and then — bang! — all her troubles over. [Pause.] All the laying and the hatching. [Pause.] Just one great squawk and then . . . peace. [Pause.] They would have slit her weasand in any case. [Pause.]
Thus, we have on the one hand, the most common and elemental figures — characters one would find in any low comedy — yet on the other hand, these same characters are in constant confrontation with death. Images of a barren, sterile, and death-like world are constantly evoked. The uniqueness of the characters is that they continue to exist or endure (as did Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot) in an absurd world such as theirs, and the absurdity is emphasized by the juxtaposition of their ignorant commonplace natures in a world where death is indeed the most commonplace occurrence.
Among the images of barrenness, sterility, or death which are either evoked or used thematically are some of the following:
- "Death and the Maiden" is the Schubert song which opens and closes the drama, thereby setting a death tone which is carried throughout.
- Since this is a radio drama, various other sounds are constantly evoked, only to die slowly away.
- In the first scene, Mrs. Rooney encounters the dung carrier, Christy, whose animal is a hinny, a hybrid between a horse and an ass, which is sterile; being unable to procreate, it dies with itself.
- The encounter with the sterile hinny reminds Mrs. Rooney that her daughter, Minnie, also died barren, and there is no issue from her to survive.
- Mr. Tyler arrives, and we hear that his daughter is barren and, therefore, he will always be grandchildless.
- The flat tire on Mr. Tyler's bicycle becomes significant in the barrenness of the world around him.
- Mrs. Rooney meets Mr. Slocum (slow come) and hears that his mother is dying and is usually in great pain.
- Mr. Slocum's car dies, and he can get it started again only with difficulty.
- Then Mr. Slocum runs over and kills the hen, allowing Mrs. Rooney to deliver her eulogy on the dead hen, an ode that is a parody on grandiose literary rhetoric.
- Arriving at the station, Mrs. Rooney describes her condition in such a way as to evoke the image of a corpse being shrouded for burial: "Would I were lying stretched out in my comfortable bed. . . . "
- Mrs. Rooney then hears about the death of Mr.
- Barrell's father, who died only a short time after receiving the job of station master.
- Miss Fitt, a misfit in this world, believes herself to belong to a heavenly world and "left to myself would soon be flown home."
- While Miss Fitt is helping Mrs. Rooney up the stairs, she begins to hum John Henry Newman's hymn "Lead, Kindly Light," which was sung on the Titanic as it was sinking.
- Suddenly a female voice warns young Dolly not to stand close because "one can be sucked under." This, of course, anticipates the death of the young maiden at the end of the drama.
- Mr. Tyler thinks that Miss Fitt has lost her mother, but it turns out that Miss Fitt simply cannot find her because the mother was to arrive on the last train, and Miss Fitt does not yet know that the last train has been detained; thus, since the mother is bringing fresh sole (soul), there is still hope that the mother is not lost.
- Mr. Rooney (Dan) arrives, and he is blind and suffers from an old wound and a coronary.
- Going home, the old man inquires of his old wife if she has ever had the desire to kill a child.
- Mr. Rooney even sees the two of them in terms of Dante's great lovers, Paolo and Francesca, who were doomed to hell for adultery and were constantly locked in each other's arms. Thus, Mr. Rooney, who is blind, is locked to Mrs. Rooney, who is so decrepit that she can hardly move, an ironic reversal of the great lovers of Dante's Inferno, but the evocation reminds one of the sterility of the entire Inferno.
- Mr. Rooney, in commenting on his wife's strange speech, thinks sometimes that she is "struggling with a dead language." Mrs. Rooney agrees, believing that her language will "be dead in time, just like our poor dear Gaelic" language is already dead.
- Mrs. Rooney remembers a time when she went to a lecture about a cure for her "preoccupation with horses' buttocks," but she heard at the lecture, instead, a story about a young girl who had only one thing wrong with her — "the only thing wrong with her . . . was that she was dying." This then anticipates the death of the young maiden under the wheels of the train at the end of the drama.
- As the drama nears its close, many death images converge — the leaves falling and rotting, the dead dog rotting in the ditch, the concern over whether Jesus rode a sterile hinny into Jerusalem, the wind and the rain, and the recurrence of the Schubert song "Death and the Maiden."
- The text of the sermon thus furnishes the title for this drama: "The Lord upholdeth all that fall." This is immediately followed by the reason for the train's being late: "It was a little child fell out of the carriage, Ma'am . . . on the line, Ma'am . . . under the wheels, Ma'am."
