Martin Harries
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Beckett, the proscenium, media

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.

In Broadway theatres I sometimes imagine that the proscenium is filled in with glass, that the stage is really a huge television screen, that the actors are not really there.

(Smith, 1966, 3)

A contradiction structures discourses on perspective and, therefore, discussions of the proscenium. On the one hand, perspective and the proscenium verify the position of the viewer in the field of vision, and hence the sovereignty of the subject. The spectator's sight of events on stage, distanced, framed and controlled, confirms the subject's mastery of the spectacle. On the other hand, the perspectival image captures the subject, makes it subject. The technology of perspective, and the apparatus of the proscenium stage developed in its wake, anticipate the panoptic machine it resembles, placing the spectator in its sights: ‘Visibility is a trap’ (Foucault, 1979, 200). (It is possible to see this contrast as no contradiction at all, but for a moment I want to pause inside it, to occupy it as a contradiction.) That court theatres of early modern Europe oriented the machine of the proscenium and the design of the theatre so that the privileged spectatorial position belonged to the monarch is exemplary of the first approach: the sovereign claimed the best seat in the house, the seat designed for the best view of the perspectival grid of the stage framed by the proscenium. 1

The sovereign subject inherits something like this privilege of sovereignty: the proscenium frames a picture that reinforces the subject's sense of itself as sovereign, in possession of the view before it. The second strand of this discourse stresses subjection to and through images as one of the primary engines of the ideological production of persons. Sights we do not and can never possess produce us in their image: not sovereignty, but alienation; not possession, but dispossession. This contradiction can be resolved by asserting that the privilege of sovereignty is precisely the result of our having been alienated through the power of images. Our sense of ourselves as sovereign is one of the most powerful effects of the perspectival system that assures us that we occupy a privileged position in relation to our field of vision. We tell ourselves that we own what possesses us. Our sovereignty is precisely a form of the captation we thought we had overcome by becoming subjects.

This problem of the powers and function of perspective and of the proscenium, with all its complex history, forms the background of the well-known fact that Beckett imagined his plays as designed for the proscenium stage. 2 However experimental, his plays were conceived inside, and not against, that long-standing feature of theatrical architecture, the proscenium arch. This is true of Endgame as it is of Not I. Indeed, Beckett's engagement with the proscenium and the structures of subjectivation and sovereignty that surround it is important to what it means to call his work experimental. Further, this theatrical experiment within the ideological apparatus of the proscenium with its complicated modalities of address to the spectator must be understood in relation to histories of media.

Beckett's work inside and against the media surround in which his plays were first staged offers an example of a technique typical of his theatrical work: the proscenium, the frame of the old medium, becomes the object of what Brecht called Umfunktionierung. Apparently unchanged, same as it ever was, the proscenium, in Beckett's theatre, undergoes a refunctioning, precisely as a result of Beckett's encounter with mass media that had remade culture. To summarise many accounts: the proscenium made a picture of the stage, and this picture confirmed or produced – confirmed by reproducing – the subjectivity of the well-placed spectator. Beckett used the technology of the proscenium, but his technique militates against this traditional account of the proscenium as machine of subject formation. His use of it opposes such fantasies of subject formation with experiences of subject deformation. 3

Beckett's plays have largely belonged to the proscenium stage, and he wanted it this way. A fairly early case is exemplary: in 1956, in a letter now seemingly lost, Alan Schneider, who would go on to direct many important premieres of Beckett's work in the United States, apparently proposed to Beckett that Waiting for Godot should be performed in the round. Beckett responded:

I don't in my ignorance agree with the round and feel Godot needs a very closed box. But I'd give it to you with joy if I were free to do so. So all you want – all! – is the OK from MM and Rosset.

(Beckett, 1998, 12)

Both the modest profession of ignorance and the confident assertion that the ‘closed box’ is necessary for Godot are typical of Beckett's early communications on the theatre and the place of his plays within it. Despite Beckett's conviction about the need for this more traditional staging, he does allow that with the permission of the producer Michael Myerberg and Beckett's US publisher, Barney Rosset, Schneider might go forward with his plan to stage the play in the round. Despite Beckett's apparent willingness to allow Schneider to proceed with his experiment (if only he were free) this passage has been taken as evidence of Beckett's insistence that his plays belong within the frame of the proscenium arch, and for good reason. 4 His own practice as director confirmed this belonging. Equally exemplary is an anecdote from about a decade later: when Beckett came to direct Endgame at the Schiller Theater in Berlin in 1967, he not only worked within a theatre with a proscenium arch but insisted on the conventions of that apparatus. Michael Haerdter's diary of Beckett's work in the theatre includes this explanation of his decision to cut certain metatheatrical moments:

The action should concentrate entirely on the inhabitants of the ‘shelter’. We were startled, as Beckett explained this with a principle taken from the naturalist theatre – ‘the piece should be played, as if there were a fourth wall in place of the apron’.

