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

Covid-19 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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Everyday Creativity: Why the Arts need to Rethink What Matters

Global public health expert Michael Marmot warned recently that the pandemic will make health inequalities worse. If this is the case, then how can we ensure that the arts become part of the solution? The 2017 Creative Health report outlined the extensive range of ways in which the arts supports health outcomes, yet the report conceded that only a “small modicum” of the potential contribution of the arts is currently being realised. So why are we failing to grasp the full potential of the arts in contributing to good health?

The WHO Health Evidence Network’s first Scoping Review on Arts, Health and Wellbeing synthesized evidence from over 3,000 studies. It identified “a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health, and management and treatment of illness across the lifespan”.  

But, despite progress, the fundamental processes underpinning the relationship between the arts and health are not yet well understood. Moreover, narrow, and often circular, definitions of the ‘arts’, limit awareness of their potential in this sphere, and often reinforce democratic deficits in access to publicly funded culture.

Yet the pandemic appears to have transcended this, as we see everyday creativity being played out in real time. Thousands of people have developed and showcased their creative skills in a huge variety of symbolic and productive forms, helping themselves through the stresses of lockdown. It’s this concept – of everyday creativity – that we need to focus on defining, in readily understandable terms.

These are extremely challenging times for the arts sector, but there are great opportunities too. If we can grasp the nettle of what David Jubb calls “fundamental structural change” and put the nurturing of creativity in people’s homes, communities and work environments at the heart of cultural policy, the rewards could be considerable.

It’s not clear what appetite there is for such a radical change, but do we know that times of great stress can lead to shifts in the paradigm. As we begin to shape an unknown ‘new normal’, we need a big debate, drawing in perspectives from across research disciplines, policymakers and wider society.

The initial goal should be to reach a shared, science-based understanding of the central importance of everyday creativity in our lives. Beyond that, we need to map out a Whole-of-Government approach, designed to place everyday creativity at the heart of a resilient, sustainable, caring society that supports, protects and nurtures the health and wellbeing of all its citizens. 

Nick Ewbank is the Chair of the ISR External Advisory Group. He runs the cultural regeneration consultancy Nick Ewbank Associates.


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Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash