In his five plays for the television (Eh Joe, Ghost Trio, …but the clouds…, Quad and Nacht und Träume) and What Where that he transfers from stage to screen, Samuel Beckett explores the tensions of haunting as a process, operating in the interstice of various mediums, genres and art forms. Engaging with both the televisual and the cinematic image, an invocatory soundscape that reminds us of the radio, music, painting, choreography and dance, Beckett creates a dynamic world of static intensities in which technology and haunting meet. The spectrality of multimedia moves through a series of emotions, beginning with guilt and terror and slowly inches toward a purgatorial experience of company and comfort. Pushing the medium to its furthest limits, Beckett crystalizes the image as a resilient trace with its intermittent glimmers on the edge of impenetrable darkness. These plays urge us to glimpse the invisible and listen to the psychic theatre of voices emerging from the crypt. They excavate a new ‘hauntology’ for the synesthetic energies of the medium. In this expository essay on Beckett’s TV plays that remain comparatively understudied vis-à-vis his stage plays (beyond the auteurist field), I want to trace the confluence of multimedia technology, multi-sensoriality and the affect of haunting.
Beckett’s TV Plays: Between Beginning and Resuming
“My play wasn’t written for this box. My play was written for small men locked in a big place. Here you’re all too big for the place.” (Knowlson 436). As his biographer James Knowlson reports, these were Beckett’s words in response to Donald McWhinnie’s 1961 BBC production of his most celebrated stage play Waiting for Godot. Beckett often had issues with transmedial adaptations of his work from theatre to film or from page to stage but there were other occasions when he was encouraging. If he insisted on the specificity of the medium on numerous occasions, he was generous in other cases like the Mabou Mines adaptations of his plays and the story, The Lost Ones. Traversing poems, novels and stage plays, Beckett came to television after writing radio plays like All That Fall (1957) and Embers (1959) for BBC Third Programme and this is more than a matter of chronology. Beckett had written a film script titled Film in 1963, shot in New York the following year. He came to television after working seriously with the page, the stage, the radio and the visual field of cinema. All these different mediums, especially the last two, had key roles to play in his use of TV. Jonathan Bignell informs about the broadcasting contexts of the BBC plays that carved out a niche for Beckett in the field of television drama:
Beckett’s plays for British television were not screened in drama anthology series on the mass audience channels BBC1 or ITV, but in arts programming slots on BBC2, and this militated against considering them in relation to work by an emerging canon of television writers. (Bignell 52)
As his remark on the TV Godot suggests, Beckett was sensitive to the ‘closed space’ of the TV ‘box.’ Beginning with Eh Joe, he continued his exploration of the medium’s intimacy in his TV plays: Ghost Trio (1977), …but the clouds… (1977), Quad (1982), Nacht und Träume (1983) and his last play What Where (1984) that he adapted from stage to small screen in Stuttgart in 1985. Barring Nacht und Träume, written for Süddeutscher Rundfunk and shown on German TV and Quad that had its world TV premiere in Germany, the others were primarily made for BBC and first transmitted there. If Beckett had thought that Godot’s expansive ‘country road’ was too ‘big’ for the small box, in these plays, he condensed the visual experience to closed spaces, resembling the televisual space—most strikingly in the square playing area of Quad. He wove the radiophonic voices into the medium and the calming presence of music and voice in his TV plays is testimony to his multimedial approach to television. Both Bignell and Colin Gardner agree on the point that Beckett informs TV drama with elements from live theatre. In more ways than one, Beckett’s television plays represent concentrated acts of listening in the interval between the visual field and the auditory sensation. Divided between BBC and German TV, they open up a fissure between the image and the voice and interrogate this liminal inter-sensory space. After Beckett’s death in 1989, when Minuit published Edith Fournier’s French translation of four TV plays in 1992, it inspired the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze to write an afterword: ‘L’Epuisé’ or ‘The Exhausted’. In this essay, Deleuze sees the television plays as the culmination of one of the three major trajectories or languages, developed across the Beckett canon. For Deleuze, it is in television that Beckett’s “language III”— “the language of images and spaces”—found its precise figuration in radicalizing the always already ironic attitude to words: “It is television, which, in part, allows Beckett to surmount the inferiority of words” (22). Deleuze goes on:
Language III, born of the novel (How It Is), traversing theater (Happy Days, Act without Words, Catastrophe) finds the secret of its assemblage in television, a prerecorded voice for an image that in each case is in the process of taking shape. There is a specificity to the works for television. (10)
Deleuze’s essay has had a huge impact on the subsequent reception of the television plays. Anthony Uhlmann and Colin Gardner highlight the philosophical as well as technical importance of image as a category in Beckett. The image, in a perpetual condition of flight has a dissipatory function in Beckett’s television plays. These works are like “photographs of the mind” in Knowlson’s words; they influence Beckett’s late works written in other mediums. The novella, Ill Seen Ill Said (1982) highlights the lingering stasis of fleeting tableaus and the series of short prose texts, Fizzles (1977) develops truncated spaces, reminiscent of the TV plays. Deleuze’s foregrounding of the image in Beckett’s television plays, leads Uhlmann in Samuel Beckett and the Philosophical Image (2006) to reflect on Beckett’s literary use of images from philosophical texts and his interest in image as a philosophical category through thinkers like Bergson. Colin Gardner in Beckett, Deleuze and the Televisual Event (2012) argues for an evental dimension of Beckett’s television drama along the lines of Deleuze’s conception of the event in relation to body, memory and image. Clas Zilliacus and Jonathan Bignell read the plays in their specific historical contexts in the cultural space that produces a dialogue between Modernist high culture and the TV as a popular mass medium (the so-called ‘idiot box’!), emphasizing issues like broadcasting, authorship and audience response. After this brief survey of their reception, let me discuss the plays one by one.
