The motif of torture, in its many meaning appears again and again in the plays of Samuel Beckett. From the initial example of the Pozzo / Lucky duo, it is refined with Winnie buried first to her waist and finally to her neck in Happy Days. In Play an inquisitorial spotlight interrogates the three characters trapped in their urns as they ‘confess’. George Devine who acted in the premiere referred to the light of Play in rehearsal as a dentist’s drill. Billie Whitelaw stated ‘it was an instrument of torture’. With Catastrophe and What Where this torture motif is made most explicit occupying a crucial central element in the dramatic construction. In these plays Beckett deals directly with the theme of torture of the individual on three separate levels.
Physical torture operates explicitly but in two very different ways in Catastrophe and What Where. In Catastrophe physical torture is examined through meta-theatrical concerns centred on the manipulation of the actor on stage. The Protagonist placed on a plinth is controlled by the commands of the Director but it is his female assistant which carries out the orders. In preparing the Protagonist, she removes his outer garments and hat as well as manipulating his hands into a praying gesture. Beckett is strangely prescient in this particular image. While it is strongly reminiscent of the concentration camps and holocaust victims with the costume of pyjamas, it seems to resurface again in notorious Abu Ghraib prison photographs where similarly a female is used against the male as the main instrument of torture. The manipulation, humiliation and the placing of the Protagonist on a plinth is strongly evocative of the processes and stress positions which are used in modern torture or enhanced interrogation methods to use the more euphemistic term.
What Where uses physical torture in a different manner. Initially recycling the use of light from Play, Beckett has V, the central power of the torturing process switching on and off the light, beginning and ending the action of the play. This interrogational technique mimics the often used bright light in the face of victims by torturers, past and present. This develops further however with extreme torture taking place offstage when each character in turn is given ‘the works’ until they ‘confess’. ‘The works’ on a physical level may reference the slang term for needle amongst drug addicts suggesting a medical torture of some description. We as audience members are left in no doubt to the pain of this process. The victim has wept, screamed and begged for mercy eventually passing out to the point where they cannot be revived, possibly dead, but the torture doesn’t stop there. Another victim is chosen and the process begins again.
Psychological torture in the plays is most notably portrayed by the often unseen oppressor subjugating the oppressed; the figures of authority acting upon the powerless individual. This has close links to conflict theory which go beyond the simple act of torture on an individual but has wider resonances for the position of peoples within an oppressive superstructure. In What Where the control element of V operates from a separate stage area to the actual figures we watch. In Catastrophe the Director never touches the Protagonist and disappears completely from the stage half way through the play. In this process Reiko Taniue says ‘Beckett’s stage emphasizes the distance between the masses and their tyrants’ (105).
On a more meta-theatrical level Beckett also deals with the inherent torture of the theatrical process. Linking back to the concerns of totalitarianism and oppression, theatricality and tyranny are linked in these plays, most notable in Catastrophe. The Director character as a director functionary exerts complete control over the Protagonist in a patriarchal and logocentric way. Porter Abbott states ‘This is a protagonist who notably cannot and does not act, but is instead acted upon by actors, tyrannized by theatre’ (79). The theatre itself, the playwright even the play are the source of cruelty.
Throughout his work Beckett is constantly torturing his actors. Abbott again states;
He ties ropes around their necks and crams them in urns. He ties them to rockers. He buries them in sand and under hot blinding lights and gives them impossible scripts to read at breakneck speed. The word for this is torture. (82)
Beckett in these plays brings these two aspects, torture of state control and directorial control, into sharp focus; the juxtaposition reinforcing their similar, almost identical mechanics. Abbott further suggests;
The aesthetic and political are two faces of a single meaning […] they merge in the insight that the political will that seeks to constrain human life to an imagined social order, imprisoning or eliminating those uncontrollable elements that threaten that order, is rooted with the aesthetic will that seeks to dominate the human through formal representation. (87)
L to R: The tortured – Winnie in Happy Days and Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot
The final aspect of torture upon which Beckett reflects is the torture of language. Beckett as the last modernist, and the first proto-postmodernist deeply questions whether anything can be communicated at all thorough language. In an almost purgatorial cycle he tries time after time to communicate through English, French and even German but only collides with the inescapable torture of impotent, imprecise language. He is caught in the process of ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’ (89). Beckett displays this on stage by expertly subverting the perceived power of language. In Catastrophe the Director from the outset is in control of language and is seen to be powerful. The Assistant in a subordinate role is shown to have even less control of language reprising several times the grammatically inaccurate statement ‘I make note’. The character of the Protagonist in the play has no language and is initially shown as have no power at all. But as so often with Beckett this is turned on its head by the play’s climax. A wordless action, a stare is proven to be far more powerful than language. The authentic silent dramatic expression shows language up as impotent and weak, subverting its perceived power and moving into an arena of more authentic expression.
For Beckett torture is an inherent part of the existential world, an inescapable position where structures, society and even language itself are simply implements with which to frustrate and oppress the individual consciousness. And in the face of such hopelessness he maintains steadfast in his answer. Though it is hopeless you hope. Though futile you try. Beyond the torture only lies death. We must take the pain a little while longer.
(This is a edited version of a paper originally give as part of the UCC Bookends Postgrad Conference 2013)
Abbott, H. Porter. ‘Tyranny and Theatricality: The Example of Samuel Beckett.’ Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 1. pp77-87.
Beckett, Samuel. Nohow On. New York: Grove Press. 1996. Print.
Taniue, Reiko. ‘Violence and Depopulation: Torturer and Victim in “What Where”’. Journal of Irish Studies. Vol. 18 (2003) pp103-113.
Whitelaw, Billie. ‘Beckett as Director.’ Beckett Remembering – Remembering Beckett. Ed. James Knowlson and Elizabeth Knowlson. London: Bloomsbury, 2007. 160-211. Print.