(Haerdter, 1969, 97; my translation) 5

Haerdter's anecdote suggests that Beckett's insistence that his plays were written for the proscenium theatre contrasts with the challenge his work posed to dramatic convention: for Haerdter, the insistence on the fourth wall is a startling concession to the naturalist tradition. And yet the proscenium stage as an apparatus continued to be essential to Beckett's conception of his theatrical work. This insistence on the proscenium as theatrical frame is not, as Haerdter may be read to suggest, a concession to an outmoded theatrical naturalism but, instead, exemplary of Beckett's recognition of the altered situation of post-war theatre in a transformed media surround. The proscenium was not, after 1945, what it had been. 6 Beckett's deliberate uses of the apparatus of the theatre respond to the proscenium-like frame of the cinema, a resemblance stressed (for instance) by the curtains that open two otherwise very different films about theatre and performance, Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise (1945) and George Cukor's A Star is Born (1954). The theatre's proscenium had become something different in relation to what was perceived as the unprecedented subjectifying power of mass culture and of its perspectival productions. It was as though cinema had succeeded in producing the illusions, and the subjects in thrall to them, of which the post-war theatre was able only to dream. In the face of the power of the silver screen as fourth wall – the cinema's much-remarked power to include its spectators in scenarios from which they were structurally and materially excluded – Beckett rethought the proscenium and the relation between stage and audience. In the wake of cinema's consolidation as an apparatus for the production of fantasy, the play of fantasy in the theatre's old perspectival boxes was different. M, in Play, asks: ‘Am I as much as … being seen?’ (Beckett, 1984, 160). You are, yes – but being seen does not confirm your sovereign subjecthood.

What the proscenium was

The architect Ludwig Catel crystallised centuries of thinking about the proscenium when, in a book published in German in 1818, he wrote:

But the action of the play seen and understood correctly can satisfy the spectator only when the place of the action is completely closed off and when a visible wall separates the actors from the spectators. The wall separating the theatre from the stage is the proscenium. The proscenium consists of a frame which encloses the performance and of a space before that of a foreground which keeps the spectators away from the place of the action so that they do not notice the illusion of the play in contrast to reality. Outside of the proscenium is the theatre proper, or the room for an audience which like the purpose and nature of our newer dramatic art watches plays comfortably from the seats and is also secure entering and leaving the building. In this auditorium the acoustical and optical laws allow the spectator to see and hear from everywhere.

(Qtd. in Izenour et al., 1996, 65)

Beckett desired a ‘closed box’; Catel insists the stage should be ‘closed off’. For Catel, the closed stage allows for the maintenance of illusion: a theatre without a proscenium would not serve. Catel's account of the proscenium captures contradictions inherent in its function. The proscenium understood as frame should itself form a ‘visible wall’ between spectators and the scene: the frame is itself a wall, at once enclosing ‘the place of the action’ and keeping the spectators away. This closing off of the action and distancing of the audience allows for comfortable viewing, for safety in entering and departing from the theatre, and for the maintenance of the illusion of the action on stage. Catel's emphasis on the security of the spectators as they enter and leave the theatre stresses that the building is designed to assure – ‘like the purpose and nature of our newer dramatic art’ – the spectators’ bodily and psychic comfort.

The frame, however, is not in fact a wall, but itself the illusion of a wall. This illusion of a wall is the necessary first condition for the production of the illusion of dramatic action. Catel stresses the need to keep the audience at a distance: proximity might introduce the danger that the audience will recognise the illusion as illusion, might make the audience more conscious of the difference between the reality of the space where they sit and the illusion inside the frame. The first requirement of the complete enclosure that produces illusion is that the audience belongs to a separate space: for Catel the scene is not even part of the ‘theatre proper’. (Catel is perhaps thinking of the Greek root: the theatron, or place of viewing, is not technically the place of the thing to be viewed, of the action.) The ‘place of the action’, there on the other side of the divide formed by the proscenium, is not inside the theatre but strictly another location.

