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Ssh”

Cascando and Other Short Dramatic Pieces

by Samuel Beckett
Grove, 79 pp., $1.75 (paper)

When it was first announced for publication, Samuel Beckett’s new collection, Cascando and Other Short Dramatic Pieces, bore the title Cascando and Other Residua. But as this may have suggested to the publisher such morbidphrases as “scraping the bottom of Beckett,” the title has now been changed. Still, the fact is that the present volume consists in good part of things written more than five years ago, and entirely of things already published in England—some of them published before that on the continent. The title piece, along with “Play” and “Words and Music,” was published in 1964 by Faber & Faber; the other three pieces were published in 1967, two by Faber & Faber, one by Calder & Boyars. The seventy-nine pages of the present chrestomathy do indeed represent a convenient gathering of Samuel Beckett’s recent activities; but they are neither very recent nor, in the crude, quantitative sense, very copious.

Actually, Beckett seems to be getting more and more gnomic as he goes on. Of the three most recent pieces, one (subtitled, appropriately, “Dramaticule”) covers just two-and-a-half pages, during which 125 words are spoken; another (“Film”) includes just a single spoken word—and that word is “ssh.” We have already had mimelets with no words at all. Mr. Beckett may in due course achieve the ultimate asceticism of a play with no words, no characters, no stage directions, no title—to the immense relief of the fellow who purchases ink for Grove Press. With Rauschenberg’s “Erased DeKooning” on the wall, and Cage’s “Four Minutes and Thirty Nine Seconds” of stereophonic silence on the hi-fi, the esthete of the future will be almost too burdened to appreciate Beckett’s ultimate reticence.

The situation isn’t without its comic aspects, as who would know better than Mr. Beckett? But these shouldn’t obscure the elegance of his angular, pedantic little drolleries. As his mind distills more and deeper insight into fewer words, sparser gestures, defter paradigms, Mr. Beckett comes ever closer to the ultimate word, a supremely aromatic monosyllable, a compression of all the thought and feeling and insight which he is absolutely destined to pronounce.

Cascando consists of a half-dozen curiously strong peppermints for a mini-stage, TV, radio, and film. Most of them deal with variants of a single theme, that of despairing, lonely old age; and in most of them the characters (or at least the speakers) are manipulated like marionettes to give an impression of mechanical lifelessness. Words often seem to be wrung from them like drops of water from a badly closed tap. Sometimes, unexpectedly, they pour forth a sudden spate of empty formulas, like Lucky’s famous thinking-exhibition in Godot, but then they are abruptly throttled into silence. Somewhere in the remote past there is usually a faint, half-forgotten recollection of something vaguely akin to happiness; words evoke it, though only weakly and for a moment, before it disappears in the fumbling of senile decay. Movement, intonations, lighting, and stage-details are all rigidly prescribed, so that the least ripple of expression, a slightly colored word, stands out as a bold gesture.

Cascando itself (the title piece) contains in its entire scenario just one such non-neutral word, “Woburn”; but whether it’s the name of the chief character, the country seat of the Duke of Bedford, a town near Boston, Mass., an English series of collected short stories, or a yoking of two dire monosyllables (woe plus burn) isn’t indicated in any way. The short play “Come and Go” contains one non-neutral statement—when Vi, Ru, and Flo link hands at the end of the play, Flo says, “I can feel the rings.” The last sentence of directions concerning the costuming of the characters says simply, “no rings apparent.” Which is, of course, precisely right, and puts the action of the playlet just where Beckett wants it, in the lost, unreachable recollections of his three gray neutralities; but it’s also characteristic of his extraordinary dramatic economy.

An admirably gay variant on these somewhat somber arrangements in gray and brown is provided by the script of a film (entitled, succinctly, “Film”), about which it’s doubtless presumptuous to write without having seen the celluloid. But it struck this reader as a particularly successful metaphysical-psychological vaudeville. Built on the Berkeleyan adage that “esse est percipi,” “to be is to be perceived,” it operates with two characters, E (eye) and O (object). When O sees that E is seeing him, that is, when E’s nosey image impinges on the periphery of O’s vision, O shrinks and quails. But having done everything possible to evade percipi—having removed dog and cat from his room, covered the mirror, and blacked out the goldfish—O finally succumbs, and is invested by E, who turns out (being fully seen for the first time) to be O’s self, with a patch over his left eye and a large nail driven into his left temple.

From such a description it might not seem easy to derive the adjective “gay” as applied to the film; yet for the most part it is droll enough in its patient, solemn playing-out of a game. The rules of the game are not only arbitrary, they are foolish, and its end is inevitable; but the game is played out—here, as always in Beckett—with supreme formality. One gets the impression sometimes that Beckett’s stage mechanisms are all animated by the same tropism toward the same fatal certainty; their development is simply in becoming more and more efficient devices for reaching that terminus in the shortest possible period. They seem increasingly elegant and compressed mathematical formulae for proving that the problem of human existence, like that of squaring the circle, is radically insoluble, but is also inescapable.