Eh Joe: “Mental thuggee”
Beckett’s first TV play Eh Joe readily gets obsessed with the small box as the voice interrogates the image. It is set in Joe’s room where he sits alone on his bed. After his movements across the bare room to see if anyone else is there, as he returns to his bed, a female voice starts echoing in his head. The voice, hurling a series of ironically pitiful accusations with ‘eh Joe’ as the standard refrain, is punctuated by nine distinct pauses. Each time the voice stops the camera moves a bit further towards Joe, finishing with an extreme close up of his face. The camera eye gradually becoming confrontational takes us into the ever-increasing depths and distances of the mind where Beckett exploits the intimate nature of the televisual medium. The audience doesn’t know if Joe is aware of these camera moves. The voice both present and absent in its spectral aura is at one remove from the transmitted image and reminds us of Beckett’s radio voices as well as Krapp’s self-alienated voice, travelling across vicissitudes of space-time in Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). The protagonist doesn’t utter a squeak throughout the play, varying in duration between 18 and 25 minutes. Joe’s brooding face, lost in the ‘intentness’ of listening and spooked by the menacing voice, does all the talking in subtle shades of expression behind its rapt, impassive exterior. Though the camera physically moves towards Joe’s face throughout, the entire play, as Bignell notes, is one long take without any cut.
The murmuring voice at the limits of audibility, envelopes the verbal content of Eh Joe, letting the image of the silent face speak from a room of its own. This mutual distancing between the visual and the auditory fields is complemented by the antagonistic relation between the male face and the female voice. The play can be seen as an exercise in “mental thuggee”, to use one of Joe’s many expressions that the voice returns to him in its onslaught. The other key expression the voice uses to mark its source is “the penny farthing hell” of the mind (362). The psychic theatre of image and voices is at play in this mindscape. If Eh Joe is about the attack of a psychic voice of alterity from within the self that asks questions about psychic introjection of the dead other, as Phil Baker has suggested in relation to the Beckett corpus, the play also engages in a Freudian ‘working through’ of the voice. The only way to exorcise the voice lies in allowing it to speak again and again and not to repress it. The text uses the expression “mental thuggee” to refer to this repetition automatism of revolving the unpleasant experience like the penny farthing that cycles through the mindscape. If the voice is to be believed, Joe has done this wrestling with all his significant dead others (father and mother), as if it is the only way he can settle their deceased voices in the recesses of his mind. To what extent Joe enjoys this looping voice is an open question with the issue of a latent sado-masochism in both him and the voice. If we posit that the voice has an external agency of its own, we can only say that they both suffer in this vicious cycle of repetition and yet seem to enjoy their suffering.
Eh Joe is located in the cryptic borderline between the inside and the outside. Just as Joe is invited by the female voice to imagine the shared past of their relationship, leading to the complexities of guilt in her suicide, the viewers are asked to translate the voice into the image by envisaging the story about the ghostly past. In the ninth and final movement, with the voice, falling into an almost inaudible buzz and the camera capturing Joe’s face in a tell-tale intimacy, the spectators are compelled to imagine the moment of the woman’s suicide. In this imagined final scene, the idiomatic ‘cutting’ of the long story short converges with the literal ‘cutting’ of her wrists with Joe’s razor blade. The play explores the ethical question of guilt in failed love, couched in a problematic space of perpetual haunting between mourning and melancholia. Eh Joe remains an exploration of the voice as an impossible remnant—an intense meditation on the listening act as it moves into the penultimate period where one strains to hear the odd word—a state Joe reportedly named the ‘worst’ in his past conversations with the spectral woman. The play takes us through the various stages of a listening that weakens with the increasing intimacy of the camera eye, slowly drained out into a strained listening for the odd word till the point comes when there is nothing left for listening. The final sound of silence reverberates with imperishable remains in the “silence of the grave without the maggots” (364).