Catel is thinking of the phrase invoked by Beckett: the so-called fourth wall, a concept often linked to the theories of Diderot, though Diderot never uses precisely that phrase. In Conversations on The Natural Son, Diderot thinks about the problem from the point of view of the stage and of the actors:

In a dramatic representation, the beholder is no more to be taken into account than if he did not exist. Is there something addressed to him? The author has departed from his subject, the actor has been led away from his part. They both step down from the stage. I see them in the orchestra, and as long as the speech lasts, the action is suspended for me, and the stage remains empty.

(Qtd. in Fried, 1988, 94)

Catel and Diderot share a significant term: ‘action’. For Diderot as for Catel, the barrier between stage and audience makes the continuation of action possible. When they acknowledge the audience, author and actor together ‘step down from the stage’, descending, as it were, into the audience. Part of the impropriety of this moment may be that the author becomes visible at all, but Diderot's main complaint is that to address the audience suspends the action. Diderot's emphasis here falls not on the desired invisibility of the author, but on the fiction of the beholder's non-existence. It is that fiction that allows the action its continuity.

This conception of the proscenium, then, pictures it as the architectural feature that maintains two fictions. It establishes the divide between, in Catel's terms, the theatre and the stage, the place occupied by the audience and the place where the action occurs. It divides what might seem to be a single space into two: all present agree that audience and actors occupy absolutely different places even though, in fact and however complicated the spatial articulations of any given room might be, they share a single room. And this division is the condition for the second fiction: the illusion that the dramatic action is real action. The ideal of the proscenium as the unreal divide in space that produces the conditions for the reality of illusion suggests its power to do ideological work or, at least – and the distinction is important – the kinds of ideological work thinkers imagined it performed. Here it is important to stress the peculiar and necessary blindness at the heart of this project: the agreement to treat the framed but immaterial divide between stage and audience as solid and impermeable.

The proscenium, then, might seem to be an architectural materialisation of theatre as apparatus in the sense that Brecht understood it: part of the material and institutional machinery that reproduces theatre's ‘social function […], namely evening entertainment’ (Brecht, 2015, 62). Roswitha Mueller succinctly describes the capaciousness of Brecht's understanding of ‘apparatus’: it includes ‘every aspect of the means of cultural production, from the actual technological equipment to promotion agencies, as well as the class that is in possession of the mean of production’ (Mueller, 1989, 15). Brecht writes of ‘musicians, writers, and critics’:

As they hold the opinion that they own an apparatus that actually owns them, they defend an apparatus over which they no longer have any control – which is no longer, as they believe, a means for the producers, but has turned into a means directed against the producers, in other words against their own production.

(Brecht, 2015, 62)

The question of the proscenium, in this context, is subsidiary to the larger question of control of the apparatus. If the apparatus is directed ‘against the producers’ – implicitly, here, against a group of producers who hope to produce a left-wing theatre – then the innovations of those producers within the theatre are relatively trivial: a change to the physical arrangement or structure of the theatre, or a text that seems to challenge the class that controls the means of production, makes no difference to the apparatus as a whole. That apparatus will assure that anything, including The Threepenny Opera, becomes a commodity to be delivered. This aspect of Brecht's media theory, then, is in conflict with the frequent attention, in Brecht's writing on the theatre and in scholarly accounts of that theatre, to Brecht's challenges to the arrangements of the traditional stage. Estrangement includes estrangement from the technologies of the production of illusion that produced the bourgeois theatre.

Walter Benjamin stressed that Brecht's critique of the actually existing theatres of his day involved a concentrated challenge to the divide between audience and performer. That is, Brecht's understanding of the power of the apparatus to absorb innovation did not exclude thinking about the possibilities of organising theatrical space otherwise. Benjamin focused on the orchestra pit rather than the proscenium, but it is significant that he opens his discussion of epic theatre with a hyperbolic description of the theatre's traditional divide:

The abyss which separates the actors from the audience like the dead from the living, the abyss whose silence heightens the sublime in drama, whose resonance heightens the intoxication of opera, this abyss which, of all the elements of the stage, most indelibly bears the traces of its sacral origins, has lost its function.

(Benjamin, 1998, 1)

The point is not that one or another architectural feature produces this separation, that the orchestra pit or the proscenium produces this ‘abyss’ through the inevitable force of the architectural arrangement. They are part of the same divide. According to these arguments, the theatrical apparatus has historically produced this divide, but, as Benjamin's comparison of this separation to one between the dead and the living suggests, the separation is as much an effect of culture as of architecture. A desire to separate actors from audience, or the dead from the living, produces an apparatus that does this effectively. The stage is a sort of cemetery separated from the audience by the orchestra pit. Adorno imagined a residue of the magical in all art despite its reliance on rationalised technique or technology; as if to form a corollary, here Benjamin attaches the ‘sacral’ precisely to the divisions of the traditional western theatre.

