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  • Samuel Beckett's Catastrophe and the Theater of Pure Means
  • Jim Hansen (bio)

Identification, in fact, is ambivalent from the first; it can turn into an expression of tenderness as easily as into a wish for someone's removal.

Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

Samuel Beckett's work has never been particularly amenable to the maneuvers of political criticism. In fact, in his seminal 1963 essay "Trying to Understand Endgame," Theodor W. Adorno goes so far as to claim that "it would be ridiculous to put Beckett on the stand as a star political witness" (248). By reading Beckett alongside retheorized conceptions of the political and the theatrical, this essay proposes that we actually stop asking questions about the various political commitments of Beckett's work.1 Instead, as I'll suggest, we should begin to ask how his work very consciously stages "theatricality" in order to draw attention to the failings and omissions of modern notions of the political itself.

Catastrophe and the Poetics of Sympathy

At the concluding instant of Samuel Beckett's very brief 1982 play Catastrophe, the audience becomes witness to what appears as an [End Page 660] entirely unheralded—if not to say exceptional—moment in the Beckett canon. Throughout the play, we've witnessed an auteur stage director, noted in the text as (D), chomp incessantly on a cigar and wear a fur coat and matching toque as he manipulates, critiques, and even redefines his mute, ragged, and debased protagonist, (P). As D continually attempts to represent P as the universal figure of the human par excellence, the audience watches a frail, unspeaking protagonist, a classic Beckettian figure, laid bare by the workings of the apparently absolute and sovereign power that D comes to embody. What's more, the entire action mediates the problem of political identity by staging it, as Beckett's work so often does, in terms of the supposedly mythic power, the authority to create ex nihilo, that modernity wants to grant the autonomous artist. Because artists in the modern period have come to symbolize both the freedom to create and the revolutionary power of the imagination, we tend to give them a great deal of leeway, and in a play like Krapp's Last Tape or Catastrophe, Beckett forces us to watch an artist whose self-indulgent behavior we would usually prefer to ignore. The exceptional moment at the end of Catastrophe occurs when P, as Beckett's stage directions explain, "raises his head, fixes the audience.The applause falters, dies," and the lights fade, leaving the stage in utter, silent darkness (301).

The critical literature depicts this moment as a curiously un-Beckettian moment of resistance. When P raises his head and fixes us and the play's fictive audience in his rather intense gaze, as Anthony O'Brien tells us, P's action breaks the "bonds of domination" that hold him in thrall to D (47). One of the minimalist pieces written during Beckett's final decade, Catastrophe was dedicated to the political dissident and writer Vaclav Havel and, as such, has become the exemplar of precisely the resistant, romantic politics that many critics want to find in Beckett's postwar work. I'm not convinced that we can discuss the politics of Beckett's work by using terms as overt as "resistance," however, and it occurs to me that we have yet to develop a scholarly language or critical vocabulary that catches the precise nuances and difficulties that Beckett presents for those interested in ideology critique. Nonetheless, every few years, a critic or philosopher comes along with a new approach that promises to demonstrate once and for all that Beckett's work is and has always [End Page 661] been inescapably political. For what it's worth, Terry Eagleton's "Political Beckett?" (published in the July-August 2006 issue of New Left Review), Alain Badiou's 2003 collection of essays, On Beckett, and Pascale Casanova's 2007 Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution represent only the most recent attempts at just such a critical maneuver. Why is it that even though Beckett was born and raised in a decolonizing country, aided...


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