Beckett started writing Eh Joe in English on his fifty-ninth birthday in 1965 and the play, first televised on BBC2 on 4 July 1966, is till date his most produced television play. It was written with the famous Beckett actor Jack MacGowarn in mind. Jack it was who played Joe in the BBC premiere with Siân Phillips as the voice in Joe’s head. Since then the play has had many reprisals. Katharine Worth directed Patrick Magee as Joe, filmed by David Clark of the University of London Audio-Visual Centre in 1972. In 1989, the year of Beckett’s death, Walter Asmus, a dedicated Beckett director, did Eh Joe with two prominent Beckett performers: Klaus Herm as Joe and Billie Whitelaw as the voice. These performances were faithful to Beckett’s precise directions. Every time the voice resumed its tirade, a light switched on over Jack McGowarn’s head and with every pause of the voice, it went off. When it comes to the expressions on Joe’s face, Beckett’s instructions are open: “[...] impassive except in so far as it reflects mounting tension of listening. […] intentness may relax variously till restored by voice resuming.” (362) In the published text, Beckett is silent about the expression on the final close up of Joe’s face and the actors interpret this silence in different ways. Jack McGowarn has a menaced but impassive expression all through, till the final ebb of the voice when his face hints toward a vain smile as he relaxes the frown to combine relief with resignation. Patrick Magee renders Joe in a more emotional key with a stricken expression and his final gaze borders on a breakdown.
Walter Asmus’s production is perhaps the most poetic. The first wide shot, capturing Joe’s room sideways from the corner (in the first production, it started from behind him), immediately draws attention to the human subject as a figure in a neatly arranged closed space, but the neatness of this enclosure will soon be exposed to the chaotic torment of the voice. The three doors, diminishing in size from the furthest to the most adjacent one to Joe’s bed, stand like silent bridges suspiciously opening onto an outer world, long lost in the dark. It takes us into an orchestrated visual frame and the initial mime sequence where Klaus Herm opens the three doors one by one to weigh presence against absence, is carefully choreographed. Herm’s Joe maintains the craggy stare throughout the nine discreet camera moves, made opaque by the chiaroscuro and his final expression before the fade out holds on to the “intentness” of listening though the voice has come to an end, suggesting its endlessness in the “penny farthing hell you call your mind”. Billie Whitelaw as the female voice is immaculate with her haunting, musical rendition, verging on a sardonic lullaby. To mention one important adaptation of the play on stage, Michael Gambon played Joe in a Gate Theatre production in 2006 to mark Beckett’s centenary and it was revived again in 2013. Directed by the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, the production mobilized resources of television as well as cinema, positioning a live camera just offstage to capture the intimate expressions on the actor’s face. The audience had a cognitively divided double spectacle of the actor on stage and his gigantic projected image, zooming in with each pause of the voice.
Ghost Trio: “Shades of grey”
Written in English in 1975, a decade after Eh Joe, Ghost Trio goes back to the voice, the closed space with the human subject as a figure, the experience of haunting and the familiar Beckettian theme of failed arrival but the most startling new addition to the scheme is music. First called Tryst, Beckett renamed the play after Beethoven’s Ghost Trio, an 1809 Piano Trio in D Major, Op 70, No. 1. Beckett referred to the first draft as a ‘corpse’ in a 1976 letter to Con Leventhal and was already associating it with the ‘ghosts’ of his pre-existing corpus: “All the old ghosts. Godot and Eh Joe over infinity. Only remains to bring it to life.” (Knowlson, 548) If we go by the phrasing in this letter, Ghost Trio is about bringing the corpse to life. This isn’t far from the naming of Beethoven’s piece that has a historical intertext with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth. Beethoven’s assistant and pianist Carl Czerny associated the slow movement of the trio with the ghost of Hamlet’s father. William Kinderman makes a historical connection with the ghost in Macbeth since Beethoven was working on an opera based on a Macbeth libretto in 1808. On the first typescript of Tryst, Beckett writes the word ‘Macbeth’ in the margins and is reported to have told biographer James Knowlson about the connection between the Shakespeare tragedy and Beethoven’s piece (549). Beckett selects the spooky second movement from Beethoven’s score for his play. Like Eh Joe, in Beckett’s Ghost Trio there is a conviction that the only way to deal with the ghost is to conjure it and music has a crucial function in this conjuring. The female voice has a different role here that Deleuze calls ‘prophesying’. The ‘faint voice’ doesn’t haunt in this play. It introduces the viewers to the little objects in the closed space: the wall, the floor, the door, the window, the pallet and finally the entirely silent, “sole sign of life a seated figure” off centre, to the right.
