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Dystopia in the plays of Samuel Beckett: Purgatory in Play

Par Eleanor Bryce : Lectrice d'anglais - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Marion Coste le 14/09/2012

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The literary genre of dystopia remains popular in the English-speaking world, particularly in young adult fiction. In this age of rapid technological advances, and the threat (or indeed reality) of political and media control, works of literature which question the benefits of these developments are thriving.

Introduction: A literature of negation

The literary genre of dystopia remains popular in the English-speaking world, particularly in young adult fiction. In this age of rapid technological advances, and the threat (or indeed reality) of political and media control, works of literature which question the benefits of these developments are thriving. It seems a pertinent time, then, to re-examine this genre. A brief exploration of critical thought on dystopia reveals much confusion and occasionally nonsensical definitions, and it seems evident that the old systems of thought are no longer relevant to the modern analyst. Attempting to strike into the core of what exactly makes a dystopia we reveal a point of contact with Samuel Beckett's theatrical work, and from here a tool we can use for re-examining these plays in the light of negative spaces. The linguistic space of Play will be used as an example.

Deconstructing place

The word “dystopia” is a nineteenth century English neologism formed, following the logic of Thomas More’s utopia, from three Greek components: dys-, topos, and -ia. Taken individually, dys- signifies the antonym to the prefix eu-, i.e. bad or hard, topos means place or space, and the suffix -ia can mean both an abstract concept (e.g. paraphernalia) or a country (e.g. Australia). It was coined by John Stuart Mill in 1868 as the antonym to utopia, and was originally used with the same meaning as cacoctopia (attributed to Jeremy Bentham in 1818, derived from kako meaning evil, bad) (Vieira 2010). There are two main sub-genres of dystopia: the “anti-utopia” refers more specifically to a constructed negative place which is therefore usually a society; conversely an apocalyptic dystopia describes a destroyed place with little to no formal structure ((See Jameson 2007 for a clearer explanation of these terms.)). Purely in terms of etymology, the words dystopia and utopia are not implicitly liked with political theory, or indeed literary theory. They are versatile terms, and the concept that defines their opposition is that of topos, of place.

This has not stopped a variety of critics from claiming that dystopia, and indeed utopia, are concepts which are inextricably linked to political theory. Krishan Kumar is one such writer, who typifies the fiercely defensive stance of pro-utopians towards anti-utopian literature:

the power of the socialist utopia was acknowledged in a backhanded sort of way by the anti-utopians, who dominated the period from the First World War to the 1940s [...] all took socialism as the target of their savage indictment. Socialism’s pre-eminence was expressed in the fact that when utopia shifted to its negative pole, to the mockery and despair of the anti-utopia, it was socialism that was taken as the only tendency of the modern world that was seriously worth the full force of its attack. [...] If socialism was the modern utopia, it had also to be the central subject of the anti-utopia. (One can go so far as to say that it has virtually been the only subject of the twentieth-century anti-utopia. In that sense socialism created the modern anti-utopia.) (Kumar 1991, p. 62)

The italicised phrases in the above quotation seem to betray a hostile attitude to the anti-utopia as a literary form based on its political implications. In demonstrating the power of socialism in the first part of the twentieth century, Kumar also attributes the creation of anti-utopias (which he considers synonymous with 'dystopia') to this power. While the early 20th century dystopias were very much anti-socialist anti-utopias, this observation does not necessarily apply to all anti-utopias.

The confusion does not stop at political theory. Gregory Claeys, writing in the Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, defines dystopia in the “broad” (!) sense of “portraying feasible negative visions of social and political development, cast principally in fiction form.” (Claeys 2010, p. 109). Feasibility, he clarifies, is a key point in the classification of dystopias: “Conquest by alien beings, or robots, or the final calling of time by God at Judgement Day, may portray dystopic elements ... [b]ut texts portraying such elements are not dystopias as such.” (Claeys 2010, p. 109). The distinction Claeys proposes is problematic for two main reasons. Firstly, it makes very little sense to impose a socio-political framework on a concept whose etymological nature is thoroughly focused on space, and this in a variety of contexts, not simply fiction. Secondly, the feasibility of a bad place should not have any implication on its categorization as such – several speculative features of classical dystopias, such as the telescreen of Nineteen Eighty-Four and the satellite “world-cast” of A Clockwork Orange, anticipated actual technological innovation. Dystopian literature is by nature speculative: if it does not describe a fictional dramatisation of a current situation, it anticipates one in the future. In this respect it is nonsensical to exclude dystopias that are not “feasible” for the contemporary audience – who knows what the future may bring.

