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.)

An effect of the contrast between the action and the tableau is to suggest a reality within illusion. Director displays the histrionic theatricality of a stereotyped theatre impresario, engaged in forming what should be stage illusion. Yet Protagonist's predicament is perceived to be "real," and within the stage illusion that ensues from the action and dialogue of Director and Assistant. Protagonist functions as a stage signifier in very much the same way as Hamm's toy dog. That is, as the toy has no intrinsic capacity to signify any more than its resemblance to a dog, existing as a sign at Saussure's first order of signification, so Protagonist, by his very inactivity, conveys no more than an essential human presence. [11] We become less aware of our relationship with the character and more of that with the actor, a relationship that is "not within the fiction, but located on the level of a concrete and social situation." [12] The play's dramatic dynamic, drawing on the significance of a paradoxically non-acting Protagonist (by definition a contradiction in terms), refers us to a meta-commentary on the generation of significance by the theatrical medium itself. Patrice Pavis, for instance, speaks of a "basic contradiction" in theatre semiotics "between the actor as material body that is visible and iconized, and the text as symbolic system that requires the mediation of the mental staging of performance." [13] Here Protagonist is determined and simultaneously constrained and repressed, by co-ordinated agents of the textual system (and of course, it was through the regulated action of text in the world - copyright and the legalities of injunction - that Beckett expressed his will in the Fin de partie/Endgame incidents).

Director's self-conscious acting produces an emphatic character and persona. Protagonist's non-acting allows symbolic meaning to be imposed from without, through an alienated mechanism of semiosis:

A: [Finally.] Like the look of him? D: So so. [Pause.] Why the plinth? A: To let the stalls see the feet. [Pause.] D: Why the hat? A: To help hide the face. [Pause.] D: Why the gown? A: To have him all black. D: What has he on underneath:? [A moves towards P.] Say it. [A halts.] A: His night attire. D: Colour? A: Ash. (297)

Protagonist's initial costume resembles that in Ohio Impromptu, except that the wide-brimmed hat is on the head, and the coat, which suggested protection against environmental elements, is replaced by a dressing-gown, lending a greater sense of vulnerability. [14] A somewhat ironic luxury, considering Protagonist's otherwise abject state, the dressing-gown is also a garment of transition, worn prior to dressing for the day or retiring at night. Protagonist is the epitome of transience, for his existence, while it lasts, is no more than a process of "becoming." He is an unfinished statue, beneath the sculptor's drape. Birth and death are identified to the same degree as in Waiting for Godot ("They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more" ) and A Piece of Monologue (" Birth was the death of him" ), thus complementing the fusion of the two forms, Creation and Catastrophe. [15] Protagonist is attired in the vestiges of an unconscious oblivion, prior to invigoration. Unperceiving, he is perceived as an anonymous human form. The process of his disrobing is an assault of perception, as increasing light, along with the removal of layers of costume, facilitates the greater definition of his bodily form. Director and Assistant display a tacit understanding that Protagonist will not move: their creature is unable to perform any significant action. His aesthetic value is purely iconic.

One would expect Director to have been aware of the details about which he queries Assistant, this rehearsal comprising the "Final touches to the last scene" (297) and indeed, his lack of memory is twice announced explicitly ("I forget" [298]). Thus the creative process is renewed and isolated in time. Assistant contains a mnemonic function that enables her to describe Protagonist. Dramatic pauses are contemplative, directing attention to Protagonist, as he becomes imbued with "significance" by virtue of these descriptions. In the first instance, he is simply a theatrical icon, his appearance conceived in terms of theatre pragmatics. Director halts Assistant in her move to reveal Protagonist, compelling further description and displaying an absolute, mechanistic control.

The words chosen by Director and Assistant in reference to aspects of the icon, Protagonist, precede the unveiling of their visual correspondents. Art originates with an idea, and the initial transformation is from the concept into the word; thus, language prepares for the emergence of the symbolic Protagonist. The spectator first receives the concept, formed by the word, which then accommodates the visual component in a complex theatrical sign; he or she is thus engaged in a self-conscious process of art, an art conscious of assuming symbolic meaning.

