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.

Photo by Edwin Hooper

Staging Apocalypse: Endgame, by Samuel Beckett

HAMM: This is not much fun. But that’s always the way at the end of the day, isn’t it, Clov?

CLOV: Always.

HAMM: It’s the end of the day like any other day, isn’t it, Clov?

CLOV: Looks like it.

HAMM (anguished): What’s happening, what’s happening?

CLOV: Something is taking its course.

Samuel Beckett’s Endgame

On Monday 16 March 2020, the Old Vic theatre cancelled its production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, with Daniel Radcliffe as Clov, Alan Cummings as Hamm, Karl Johnson as Nagg, and Jane Horrocks as Nell. Beckett’s drama, set in a sealed room in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, had been terminated as London itself became an urban desert, menaced by a rampant virus, with – many fear – apocalyptic potential.

Clov, manservant to Hamm, spends most of his time in his kitchen, ‘ten feet by ten feet by ten feet […] nice dimensions, nice proportions’. There, he will ‘lean on the table, and look at the wall, and wait for him to whistle me’.

Hamm, whose parents, Nell and Nagg, occupy dustbins to his right, sits centre stage in an armchair. He is literally blind; metaphorically, even moreso,

HAMM: Can there be misery, loftier than mine? […] My father? My mother? My … dog? [Pause] Oh, I am willing to believe they suffer as much as such creatures can suffer. But does that mean their sufferings equal mine?

Hamm’s register is empty bombast, the signature of the ham actor, one of a number of referents on which his name plays. He is cruelly capricious, commanding Clov’s every move, summoning and dismissing his parents, who eventually cease to be.

Recent scholarship has recuperated Samuel Beckett’s dramas from the critical cul de sac known as ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ – a classification ultimately disowned by Martin Esslin, who coined the phrase. He was dismayed as it came to function as a shorthand that denied the ethical force of what playwrights as diverse as Jarry, Artaud, Pirandello, Ionesco, Beckett, and Pinter brought to the stage.

Beckett’s intimate involvement in apocalyptic events in twentieth-century Europe has all too often been marginalised as a context for reading his stage aesthetics. This has impoverished critical understanding, both of the works themselves, and his approach to an artist’s public role. His unrelenting focus on the limits of human civilisation is nothing like an absurd position, when set in the context of his active resistance to Nazi occupation in France, and his engagement with liberal political economy’s awful nineteenth-century crime – the response to, and not the fact of – the failure of the staple potato crop in Ireland.

Plays always speak from and to the times from which they emerge, and, as Peter Brook and Jonathan Miller demonstrated, speak also to future, unforeseeable, circumstances. 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.

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


Photo by ᴊᴀᴄʜʏᴍ ᴍɪᴄʜᴀʟ on Unsplash