The female voice straightaway instructs the viewers to concentrate: “Mine is a faint voice. Kindly tune accordingly. [Pause.] It will not be raised, nor lowered, whatever happens. [Pause.] Look.” (408) It takes us through the first two parts of the tripartite play, divided into a ‘Pre-action’, an ‘Action’ and a ‘Re-action’, letting the music do all the talking in the third part. In the ‘Pre-action’, the voice isolates the different segments of the closed space and cuts back and forth between their individual close ups and a wide shot of the room with a human figure seated on a stool, bending over a cassette player on his lap and the music playing intermittently behind the voice. The camera zooms in and out on the listener’s intent posture. In ‘Action’, the voice declares at the outset: “He will now think he hears her.” (410) An odd sound—the sound of footfalls on the corridor outside the door or a knocking—interrupts his music listening and his body is jerked into a posture of keen anticipation towards the door. Though Beckett writes “faint sound of knock on door,” because of the music playing, the viewers cannot hear anything. Half-hoping and half-fearing that the mysterious woman is somewhere near, he starts investigating the closed space where it can open out to the external world. In a meticulously choreographed movement, the figure whose face can’t be seen due to long white hair and the bowed posture, opens the door, the window and sees his face in the mirror. The mime is repeated once, we cut to ‘Re-action’ and the action repeats itself once again. This time when the figure opens the door and the window, the viewers peek into the creepy corridor heading straight into darkness and the rain, pouring down outside the window. When he sees himself in the mirror, the viewers see his face, unhindered, for the first time. He comes back to his stool, the music resumes and the interruption is repeated but this time with a difference. When the figure opens the door, he sees a boy in the corridor in a drenched black raincoat. After shaking his head twice, as if to indicate the awaited woman will not come, the boy disappears into the darkness that awaits the other end of the corridor, his oilskin dress glistening in rain. The figure comes back to his seat, the music resumes till he finally looks up and faces the camera for the first time, not to count the earlier close up that was a representation of his mirror reflection. Though Beckett doesn’t specify the expression for this final close up, both the English and the German productions have a face, gesturing towards a smile, caught between contentment and defiance. As the camera zooms out to a wide shot of the room, the figure is seen on his stool with the cassette player on his lap and his hands on it, making a final cross.
Samuel Beckett and actor Klaus Herm rehearse Beckett’s television play Geistertrio (Ghost Trio), 1977. © SWR/Hugo Jehle
Who is the ghost in Ghost Trio? Is it the woman who fails to appear or is it the boy who appears as a messenger for the missed encounter (which connects the play not only with Waiting for Godot and his boy messenger but also with the radio play All That Fall where the boy messenger has a telling final message to deliver)? We could even see the medium as the ghost. Jonathan Bignell suggests so with reference to the technical phenomenon of ‘ghosting’ in monochromatic images and shades of grey that pervade the play. What relation does the female voice have with the absent woman? How does the music work in promising the (failed) arrival? Does the figure get over his waiting at the end? His relation with the cassette player, especially the way he clings to it, reminds us of Krapp’s rapport with the tape, and retains Beckett’s stress on the eroticism of listening. As Bignell notes, one cannot be sure if the music comes from the cassette player since the figure never operates it or switches it on and off. It further highlights the human subject’s eroticized relation with the object. The music as a result of this ambiguity is neither entirely ambient nor diegetic. Linda Ben-Zvi and Jonathan Bignell see it as a self-reflexive commentary on background score as well as an exploration of the margins between cinema and television. Michael Maier writes at great length about Beckett’s incorporation of Beethoven’s piece in a two part essay published in Samuel Beckett Today (2000). Deleuze reads the trajectory of the play from exhausting the possibilities of space to a refuge in the image as a process and the refuge in the image is coloured by the need to end in a drive for exhaustion: “The visual image is dragged along by music, the aural image that rushes towards its own abolition. Both rush toward the end, all possibility exhausted.” (18)
Ghost Trio premiered on BBC2 on 17 April 1977 as part of a programme called ‘Shades’ featuring …but the clouds… and Not I as well. It was directed by Donald McWhinnie with Ronald Pickup as the figure, Billie Whitelaw as the voice and Rupert Horder as the boy. Beckett took active part in the production and referred to Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “On the Marionette Theater” to stress the economy and grace of physical movements. The play was done in Germany at SDR later in the same year with Klaus Herm as the anonymous figure and Irmgard Först as the voice. Elmar Tophoven directed the performance and Beckett’s favourite Jim Lewis did the camera. Beckett was present during the production, refining the performance with his suggestions and conducting it like music. One interesting difference between the two productions is the close up of the cassette player from the top which was there in the BBC production, but was dropped in the German one. The Stuttgart production is marked by great clarity in sound, image and movements. The camera moves faster towards the figure and the voice makes a sharper impact. The music is used in a diegetic way in this production. We can see the figure switching the cassette player on and off. The German production creates an occlusive shade of grey when, during the extreme close ups, the camera eye loses itself in the long grey hair until we relocate the head moving from a bowed to a straight position.