D: . . . How's the skull? A: You've seen it. D: I forget. [A moves towards P.] Say it. A: Moulting. A few tufts. D: Colour? A: Ash. (298)

Assistant is not to act upon Protagonist before his linguistic, poetic construction is complete. This preparatory process involves selection of the terms of reference by which the cloaked (and therefore general or archetypal) human form is to be conceived, and incorporates the negation of any associations of stature or dignity that may be evoked by the form. The choice of "skull" evinces a concern for the skeletal structure, a further instance of Director's will to see "underneath" (297), into the intrinsic structure of Man, as animal and as symbol. Furthermore, the skull is, as the night-gown, emblematic of death-in-life: the living human bears the death's-head, revealed in its whiteness upon the degeneration of more transient tissue, or when "ash" returns to "ash."

Similarly, the poetic image of the hands is one of degeneration and becomes a further metonymic animal image:

D: . . . The hands, how are the hands? A: You've seen them. D: I forget. A: Crippled. Fibrous degeneration. D: Clawlike? A: If you like. D: Two claws? A: Unless he clench his fists. D: He mustn't. A: I make a note. [She takes out pad, takes pencil, notes.] Hands limp. [She puts back pad and pencil] (298)

The fists might be interpreted as a sign of defiance and so are not to be countenanced. Director's judgements reveal qualities of the intuition to which Protagonist's image is to conform. The intuition is not a fully formed concept, but such evolves as Protagonist evolves (" It's coming" [299]). Assistant's note-taking exemplifies her mnemonic function and the precise, operational nature of the artistic process: the conceptual element is transformed into the word, then into the written word, and will become a visual quality of Protagonist at some time in the future.

The word is pre-eminent, of course, in the Biblical account of Creation: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1: 1). The book of Genesis speaks of a world "without form, and void, and darkness . . . upon the face of the deep" (1: 2); "And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness (1: 3-4). Thus, the source of divine moral judgement is aesthetic and arbitrary, God's unexplained liking for the light. His division of light and darkness is equivalent to the distinction between good and evil, and is thereby the archetype for the Shakespearian imagery discussed. The cigar-smoking Director's first command is also for " Light" (298); further such demands and repetitions of the phase "For God's sake" (299, 300) help to build a conception of the Director as God, while sustaining his theatrical gestus of a bourgeois and chauvinistic impresario. His identity with the Creator is further effected by his command over language and light, determining the structure of the play so as to conform to the order of Creation, and by the inclusion of a lighting technician named Luke.

For Schopenhauer, art "plucks the object of its contemplation out of the stream of the world's course . . . the relations vanish for it," [16] including its relation to the creative subject, as object and subject are fused in the contemplation. The creative process may be envisage, if from a somewhat artificial remove, as a transference of consciousness from the subject to the object, as the object assumes conscious definition and the subject relinquishes self-consciousness. Assistant's initial composure and the efficiency of her response to Director's questions and commands suffer increasingly as she acts upon Protagonist. She is directed (by Beckett) to remove Protagonist's black garments, but not to put them down, and so she is encumbered in her tasks of note-making and in her physical operations upon Protagonist. As well, her costume, "White overall" (297), is partially obscured by her acquisition of Protagonist's black hat and gown. She is simultaneously darkened as he is lightened. As the stage-lights reduce, increasing their focus upon Protagonist's head, she is simultaneously covered in shadow. When Protagonist approaches his final form, Director shifts his own perspective to that of the intended percipient ("I'll go and see how it looks from the house" ) and exits from the stage, "not to appear again" (299).