In his catalogue of the features one should consider when examining ‘objective, external’ theatrical space, Patrice Pavis lists three general categories: the theatrical site, the stage space and liminal space. Liminal space ‘marks the separation (more or less clear, but always irremovable) between stage and auditorium, or between stage and backstage spaces’ (Pavis, 2003, 151). Pavis and Benjamin alike point to the existence of a third space between stage and auditorium, between performers and audience – the orchestra pit in Benjamin, this liminal space in Pavis – which is, or has been, at once objectively part of the theatrical situation while also being somewhat elusive. The liminal space is presumably not, for instance, simply a solid line without any width to be drawn from the edge of the stage to the ceiling, a rectangular and invisible shield between stage and auditorium. And yet: how thick is the fourth wall? This is at once an unanswerable question, and a real problem: Pavis's suggestion that attending to this ‘irremovable’ space should be part of the analysis of performance outlines a distinct challenge. That liminal space forms a changing psychic and social boundary. If, as Benjamin claims, the orchestra pit ‘has lost its function’, it is also possible that this space was in fact not ‘irremovable’ at all. Indeed, Benjamin would insist that Brecht had moved it, had even abolished it, replacing the sacral stage and its ‘magic circle’ with ‘a convenient public exhibition area’ (Benjamin, 1998, 2).

In 1971, Dan Isaac published a survey of experimental New York theatre in 1969 under the guise of an obituary, ‘The Death of the Proscenium Stage’. Isaac's thesis was that the proscenium belonged to a vanishing world, and that, while it might survive in New York inside Broadway theatres functioning more or less as museums, its era was passing. Isaac's argument synthesises several critiques of the proscenium:

The proscenium stage, with its curtain that can be quickly pulled aside to reveal everything, feeds our secret voyeuristic longings. But at the same time, the proscenium stage represents one of the dearest values of the Renaissance man: the private life, the sanctified separateness that makes of a man an individual.

(Isaac, 1971, 238; emphasis in original)

Isaac, embracing the environmental theatre of Richard Schechner, Grotowski and other theatre artists, summarises a critique of the traditional theatre's production of perspectival space: it perversely encourages voyeurism while also working to maintain – presumably on both sides of the curtain – the value of privacy and individuality. And yet the pleasures of voyeurism rest on an imbalance: the spectator ‘feeds’ on the revelation of everything on the other side of the curtain, while revealing nothing. Privacy rests on the revelation of the other, but the fiction – or contract? – of the fourth wall assures everyone that there has been no exposure.

One can see why, then, experiments in post-war drama so often included challenges to the proscenium arch: in the theatre, the critique of this ‘sanctified separateness’, the uniqueness of the individual in his sovereign separation, needed to adopt other arrangements of theatrical space, arrangements that did not tend always already to confirm that sanctity and that sovereignty. Schneider was right to see a connection between Beckett's work and the project of undoing the subjectivity effects in western theatre by breaking down the fourth wall, with all its institutional support for the confirmation of the comfortable bourgeois subject in its safe entrances and exits. 7 Beckett's work gave that subject little solace, and less comfort. And yet Beckett's continuous questioning of this subjectivity, and of the apparatuses that propped it up, explains why he insisted on the proscenium. Precisely because that work for the stage is so exquisitely attentive to the long history of the theatre's role in the maintenance of those subjectivity effects, Beckett's theatre never abandoned the proscenium arch. The swerve to the theatre in the round, and to the exploded or empty spaces of other experiments, recognised the power of the proscenium arch, but left the apparatus intact. Beckett took up the apparatus of the proscenium, that old medium of subjectivity effects, at the moment when the new medium of film had perfected that architecture of subjection, leaving the theatre in the shade – or as a place to experiment with the aftermaths of its former power.

