Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"A Howling Void": Beckett's Influence in Cormac McCarthy's the Sunset Limited

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

"A Howling Void": Beckett's Influence in Cormac McCarthy's the Sunset Limited

Article excerpt

In his review of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 novel The Road, Ron Charles claims that the novelist "has moved into the allegorical realm of Samuel Beckett." If Beckett's influence is apparent in that novel, his influence is even more pervasive in McCarthy's The Sunset Limited, a play written around the same time and published that same year. In The Sunset Limited, two characters, a suicidal academic named White and an ex-con street preacher named Black, debate the existence of God, the moral obligation of an individual to others, and the meaning of life. While the play initially seems like a staged version of an evangelical apologetics course, the dark turn at the end of the play, in which White's articulated arguments in favor of the meaninglessness of all articulations drown out the impassioned pleas of the preacher, transforms the apologetics course into a virtual linguistic apocalypse. White's nihilism seems to defeat Black's compassion, and the play ends in an inarticulate cry to an imagined deity who does not appear. McCarthy's (literal) kitchen drama about the core questions of existence and meaning evokes Samuel Beckett's similarly under-populated stage worlds in which characters trapped in physical stasis argue philosophically through dialogue that plays on the meaninglessness of disconnected, unproductive language. An examination of Beckett's influence in The Sunset Limited, particularly in the physical stasis of the characters as emblematic of the absurdity of their relationship, an absurdity that thematically emphasizes the human longing for and inability to connect meaningfully, and an apophatic, mystical interpretation of silence, provides insight into this otherwise un-reconciled staged debate. Such an examination reveals the play as a grim yet fervent paean to human fortitude in a world deprived of the consolations of faith or morality.

The Sunset Limited is a complicated play to interpret, especially in terms of how that play fits within McCarthy's corpus. It was, after all, published the same year as The Road, and critics have difficulty placing White's bombastic and triumphant nihilism within the same philosophical universe as The Road's despairing yet tender father and fiercely moral son. And the play's conclusion is not so much a conclusion as it is a trenchant rejection of any comforting sense of resolution. The Sunset Limited does present some moralistic arguments through Black's character, but those arguments are precisely that-homiletic justifications for moral behavior, rather than the more urgently motivated and complicated ethical quandaries faced by the father and son in The Road. That the characters are given the less-than-oblique names of Black and White further emphasizes the philosophically monotone arguments about morality presented in the play. And finally, because of White's impassioned eloquence in the face of Black's comparatively inarticulate defenses, the play seems to lean precariously in the direction of a nihilism not seen in McCarthy's work since Blood Meridian. At the end of the play, White admits that, however much he may yearn for ideas of a meaning-granting deity, for archaic yet comforting concepts like forgiveness, these "forms... have been slowly emptied out. They no longer have any content.... A thing dangling in senseless articulation in a howling void" (139).

Despite this devastating nihilism at the end of The Sunset Limited, however, early reviewers of the play offer interpretations that vary widely. In a review of The Sunset Limited's West Coast premiere at San Francisco's SF Playhouse, Chris Jensen finds the play's nihilism undeniable; the force of White's final arguments, he says, make the play's point. While The Sunset Limited initially "use[s] the conventional trappings" of a "Hallmark Channel" feel-good film, it does so only in order to subvert those conventions, shocking the audience by "showing [them] the path toward upliftbefore shoving [them] back in front of that oncoming train. …

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