restricted access Space, Time, and the Self in Beckett's Late Theatre
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Space, Time, and the Self in Beckett's Late Theatre DAVID HATTIE "Let's just say you're not all there." Becken [0 Billie Whitelaw during rehearsals for Ft;Jotjal/sl I Samuel Beckett's late plays are, it might be said, both immediately, engrossingly present and troublingly absent, unfinished even while they are rigorously formed. They are theatre pieces that seem to pick apart the seams of the theatrical event; they both involve and baffle the spectator, giving her or him both the promise of physical immediacy (for, if nothing else, the late plays are troublingly there; each one relies for its effect on the precise delineation of a carefully crafted stage image) and the frustrating certainty that, in this world, few if any conventional dramatic processes are in operation. Any Beckett scholar, reading the paragraph above, might be tempted to ask what is so remarkable about it. After all, the plays, from Waiting for Godot onwards, call into question those relations that exist, unremarked, in conventional theatre: the role of the spectator in decoding the text; the status of the image and of the text; and the relation between the two. It has also been widely noted that Beckett's dramas, from the first, rely on a reconfiguration of the conventional idea of time and space normally encountered in theatrical performance (one thinks of Ruby Cohn's persuasive term "theatereality," for example, a term that identifies a fundamental confusion in the plays between the time and space of the drama and the time and space of the actors on the stage [30-31]). This, of course, raises a fundamental .question about these characters' subjectivity : Is the character in a Beckett text occupying a world mapped out by the text or one delimited by the confines of the stage? Is he or she immediately present or infinitely removed from presence? How can she or he be underModern Drama, 43 (Fall 2000) 393 394 DAVID PATTIE stood by an audience, if the form of the play itself makes such an unden;tanding problematic if not impossible? How can we, as audience memben;, make sense of these "people" (Beckett's own preferred term) if we are unclear about their precise location and of their precise position in what is normally considered to he the linear narrative of life? In the canon of Beckett criticism, a standard answer has evolved, one that relies implicitly on a conventional idea of the way in which subjectivity is fixed in dramatic space and time. It is fair to say that, in most pieces of theatre, the relation of space to time follows a standard pattern: the timespace indicated in the play exceeds the timespace of performance, but the two are sequentially related. That is, the enacted events are themselves excerpted from a'larger number of events, imagined as taking place offstage. Similarly, the setting of the play is to he imagined as only one of a number of simultaneously existing settings that together form the world described in the text. The spatial and temporal hierarchy thus established will, if described in a manner that is internally consistent, allow the audience to accept the subjectivity of the characten ; presented; they exist in performance timespace hecause they are firmly rooted in dramatic timespace - because they have a coherently and sequentially described existence outside the immediate confines of the performance. A consistent narrative, therefore, relies on the sequential ordering of events in two timespaces, simultaneously invoked by the dramatist and unden;tood by the audience. It is precisely this model, it has heen argued, that Beckett's theatre invokes and then frustrates.2 The characters are simply present. Vladimir and Estragon may not know precisely what happened yesterday, but they know that their present existence is confirmed, if only by the presence of each other; similarly, Hamm and Clov are adrift in the present moment, relying on the dialogue to fix them in place. Krapp's past is, it seems to him, the tale of another man; Winnie's past drains away from her as she sinks into the earth; but both confirm themselves in the present timespace of performance each time they utter or move. All the...