A complex set of relations exists between Assistant's removal of Protagonist's dressing-gown and her observation that "He's shivering" (298). The proximity of the events invites an inference that Protagonist shivers because he is cold, having lost the quality of protection afforded by the gown. However, the gown served also to darken him ("To have him all black" [297]) and to obscure him from view. His shivering may, therefore, be due to the removal of any or all of these qualities of the gown, or indeed, to none of them, for he may have been shivering already, unseen beneath the gown. Neither does the text indicate that the action is to be visible, but the spectator, like Director, might depend upon Assistant's perception, which is enabled by her close contact with Protagonist. The possibilities combine in the precept, to be seen is to be seen to suffer, the same that allows Hamm to conclude, when Clov observes Nagg crying inside his ashbin, "Then he's living" (Endgame 41). The manifestations of suffering appear as the idea of individual existence emerges from the artistic medium. A deepening perception into the art object, Protagonist, at once reveals and augments an intrinsic suffering. In view of his clenched fists and the indignity to which he is subjected, his single innate means of expression, the "shivering" understates a profound aversion to coming into being, or into perception. Director's response, to ignore Assistant's comment and immediately demand further disrobing, the removal of the hat, demonstrates and absence of compassion, extending to his characterization as the Creator; as well, a suggestion that Assistant is compassionate in pointing out the shivering is later negated when she clarifies her wish to apply "a little gag" so as to ensure that Protagonist will not "utter" (299).

Director's dictum that Protagonist "mustn't" clench his fists requires physical enforcement: Assistant unclenches them, forcing the hands to become "clawlike" (298-9). The creative procedure is at the stage of physically conforming the object to the concept; Assistant is no longer to "Say it" (298), but must act with a greater frequency if she is to avoid Director's displeasure. Her inability to divine Director's intention from his terse commands stimulates his further irritation, which compounds the disruption of her functioning. The rational means she embodies are thoroughly subjugated to the power of the creative will:

D: [Finally.] Something wrong. [Distraught.] What is it? A: [Timidly.] What if we were ... were to ... join them? D: No harm trying. [A advances, joins the hands, steps back.] Higher. [A advances, raises waist high the joined hands, steps back] A touch more. [A advances, raises breast high the joined hands.] Stop! [A steps back.] Better. It's coming. Light. (299)

To allay Director's distraction, Assistant states the most obvious structural modification suggested by the figure of Protagonist, the joining of the hands. As an aesthetic possibility, the suggestion is extraneous to the criteria of whiteness and "nudity" (300) that have governed his judgements to date. His compliance is in the spirit of trial and error' the suggestion possesses an intuitive appeal, unlike those concerning the "gag" (" This craze for explicitation! Every i dotted to death!" [299]) and the raising of the head (" What next! .... Where do you think we are? In Patagonia?" [300]). There is no indication that Director possesses, and is having Protagonist express, a concept of prayer. The position is essentially arbitrary and meaningless: Director simply says "Stop!" when the hands reach the position of maximum intuitive and aesthetic appeal. The section exemplifies the manner in which the play simultaneously constructs and confounds symbolic meaning. The position " means" prayer only to the spectator, not necessarily to the characters. Moreover, the way in which the symbol has been constructed undercuts its usual associations, such as Man's adoration of a benevolent Creator. Rather, the action suggests an absurd God, who creates Man only in order to become the object of an empty gesture of adoration and supplication. At the level of semiotic meta-commentary, Beckett's theatre becomes a technology that enables us to observe as though under magnification to the nth degree, "one of the key problems of theatre semiology: the link between iconic system (gesture) based on the resemblance between the sign and its object, and the symbolic system which is based on the arbitrariness of the sign." [17]

Director continues "from the house" to increase the intensity of his scrutiny, attending to the finer details of the "toes" he is unable and the "trace of face" he does not wish to see (299). Assistant solves the first problem rationally, by recourse to her note-making operation ("Raise pedestal"). However, her attempt to do so a second time is thwarted by Director, his disruptive effect upon her having grown so extreme as to short-circuit her procedure:

A: I make a note. [She takes out pad, takes pencil, makes to note.] D: Down the head. [A at a loss. Irritably.] Get going. Down his head. [A puts back pad and pencil, goes to P, bows his head further, steps back.] A shade more. [A advances, bows the head further.] Stop! [A steps back.] Fine. It's coming. [Pause.] Could do with more nudity. A: I make a note. [She takes out pad, makes to take her pencil.] D: Get going! Get going! (299-300)

The operation of bowing the head involves a finer "tuning" of Protagonist's body than that of raising the joined hands, is carried out with Director offstage, and Assistant's functioning at a greater degree of disruption. However, the dramatic structure of the events is identical: two separate motions create three distinct positions for the head and hands; the second motion is undertaken of Director's order, "A touch more" or "A shade more," and is halted at the appropriate point by "Stop!" Hence, the linear motion in both cases is divided into three static stages for the contemplation of Protagonist by Director, Assistant, and the spectator, recalling the basic structural scheme in Breath. Like the props in Breath, Protagonist remains essentially static: he is moved, rather than moves by his own volition. He is, like the props, a static presence to be considered in different lights, or under the various conditions brought on by external change. Therefore, he does not contribute meaning, only presence. His meaning is construed in terms of his relation to the others: if Director is perceived as God, then he is Man; if Director is the creative will, he is the art object. The play is a study "about" this acquisition of meaning or significance. The contrast of the bowing of the head with the raising of the hands illustrates the arbitrary nature of significance. The symbol of prayer is not a logical development from the process of raising the hands, but a spontaneous and arbitrary association with the final position. Reduction of the action to systematic series of discrete bodily gestures and the question of their relation to a semiotic code refers us again to meta-commentary on theatrical meaning, and in particular, to the pursuit of precise control over and comprehension of dramatic codes, reminiscent of Meyerhold's bio-mechanic exercises. Assistant behaves like a theatre semiologist, seeking through her notation to reconstruct the specific code dictated by Director, but we see that this necessity is part of the creative process of the theatre itself. [18]

Luke's introduction has the ring of a burlesque angelic visitation:

D: It's coming. Is Luke around? A: [Calling.] Luke! [Pause. Louder.] Luke! L: [Off, distant.] I hear you. [Pause. Nearer.] What's the trouble now? (300)

Saint Luke is the evangelist who "speaks of a thief being saved" because of his attitude to Christ on the cross, and whose version of the crucifixion is believed before the other three because "People are bloody ignorant apes," grasping at the hope of salvation that is made thus contingent on the moral probity of behaviour (Godot 13). The presence of Luke, like an inspired evangelist, receiving the will of Director-Creator, translated into intelligible terms by Assistant-angel, completes the absurd metaphysical motif. His lighting operations correspond to the technical application of a divine morality; the gospel is implied to be an aesthetic solution to a theological problem (hence, "What's the trouble now?" ) Director's terms of appraisal have been moral terms ("Good" [298], "Better" [299], "Something wrong" [299]) and his approval associated with increasing whiteness, intensity of light, and "nudity," augmentations of suffering for Protagonist. They become purely those of a banal aestheticism ("Lovely" [300] and "Terrific" [301] when the figure most exemplifies the paradigm of the catastrophic protagonist, the final effect of Luke's focusing of the light.

Protagonist raises his head, a contradiction of Director's express wish and thus a form of hubris: a catastrophe of catastrophe, the applause falters and the light expires. This is the one single act of volition by Protagonist, and by itself it constitutes a succinct dramatic image of life's single, contemplative instant, recalling Pozzo's "The light gleams an instant" and Macbeth's "Out, out, brief candle!" His act of perception occurs with his body in total darkness: he has no reference by which to ascertain his own existence. The action occurs in a form of cadenza, supposed to be the time of performance, yet associated with Director's statement, "I can hear it from here" (301), fusing the art and its occasion in the Creator's omniscience. The theatrical occasion of Catastrophe becomes an evident dramatic component as the spectator is made aware of Luke behind the scenes, operating the stage-lights according to instructions from Assistant. The pretended "house" into which Director exits becomes the theatre at the time of performance; the intended audience, mortal or angelic, becomes the audience of the real performance, when they are "fixe[d]" by Protagonist's gaze. Thus the dramatic structure resolves in the phenomenon of the percipient perceived, recalling the final tableau in Ohio Impromptu. [19] Structures of meaning imposed by the spectator by way of his or her role in the creative process are met with the revelation of an individual's face, an identity which is in a sense irrelevant to the preceding action, refuting any general, symbolic interpretation, and one of whose essential significances is to "signify nothing."

