Beckett’s Film

In the works Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe and What Where, Samuel Beckett addresses the condition of men. That is to say, Beckett delves deeper than the superficiality of the masculine image of the contemporary man and instead goes straight to the mentality; the mental thought process of man. It can also be safely said that these three works have a great deal more in common than just this aforementioned similarity, but that is not what we shall be concerned with here. The real quest is to decipher and interpret how Beckett reasoned the functioning of man’s physiological facilities within the confines of his own rather famous aesthetic style.

Samuel Beckett in Paris circa 1985

Samuel Beckett in Paris circa 1985

Firstly, all three plays have the main characters [though there may be counter argument in this against Catastrophe, but I argue Protagonist is the focus because he is not only the main visual fixture, but also the focus of all the dialogue] adorned in the long coats and hats with which Beckett frequently dresses the men in his plays. What is interesting here is that no one character in the three plays [Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe and What Where] is given multiple dimensions. Instead they function as a physical caricature of Beckett’s aesthetic whose dimensions as characters are only fleshed out by narrators, or supporting characters serving as narrator [and even director as in the case of Director in Catastrophe and Voice in What Where].

The roll of “character directors” becomes interesting in these plays beyond the surfaces of reflexive media in that they also seem to work as the conscious of a single male mind in whom other aspects of the mind are embodied in the other supporting characters. This seems an obvious and logical train of thought given the theory evidenced above, but may also extend its reach into the character relations of Listener and Reader in Ohio Impromptu. In effect, the knocks of the Listener dictate the repetition and the emphasis the Reader gives his text, whilst Voice works synonymously in What Where through its manipulation of Bam’s phrasing of questions and in turn Bem, Bim and Bom’s answers to Bam’s questions. It may then be supposed, that as a director himself, Beckett saw his plays and the actors he directed in the roles of his plays as a simplified portrait of his conscious; being that he was also the author. Beckett was also a man, and if he wished to illustrate the psyche of men in a theatre setting [the theatre as the stage for the inner workings of the mind], what other medium could have given him a more approximate realization?

Catastrophe provides the clearest support of this theory. Let us suppose that Protagonist is the physical embodiment of the man, the Director is the mind, and the Assistant is their go-between with Luke as the mind’s eye. The Director makes all of the decisions, as well as all of the reflections, while the Protagonist is the unresisting subject of Director’s wishes. Only in the end is there a reflexive climax, when Protagonist as actor in a play about a play consciously disobeys Director and looks straight out into the audience. Beckett may have been illustrating his relationship with actors in so far as that no matter how much a director or writer works with an actor to make them conform to their own vision, the actor himself/herself still retains a consciousness which can never be manipulated. This also speaks of the mind; a person may resist an aspect of their personality with all their will only to fall prey to its desires and intentions. Beckett is then working on two levels to one illustrative end in depicting his own mind and the mind of men, one of rigid self-control and censorship.

The idea of obsessive self-censorship also seems to be a theme at work within these three plays. Listener, Voice and Director are all working to make the other characters [facets of the mind] more articulate and in turn, aesthetically pleasing. It is more than once after all that Bam and Reader slip up in their delivery, either with a poor incoherent phrasing or a lack of continuity which summons a scolding knock from Listener or a “I start again” from Voice. Beckett seems quite concerned with the male obsession with self-representation in society. That desire all men have to be free of scrutiny and live up to that masculine expectation [though in this case not a physical one].

What demonstrates these three plays, as the works of a mature artist, is Beckett’s ability to transport the psychological constructs of a character out of a multi-character interaction and into one of a sort of cerebral drama. Beckett is going inside the head of his general male characters, getting inside lets say Estragon from Waiting For Godot, giving the character multiple dimensions without the use of a separate psychological character to do so. This may seem a redundant act, since Beckett could have arguably committed the exploration in previous works, but it is the focus on the psychological constructs of character reflecting author that gives a new reveal. Traits that may have been dismissed before are meditated on. In Waiting For Godot Estragon and Vladimir exchange hats and perform various types of maintenance to their wardrobe, acts that become the single focus of meditation in Catastrophe. Whilst further, Director in Catastrophe is playing the role Beckett did in directing the wardrobe of a play like Waiting For Godot. Therefore, Catastrophe works as a dramatic illustration of a working conscious and as an autobiographical footnote for Beckett.

The theoretical propositions above may seem a little existential even for those versed in theatre, but I am not a critic. I can assume that the counter argument would have very much to do with disproving the settings of the plays as the mind of men. But, obviously, there is evidence to support the theories given in the body of this piece, evidence serving adequately to support such theories to sufficient ends. To put it plainly, this is but one man’s interpretation. It then seems safe to assume, given the constructive reasoning preceding, that Beckett in fact has given two portraits of men with each of the three plays; What Where, Catastrophe and Ohio Impromptu. Each play is an analysis of the workings of a man’s mind and a portrait of Beckett’s creative process in which a director becomes synonymous with the conscious. An assumption which in and of itself is a compelling take on contemporary theatre, to suppose just how personal art can become to all those who author it. A proposition, which has become progressively more vogue in the wake of Post-Modernism.

Buster Keaton in Beckett's Film

Buster Keaton in Beckett’s Film

However, no matter how proven Beckett may be in the arena of the theater, his single attempt at filmmaking remains somewhat stunted by the medium of film itself. To recreate his meditations on the male consciousness the way he did in What Where, Ohio Impromptu and Catastrophe on film, Beckett cast silent film clown Buster Keaton as the sole performer in his Film (1965). Keaton serves not only as an adequate performer for Beckett’s minimalist script, but also as a signifier. To audiences throughout the world Keaton’s stoic features are immediately recognizable, recalling the faceless everyman Keaton portrayed in each of his slapstick comedies. So it is with one broad stroke that Beckett immediately ground Film in the same context as his theatrical works. This pseudo-short hand allows the film to focus; much in the same way Keaton’s two reel films did decades before, on the immediate conditions and scenarios constructed around the film’s apparent protagonist.

The fault with Beckett’s cinematic translation of his aesthetic lies in how static Film is. Keaton is only physically active for a third of the film, and the camera for even less. This is problematic for Beckett because, unlike theater, the cinema has the possibility to manipulate the audience’s gaze, and by doing so instruct the audience as to what the emotional timbre and social context of a character is to be perceived as. Because Beckett’s interests are clearly not in duration nor in Keaton’s portrait, it is safe to assume that Film is meant to convey a motion through either space or intellect; mechanisms inherent in narrative filmmaking. Yet, Keaton’s objective is unclear, and the film’s conclusion is therefore isolated in the space of the film’s montage. Thus transforming the film’s relationship to its own structure into a kind of joke and punch line.

Unlike his contemporaries, Beckett was unable to transpose the aesthetics of his theater into that of the cinema with Film. Where Bertolt Brecht’s style and ideas conformed to the cinematic aesthetics of G.W. Pabst, Beckett is without a definite cinematic translation or equivalent. Other filmmakers have tried to bring Beckett to the screen but have encountered similar problems to those faced by Beckett himself. In terms of intent and content, perhaps to closest thing to Beckett on film remains Mike Leigh’s film Naked (1993).

-Robert Curry


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