The analysis of the writers above presents only a small part of a widespread problem ((See also Colas-Charpentier 1993 (“[dystopias are] defined generally as a representation of ‘des sociétés idéalisées négativement’ (Bouchard et. al. 191)” p.385)), Schäfer 1979 (“the flood of ever more imaginative antiutopias can only serve the needs of those interested in despair and resignation” (p.293)), Brinton 1969 (“anti-utopia, or dystopia, [is] no more than a detailed, imaginatively factual projection of the following: things are bad and this is the way they will get worse” p. 58).)). How then would be best to proceed?

Mapping the topoi of dystopia: negation

The most profound observation that any literary writer seems to have made about dystopia in recent years is hidden away on the Internet, on a blog post for “tor.com”, a division of Macmillan Publishers devoted to science fiction and fantasy literature, by John Joseph Adams. Introducing an anthology of dystopian short stories, Adams comments,

Dystopias are often seen as “cautionary tales,” but the best dystopias are not didactic screeds, and the best dystopias do not draw their power from whatever political/societal point they might be making; the best dystopias speak to the deeper meanings of what it is to be one small part of a teeming civilization… and of what it is to be human ((http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/04/dystopian-fiction-an-introduction accessed 29/2/12; my emphasis.)).

The critical issue of humanity referenced here by Adams contains an echo of Lance Olsen's thoughts on Beckett and the horrific – he notes that a literature of negation “radically challenges humanist assumptions of what it is to be part of nature, what it is to be human, what it is to be sane, what it is to be safe.” (Olsen 1992 pp. 124/5).

This point seems regularly drowned out in the majority of critical literature, either by violent arguments against dystopia from utopian philosophers, or by a prevailing (and strange) fixation that a dystopia must be connected to the idea of a society - Fredric Jameson states acutely that the term dystopia “is laden with dangerous and misleading ambiguities” (Jameson 2007 p. 198). Whether anti-utopian and political in nature, or describing cataclysmic apocalyptic destruction on earth, all dystopias focus on humanity in a negative space: the extremes to which human beings can be forced, and the effect it has upon them. The ways in which they accomplish this may vary, but all centre on a literature of negation, of bad space.

Therefore, in order to fully appreciate the nuances and flexibility of the concept, a fresh start might be made from the following etymological observations:

  • Dystopia denotes a physical “bad place”, and a metaphysical “negative space”.
  • In order to be classed as a dystopia, a text must thus demonstrate negative space in three areas: physical, linguistic, and spiritual ((Such simplification is of course problematic, but for this exploration of plays these observations provide the best basis given the parallel spaces in theatre. If applied to fiction or film, for example, these criteria would need to be re-examined.)).

These three categories for negative space arose from reflection and reading around the concept of the Absurd, and the point of contact between the two fields lies in the shared concern with humanity. Both dystopian paradigms and the philosophical ideas of the Absurd deal with the manipulation of an individual, either by real or metaphysical means, stripping down the protective layers created by contemporary society and ideology in order to shine a cruelly honest light on what sort of creature is revealed. On stage, when a text is animated for performance, both physical and linguistic topoi have a concrete presence. The sacred aspect is something which overhangs the two, and in Beckett's work particularly it is a constant preoccupation.

This negation is all that is required to reapply the term dystopia to the plays of Samuel Beckett. In order to demonstrate one approach, we will now turn to the concept of purgatory, and how a dystopian remodelling of this idea can be used to nuance a reading of Play.


Estragon.- All the dead voices […]
Vladimir.- To have lived is not enough for them.
Estragon.- They have to talk about it.
Vladimir.- To be dead is not enough for them.
Estragon.- It is not sufficient. (Waiting for Godot, p. 58)

Ruby Cohn has noted the numerous ways in which Beckett has drawn upon Waiting for Godot in his later works (Cohn 1986, p. 21), and the above quotation in particular can be viewed in this light as foreshadowing a particular dramatic paradigm. The concept of post-mortem voices, not satisfied with death and obliged to continue engaging with their living experiences, recalls a similar notion from Catholic theology, where the souls of the dead who have not sinned enough to warrant eternal damnation in Hell are instead sent to a “third place”, neither Heaven nor Hell. This third place, etymologically linked to concepts of removing dirt and waste, ceremonial or ritual cleansing, and voiding or emptying the bowels ((OED online, accessed 24/7/11. http://oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/154868)), is Purgatory.

“Purgatory is hope.”

(Le Goff 1984, p. 306) We will return to the significance of the word's roots below; we must first revisit the definition of the term in order to facilitate interaction with Beckett's work and dystopia. Interestingly, one of the most prominent questions concerning this concept is precisely that of space, of whether this place has a physical existence. Jacques Le Goff has written extensively on the birth of religious Purgatory, and notes that modern purgatory, according to modern Catholicism, is more of a state of being rather than the concrete place described in early writings (Le Goff 1984). The conversion to a non-physical conception of the tripartite vision of the afterlife (Heaven, Purgatory and Hell) was precipitated by a more scientific understanding of the planet and the universe, leading most Christians now to conclude that the after-death 'places' are not of this physical realm, neither high in the sky nor deep beneath the earth - Paul Badham concludes that they must be in either “another galaxy or another space” (Badham 1976, p. 63).

For the early thinkers, however, space was still very much a relevant question. The location of Purgatory plagued the early Christian writers on the subject – not only did they have concerns about its location between Heaven and Hell, but also about the physical details of the space itself. Gregory the Great, for example, writing in the 5th century A. D., described an Upper Hell where righteous souls who died before Christ's lifetime await salvation, and likened it physically to the Roman bathhouse (Le Goff 1984). Le Goff cites the twelfth century as the definitive birth of Purgatory, with a writer named Peter Comestor who was the first to use the noun 'purgatorium' in 1170. Some years before this, another writer, Robert Pullus, had used the expression 'in purgatoriis', with 'locis' implicit in the coinage, signalling an increasing awareness amongst Christian writers of Purgatory as a distinct place of its own, rather than particular level of Hell. For Pullus in particular, the question of space and localisation was of utmost importance – his work on the subject attempts a geographical location of Purgatory, and, finding this untenable, he becomes very much concerned with the need to describe the space. Le Goff notes that this concern was linked to emerging and new concepts of world exploration and the possibility of accurate topographical representations of places and, significantly, measurements of time. This awareness introduced a notion of reckoned punishments into the previous concepts of Purgatory, where previously a soul would be forced to wait for divine intervention in order to move on.

By the end of the twelfth century, Purgatory was already beginning to take a more prominent place in discussions concerning the afterlife. This seems to be due to the failure of millennialism, the belief that the end of the world would come 1000 years after the life of Christ. Writers of the thirteenth century continued to expand the concept, still preoccupied with the need to localise Purgatory in a conceptual space. This location was still generally thought to be an upper level of hell, physically located beneath the surface of the earth. (Le Goff 1984). Only with Dante in the fourteenth century do we find a physical location of Purgatory that combines the need for localisation with a distinct in-between space. In the Commedia, Dante describes the mountain of Purgatory as situated in the southern hemisphere directly opposite Jerusalem. It is divided into seven ledges, or cornices, each devoted to one of the seven deadly sins. In his analysis of Dante's Purgatory, Le Goff emphasises two aspects. The first is that the sinners trapped on the mountainside have a common theme in their guilt: “Love is the principle that governs the assignment of souls to the various cornices of Purgatory” (Le Goff 1984, p. 339). This assignment of souls refers to a moral structure of perversions of love: from excessive love (Gluttony, Lust, Greed) to malicious love (Envy, Pride, Wrath), with Sloth demonstrating a lack of love. This vision differs from the early writers' visions of a Purgatory dominated by those who had committed only mild sins, and perhaps can be attributed to the more allegorical and poetic nature of the Commedia as a whole. The second aspect concerns the overall mood of the Purgatorial state, “Dante insists, however, that in Purgatory hope reigns supreme. (Le Goff 1984, p. 349) [...] For him it is a place of hope, of initiation into joy, of gradual emergence into light.” (Le Goff 1984, p. 347). Souls sent to Purgatory hope and strive to be accepted into Paradise, and the place is therefore spiritually nearer to Heaven than to Hell, despite being physically closer to the latter.

“At the same time I prefer this to... the other thing.”: purgatorial dystopia

(Play p. 312) On this note, it becomes possible to draw together these religious theories concerning the nature of Purgatory and apply them to the concept of dystopia. These ideas will culminate in a concept of purgatorial dystopia. Le Goff rejects the possibility of establishing a purgatory outside of a tripartite system of afterlives and souls (Le Goff 1984), but instead of Catholicism we will return to dystopia, and instead work our definition in terms of negative spaces.

Firstly, purgatory is categorically a space between, a space which can logically contain those who do not fit. Nadia Louar has touched upon this concept in her studies of Beckett's bilingualism, commenting that purgatory and bilingualism share the trait of being “le lieu par excellence de l'entre-deux” (Louar 2006, p.326). Alain Badiou's ideas of the “gris-noir” as Beckett's default place of being also makes reference to this concept of a space between spaces and the precarious nature of its position, though he describes it as being at the core of being (Badiou 1995). Explicit mention of purgatory in Beckett criticism is quite rare – it has often been made in passing or for purposes of comparison ((See for example, Coe 1964, Chevigny 1969, Baldwin 1981, Worth 1986. By way of comparison see also Esslin 1986, who states confidently that “[t]he infinity so frequently represented in Beckett's oeuvre is an Inferno.” (p. 121))), but critics seem to have shied from exploring the issue fully, perhaps due to the religious connotations which, to a certain extent, imply a narrow interpretation of the plays. It is possible to circumvent this problem by attempting a construction of purgatory which is not one aspect of a tripartite system.

A second aspect of the religious conception of Purgatory which we will work into this framework is the notion of just punishment, and the hope of redemption. Hope is a virtue which pervades the otherwise gloomy atmosphere of all Beckett's theatrical work, from the more explicit paradigm of Vladimir and Estragon's hope of meeting Godot, to implicit and minimalistic hopes for relief, such as the Listener's quest for solace in Ohio Impromptu.

Thirdly, and linked to the idea of punishment, we will use the ideas contained in the etymology of the word, of cleansing and emptying, as a suggestion for how this punishment or redemption might be attained. Considering Beckett's use of spaces, this paradigm of a tortured soul becomes quite specific: the body is imprisoned, reduced to immobility or an isolated aspect, sometimes both, and purgation comes in the form of the forceful emptying of the mind or soul in the form of speech, more specifically in the form of stories. The emphasis is thus on a form of mental torture, rather than the physical agonies of earlier writings. Catholic Purgatory also differs from this model in that it cannot quite agree on who is in charge of the punishments which are carried out in the space – angels or demons, opinions vary. In a Beckettian purgatory, this problem does not occur, since the sacred space, the space of the controlling power, is conspicuously empty. However, the presence of a perceiving entity and the pervading feeling of being observed, and the mysterious power which maintains the dystopian situation, are key elements in the paradigm. The question of the listener will be examined in more detail below, since this also raises images of a confessional situation, and the power structures involved when an 'other' being attempts to fill the spiritual void of the sacred space.

Beckett's own vision of this concept is very clearly demonstrated in three key plays: Happy Days, Play, and Not I. In these plays we find experimentation with concepts of captivity and interrogation, variations on the Cartesian self struggling with questions of perception, and significantly, Beckett's more sustained entries into narrative logorrhoea, flooding the linguistic space with words. Logorrhoea was of course present from the beginning of Beckett's stagecraft, but in these three plays the form undergoes a transition, from Winnie's more structured and considered monologue, to the intense, torrential outpouring of Mouth via the interrogation technique of Play. In terms of a Beckettian dystopia, logorrhoea stands at one end of an extreme treatment of the linguistic topos, with silence evidently providing the counterweight. A second complication, specific to this end of the opposition, lies in the content of the text itself: that of the stories recounted. In this space we can trace a progression consistent with the chronological order of the works' production, from Winnie's impulsive self-narration and brief burst of true narrative, to the first part of Play dealing with the sordid details of an affair come to an ugly conclusion, to the entire biographical text of Not I where the teller is determined to keep the character and narrator absolutely separate. Thirdly, the emptying of the soul in the form of overfilling the linguistic space with words and narrative introduces the problematic area of the listener. Discovering the identity of this 'other' is effectively impossible, and something Beckett has chosen to keep ambiguous. Instead we will focus on an examination of the role the listener plays in the power structures of the texts, and the effect this has on the sacred space of Beckett's dystopia. 'Waiting' remains a key concept, in keeping with traditional and religious views of purgatory, but in Beckett's world the reason for this waiting is vague and unknown. The characters caught in this static space of waiting are never sure what they are waiting for, apart from relief. The sacred space in which a God figure should reside is equally indistinct: instead, a different presence awkwardly fills in. Again, this situation is not unique to these three plays, neither is it purely confined to the dramatic works. For instance, writing of Beckett's fiction, Laura Barge observes that Beckett's heroes are:

… obsessed with a sense of cosmic other who determines the limits of their freedom, positions them as guilty 'sinners', and punishes them with a consciousness of finitude, non-fulfillment, and alienation that never ends. (Barge 1988, p. 62)

Beckettian purgatory, then, consists of desolate or utterly indistinct physical setting in which the central characters are forcibly immobilised and dislocated from the entirety of their bodies. Physically incapable of doing anything else, the key characters pour out a narrative monologue in increasingly intense forms of logorrhoea, under pressure from an extra-sensory power, or an other, or both.

“Is anyone listening to me?”: Listening to words

(Play p. 314) This other has been discussed specifically in terms of the listening figure by several critics. Katharine Worth states that the listener is under the same obligation to listen as the speaker is to talk, “obliged to endure helplessly” (Worth 1986 p. 170). As an example she suggests that the Auditor of Not I might represent a counselling figure, considering the abundant textual evidence for questioning Mouth's mental well-being. While this view of obligation can also apply to other plays, and indeed seems to reinforce Beckett's own image of the spotlight of Play as as much of a victim as the characters (Worth 1987), it is problematic in that it does not allow for questions on the distribution of power. Under these conditions, the power cannot reside with the listener, which presents a contradiction when we consider something like the Spotlight, or the Auditor, both of whom do clearly have power over the speaker. A more uneven relationship between listener and speaker has been noted by Bernard Beckerman, who discusses the listening act in terms of the effect on the spectator as well as within the plays themselves. He observes that Happy Days precipitates an “unhinging” of speaker from listener which is sustained through the following plays (Beckerman 1986, p. 151). However, he contends that this unhinging process is taken to too far an extreme in Not I and That Time, and combined with the rapid monotone delivery required of the speaker, the resulting alienation is too strong to successfully keep the attention of an audience. Setting aside the question of whether a text succeeds dramatically, the concept of unhinging and the unequal relationships that emerge between listener and speaker will be of relevance in our discussion.

The linguistic space of Play is, as noted above, filled to the brim with words. The superfluity comes in sharp contrast to the pioneering use of silence in the previous dramatic texts (Brown 1986), and seems to indicate two things: Beckett's experimentation with a second form of linguistic desolation, and that the discourse of silence is not suited to creative visualisations of a purgatorial dystopia. Those who subscribe to the school of thought which considers Beckett's writing nihilistic would protest that silence is not a necessarily negative state (Cormier & Pallister 1979, Fletcher 1971); indeed, to create a nihilistic purgatory, silence would not be an option. Silence and speech are often phrased as a dichotomy, with parallels closely drawn between solitude and sociability respectively, but in this purgatory speech and solitude are forced into an uneasy companionship. However, as noted above, not one of the characters can be said to be soliloquising, a point which also counterbalances accusations of madness. In these plays, no one simply 'talks to themselves'. This being the case, the problem of classifying Beckett's dialogue is a frequent and thorny one – even from Godot we are confronted with passages which do not sit comfortably in any traditional framework for classifying the linguistic space, such as Vladimir and Estragon's duet on the 'dead voices' quoted above. Krapp's Last Tape produces a similar problem, which has led writers to invent new dramatic categories for the speech ((See Ruby Cohn's 'solo' and 'soliloquy' in Andrew Kennedy's discussion of Krapp's Last Tape (1986).)). In a purgatorial context, this strangeness contributes to the uneasiness of the entire space: as an audience, we witness a character expelling what seems like an internal monologue, but the character is either consciously seeking affirmation that they are being listened to (Happy Days), or struggling against an imposed listener (Not I and the second part of Play). However, speech and silence are not necessarily opposite extremes. Hélène Baldwin, in an exploration of Beckett's work through the lens of Christian mysticism, argues paradoxically that 'real silence' is expressed through “floods of well chosen words” (Baldwin 1981, p. 23), a view echoed by Badiou, who comments that logorrhoea and silence are both attempts to allow the self to access the pure point of enunciation (Badiou 1995). In both of these views, movement to any extreme of the linguistic space has a distinct philosophical purpose: to reach for a higher being in Baldwin's case, or for Badiou to seize and annul the voice in an attempt to fully engage with the self. In both cases however, the attempts fail, and the philosophical desire remains unfulfilled. Our view differs in that a purgatorial situation does not require a philosophical objective in order to elicit a stream of speech. Instead, speech itself is the vehicle for the objective, something of interest in the narrative flow, which is unknown to both the speaker and the interrogator.

“So it must be something I have to say.”: Confession

(Play p. 313) The production of speech as interrogation is not a new concept with these plays. The mysterious task of eliciting and auditing speech first appeared in this specific form in the short radio play Rough for Radio II, (1960s) where the controlling Animator elucidates:

Of course we do not know, any more than you, what exactly it is we are after, what sign or set of words. But since you have failed so far to let it escape you, it is not by harking on the same old themes that you are likely to succeed, that would astonish me. (Rough for Radio II p. 282)

This moment is unique in the canon in that it is the only time an animator or auditor explicitly states the purpose of the exercise, and admits he does not know upon which subject he is required to provoke speech. In the conclusion of this short piece we even find a trace of the anxiety which Worth attributes to the auditor, when the Animator deliberately mishears a section of Fox's speech and adds in a blatant erotic reference. In this framework, this could potentially be in order to attract the attention of the powers above him which control the entire interrogation. Siess Jürgen analyses this play and several others in terms of Beckett's own views on institutional power relations, and concludes that this set-up is designed to demonstrate the process of artistic production in the media industry, whereby the author is at the mercy of numerous other authorities (Jürgen 1997). While an interesting concept, this conclusion transfers the play directly into the realm of metaphor, and an intensely personal metaphor at that, dealing with the suggestion that the playwright used the play to express his own opinions of a specific, real industrial practise. It seems faintly superfluous to add Beckett's personal beliefs to an already sound argument for a hierarchy where the creator is in the least powerful position. Instead, we will acknowledge the salient point of the essay in question, using it to reinforce the concept that the creator is at the bottom of a power hierarchy, and when the production of speech is monitored by an other, they do not know for whom they are working.

Purgatorial dystopia in Play

Play illustrates this paradigm admirably. Here we see three captive 'selves', disassociated from their bodies and forced to produce speech in enormous quantities by an auditor figure, who is in turn under the power of a higher authority. In contrast with Rough for Radio II, this higher authority is not referenced by the auditor figure directly. Here, both such figures are mute. The spotlight of Play gains an additional dimension from its direct participation in the script, a promotion of sorts from the technical 'backstage' role of lighting. The source of immediate power over the characters is found in the form of the spotlight, and the characters are aware of and comment upon this fact. They are reduced to a single aspect of the body, in this case the head: their designations in the script reveal nothing beyond their roles in their amorous relations. Discussing the characters in terms of schizophrenia, Barnard comments accurately that Play sacrifices the actors' arts of expression to achieve extreme depersonalisation (Barnard 1970). As far as the speech itself is concerned, a large part of the effect comes from this impersonal delivery. Just as in Not I, the speech of Play should be rapid and monotone. The actor should not express anything, neither visually not orally; the power rests with the words spoken, the content of the linguistic space.

Critics have traditionally been rather dismissive of this content, tending to focus on the first section, i.e. the story of the affair. Worth describes “a comedy such as any theatre audience can enjoy, full of droll repartee and catty comment” (Worth 1987, p. 30). Similarly, McMullan speaks of the language in terms of an “assemblage of clichés” (McMullan 1993 p. 24). Douglas McMillan describes the play as a parody of plot (McMillan 1987); Ben-Zvi disregards it as a banal tale to concentrate more on the delivery (Ben-Zvi 1986); John Fletcher notes that there is hardly any plot left and instead light is the most active element (Fletcher 1971). Critics who dismiss the first part of Play seem to be taking the text literally 'as read'. They are apparently forgetting that a text for theatre is designed to be spoken aloud and the intended audience will not have a printed copy to read and analyse: the point is that the speed and tone of the speech of Play is deliberately designed to be hard or even impossible to follow with any attention to detail. Given the toneless and rapid delivery required from the initial stage directions, “a comedy such as any theatre audience can enjoy” (Worth 1987, p. 130) would, in performance, be difficult to find. The specificity of the delivery might conceivably be a more practical reason why the play needs to be repeated, in order to give an audience a chance to extract meaning from the verbal chaos. Additionally, the bleak physical setting of such drawing-room drama phrases suddenly casts them in a much more sinister light. The “droll repartee and catty comment” of such moments such as,

What are you talking about? I said, stitching away. Someone yours? Give up whom? I smell you off him, she screamed, he stinks of bitch. (Play p. 308)

… would in all likelihood go unnoticed by a first-time audience, drowned beneath the sheer intensity of speech and the strangeness of the delivery, issuing as it does from a disembodied and disfigured head emerging from a funerary urn. The dissociation between the anonymous figure and the speech issuing from it additionally reduces the audience's chances of investing character and emotion in the piece, including laughter.

That is not to say that there are no comic moments in the text at all – for example, the irony of M's plaintive question registers thanks to the pause indicated by the ellipses, "All this, when will all this have been... just play?" (Play p. 313). M's comment on the brand of tea his lovers used to drink is also comic in its incongruity: "Personally, I always preferred Lipton's" (Play p. 314). In fact, a large part of the humour of Play centres around M. The most striking example is his chronic case of hiccups ((M's hiccups are one of the linguistic curiosities of Play which seem to consistently pass beneath the critical radar.)), his apologies for which are just as constant. M never once misses a “Pardon”, when clearly he has other, more pressing concerns; this suggests politeness is a reflex which being held captive in an urn cannot dislodge. Such polite correctness is testament to the overall tone of the speech in the linguistic space, which is by and large coherently constructed, and of a fairly elevated register. Since the characters are experiencing an obligation to produce speech, one might expect this speech to be as broken as, that of for instance, Lucky or Mouth. Instead, compared to the other forms of logorrhoea we have seen in Beckett's plays, the speeches in the first section of Play are oddly well-structured, almost as though they have been prepared in advance:

Judge then of my astonishment when one fine morning, as I was sitting stricken in the morning room, he slunk in, threw himself on his knees before me, buried his face in my lap and... confessed. (Play p. 309)

“... for the truth?”

(Play p. 313) The theme of confession is strong in the piece. Given the well-structured responses to the spotlight's questioning, it seems logical to conclude that the characters have had time to plan and think through their speech, or indeed have suffered enough repetitions that the formal delivery is a stylised representation of their previous (living) manners of speech. Either way, the form is that of a confession, leaving out only the intimate details. Especially interesting is M's attitude towards confessing - it is not only in the situation of the play that he feels obliged to speak. Examination of the first part of the play reveals he also experienced the urge to confess about the affair. Similarly, W1 went to W2 of her own volition to make her feelings known and let the truth out. Truth then is a central concept, even more so in the second section, where the characters begin to reflect on the particularities of their current situation, and its implications. Foucault observed that this repressive relationship between truth and power forms the particularly Western conception of the confessional (and, ironically in this case, the reason why Western civilisation has nothing to compare to the Eastern ars erotica):

la vérité n'est pas libre par nature, ni l'erreur serve, mais […] sa production est toute entière traversée par des rapports de pouvoir. (Foucault 2003, p. 81)

The characters of Play wonder aloud what could be the key to their situation; W1 has deduced that it must be something to be said, and reflects on the nature of truth,

Is it that I do not tell the truth, is that it, that some day somehow I may tell the truth at last and then no more light at last, for the truth? (Play p. 313)

However, no answers are forthcoming, neither from the spotlight, nor the force which put it there. The movement of light does however reveal something at the very end of the sequence. M's final words are broken up by the spot, switching off for three seconds before returning to M. The unbroken sequence runs: "Mere eye. No mind. Opening and shutting on me. Am I as much-- [...] Am I as much as... being seen?" (Play p. 317). If the spotlight is a unique inquisitor, and understands the speech it is drawing from the captives, it is tempting to consider that M may have hit upon an aspect of the truth of the situation. This might explain the unusual behaviour of the light. This is one of two points in the play where the spotlight cuts a single voice off mid-flow, discounting the blasts of choral speech which prelude each new section. The first moment comes with W2's description of dragging a roller, and is an darkly playful moment, a mimicry of the description she is providing. However, it is the second time M has been edited; the first time occurs in the first section,

W1.- I confess my first feeling was one of wonderment. What a male!(Spot from W1 to M. He opens his mouth to speak. Spot from M to W2.) (Play p. 309)

Since the play does not have to be performed in the same order on the repeat, we cannot attribute the spotlight's cut to the line before, i.e. “What a male!” It must be something to do with the spotlight's attitude to M, furthering Beckett's preferred interpretation that the spotlight be thought of as a fourth character in the piece. To return to the original quotation regarding the spotlight and M, it seems the light wished to emphasise M's words by removing them from the flow, specifically 'being seen'.

Combined with the characters' recognition of this torture as a crude truth procedure, and the purgatorial paradigm which means that the situation is designed to elicit some form of truth, it seems likely that the spotlight also has some notion of what it desires to hear. This amounts to a realisation of perception, suggested by the light's attention to M on the line, "Am I as much as... being seen?" (Play p. 317). In terms of this purely theatrical purgatorial dystopia, it seems important that the imprisoned souls understand that they are being perceived by another being, exterior to themselves. In Play, this concept takes on quite a sinister tone when considered in parallel with the idea that the sacred space of the paradigm has not only been emptied of its inherent Christian goodness, but is now the location of something else. The benevolent saviour figure in Catholic Purgatory, who maintains control and order over whichever form of lesser being is overseeing the actual torturing, no longer occupies the sacred space in Beckettian dystopia, having been driven out by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and Beckett's own pioneering awareness of the potential theatricality of the absurd. If, as Beckett suggests, the spotlight is as much a victim as the characters, another level of power structure is revealed: in this case, it seems likely that the spotlight is being pressured by a higher power, within the sacred space itself.

“To be dead is not enough for them.”: conclusions

Several elements of this play add depth to the construction of purgatorial dystopia established above. The analysis was initially begun with four key concepts in mind for the particularities of this space: logorrhoea, punishment, torture and hope, and perception by an external power. To these we can now add the role of light in terms of power relations, and an overall awareness of the power structure of confession as noted by Foucault.

Light fulfils a specific role in these pieces, and seems to be indicative of the unstable nature of the sacred space in this paradigm. M's speech gives the clearest idea that the light and the source of perceiving power are connected, "And now that you are... mere eye. Just looking. At my face. On and off." (Play p. 317). The significance of light as an instrument of torture becomes apparent when considered in tandem with the sacred space. Light is associated with the sacred space, which maintains controlling power over each purgatorial situation, but simultaneously it also controls the punishment aspect of the space, eliciting a constant flood of words from the souls it holds captive. The characters speak of the light as possessing a physical presence: W2 also describes her torment by spotlight in physical terms, "Give me up, as a bad job. Go away and start poking and pecking at someone else." (Play p. 312). Light is not a simple means of illumination in a purgatorial dystopia. It is a projection of the force occupying the sacred space, which observes and controls aspects of the situation culminating in the production of speech.

For characters who are forced to produce speech, their logorrhoea tends to fall into a pattern of self-narration. The purgatorial situation means that the characters are necessarily focused upon themselves, and so the narratives they produce are self-centred, regardless of whether the teller attempts to reject their autobiographical relevance. Inside this speech is embedded some particular truth, which the controlling power of the place seeks to encourage them to articulate by maintaining the compulsion to speak. This particular discourse situation, where a listener encourages the teller to convey particular information, is very much reminiscent of a confessional situation. In some versions of Catholic Purgatory, the 'third space' was for those who had died with unconfessed venial sins, and a key moment in the birth of purgatorial discourse was the Council of Latran's decision to impose yearly confession for every adult (Le Goff 1984). The power structure of the confessional as explored by Foucault adds an interesting dimension to the purgatorial dystopia we have created: the characters experiencing this purgatory now have a distinct purpose in their linguistic voiding, which encompasses the blurry hope for redemption that clings to their mindsets, a consequence of exposure to the sacred space. However, they are not willing participants in the discourse. Foucault, after an exhaustive list of the various situations in which confession has become routine, comments,

On avoue, ou on est forcé d'avouer. Quand il n'est pas spontané, ou imposé par quelque impératif intérieur, l'aveu est extorqué; on le débusque dans l'âme ou on l'arrache du corps. (Foucault 2003 p. 79)

In this dystopian conception of purgatory, light takes on the role of the power which flushes out the confession from the souls it imprisons. This power is supported by other listening figures, which dredge the flood of narrative elicited by the characters in search of “the thing you want” (Play p. 314). Although the sacred space remains the seat of judgement, it is not the location of any purely sacred power. Instead, something else occupies the space, and inexpertly attempts to continue the functions of purgatory by continuing to elicit speech, without any idea of what is required.

To recap, we have established the concept of purgatorial dystopia based on the forced production of speech in the from of narrative logorrhoea, which is judged and controlled by unknown entities who have adopted the sacred space where a benevolent god figure should normally be found. Light is a key tool in opening the floodgates of speech, which contribute to a destructive voiding of the soul in the linguistic space. The discourse structure which pervades the pieces explored is that of the confessional, but this is again subverted by the extortion techniques used to induce the speech, and by the fact that the auditors are not always clear what they are searching for, or are overzealous in their attempts to produce it. The dys-topos produced is one of oppression and torture reminiscent of more typical totalitarian fiction, where an anonymous power wields absolute control over its subjects.


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Pour citer cette ressource :

Eleanor Bryce, "Dystopia in the plays of Samuel Beckett: Purgatory in Play", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2012. Consulté le 18/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/dystopia-in-the-plays-of-samuel-beckett-purgatory-in-play