The balance is delicate: perhaps the merest hint of "hoofbeats and the turning wheels of a tumbrel" might send the drama tumbling over the brink into a parody of itself as agit prop play. The drama of significance immanent in Beckett's theatre metaphor is more akin to reflection upon the significance of the self and the construction of the subject, as outlined generally from Nietzsche through Foucault. [20] That is to say, in the absence of a rational god, without the possibility of meaningful action external to the instant of creation-catastrophe, what possibility remains but the aesthetic creation of oneself? Such an action, like Protagonist's single gesture, may perhaps only ever be mute - like Beckett's text, an art of passivity and resignation to the possibility only ever to "fail better." [21] Or do we need, like Endgame/Fin de partie, to be redeemed by the interventions of our author?


An earlier version of this article was selected by an international board of editors for publication in the Journal of Beckett Studies, but the journal ceased publication before the article appeared. (It has subsequently resumed publication.)

1. See Beryl S. and John Fletcher, Student's Guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett 2d ed.(London: Faber, 1985) 265. 2. Richard Roud, Manchester Guardian Weekly, 21 Aug. 1983 (20) and Edith Oliver, The New Yorker, 27 June 1983 (75), qtd. in Virginia Cook ed., Beckett On File (London: Methuen, 1985) 63. 3. Alisa Solomon, Village Voice, 28 June 1983, 100, qtd. in Cook, 63. 4. Catastrophe, in Collected Shorter plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber, 1984) 295-301). 5. "JoAnne Akalaitis" (interview), in Lois Oppenheim ed., Directing Beckett (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994) 135-40 (137). 6. Gildas Bourdet, "Fizzle," in Oppenheim155-60 (159). The quotation is from a statement distributed to audiences of the production. 7. Endgame (2nd ed., London: Faber, 1964) 30-31. 8. Krapp's Last Tape, in Collected Shorter Plays 55-63 (62). 9. King Lear 3: 4. 10. Breath, in Collected Shorter Plays 209-211. 11. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (London: Paladin-Granada, 1973) 89. 12. Patice Pavis, Languages of the Stage: Essays in the Semiology of the Theatre (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1982) 82. 13. Pavis 18. 14. Ohio Impromptu, in Collected Shorter Plays 283-88). 15. Waiting for Godot (2nd ed., London: Faber, 1965) 89; A Piece of Monologue, in Collected Shorter Plays, 263-69 (265). 16. Qtd. in Steven J. Rosen, Samuel Beckett and the Pessimistic Tradition (New Jersey: Rutjers UP, 1976). Rosen quotes from Schopenhauer' s The World as Will and Idea, Vol. 1, trans. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp (London: Trubner, 1883) 239. 17. Pavis 47. 18. Pavis 30-31. 19. See Michael Guest, "Beckett' s Ohio Impromptu: Narrative and Dramatic Functions," in Reports of Faculty of Liberal Arts, Shizuoka University, Vol. 30 (1994), No. 2, 43-57. 20. See for example, Anna MacMullan' s discussion of Catastrophe as a revelation of Beckett's "preoccupation with power in its relationship to representation" and its focus upon "the act of looking and the power relations inherent in this act," in Samuel Beckett's later drama (New York: Routledge, 1993) 25-33. 21. See Beckett, Worstward Ho (London: Calder, 1983) 7, and Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais (Cambridge: Harvard, 1993) passim