Under the circumstances, the best gestures are those that carry with them a penumbra of the second-hand. Joe (of “Eh, Joe”), staring motionless at the camera while a woman’s voice recites bitter imprecations in the back of his head, is not far from Krapp listening to his last tape; Woburn, or whoever he is, drifts out to sea in a helpless rowboat like Malone and the nameless protagonist of “The End.” The postmortem triangle of “Play” is more than a little reminiscent of Sartre’s Huis Clos; the interior dialogue of “Words and Music” has been heard before in some of the he-him arguments of Texts for Nothing; and the three washed-out females of “Come and Go” effectively remind us of the Three Graces or the Three Fates. No part of the dramatic action is so striking that it diverts us from the pressure of that void which is always pushing against stage, characters, and audience, and against which our only defense is the laconic purity of the Beckett style.

It has been customary, for some time now, to identify Beckett with his characters as a hunger-artist of the imagination, a virtuoso performer in the lean art of doing without. Indeed, periodic predictions used to be heard a few years ago that, after Godot or Endgame, nothing more could possibly be heard from Mr. Beckett—he having written himself, presumably, into an abyss of negation from which he could never conceivably be extricated. Well, that doesn’t seem to be how things are working out, precisely. One might almost propound a special “Beckett’s law,” that the exhilarating force of the gesture doesn’t depend so much on its amplitude as on the isolation and sterility of its background. One can get a good sense of this by looking back on the early Beckett—for example, on a novel like Murphy. By comparison with late Beckett, it is fairly bulging with business, some detailed scenery and much buffoonery, in which the value of the single gesture is smothered by a plethora of episode. There is a real Beckett action in Murphy, but it is muffled by the baggy pants and fright wig of the comic Irishman, and squanders a lot of its energies in getting out. Thus for the later Beckett words seem not an instrument but an enemy. The mechanism isn’t that Beckett rations them out like precious commodities, but that he strips them away from an action (or inaction or passion or despair) which they are powerless to express, except by their inadequacy. The fewer there are, the better.

Perhaps this is why formulas like “Beckett is trying to show that the world is meaningless (or pointless, or absurd)” seem always to leave the main thing unsaid. Beckett’s actions do indeed work down through language, nostalgia, mythology, and much that we customarily (perhaps too easily) take to be flesh-and-blood humanity, to reach authenticity. Certainly the sense that these mythologies are really junk to be got out of the way limits when it doesn’t vitiate interpretations proposing St. John of the Cross or the Sermon on the Mount as the “key” to Beckett. Yet even if we abjure the comforts of myth, perhaps especially then, it is important that what we find at the bottom of Beckett is not a dead-blank, but a wellspring from which surges a new energy. Despair is always faced and recognized, yet neither canceled nor embraced. Beckett is the Antaeus of modern imaginations, and Cascando might almost be subtitled Sorgendo. (I acknowledge here my debt to the fifth chapter of Stanley Cavell’s fine new book of literary and philosophical essays, Must We Mean What We Say?,* a book which merits independent consideration.)

Actually, it is arguable that Beckett is best made out as a philosophical writer—as against a religious or mythical one. This isn’t a matter of his personal credo, but of seeing his work clear and whole. As a post-Mallarmé saint, he may choose to be crucified on his art or his ontology or both; more conventional varieties of salvation/damnation won’t wholly justify the deep sense of intellectual anguish alternating with painful comic recovery, which is the pattern of his career.

Mr. Cavell wants to have both a Noah-myth at the heart of Endgame and the revivifying acid-bath of total mythlessness. This can be done by stressing the theme of father’s nakedness and relating Hamm’s blindness to it. But, apart from some local confusions that it generates, this interpretation doesn’t carry over much into other works, least of all into the current residua. It may well prove to have been a premature conclusion. Without making the premise an article of faith, one would like to see a serious, systematic assessment of Beckett’s relations with the philosophers—with Descartes, Berkeley, and Husserl specifically—so that we could estimate, at least approximately, what can and can’t be done with each as an interpretive guide, and what sort of supplementary approach may be required. But all this sounds pretty portentous, and for the present it is a sufficient cause of celebration that Samuel Beckett is still among us, occasionally dripping corrosive sublimate on the fat-headedness common to our stage, television, radio, and film. Such a blend of gaiety, malice, despondence, and glittering authenticity we are not likely to see again for a long time to come.

  1. *

    Scribner’s, 365 pp., $7.95

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