The above list contains some of the more prominent concerns with death or death-like images in the drama. From the comic eulogy on the dead hen to the horror of the innocent child being killed under the wheels of the train, the entire drama abounds in orchestration on the theme of death, some ludicrous and some filled with solemnity. The various sounds of the play contribute to the eerie effects and also remind us that among the familiar sounds, death is as commonplace as a hen crossing the road.
Act Without Words I
Whereas the characters in Beckett's plays usually exist in terms of pairs, Act Without Words I has a single figure upon an alien, desert landscape. This setting aligns it with Waiting for Godot, which also has a barren landscape and a single barren tree. In Act Without Words I, among the things that descend on the stage is a single tree with "a single bough some three yards from the ground and at its summit a meager tuft of palms." Against a barren desert landscape with "dazzling light," a single individual, "The Man," is thrown backwards upon the stage. The rest of the drama simply shows the actions (or the acts) of the man without any word spoken. There is, of course, the sense of another presence (another distant Godot or God) which is controlling "The Man's" actions, but we are never made aware of the nature of this other presence.
Act Without Words I can be seen as a contrasting piece to All That Fall in terms of pure dramatic technique. All That Fall relies totally upon voice and sound effects for its meaning and, in contrast, Act Without Words I is purely visual. It has no spoken word nor any sound effects except the sound of a whistle. Some critics have debated whether or not Act Without Words I should be considered as drama. In traditional terms, it should not be, but it is definitely a work of the Theater of the Absurd. For example, since so many plays in this tradition have emphasized the failure of communication, Beckett has simply gone a step further and has written a play in which there is no dialogue whatsoever, yet this is a play in which significant intellectual concerns are suggested by the actions we observe.
The play opens with "The Man" being thrown backwards onto the stage. This action is repeated two more times to the accompaniment of a whistle and then later is repeated some more, for a total of four times. There is no visible sign of confinement; nor is there any indication that "The Man" is being flung backwards by a person, yet he is not allowed to leave the stage. Then other things begin to appear: a tree and a carafe of water. He can't reach the carafe, and some cubes begin to appear. After attempting to reach the carafe of water by stacking the cubes, only to have the cubes pulled from under him and the carafe moved beyond his reach, he then takes a rope which has descended, arranges one of the cubes next to the tree, and makes plans for suicide before he "hesitates, thinks better of it." Between each action, a whistle either directs his actions or calls attention to some aspect of the stage. Finally, "The Man" no longer hears the whistle, and he no longer responds to any outside stimuli. Like Vladimir and Estragon, who also reject suicide at the end of Waiting for Godot and are seen sitting perfectly motionless, so also is "The Man" inert at the end of Act Without Words I.
The most obvious intellectual analogy, of course, is to the ancient Greek myth of Tantalus, who was a mortal favored by the gods. The gods allowed Tantalus to dine with them on nectar and ambrosia, but he violated their trust by feeding these divine foods to his mortal friends. Later, he became so arrogant that he committed the ultimate atrocity: He killed his own son and served him to the gods, who recoiled in horror. For his sins, Tantalus was sentenced to eternal torment: he was placed in a pool of water, and whenever he tried to drink, the water receded. Above him were clusters of grapes (or fruit), and whenever he reached up, they receded. Thus, we have the English verb "to tantalize."
We must ask ourselves if "The Man" is being punished by some God, since, like Tantalus, each time he reaches for the carafe, it recedes. But unlike Tantalus, who seemingly continues throughout eternity to reach for the water and fruit, "The Man" abandons all efforts and at the end is content to lie on his side and stare at his hands, totally ignoring the whistle which earlier controlled his life. And unlike Tantalus who defied the gods, "The Man" does not defiantly shake his fist at God; he is content to stare at his hands and ignore all else. He might even be god-like, since the typical Deist depicts God as One sitting apart from the world with nothing to do but pare his fingernails. In addition, "The Man" is somewhat like God — silent and solitary.
