This chapter discusses the concept of exhaustion in Beckett’s literary texts and plays. The course of the argument follows Gilles Deleuze’s essay on Beckett, but relates the concept of exhaustion to the history of science and media studies. Since the nineteenth century physiology and psychiatry have investigated the effects of exhaustion, which ultimately leads to the destruction of the subject. Deleuze argues that exhaustion may also bring an unforeseen possibility or the emergence of invention. Beckett’s notion of media helps to grasp the nexus between exhaustion and invention. Since the technological basis of a medium is constantly evolving and changing, there is no single entity, apparatus or essential technological feature that constitutes ‘theatre’, ‘film’ or ‘radio’. Beckett makes inventions by exhausting the possibilities that are intrinsic to a medium and by stripping it bare to its inherent dispositive.
This chapter analyses Beckett’s reconceptualisation of the body in his later theatre – Happy Days, Play, That Time, Footfalls and Not I – against the background of his work for radio and, to a lesser extent, television in the 1950s and 1960s, focusing in particular on All That Fall, Embers and Eh Joe. Through concepts such as intermediality, remediation and embodiment, it argues that Beckett’s early opposition between technological and non-technological genres, in terms of physicality and voice, becomes increasingly untenable in the 1970s, which leads to a re-embodiment of his theatrical work by way of radio’s disembodying influence. The chapter thus shows how Beckett’s exposure to new media throughout his later career invited him to revisit as well as revise his own preconceptions about drama in its various forms, and use that experience as a driving force of theatrical innovation.
This chapter reconsiders Beckett’s well-known devotion to the convention of the proscenium arch. It argues that Beckett’s practice disrupts familiar ways of thinking about the proscenium as historically constant in its effects. Beckett, to use the Brechtian term, refunctions the proscenium. The chapter argues that Beckett’s insistence on the proscenium as pictorial frame responds to a historical situation in which that frame had migrated from the theatre to the ubiquitous media of film and television. Beckett’s plays experiment with the changed situation of the theatrical proscenium in the wake of its generalisation as a format for mass-mediated representations. Focusing especially on Endgame, the chapter argues that in Beckett’s work the theatre became a site to scrutinise rather than to reproduce the ideological effects associated with the proscenium and its subjectifying force.
This chapter analyses the aesthetics of Beckett’s dramas for TV, in relation to theorisations of the significance of texture in television and film, and histories of television production and reception technologies. It compares Walter Asmus’s 1986 television version of Was Wo [What Where] with his 2013 reworking of the same drama for the screen. The earlier version was broadcast in 625-line video, limiting contrasts between light and dark, whereas the 2013 What Where is in HD digital format, enhancing image clarity but stretching the limits of TV technology for the representation of black. These technical and aesthetic comparisons are placed in the context of Beckett’s earlier screen dramas of the 1960s and 1970s, which also exploited and challenged the video and film technologies used to produce them. By focusing on black, the chapter explores the significance of unlit space and texture in Beckett’s screen work. It argues that Beckett’s TV work uses the apparent nullity of black to draw attention to the representational capabilities of the TV screen, and links visual style to the materiality of television technologies.
This chapter examines the intermedial performance history of Samuel Beckett’s 1963 Play, with a focus on the emergence of digital technologies and the evolving role of the director. Beginning with attention to the play’s ‘first wave’ of adaptations to radio and film in the 1960s, all of which proceeded with Beckett’s involvement and approval, the chapter demonstrates the flexibility and experimentalism inherent in Play’s algorithmic structure. It argues that a ‘second wave’ of Play’s performance and reception, involving digital and cybernetic technologies, has emerged since the 1990s, ranging from robotically controlled theatre lighting to ‘gamification’ of narrative in virtual and augmented reality. The directorial process for the author’s work with Play over a ten-year period is documented and analysed, including presentations of Play within Ethica (2012–13), Intermedial Play (2017), Virtual Play (2017–19) and Augmented Play (2018–19). Ultimately, this chapter suggests that while activating (and altering) Beckett’s text in newly available media may at first appear to be a radical break, such practice actually fits within a robust experimental tradition, highlighting both the openness of Play’s dramaturgy and its surprising continuity over time.
This chapter is a plea for a digital edition of Samuel Beckett’s complete works. Apart from the published works, the corpus for such an edition includes the manuscripts, typescripts and proofs of all of these works, as well as notebooks with reading notes that were used in the drafting process and unfinished works. In addition to the integration of Beckett’s digitised personal library, the editorial model includes a reconstruction of the virtual library. The aim of such a digital complete works edition is to respect the complexity of Beckett’s oeuvre and present it as both a product and a process, without abandoning readers in the chaos of manuscripts. Digital media provide us with the means to design the tools that enable readers to explore this complexity, characterised by its dialectic of completion and incompletion.
Beckett’s media mysticism in and beyond Rough for Theatre II
With a focus on Fragment de Théâtre II (1958), this chapter explores Beckett’s artistic experimentation with symbolic logic, Boolean algebra, alternating currents, electric switches and incandescent light bulbs, linking it to the history of digital technology to inquire into Beckett’s engagement with the nexus between literary representation and electronic data processing. The chapter discusses the role of bird speech and the divine language in Théâtre II and elsewhere in Beckett’s search for the other of signification and his increasingly radical attempts to bring the game of literature to an end. The chapter argues that the notion of currents travelling (and staying) inside circuits offered Beckett a model radically different from that of intersubjective or intrasubjective dialogue. By reimagining the stage as a switching circuit, Beckett makes a step towards the media-technological realisation of non-representational drama.
Stimuli, signals and wireless telegraphy in Beckett’s novel Watt
In a scathing critique, Beckett diagnosed Marcel Proust’s fabled term of memoire involontaire as a conditioned reflex in the strict Pavlovian sense, pure habit. His response: absolute, and potentially self-destructive freedom. In his novel Watt, he explores this possibility in a long series of experiments involving a man’s leftover food and a dog that is supposed to consume it if and whenever it becomes available. The question is: how to bring the food and the dog together. Answering this question Beckett shows that, under the condition of freedom, there is no such thing as a conditioned reflex. Dog and food can only be brought together via signals, and signals only operate within systems of coercion potentially bordering on torture. Constructing such a signifying system from its most basic level, Beckett replicates, as it were, the history of signals from optical telegraphy to railway and traffic signals up to wireless telegraphy.
Between theatre as cultural form and true media theatre
If we combine sound philology and the archival contextualisation of Beckett’s oeuvre within his contemporary media culture with a radically media-archaeological reading of the one-act drama Krapp’s Last Tape, we discover a different poetics emerging from within the media-technological sphere of magnetophony. My non-historicist reading of Krapp’s Last Tape understands the Beckett drama as an operational function of the epistemic challenge posed by the manipulations of tempor(e)alities by electro-acoustics around the 1950s/1960s. Not only is the configuration of a human protagonist (Krapp) and a high-technological device (the tape recorder) a microsocial configuration in the sense of Actor–Network Theory or an ensemble in Simondon’s sense, but the close coupling of the human and the machine on the stage requires a more rigorous analysis of the cognitive, affective, even traumatic irritations induced in humans by the signal transducing machine. This chapter zooms in on the media message of Krapp’s Last Tape, and its approach is inductive in two ways: on the one hand, electro-magnetic induction is the technological condition (the arché) of possibility of the phonographic drama at stake in Krapp’s Last Tape, and on the other hand, in the sense of idiographic identifications of the real media theatre.