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Necessary Repetition/Répétition: Rehearsing Loss in the Theatre of Samuel Beckett
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"Forgive me, Willie, sorrow keeps breaking in."

—Winnie in Happy Days

"Ah yes, if only I could bear to be alone," cries Winnie, buried more than waist-deep in a desolate landscape. The quietly remarkable thing about this lament is that Winnie is already all but alone. And who knows exactly how long she has been that way? Or, for that matter, when it might all be over? That scene, played out each day anew in Samuel Beckett's 1965 play Happy Days, is no doubt familiar to readers of Beckett and conjures similarly bleak scenes across the body of his work, in which characters must grapple with destitution, loss, and the question of how to remain behind. Only consider the confounding confluence of temporalities—reanimation ("Begin, Winnie. . . . Begin your day, Winnie"), suspension (such as in the recurrent pauses between or after sentences and half-sentences in the stage directions), changelessness (a "day like any other day"), and duration ("Another heavenly day. . . . World without end")—and you get a picture of how hard it is to come up with answers. To the difficulty of determining the time of Winnie's loss is the added challenge of locating the object of that loss. That unknowingness brings to mind melancholic loss, characterized by the inability to "see clearly what it is that has been lost." In Freud's view, it's an unknowing that would be responsible for the inhibition and inability to repair that loss through substitution, that is to say, through the detachment of libidinal energies and their subsequent transfer onto a new object necessary to overcome one's grief.

For Freud, the work of mourning is a carrying out of a process, one that is ultimately completed. "Each single one of the memories and hopes which bound the libido to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected, and the detachment of the libido from it accomplished. . . . [W]hen the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again." And while it would not be quite right to say that mourning is achieved, as such, since the self in mourning is simultaneously the site of a complex struggle, as well as its agent, we might still state that against the successful "accomplishment" of mourning, the "melancholiac" does not seem to follow this more or less neat economy. Against the assumption of a "new object," then, the melancholiac appears to be at an impasse, unable to finish mourning.

Certainly, if we consider mourning as a work met in time, the supposed substituted love objects of Beckett's characters do not fulfill their portion of grief. The forward motion of time associated with normal grieving is suspended—"sorrow keeps breaking in." While Freud tells us that melancholia shares with mourning the idea of "passing off after a certain time has elapsed," the economic condition of melancholia suggests that that "certain time" is precisely in question. It is particularly expressed in the conflict of ambivalence, where the melancholic subject is said to repeatedly experience "countless single conflicts in which love and hate wrestle together" in cycles of relinquishing and persisting object-cathexis. This question of time is also at issue for Beckett's characters who appear to be stuck in a perpetually renewed grief, relentlessly, inexplicably bound to the object of their love. With Winnie, the point is too literal to be ignored. Likewise, the problem of unfinished grieving is central to Beckett's late dramatic works, Not I (1972), That Time (1974-5), and Footfalls (1976), where the attempt to recapture a love object that doesn't yield to its seizure somehow generates another try.

While Freudian melancholy in its indefinite and unfinished aspects offers a modality of time through which to read these diurnal attempts, one of the aims of this essay is to inflect the Freudian position concerning melancholic loss—specifically, its representation of time and object substitution—with another kind of representation that issues from the material specificity of Beckett's dramatic works as plays. In this form, representation takes on the mode of being played again and again: a performative repetition better captured by its French translation, répétition, denoting both reiteration and...



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