The madman's media

This account of the proscenium has deliberately skipped from Brecht to experimental theatre of the late 1960s. One response to the Brechtian critique of theatre as apparatus was to imagine other spaces for the theatre. Schneider's suggestion to Beckett that Godot might be staged in the round is a chapter in a larger history of imagining liberation from the ideological apparatus of the bourgeois theatre through the demolition of the proscenium. Beckett, instead, works within the conventional technology of the proscenium, as if to stress that a new architecture of the theatre alone is not sufficient to produce liberation. His dedication to the ‘closed box’, with its suggestion of the stage as a coffin for actors, echoes Benjamin's necropolitical understanding of the theatrical divide between stage and audience. ‘Now we'll make it all dead’, Beckett once said in a rehearsal (qtd. in Illig, 1990, 26). One might link the increasing deadness of Beckett's performers to the preservation of the stage as a site of uninterrupted action in conventional accounts of the proscenium, and then place this in the context of Richard Halpern's recent discussion of the ‘eclipse of action’ in Beckett's dramaturgy (Halpern, 2017, 226–54).

The perseverance of the proscenium in Beckett's dramaturgy needs to be linked to the larger media surround. The particular negation of the proscenium, precisely through its use, is exemplary of Beckett's reworking of the theatre and of the media surround. In film and television, the perspectival box was, if anything, an increasingly dominant technology in the post-war period. Never had so many been subject to interpellation through the frame and its subjectivation through perspective. One might argue that there was simply a continuity between the theatre proscenium and the similar frames of film and television: one technology across platforms. Beckett's dedication to the frame of the proscenium belongs, however, in the context of negation: he adopts the proscenium because of its hegemonic force and because it cannot, in the theatre, take on that power. By working complexly with the forms of address the proscenium has promoted, Beckett performs a ‘refunctioning’, to use Brecht's word again, of the now historical force of that theatrical frame. A caution is in order here: in this context, Beckett's notorious embrace of failure and of aesthetic poverty describes a real imbalance. His theatre is an important site for the recognition, and defamiliarisation, of the force of cinema's interpellation of its spectators. The counterpoint to this recognition is a refusal to exaggerate theatre's power to counter this force. And yet a rigorous encounter with the proscenium is everywhere in Beckett's work for the stage.

The 1967 Berlin production of Endgame included an element which, directing a later production, in 1980, Beckett would cut: ‘Hanging near door, its face to wall, a picture’ (Beckett, 1992, 7). This faceless picture and the ‘closed box’ of the proscenium both provoke questions about that most familiar phrase: the stage picture. Beckett uses the proscenium to produce the illusion of the fourth wall; inside that ‘closed box’ is an invisible picture, ‘its face to the wall’. Photographs of the Berlin production suggest that that picture had a primitive frame and that a rag hung from it: as the play begins this object would then also recall the face of Hamm, covered with a handkerchief. This echo would have been redoubled at the play's end. Another stage direction preceding the ‘action’ of Endgame ties these elements together: ‘Brief tableau’ (Beckett, 1957, 1).

The movement in English from plainspoken ‘picture’ to ‘tableau’, a French loan word which, in English, indicates a picture belonging to the stage, contrasts this reversed picture with the tableau produced by the proscenium. Is this picture in fact a tableau? What is gained in translation? It is striking that the French text of Fin de partie includes ‘un tableau retourné’ – the picture hanging with ‘its face to the wall’ – but there is no ‘Brief tableau’. This iteration of the French word, that is, belongs only to Beckett's English translation. (No equivalent to the ‘brief tableau’ appears in the German translation with its ‘umgedrehtes Gemälde’ on the wall, either.) In every language, the texts insist on Clov's immobility; only Endgame links this immobility to the moments of charged, frozen signification in the melodramatic tableau. 8 This pattern repeats itself at the play's end, where the text of Endgame concludes with another ‘Brief tableau’, with no equivalent in Fin de partie or Endspiel.

The promise of the proscenium is that it will provide the spectator with a picture; the reversed picture on the wall undercuts such a promise. The melodramatic tableau, writes Carolyn Williams, ‘establishes a moment of hieratic silence and stillness within the ongoing action of the play, a moment in which the representation is turned inside out’; such tableaux, she argues, were introverted moments of ‘static, spatial composition’ (Williams, 2004, 109–10). In this account, the nineteenth-century melodramatic tableau caused the audience to ‘turn inward to contemplate an interpretation of its significance in relation to the suspended action’ (113). The reversed painting on the wall in Endgame blankly literalises this turning inside out of representation; it also emblematises the inaction framed by the brief opening and closing tableaux. 9 There is no action to interrupt. The picture on the wall, that is, might model the function of the larger frame of the proscenium here: it frames an image to which the audience does not have the access it expects. This frame does not enclose a picture. It is not – to open a can of worms – a picture of a world. The picture on the wall, the only decoration of Endgame's set, unless one counts the alarm clock that for a time hangs on the wall, is never the subject of any discussion in the play. One of Hamm's narratives does, however, include a painter. The episode deserves careful consideration:

I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter – and engraver. I had a great fondness for him. I used to go and see him, in the asylum. I'd take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness!


