Literature and Theatre
The historical setting of Beckett’s Film in 1929 is conventionally related to the significance of that year in the history of film. But Beckett's use of the device of the ‘angle of immunity’ suggests an additional historical context. Both the setting of Film in 1929 and its production in the early 1960s prompt me to inquire into the medical meanings of ‘immunity’ in a film whose damaged protagonist, dilapidated setting and production in the sweltering heat of New York in July prominently raise issues of health and disease. I supplement my inquiry into the medical meanings of Beckett’s ‘angle of immunity’ with an exploration of the concept’s social significance. Drawing on Jacques Derrida’s and Roberto Esposito’s reflections on community, immunity, and autoimmunity, I note that O’s flight in Beckett’s Film is not merely a flight from perception but also a flight from community. This flight from community manifests the destructive, autoimmunitary logic of the self/not-self dichotomy that the immunological revolution succeeded in placing at the heart of immunology as Beckett was shooting his film.
Featuring twelve original essays by leading Beckett scholars and media theorists, this book provides the first sustained examination of the relationship between Beckett and media technologies. The chapters analyse the rich variety of technical objects, semiotic arrangements, communication processes and forms of data processing that Beckett’s work so uniquely engages with, as well as those that – in historically changing configurations – determine the continuing performance, the audience reception, and the scholarly study of this work. Greatly enlarging the scope of earlier discussions, the book draws on a variety of innovative theoretical approaches, such as media archaeology, in order to discuss Beckett’s intermedial oeuvre. As such it engages with Beckett as a media artist and examine the way his engagement with media technologies continues to speak to our cultural situation.
Beckett’s television plays stage a seeming disparity between their often difficult and affectively challenging subject matter, and the deliberate aestheticism and formalism of their representational strategies. This is made even starker by the austere formal qualities of their medium: the limited, rigidly framed TV screen, its flatness, the shades of grey in a black and white broadcast, the stark televisual light, produced by the firing of a cathode tube onto the television screen, the frequently ‘flat’ or ‘indifferent’ tone of their voice-over and the often ‘staring’ camera eye, as Beckett called it in his manuscript drafts. And yet, the answer to how the plays’ affective content is communicated seems to reside precisely in the unusualness and precision of their form, in the clinically framed shots and the abstracted, calculatedly affectless sets, in their detailed foregrounding of the artifice of representation, in their late-modernist, minimal, pared-down style, even in the brevity and semantic reticence of the scripts.
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.
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.