In the mirror scene, Klaus Herm has a more ambivalent expression of brooding intensity on his face than Ronald Pickup’s squinting and a sense of intolerance with his mirror image. The boy, positioned impeccably so that the outline of his hooded body is contained within the rectangular strip of the corridor, has a more doleful expression compared to the smiling boy in the BBC production. Unlike the English version where the boy walks away with his back to the audience, in the German one, he walks away, still facing the viewers. This creates a sense that he is being pulled back into the engulfing dark at the end of the corridor. It suggests a sense of undoing, as if he had never come at the first place. The German production is invested with a slow elegance that makes it spookier than the British one. Be it the closing door or window or the slow retracing of the boy’s footsteps on the corridor, the sounds produce a haunting impact in the Stuttgart production. Klaus Herm’s final smile has a spectral quality and as the camera zooms out, he is seen with his hands on two sides of the cassette player, unlike the cross, suggested in the BBC version. The German version tilts the frame from contentment and mastery over the mysterious threat to a continuing affect of vulnerability, facing a crisis that remains impossible to define.
…but the clouds…: “Unseeing eyes”
Written in English in 1976, the year after Ghost Trio, …but the clouds… goes one step further in exploring the intermediary between the audio and the visual content in terms of the void that both unites and separates the overlain voice from the faintly lit visual image. M, the nameless man is captured in a near shot from behind, “sitting on invisible stool bowed over invisible table.” (417) His voice doesn’t come from him and we never see his face. The voice’s promise of his romantic encounter with his beloved is complemented intermittently with a second image. This is the faintly lit image of the woman’s face “reduced as far as possible to eyes and mouth.” In these close ups, her “unseeing eyes” gaze at nothing from beyond the grave and she eventually murmurs the lines “…clouds…but the clouds…of the sky” thrice during the play. The viewers do not hear anything. They can only follow the slow and discrete movements of her lips. At the end, M’s voice articulates the lines for the audience and now they are expanded into a fuller citation: “…but the clouds of the sky…when the horizon fades…or a bird’s sleepy cry…among the deepening shades…” (422) These lines come from the third part of W.B Yeats’ poem ‘The Tower’:
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath—
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades,
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.
With this intertextual connection, Beckett brings the medium of poetry into …but the clouds..., enabling a new intermedial dialogue after engaging with aspects of cinema, radio and music in the earlier TV plays. As Daniel Katz argues, intertextuality is extended into recitation in the play. The woman moves her lips and the voice occasionally joins her in articulating the titular expression: “…but the clouds…”. This produces an androgynous effect of the woman’s image synchronized with the man’s voice. The Yeats lines relate to the Beckett play around shared themes of unrequited love and death. Katz draws attention to Beckett’s choice of the Yeats quatrain that lacks a grammatical subject and emphasizes a slow dissolution of the ‘I’ through haunting. Marjorie Perloff suggests that like Yeats’ affair with Maud Gonne that silently animates ‘The tower’, the death of Beckett’s cousin and one time beloved Peggy Sinclair is the spectral love lurking behind Beckett’s play. Perloff makes the point that in Yeats, the ‘but’ means ‘only’ but isolated from the rest of the line in Beckett, the ‘but’ points to a shifting attitude to death. If Yeats tones down the impact of the other’s death by comparing “the death of friends” or “death of every brilliant eye” to “the clouds of the sky”, Beckett insists on the ‘but’ and not the ‘seem’. In Beckett, the beloved’s image insists from beyond the “deepening shades” of death in the form of an “unseeing eye” which is still open and continues to haunt the man with its relentless gaze. The world of Beckett’s TV drama is infested with Yeats’ “deepening shades” as he gently turns image and voice towards poetry. Beckett also adds ellipses before and after Yeats’ expression “…but the clouds…” and distributes it across an invocatory theatrical space of ‘pause’ and ‘silence’.
…but the clouds… goes deep down into the darkening folds of memory where the silence of solitude meets the psychic speech of affect, opening out towards a desire to see the dead other. M’s envisaging exercise of memory exorcises the dead other in three positive ways: she comes and goes, she comes and lingers before departing and she appears and murmurs the lines inaudibly before vanishing. The illumination of the potential image is surrounded by the nocturnal dark on all sides: “When she appeared it was always night.” (419) However, as the voice tells the viewers, these three possibilities of her appearance are rare gleams in the skull, as opposed to the numerical majority of cases when he fails to conjure her. This desire to visualize the dead other’s face is called “a begging of the mind” and his efforts are set against the everyday in which nothing happens. There is a quietist evocation of sums as relief from the nothingness of everyday in …but the clouds…when the voice comments: “until I wearied, and ceased, and busied myself with something else, more…rewarding, such as…such as…cube roots, for example, or with nothing, busied myself with nothing, that MINE, […]” (421)
M’s nights are pregnant with the possibilities of love’s spectral conjuring but his days are full of void and the play represents this void through a startling geometry of physical movements in a mysterious penumbra. Beckett turns Yeats’ “deepening shades” into a faintly hissing visual image. Captured by a long shot, in a circular set, “surrounded by deep shadow” and “a gradual lightening from dark periphery to maximum light at centre”, M comes and goes, cutting across the centre of the circle from three different directions: east, west and north. He appears, disappears and reappears from different points at the circumference of the circle where it meets the surrounding dark. As he comes and goes, M alternates between two dresses: hat and greatcoat on the one hand and robe and skull cap on the other. Beckett plays with the light and the shape of shadows. The circular set is lit atop by a spot and each time M comes right at the centre, he halts for five seconds with his body, leaning forward to a certain extent and this creates a precise shape of the shadow on each occasion.
