Act of Creation in Beckett's Catastrophe

by Michael Guest (

Copyright © 1995 by Michael Guest. (Originally published in Reports of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Shizuoka University (Japan), Vol. 31 (September 1995). Reproduced here with the permission of the author.)

Catastrophe, one of the last plays Beckett wrote, exemplifies the complex polysemy and overlaying of dramatic significance and texture that he achieved through his minimalist approach to theatre. The play is only four pages long and can be performed in twenty to thirty minutes at the outside, yet it generates a reflexivity that reaches to the essence of theatrical meaning-production, and elicits a powerful emotional response to its political themes. The play's dedication to Vaclav Havel - its occasion being Havel's Avignon benefit night - perhaps amplifies the play's uncharacteristically overt politics. [1] A reviewer saw the play as a "parody of agit prop plays as well as a statement of the similarity between a dictatorship . . . and the way in which a director treats his actors." Another thought she heard in the recorded applause at the end, "hoofbeats and the turning wheels of a tumbrel - but . . . maybe that was only an aural hallucination from my own spellbound imagination . . ." [2]

While acknowledging the play's social politics, my reading in the present essay tends to a rather less extravagant view of its emotionalism. I lean more toward the description of a third reviewer, who thought of Catastrophe as a "political miracle play," [3] but even so, with an emphasis upon a politics of the self. The present reading focuses upon the equally overt theme of aesthetic creation, tracing the dramatic mechanisms by which Beckett so precisely configures a tragicomic theatrical metaphor for the production of meaning and significance in general - a metaphor in which we identify the coincidence of tragic catastrophe with miraculous creation (as the comic pole).

Counterpoint in Catastrophe is between the action, dialogue and lighting effects generated by Director, Assistant and Luke, and the static figure of Protagonist. The rehearsal setting of the play presents a complex of relations amongst the characters and a complex of meanings for the changes imposed upon Protagonist. At face value, the rehearsal is simply as indicated by the introductory stage-direction: "Final touches to the last scene." [4] One might read at this level a comment upon theatre politics, in the hierarchical scheme of theatre personae, from the chauvinistic Director to the abject actor, Protagonist. If we were able to trace this theme beyond the dramatic and textual bounds of the play itself, we might, indeed be tempted to observe Beckett fall into the unenviable position of unintended object of his own satire, to the extent that Catastrophe satirizes the egotistical will to control what one has created, whether one is God or the artist. In 1984 Beckett unsuccessfully "tried to bring an injunction" against JoAnne Akalaitis's American Repertory Theatre production of Endgame because of the staging. [5] Again in 1988, he objected to Gildas Bourdet's Comèdie Française production of Fin de partie on a similar count and intervened legally:

True respect for the theatrical text one brings to the stage necessitates, from the actors, the use of a creative freedom without which the worst can be expected, by which I mean platitude and convention. It is this freedom that was finally forbidden us, obliging us to retreat with, at heart, the certainty of a waste and, like one who has been judged without evidence, a feeling of sadness and injustice. [6]

Bourdet's statement rebounds somewhat uncomfortably against the themes of the theatre and freedom that Beckett presents so explicitly in Catastrophe. Beckett's own actions in the "real world" were perceived as limiting the creative potential of his play, as choking its autonomy and "life," and falling into the same trap of aesthetic over-determination that he satirizes in Catastrophe.

Catastrophe's depiction of the process of theatrical creation serves as a model for divine creation, in a variation upon the theatre metaphor. Here, the theatre hierarchy becomes a metaphysical scheme that includes an angelic Assistant and the evangelist Luke as agents of the Creator's will. Human existence is created as an iconic object of art, complementing the arrogant creative will, and literally "For God's Sake" (300). Ultimately, its purpose is no more than for the trivial amusement of the bogus angelic hosts, applauding from the stalls in a heavenly theatre.

One aspect of the creative process portrayed can be illustrated with reference to the incident in Endgame involving Hamm's toy dog. Catastrophe focuses significantly upon this detail:

HAMM: [impatiently]. Well? CLOV: He's standing. HAMM: [groping for the dog]. Where? Where is he? Clov holds up the dog in a standing position. CLOV: There. He takes Hamm's hand and guides it towards the dog's head. HAMM: [his hand on the dog's head]. Is he gazing at me? CLOV: Yes. HAMM: [proudly]. As if he were asking me to take him for a walk? CLOV: If you like. HAMM: [as before]. Or as if he were begging me for a bone. [He withdraws his hand.] Leave him like that, standing there imploring me. [7]

The toy is made by Clov, but as an extension of Hamm's egotism. It has no intrinsic meaning, except that it resembles a dog. Hamm, however, imposes significance: the dog stands imploring because Hamm likes to think it does. He has the dog exist to affirm his own empty existence, and thus the dog reflects his emptiness to us.

Clov's non-committal "If you like" is reiterated by Assistant in response to Director's loaded inquiry about the condition of Protagonist's hands ("Clawlike?" [298]). Protagonist, like the dog, assumes for Director whatever significance Director wishes and, at the same time, reflects the inanity of the creative will. Clov and Assistant mediate between their respective masters and the object of creation. Clov is engaged in the practical procedures of artistic creation, the rational and physical means by which the will is transferred to the object: "But he isn't finished, I tell you! First you finish your dog and then you put on his ribbon!" (Endgame 30). Similarly, Assistant effects physical changes upon Protagonist by removing his garments and altering the position of his body to conform to Director's intuition. The nature of this intuition is revealed, of course, in the posture that Protagonist is made to assume: head bowed and hands clasped in supplication and prayer.

Like Hamm's and Clov's toy, Protagonist is invested with animal characteristics: his hair is "moulting" (298), his hands are like "claws" (298), he will not utter a "squeak" (299). (Similarly, in Krapp's Last Tape human language is reduced to a plane of animal utterance, ultimately devoid of meaning: "Nothing to say, not a squeak.") [8] Underpinning the animal motif are considerations of animal consumption and suffering. We can assume that if Hamm's dog were a real animal then its existence would be consumed in satisfying Hamm's egoistic needs to be gazed at, begged and implored. The catastrophic Protagonist is created as a "poor, bare, forked animal" so as to provide a trivial aesthetic gratification for the intended audience, and an egoistic gratification for Director, for the creative will. [9] Director's fur coat and matching toque are not only indications of bourgeois luxury and elegance, but also suggest the comforts afforded by the consumption of animals. As well, Protagonist is associated with the Director's cigar, an object created and consumed for trivial gratification. Beneath the hat and gown, he is the colour of "ash" (297-8).

Protagonist is "created" by a method of subtraction, in the way that a stature is created (hence, the black box on which he stands is referred to as a "plinth" [297] and a "pedestal" [299]). The play is organized into three major sections by the predominant use of language, action and lighting in subtracting from the initially undefined human form. First, Director's appraisal constructs a poetic image of the animal, Man - the dialogue between him and Assistant removes any elevated conception of Man that might be elicited by the form. In the second section, Assistant takes away the hat and gown, and performs a set of operations upon Protagonist that further diminish conceptions of stature and dignity. Finally, Luke's lighting-effects eliminate Protagonist's entire body, leaving only the head. On the first occasion this image is attained, Director remarks, "Good. There's our catastrophe. In the bag" (300). Seemingly, the lit head is the very "Catastrophe" of the title: the object of the rehearsal, the finishing of the final scene in Director's play, is accomplished in this one image. However, upon his direction, "Once more and I'm off" (300), Luke repeats the lighting operation, indicating that the catastrophe extends through that procedure as well. And as this requires that the lights are first turned on in reverse order, it is conceivable that the catastrophe is delineated by the lighting pattern, and thus extends back through the entire rehearsal: the lights must have been turned on in such a fashion at least once before we began our observation.

The method of creative subtraction employed here coincides with the classic dramatic paradigm of the catastrophe, wherein an arrogant protagonist is thrust down by the gods, stripped of assumed power, humiliated and destroyed. The paradigm is isolated from the tragic form and identified with the creative process and the myth of creation. Creation is catastrophe. While Shakespeare's King Lear has been alluded to in reference to the animal imagery in Catastrophe, several strong resonances suggest Macbeth to be a model from which Beckett has drawn the catastrophic paradigm. In Macbeth, the theme of stripping away all vestiges of power and dignity is given explicit metaphorical voice. From within the walls of the castle at Dunsinane, Macbeth vainly attempts to resist the course of inevitable retribution: "I'll fight till from my bones my flesh be hack'd. Give me my armour" (5: 3). Like Protagonist's garments, the futile layers of protection fall away - the flesh is but one of them. Macbeth is immobilized in battle, metaphorically reduced to an animal. "They have tied me to a stake: I cannot fly, But, bear-like I must fight the course (5: 7) - anticipating the figure of Protagonist, who at most passively resists the onslaught of theatrical Creation. Macbeth is finally reduced to his disembodied head, like Protagonist: this is the least human remain that would identify him as the once Macbeth. The head is borne in at the end of the last scene as an emblem of Macbeth's profound humiliation, and of the efficacy of fate.

Catastrophe contains a Macbeth-like theme of white becoming black and vice-versa, but one directly perceived as a visual effect. Protagonist's body is first lightened by shades as his garments are removed and his flesh bared, and then darkened as the lighting contracts. In this regard, the end of the play is an inversion of the opening: a black, anonymous Protagonist in general lighting becomes a lit face removed from all relations, in otherwise general darkness. One effect of isolating the paradigm of the catastrophe, however, is to confound the idea of absolute morality inherent in the tragic form. Director judges Protagonist, but his judgements are aesthetic one based upon appearance rather that upon action. Nor are there any acts to be judged, for Protagonist remains inert. The judgements are a part of the creative process, steering the image of Protagonist toward Director's desired result. All Protagonist's flesh "needs whitening" (299): he is to be created in the image of death. (One irony in Macbeth is that its protagonist "black Macbeth" does become as "white as snow" [4: 3], in death.) The process of Creation is the process of Catastrophe, the instant of birth the instant of death; hence, the complex of on-and-off lighting cycles are overlays of Breath-like instants in which no act worthy of judgement could conceivably be performed. [10] The isolated catastrophe ironically affirms Macbeth's explicit reference to the theatre metaphor: Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (5: 5)

Catastrophe, however, implies only the aesthetic form of tragedy (Director's unseen play) and not a universal moral scheme. By containing a gross caricature of the metaphysical hierarchy, the conception of divine moral judgement is denied. Director's judgements are perceived in terms of their effect upon Protagonist, who evolves into a nihilistic image of mankind, forced into a position of humiliation and supplication by the inane Creator. The final revelation of the lit face, an image that may be conceived of as an abstract point of intersection with Macbeth, is a direct contradiction of the significance Director would impose, thus in terms of whatever his intention, logically "signifying nothing."

[ Part II ]