Samuel Beckett and the Politics of Closed Space

By | June 4, 2020

Guest Post by James Little

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about confinement.

How many steps from my desk to the fridge? (seven)
How many from the fridge to the bathroom? (twelve)
How many times per day do I track this route?

In October 1954, Samuel Beckett too was thinking of confinement. He was reading a letter from German prisoner Karl-Franz Lembke, who had translated, rehearsed and staged Beckett’s debut play, Waiting for Godot, behind bars. Beckett was clearly moved, as we can see in his response:

“I am no longer the same, and will never again be able to be the same, after what you have done, all of you. In the place where I have always found myself, where I will always find myself, turning round and round, falling over, getting up again, it is no longer wholly dark nor wholly silent.”

Beckett tried writing a play for Lembke to perform with his prison troupe. But he was unable to finish it. Indeed, in spite of a career-long interest in prisons and asylums, and a body of theatrical work in which his characters are stuck in urns, bins and mounds, Beckett never staged the carceral scenario of a prison. Why was this so?

Beckett used confinement in many ways: as a metaphor for the self (an ‘imprisoned microcosm’); as an institutional setting for his work (prisons and asylums abound in his early fiction); and as a way of shaping the increasingly subtracted spaces of his later work. While directing Godot in Berlin in 1975, he even considered projecting cell bars onto the stage to emphasise the sense of containment in a play where Vladimir repeatedly reminds his companion that they cannot leave their waiting point. But this idea was scratched out from Beckett’s production notebook and exists only as a trace, a ‘pentimento’ which helped Beckett organise the movements of his actors as if they were in a cage.

One of Beckett’s production assistants in Berlin was actor, playwright and ex-San Quentin inmate Rick Cluchey, who became close friends with the Irish playwright. When Beckett tried to write something for Cluchey to perform, he again created a carceral scenario. The short sketch which resulted, ‘Mongrel Mime’, features a single protagonist making his way across the stage, opening prisonlike doors, until he reaches the final room and has no way out. Beckett’s manuscripts feature enough material to be performed, but the play has never been published or produced onstage.

So in spite of his deep interest in confinement, there was something about staging a prison scenario which Beckett was clearly wary of. Indeed, the only play Beckett did manage to complete for a prisoner – Catastrophe, dedicated to the imprisoned Czech dissident Václav Havel – is set in the rehearsal space of a theatre. (Havel was a playwright.) Though Beckett wanted to close down the spaces of his work, he seems to have been concerned that setting them in an actual institution would shut down the ways in which they could be seen and heard by his audiences.

Raymond Keane in Company SJ’s production of Act Without Words II. Photo by Hazel Coonagh.

All of these examples show a writer creating work that speaks to various situations of confinement, but does not speak for those who are confined. Perhaps this is why Beckett’s art is seen by some as a parable for our current situation (see this Washington Post article). It is surely why so many creative artists turn to Beckett in times of crisis, from reimaginings of Dublin’s urban space in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to productions of his work in post-Katrina New Orleans. In a world where confinement is becoming a fact of life for many, Beckett’s closed spaces again open themselves up to further readings and interpretations.

Prague, 2 May 2020

James Little is a postdoctoral researcher at Charles University, Prague and Visiting Professor at Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic. He is the author of Samuel Beckett in Confinement, part of the Historicizing Modernism series.

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