Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Theatre Degree Zero

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Theatre Degree Zero

Article excerpt

In Hamm's story in Samuel Beckett's Endgame, all the readings are zero: wind speed, humidity, temperature. Like the woman in her rocking chair in Rockaby, or, more distantly, Murphy in his, Hamm has arrived at a condition of minimal movement around a point of rest, and he invites his listener to share it imaginatively. Beckett's performance world often oscillates toward this near-stasis, along a variety of axes: movement, rhythm, vocal or lexical range. It is frequently configured as a virtual non-locus: a no-time, no-place in which activity congeals through repetition into waiting--sometimes described as an "ante-room," a situation out of (or prior to) space-time and body/mind operating in space-time. In Waiting for Godot, protagonists and audience are deposited (or de-positioned) in an undefined zone with minimal markers. Points de repere are assiduously removed or withheld. Beckett himself often insisted on unaccentuated and un-"pointed" delivery--for instance, with Billie Whitelaw in Not I--so that text also, in performance, becomes more like pre-text; the initial moves toward expression but not yet the finality of the thing expressed.

What I want to do here then is to pursue this zero point in performance terms. What does it mean physically and vocally for performers and, correspondingly in terms of method and materiality for directors and designers? And in what ways is what these creators do related to possible kinds of audience experience? I shall juxtapose this investigation of the performance experience with some textual analysis from novels and plays. The results may suggest comparison with what happens in other modes and performance practice as well.

Clearly, in Beckettian performance, the physical (mediated through the visual, the rhythmic, the gestural, the auditory, and many other semiotic codes) encompasses or fringes on the metaphysical, particularly in that Beckett's process and trajectory in much of his work (novels as well as plays) is "reductive," moving to increasing minimalization or scenic "poverty," toward a reduction or refinement of the physical until it is perceptible more as "absence" or virtuality than as presence. This poses particular problems for the Western-trained actor accustomed to "fleshing out" a character or role, although No performers might have less difficulty operating in such an embryonic zone.

Maybe here, then, the death of the actor (at least the post-Stanislavskian actor of Western tradition) compounds the death of the (Aristotelian) well-made play and the death of the (knowing) audience. Additionally, Beckett's well-known intransigence about production practice may, like Genet's prefaced instructions to his plays, appear to signal the demise of "director's" theatre, if not altogether of the instance of "director."

What then is the point of being "zeroed," for performers and/or audiences of whatever kind? More immediately, how do you do it, and what kind of experience is it? What happens during it and as a result of it?

Beckett's work, though appearing in some ways to parachute unannounced into the post-war scenario of European economic recovery, has been located ideologically and aesthetically (Esslin, Adorno) as a celebration or trenchant articulation of the ending of consensual meaning. (1) It is not so frequently historically and functionally juxtaposed, however, with mid-to-late twentieth-century developments in performance modes--away from the recognizably socio-historically mimetic--which begin to work with "difficult" processes such as absence, loss, or sacrifice of the psychological (egoic) or physical (corporeal) capacities that appear to constitute the performer as self or agent; and thus begin to enact, rather than to envision, the "end" of identity and teleology.

Jacques Copeau (from the 1920s) and Jacques Lecoq (from the 1950s) are at the centre of a reorientation and revitalization of performance style that has significantly altered the nature of theatrical experience in the west in the last half century. …

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