The recurrent scenes of pacing on the circular set variously cut the near shot of M, thinking with head in hands on his table and establish, as it were, a field of memory in which the woman’s face can appear. Daniel Katz points out that the whole play is a remembering of remembering with a suggestion of doubleness and temporal disjunction between the two acts of remembering—one about another, one buried into the other. To radicalize his point, one can say that the play shows M remembering himself just as he is remembering his beloved. The physical movements open up a space for this memory-image where M envisages his repetitive coming and going and this image is extended into the woman’s close up. In the process of conjuring the dead other, the thinking and speaking self conjures himself too, which may suggest his own death in turn. There is room for further speculation if the intercutting movements that constitute the circle on both horizontal and vertical axes is related to the voice’s reference to cube roots. The repetitive subtractiveness of M’s solitary (1) life may find a mathematical image in the cube root of 1. The ‘cube root of unity’ are complex numbers and the three results of this operation lie on the unit circle in the vertices of the equilateral triangle that is formed when the circle is divided into three segments. This cube root operation resembles M’s pacing that cuts the circle into three parts. Beckett’s drawing for the play shows an equilateral triangle formed inside the circle, if we join the shadow spots. The 1 of solitude thus finds a mathematical form that becomes the stage-image for TV.
…but the clouds… was first televised on 17 April 1977 for BBC2 with Ronald Pickup and Billie Whitelaw, directed by Donald McWhinnie. It was redone in the same year at SDR, Stuttgart, Germany with Klaus Herm as M and Kornelia Boje as the woman. This version was directed by Elmer and Erica Tophoven. Billie Whitelaw’s face highlights an affective air of wistfulness with nearly tearful eyes, a gaze fixed in the distance and the face flashing a wan smile. Kornelia Boje’s face, on the other hand, is both deader and deadlier in the inertness with which it holds on to the ghostliness of a corpsed face murmuring inaudible words. The ambience of half-light works better with the German production. The camera angle for M on his table is tighter and the impeccable lighting in all the scenes ensure that the images are coming out of the dark—an effect, half-lost in the over-lit British production. The face appears, superimposed on M’s near shot with more brightness than blurs in the BBC version. The SDR version maintains the deepening shades around the face, making it faintly emerge from the surrounding darkness. The face is placed in a distinct shot, slowly fading in after M’s image fades out. For the pacing sequences in the German production, Jim Lewis’s camera is given more elevation than in the BBC production and the additional height creates a more comprehensive image of the circular field of memory. The height contributes to clearer shadows in the SDR version. The physical movements are faster in the Stuttgart version and seem more elegantly choreographed with the timing of the halts at the centre. Klaus Herm’s sprightly body language adds a comic element to the pacing that had been flat and grim in the English version. Herm’s stark delivery as the voice contrasts Ronald Pickup’s slow and sentimental tone.
Quad: Dancing around “a danger zone”
Quad was first transmitted in Germany by SDR in 1982, transmitted a second time by BBC2 on 16 December, the same year. In this entirely nonverbal work, Beckett moves from choreographed physical movement to dance. It is a mathematically conceived visual work for ballet artists. All that remains of the text is a diagram on the page. The diagram becoming the square playing area in performance, in turn becomes a self-reflexive space for the televisual box. It harks back to “J.M. Mime”, an aborted work from mid 1960s, meant for the actor Jack MacGowran. If dance is the new art form for Beckett’s multigeneric and intermedial TV plays, Quad uses music too: “four types of percussion, say drum, gong, triangle, wood block” (452). Beckett gives exhaustive directions about the precise combinations of percussions and dance movements. Quad has four hooded figures moving in and out of the playing square in long gowns and cowls. As Beckett insists, they are supposed to be “as alike in build as possible”. We can only distinguish them by the different dress colours: blue, white, yellow and red. In the original plan, the colours of their dresses are supported by four different lights in corresponding colours and when a figure comes into the square, his corresponding light switches on and remains with him as long as he charts the square. It goes out only when he leaves the playing area. Though this idea is abandoned as impracticable and the whole play is performed in “constant neutral light”, it remains important for suggesting colour through light and making light, a tool for individuation. Instead of each player having their own light, the performance eventually reserves a specific percussion sound for each of the four players in a similar way.