He'd snatch his hand away and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes.


He alone had been spared.




It appears that the case is … was not so … so unusual.

(Beckett, 1957, 44)

Hamm's hesitation around the question of grammatical tense points to the many strands at work in this passage. He corrects himself because there are no longer enough people for the situation to be usual or unusual: in the absence of others, no statistical norm. He corrects himself because he wants to distance himself from the resemblance between his own situation, seeming one of the few ‘spared’ after some unnamed disaster, and that of the madman: having once compelled a madman to go to the window in order to cheer him up, he now orders Clov to go to the two windows. As Adorno observed, ‘The madman's perception coincides with that of Clov, who peers out the window on command’ (Adorno, 1992, 254).

The views Clov reports more closely resemble the madman's descriptions of ashes than any scene of rural and maritime loveliness, and no one is cheered by the prospects. Hamm's correction of the tense of his observation also underlines the problem of the convergence, or the distance, between the present occupied by those on stage and the present of the spectators. His movement from present to past also points to the post-war situation of Endgame and to the question of the temporality of the end of the world. What madman did not think the end of a world had come? The evident parallel between the madman and Clov, however, could raise the question of whether Clov, too, misrecognises, or even simply invents, what he sees. (This possibility becomes especially vivid around the episode when Clov reports that he has spotted a boy, which Beckett would also cut in productions he directed.) 10 Hamm's narrative is not only a metatheatrical reflection on the situation of Hamm, but also contains a sort of rebus of the concerns of this chapter. In brief, the passage conjures a scene of looking framed by a window as a scene of education: you think the world has ended, but if you look at this view, you will see that the world perseveres, that there is still ‘All that loveliness’. The one who looks sees something very different, a landscape of ashes. This scene of an enforced looking through a frame also stresses the continuum between the window – a figure for the frame of the perspectival painting at least since Alberti's On Painting – and the proscenium arch.

The premise of the story would seem to be, simply, that Hamm is correct, the madman wrong. Part of what is unsettling about this narrative, then, is that in it Hamm appears as an agent of what Marcuse (1968) called ‘affirmative culture’, insisting on dragging the painter and engraver, who has been deluded by pictures of desolation, to the window to see a landscape of remarkable loveliness. The metatheatricality of this moment is multiple: not only does the scene's reflection on the stage as picture underscore the frame of the stage, but the scenario of Hamm's encounter with the madman offers an anticipatory echo of the response of at least a part of the play's audience. The parallel with the many spectators who would respond to Endgame by insisting that things are not really so bad as all that links this episode, for instance, to the episode of Mr Shower or Cooker in Happy Days: the resisting audience drags Beckett to yet another window, and Beckett returns to his corner. Here another detail unique to Beckett's English version resonates: only in Endgame does Hamm repeat that the madman was ‘a painter – and engraver’ (Beckett, 1957, 44). The repeated dash suggests a self-correction and in its punctuated emphasis calls attention to the medial difference between painting and engraving, and also repeats the usual order of production, in which the engraving – black and white, and reproducible – follows the unique painting. At this moment located, as Thomas Dilworth and Christopher Langlois have pointed out, at the centre of texts which have just stressed the importance of being in the centre (Dilworth and Langlois, 2007, 167–8), Endgame introduces a distinction important to many reflections on media: the engraving as the original copy of copies, where the original begins to dissolve into generations of repetitions. 11

Here direct comparison of Fin de partie and Endgame is illuminating (Endspiel again follows the French text). Who was the madman?

J’ai connu un fou qui croyait que la fin du monde était arrivé. Il faisait de la peinture.

(Beckett, 1981, 1:262)

I once knew a madman who thought the end of the world had come. He was a painter – and engraver.

(Beckett, 1957, 44)

The French text suggests that there is a connection between the madman's belief and the paintings he would make: the implication, I think, is that the paintings he used to make were responses to, and perhaps illustrations of, the end that he thought had already arrived. The unseen painting would then be an image of the end of the world, an image that cannot be seen. Like the ‘picture’ of Endgame or the ‘tableau’ of Fin de partie on the wall at the start of the play, the madman's paintings are not images and also something much less than ekphrasis: a tantalising idea of a possible image rather than description. Further, Fin de partie stresses the making of paintings, not, as in Endgame, a profession. Endgame's madman is both painter and engraver, combining two professions most often separated.

