Hellish Repetition: Lockdown Anticipated in Samuel Beckett’s ‘What Where’

Covid Anniversary Blog

Endgame stages a world in which old people expire in dustbins, a worker incarcerated at home reels under the weight of contradictory imperatives, while a self-regarding overseer, obsessively gives, and reviews his own performance. Beckett left us a play for our times.

A year on from our first collective experience of lockdown, ‘hyperconnectivity’ has shaped ‘patterns of experience both synchronic and diachronic, forging and reforging new assemblages of remembering and forgetting.’ Screen ‘presence’ substitutes for the absent corporeality of others, and our material, ethical, and convivial connections with them.

In What Where (1983), a work premiered in the theatre, and then recast for small screen, Samuel Beckett speaks also to these times. The trajectory in the work’s production history, from live to recorded communication parallels mutations in our own social worlds during the past twelve months. What Where is a series of episodes animated and extinguished according to whether or not a theatre light or a video camera is on, and the drama’s human action is always tightly framed, projected, and recorded.

The play opens with the first of four monologues.

Voice (V): We are the last five.

In the present as we were still.

It is spring.

Time passes.

First without words.

I switch on.

After Bim, Bam, Bem and Bom have entered and left,

Voice (V): I switch off.

I start again.

We are the last five.

It is spring.

Time passes.

I switch on.

Subsequent action, ‘Now with words’, consists of a series of encounters across the four seasons of the year, among interchangeable figures, Bim, Bam, Bem and Bom. Each one is questioned by V on his unsuccessful attempts to extract details of ‘What’ and ‘Where’ from one of the others, using torture. Each, in turn, is accused of lying, and taken away by one of the others, to be tortured. The play concludes,

Voice (V): In the end I appear.

Reappear.

[BAM enters; halts head bowed.]

Voice (V): Good.

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.

V’s domain is a Hell of repetitive actions which generate only further repetitions.

In the television version, the presence of others is confined to bleak faces that fade in and out – speaking or mute as V requires; he is, in our terms, their meeting host, whimsically mandating access or condemning others to mute invisibility in isolated waiting rooms. Paradoxically, V is never ‘alone’; at all times, others wait to emerge on screen, or into light, and his regime depends on immobilising others, ‘without journey’.

Read beyond those limitations and contradictions, What Where leaves open the possibility that when personal journeys resume, the capacity to imagine liberation may appear. Reappear.

Victor Merriman is Professor of Critical Studies in Drama at Edge Hill University.

This piece is written in response to a post originally published in the Covid-19 blog on 29th May 2020 by Victor which can be found here.

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