As in Waiting for Godot, the use of the burlesque here undermines man's attempt to assert himself in an absurd world. The entire Act Without Words I could easily be part of any burlesque theater; it employs, as did Waiting for Godot, many of the Chaplinesque or burlesque techniques. "The Man" is flung backwards on the stage four different times, and each time he has the plucky courage of the little man who refuses to give up, who gets up from an undignified fall in order to confront again the opposing force. The comic element is there, despite the tragic emphasis on man's fallen state. The fact that the little man can do nothing about it is both laughable and pathetic, as was Chaplin. But neither the tragic element nor the comic element is allowed to dominate. A seat is pulled out from under "The Man," a rope which he climbs breaks, and again we realize that we are in the presence of the comic and the burlesque, yet "The Man" is pathetic and trapped. Thus Beckett's statement: Man is comic and, at the same time, he is trapped and pathetic. Yet like Vladimir and Estragon, there is a sense of enduring; "The Man" ultimately refuses to play the game any longer; he refuses to respond or to reflect. He has silenced the whistle and is content with his inertia. Thus man's act without words is his non-act of doing absolutely nothing and saying absolutely nothing. In existential terms, a refusal to choose is a choice; here, "The Man's" refusal to act is in itself an act.
Krapp's Last Tape
Beckett was constantly experimenting with new forms of expression. After All That Fall (a radio drama largely dependent upon many sound effects) and Act Without Words I, he experimented further with a form often characterized as a "monodrama" and gave us the uniquely different Krapp's Last Tape. The title implies that Krapp, an old man who is hard of hearing and whose eyesight is failing, is making his last recorded tape soliloquy. We later discover that through the years, he has been constantly recording observations about his life on tape; now, he sits in his rather sparsely furnished apartment listening to old tapes and making new ones. In fact, most of the play consists of listening to the voice of Krapp, recorded on a tape thirty years earlier. This is another dramatic tour de force in terms of structural concepts — that is, Krapp's present voice, taping a tape for the future, is juxtaposed against Krapp's past voice, recorded on a tape thirty years ago. And to make the situation even more complicated, the present voice is supposed to be set in the future, thus making the past voice actually in the present.
Like many other Beckett characters, Krapp belongs to the world of the outcasts. He is dressed in "rusty black" trousers and waistcoat with a dirty white shirt. He looks rather like one of the derelicts in Beckett's other plays. The emphasis on the white face and purple nose suggests that he is another of Beckett's "music hall" characters. Similar to the munching of turnips and carrots which Vladimir and Estragon eat in Waiting for Godot, here Krapp eats bananas during the scene and, from the voice on the tape, we know that he ate bananas thirty years earlier.
The tape which he chooses to listen to was recorded when he was thirty-nine years old, and as he moves the tape on fast forward, we hear, in disjointed segments, references to the three bananas that he has just eaten, to his mother's dying after a long "viduity" (widowhood), to a dog, to a storm and darkness, and to various descriptions of the progress and dissolution of a love affair when "I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her." Ultimately, the love affair dissolves, and its dissolution becomes central to the past tape.
In listening to the voice of the tape of the past and hearing Krapp's present voice utter the same longing (Krapp's present voice says: "All that old misery. Once wasn't enough. Lie down across her."), we realize that the passing of thirty years has been insignificant. Krapp is still troubled by this love affair, which he tried unsuccessfully to dismiss thirty years ago, but he still returns to listen again and again about its dissolution and failure.
The suggested failure of the love affair was a failure of communication. Krapp tries to discover his own identity in the image that he finds in the eyes of his beloved, but in staring into her eyes, he sees only a reflection of himself. His insistent plea — "let me in" — is not a sexual plea so much as it is a metaphysical plea to be accepted into her world. (The sexual imagery, especially that of their moving "up and down" and other movements, is obvious, as is the pun upon Krapp's name, but the imagery throughout transcends the purely physical in the manner that John Donne's poetic sexual imagery is also metaphysical.) Since his romantic breakup, Krapp's world has been aligned to his mother's world, and both have existed in a "viduity" for years. Krapp's only communication now is with the spool of his last tape.
Just as nothing changes in the lives of Vladimir and Estragon during Waiting for Godot, nothing has changed in the thirty years between Krapp's last tape and the present moment. He still eats bananas, he still voices the same concerns, he is still isolated from the world, and he is still plagued by his same hopes and despairs. As the tape ends, the voice of thirty years ago maintains that "My best years are gone. . . ." But the irony is that thirty years have passed and he is still playing the tape, still living in the same world, and as the curtain falls, "The tape runs on in silence." As we leave the theater, neither Krapp nor his tape is heard. Man can no longer communicate — even with himself.