The story of the madman encapsulates the problem of representing the end of the world. It also underlines the question of the medium of such representation: the madman works across media, as Beckett would increasingly do. Indeed, the striking repetition – ‘painter – and engraver’ – recalls one of Beckett's descriptions of his own development as an artist:

I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one's material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.

(Qtd. in Knowlson, 1996, 319)

The pair of painting and engraving echoes Beckett's sense of Joyce's work as endlessly additive, and his own as an art taking away and subtraction. The view through the window that Hamm wants to supply, with its surprising exclamations in praise of the lovely landscape, supplies the negative not only of something like Joyce's knowledge and control. 12 Impoverishment here works also against Hamm's story of the window within the proscenium. The proscenium figures those apparatuses that supplied the affirmative world pictures against which Beckett's theatre reacted by working inside the perspectival system. In Beckett's Thing: Painting and Theatre, David Lloyd has described just this dynamic:

It is the gradual breakdown of that ‘world picture’ that can be descried across Beckett's theatre in a painstaking trajectory that is steadily informed by his engagement with painting. In part, the progress of his dramatic work involved the rupture with the dramatic image in which is preserved that dimension of the ‘spectacle’ that inherited, as Beckett's contemporary Guy Debord put is, ‘all the weaknesses of the Western philosophical project which undertook to comprehend activity in terms of the categories of seeing’.

(Lloyd, 2016, 17; emphasis in original) 13

Beckett's Thing provides the most rigorous and searching account of Beckett's engagement with vision and its technologies. And yet even as his argument gestures to the mass-mediated affirmations to which Beckett's plays responded with their grave negatives, Lloyd tends to suggest that that theatre responds to the predicament of vision as such. The understanding of ‘activity in terms of the categories of seeing’ may have been a weakness of the ‘Western philosophical project’, but this understanding contributed to the massive power of spectacular apparatuses. The moment of Beckett's theatre saw – is seeing, one might even say – the massive consolidation of the world picture in Heidegger's sense. Endgame is part of Beckett's ongoing critique of the solidity of that picture. 14 Its breakdown in the plays is the negative image of its power outside them.


Beckett's theatre is the negative staging of the media surrounding it. This has consequences for the theory of media, and in particular for the paired histories of thinking of Beckett's theatre as specific to its medium and of media history as a matter of discrete technologies. Here Walter Benjamin's most sweeping claim from ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’ gains new relevance:

Just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception. The way in which human perception is organized – the medium in which it occurs – is conditioned not only by nature but by history.

(Benjamin, 2008, 23; emphasis in original)

Tobias Wilke has convincingly argued that Benjamin's definition of medium does not align with the most familiar current ones. Not simply a ‘technological medium of reproduction’, the ‘medium names the comprehensive force field that links human sensorium to world and that is constituted in doing so by the interplay between natural (physiological, physical) and historical (social, technological, and aesthetic) factors’ (Wilke, 2010, 40). Film is an important part of that linking of sensorium to world in the 1930s, but it is not in itself, in Benjamin's sense, the medium in which the organisation of perception occurs. No single technological medium could play, or has ever played, that role. No medium, in the more current sense, can be, in Benjamin's sense, the medium. This does not mean, of course, that film was not immensely powerful: it was, Benjamin claimed, the ‘most powerful agent’ of the social transformations he linked to the decline of aura (Benjamin, 2008, 22). As Erwin Panofsky wrote in ‘Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures’, an essay which has been reprinted with a frequency that rivals that of the republication of the work of art essay and which, like that essay, dates from the mid-1930s:

The ‘movies’ have re-established that dynamic contact between art production and art consumption which, for reasons too complex to be considered here, is sorely attenuated, if not entirely interrupted, in many other fields of artistic endeavor. Whether we like it or not, it is the movies that mold, more than any other single force, the opinions, the taste, the language, the dress, the behavior, and even the physical appearance of a public comprising more than 60 percent of the population of the earth. If all the serious lyrical poets, composers, painters, and sculptors were forced by law to stop their activities, a rather small fraction of the general public would become aware of the fact and a still smaller fraction would seriously regret it. If the same thing were to happen with the movies the social consequences would be catastrophic.