The black-and-white Quad II was a result of experiment during performance. It follows Quad I after a brief fade out, as a repetition with difference. In the second part, the monochrome makes it impossible to distinguish the figures. The other difference in Quad II is the absence of percussions, barring the faint sound of shuffling feet and the almost inaudible metronome. The chaotic, fast movements of the four dancers are replaced by an exhausted and faltered walking in the monochromatic world of Quad II about which Beckett remarked that it happens “ten thousand years later” (593). His use of costume makes gender impossible to determine. He writes “sex indifferent” in the printed text and considers the possibility of doing the piece with adolescent actors. In terms of physical movements, Quad I and II are repetitions of one another. There are four serial ballet movements. In each series, the four players alternate between movements along the four sides of the square and along the diagonals. In each part, the play begins in medias res with two figures charting the square and one immediately exits. At regular intervals after this, the other three join the first, one by one, and replicate the same movements. The four figures come and go according to a strict logic of duration—the one who comes first goes first. In spite of the counterpointing trajectories of addition and subtraction of figures on the square, the play never shows the area as absolutely empty. There is always at least one remaining figure. The movements come against what Beckett calls a ‘problem’ in the written text. The problem relates to the exact centre of the square (point E in the square ABCD) which is mentioned as a “danger zone” and all movements must avoid stepping into this central point.
The centre threatens collision. When the four players are all present on the square and approach the centre diagonally from four corners, they risk collision and fall. After coming towards each other in a collective centripetal dance movement, they avoid the threat at E through a slight swerve to the left around the centre after which they follow their own respective paths along the diagonals. This deviation has the visual effect of a perpetual falling motion without the final actualization of the fall. Despite the constraint around the centre, the players do not retrace their steps and after the median avoidance, they keep going ahead. It is in this avoiding swerve that they end up constituting a hole or a lack at the centre of this quadrilateral structure. Deleuze describes this swerve with an apt corporeal emphasis:
[…] this nimble central disconnecting, this sway of the hips, this swerving aside, this hiatus, this punctuation, this syncope, rapid sidestep or little jump that foresees the coming together and averts it.” (Deleuze 13)
Quad shifts the emphasis from the writing of words to the inscription produced by the moving body—an imperfect cross, a sign of erasure. The central point of intersection where the two lines meet to form a cross is missing. However, the missing centre itself becomes an inscription that resists complete crossing out with a central remainder, existing in its own lack. The principal figural task for the four players is to constitute the lacking centre of the square and this centre is produced as a hole with the swerve of the four players, etching out its rim. They can only exclude E by shaping it and including it in another way.
Beckett’s directions are marked by a rigorous imperative and an obsessional exhaustive drive: “Four possible solos all given”, “Six possible duos all given […]”, “Four possible trios all given twice” “All possible light combinations given”, “All possible percussion combinations given” and “All possible costume combinations given” (Beckett 2003, 451, 452). The directions foreground a drive to exhaust all possible combinations for each of the elements—movements, percussions, colours, light and so on. Deleuze reads the play as an exercise in “exhausting space”. (13) Beckett’s Quad squares the circular paths of Dante’s hell and suggests an infinity of movements. The matrix continues to produce a startling geometry as it shifts between the comedy of a potential fall and the manic intensity of an exhausted and yet endless walking. Brett Stevens shows in a rigorous mathematical analysis, how Quad generates a mathematical code of the impossible in which “no concrete material solution exists to the problem”. (Gontarski 179) The openness of the work provokes a multiplicity of interpretations and following on the other TV plays, Quad’s geometry has received diverse readings including references to occult practices, physical and psychic spaces and a politics of technological control over embodied experience. The enclosure of the playing area that traps the performers in a never-ending performance is itself an oblique commentary on the voyeuristic surveillance of the gaze that characterises TV viewership. The human figures are reduced to the basic function of motility. They chart the exteriorized interior of their psychic space like ghosts of their own species. In their tramps, they attempt to resolve the irresolvable (in)existence of a ghostlier centre to their obsessive thought compulsions. The possibility of a break from this infinitely repetitive ritual movement remains as elusive as the centre of the square that gets inscribed via erasure.
Nacht und Träume: Caring for dreams in the dark
Nacht und Träume (Night and Dreams), written in English for and produced by SDR, Stuttgart in 1982, gets rid of spoken words altogether (like Quad) as darkness descends on words, put to music. The memory image twinkles like sudden illuminations in the dark. The ghost thrives on these intermittent glimmers but here it is marked by a serenity of care. The ghost had conjured a promise of the other’s presence both inside and outside the self in the previous TV plays but in this one, it is more soothing than intimidating. Nacht und Träume translates the ghost into its minimal affective content. The experience of haunting becomes a calmative and though it is still treated as an ephemeral dream image, it has stopped terrorizing the dreamer. The haunting image resonates with the music of a caring other, acting as a source of solace for the solitary human subject. The title of Beckett’s play comes from Franz Schubert’s 1825 song, penned by the Viennese poet Matthäus von Collin. The borrowing engages with poetry, music and the visual imagination of the TV and opens up a space that is both intertextual and intermedial. There is no text in this play except for the song that shows how the drama has crosses over to music and Beckett finds a rhythm in the gap between the music and the image. Michael Maier demonstrates how the two slightly different versions of the Schubert song can be seen as an analogue for the two parts of Beckett’s play that have a similar relation of differential repetition. Catherine Laws draws attention to how music underlines listening in Nacht und Träume and for her, instead of being able to create an outside to speech and language, music gives a new form to vocality by blurring the division between the inside and the outside of the work and demanding an immersive engagement from the viewers and listeners.