(Panofsky, 1995, 94) 15

Benjamin writes of the organisation of perception, and Panofsky of the moulding of opinion, taste, language, dress, behaviour and appearance, but they agree that film plays an unequalled role in these processes.

Understanding post-war theatre, and potentially the post-war arts more generally, requires registering how pervasive a conception of film as hegemonic in the structuring of perception and behaviour had become. Understanding this hegemony also illuminates the question of the poverty of theatre as medium, as, for that matter, it has implications for the post-war situation of any ‘traditional’ art. If we understand medium in Benjamin's expanded sense – as the ensemble of apparatuses that produce perception – then it becomes clear that the role of these arts in the production of perception was relatively meagre. This is neither to say that they had no role, nor that their role in the production of perception would have been, or is now, easily measurable. To say that theatre was important to mass subject formation in the decades after 1945 would be to misrecognise it, to misunderstand both what theatre aspired to do and also what it achieved. Just as uninteresting would be to dismiss theatre as not worth consideration because of this diminished power. To make the power to shape subjects the criterion of aesthetic interest would be to surrender to the hegemony that Beckett's theatre countered. Indeed, the importance of theatre in this period would be measurable (if it were measurable) in inverse proportion to its limited power to shape perception. It was precisely because theatre had so little power to shape subjects that it could so powerfully stage how subjects were shaped.


1 Orgel's The Illusion of Power (1975) remains a classic discussion. Until 1605, the ‘royal seat […] was placed directly on the stage […] After 1605, when perspective settings were introduced – and they were used only at court or when royalty was present – the monarch became the center of the theatrical experience in another way, and the aristocratic hierarchy grew even more apparent. In a theatre employing perspective, there is only one focal point, one perfect place in the hall from which the illusion achieves its fullest effect. At court performances this is where the king sat’ (1975, 10; emphasis in original). The stage history here is more complicated than my account here can fully acknowledge: Pannill Camp's The First Frame (2014) challenges the idea that since the Renaissance proscenium theatres have consistently relied on the perspectival model.
2 In 1987, Jane Alison Hale's The Broken Window: Beckett's Dramatic Perspective opened up the question of the place of perspective in provocative ways. However insightful in locating the importance of perspective to Beckett's work, however, Hale's conclusions about the plight of the subject are less compelling.
3 An exchange with David Levine during an exploratory seminar at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in August 2018 sharpened my sense of potential changes to the function of the proscenium in the theatre.
4 The editors of Beckett's letters provide a germane passage in a letter from Alan Schneider to Thornton Wilder: ‘When I see the Brecht company or the Piccolo Teatro of Milan […] they ignore the proscenium tho they don't destroy it. They “open” it up in another way, physically and psychologically; and a special kind of theatricality […] comes flying out to the audience’ (Beckett, 2011, 660).
5 The book in which Haerdter's essay first appeared is itself a remarkable document: with three sides that fold out on the top (a photograph of lighting instruments) and the sides (photographs of curtains), the horizontally oriented volume deliberately frames the text of Endspiel, with accompanying photographs of the 1967 production, as a portable proscenium stage.
6 This chapter is part of a larger work in progress about the response of post-war drama to mass media, especially film. For a discussion of the factors that made 1945 a break in perceptions of the force of film, see my ‘Theatre After Film, or Dismediation’ (Harries, 2016, 351–2).
7 This sentence alludes to two books to which this essay is indebted: Joel Fineman's The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition (1991) and Nicholas Ridout's Scenes from Bourgeois Life (2020).
8 For the French and German texts, see Beckett's Dramatische Dichtungen (1981, 1:208 and 209).
9 For a compelling treatment of Beckett and the post-war predicament of action, see Halpern (2017).
10 For Beckett's cuts to Endgame, see especially his letter of 15 November 1981 to his Polish translator, quoted in Gontarski's introduction to Beckett, The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett: Endgame (Beckett, 1992, xviii). Gontarski's text of the play in that volume reflects those cuts.
11 Walter Benjamin, to cite an especially germane and obvious instance, discusses the engraving in the second section of the work of art essay (Benjamin, 2008, 20).
12 My sense of the force of negativity in Beckett's work owes much to Julia Jarcho's chapter on Beckett in Writing and the Modern Stage (Jarcho, 2017, 68–106).
13 The internal quotation is from Debord (1983, n.p., thesis 19).
14 For related speculations, also with reference to Beckett, see Harries (2014).
15 For a thorough consideration of Panofsky's essay, as well as an account of its publication history, see Levin (1996).

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