As James Knowlson suggests, painting is important in creating the imagery of Nacht und Träume: “the dark, empty room, with its rectangle of light and its black-coated figure hunched over the table, resembled a schematized seventeenth century Dutch painting […]” (Knowlson 599). The play creates an image inside an image through the interaction between the dreamer A and his dreamt self B. It begins with A, bottom left of the screen with head bowed and hands resting on the table. As the light in the faintly lit room wanes, the dreamer lowers his bowed head till it sinks into his resting hands and the male voice, humming the last two lines of the Schubert lied, lulls him to sleep: “Kehre wieder, heil'ge Nacht / Holde Träume, kehret wieder” (“Return, sweet night / Return, O you sweet dreams”) The music performs the facilitator’s role for the passage into the nocturnal world of dreams. The dream is represented by the image within the image on top right of screen where B, A’s dreamt self, is seen in an identical position, sleeping with head sunken into the resting hands. Beckett uses the vertical axis of the televisual square to create a diagonal dialogue between A and B on bottom left and top right of the screen respectively. This is a dialogue of two images, one embedded in the other. A’s right profile is contrasted with B’s left profile which has a strong mirroring effect.
Nacht und Träume has only one version—the German TV production running for ten minutes. It was directed by Beckett with the mime artist Helfrid Foron, playing both A and B and Jim Lewis, doing the camerawork. The choice of the mime artist for the role is significant not only because it echoes the wordlessness of the play but also because it gives a generic significance to the consoling hands. The ghostly hands remind us of the mime artist’s magic passes. The production is precise with the movements and physical positions and creates musical poetry through images, talking to one another in their own silence. Deleuze reads Nacht und Träume as a dream play, attempting to dramatize the “terrifying posture of insomnia”. (21) Even if we do not go as far as insomnia, there is no denying the irony that the spectral other conjured in the dream is not only the caregiver but also the disturber of the dream and sleep in general. The maker and the breaker of the sleep in and out of the dream are one and the same. Though the care ethics explicit in the spectrality of Nacht und Träume puts the stress on serenity, the solitude of the subject is riven nevertheless by a double alterity. The self is turned into an other and there is another other to that other. This is a potentially infinite series of others, multiplied with each night and its dreams. The role of technology in projecting these spectral images that continue to divide the human subject remains to be investigated. In a rare reference to Beckett and Nacht und Träume, while discussing cinema and gesture, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests that Beckett’s silent TV play allows us to define cinema as “the dream of a gesture” (Agamben 56). What is noteworthy for our purposes is the transmediality, implied in Agamben’s comment about a TV play, defining cinema.
To conclude, this introductory essay on Beckett’s TV plays meant to open up a dialogue about the intermedial and transmedial nature of these works that speak to our digital times when TV as a medium has been both invaded and extended by internet and OTT platforms. The purpose was to describe and visualize the plays, discuss their existing interpretations and comment upon their production history in brief. In the process, the essay highlighted the link between technology in its multimedia and multi and inter-sensory form (shifting between the visual and the auditory) and the subjective process of haunting that involves a complex array of affects from vulnerability, loneliness, the uncanny presence of the other to a painful enjoyment and an unsettling but quietist division of the unitary self. If we forward the Derrida-Stiegler line of philosophical thinking in which technology itself becomes a ghost by conjuring presence-in-absence (see Echographies), Beckett’s Television drama makes the medium work in tandem with other art forms and mediums, including a movement towards the formalization of mathematics and constructs a multi-art form of haunting. These plays affect us by creating a promise of presence in absence as well as a dissolution of presence into absence.
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Arka Chattopadhyay is assistant professor, Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Gandhinagar. He has been published in books like Deleuze and Beckett, Knots: Post-Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film, Gerald Murnane: Another World in this One etc., and journals such as Textual Practice, Interventions, European Journal of Psychoanalysis, Samuel Beckett Today/ Aujourd’hui, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, Critique, Sound Studies and The Harold Pinter Review. He has co-edited Samuel Beckett and the Encounter of Philosophy and Literature (2013) and guest-edited the SBT/A issue Samuel Beckett and the Extensions of the Mind (2017). Arka is the founding editor of Sanglap and a contributing editor to Harold Pinter Review. He is the author of Beckett, Lacan and the Mathematical Writing of the Real (Bloomsbury Academic UK, 2019). He has co-edited a volume on Nabarun Bhattacharya (Bloomsbury India, 2020) and is working on a monograph on Posthumanism (Orient Blackswan) and two edited volumes on Affective Ecologies and Badiou and Modernism (Orient Blackswan and Bloomsbury). He has recently been awarded the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship 2022-2023 at the University of Edinburgh.