Category Archives: Drama

Harold Pinter – The Birthday Party (1957, performed 1958)

6 Characters – Petey, Meg, Stanley, Goldberg, McCann and Lulu – set in a boarding  house on a sea side town. petey and Meg are boarding Stanley. Goldberg and McCann come looking for Stanley, but we’re not sure why. Stanley can’t escape them. They throw a birthday party and, in the morning, they take Stanley (who has had a nervous breakdown of sorts) away in their big black car.

When the play opened, it got awful reviews, but it was recovered by a critic who put Pinter firmly in the tradition of Ibsen, Shaw and Beckett. “Mr Pinter has hold of something….We live on the verge of disaster,” not in the form of an atom bomb, but something so close to home it is ineffable. All characters, even the slogan-booming Goldberg is racked with fear and doubt:

I believe that the world…(vacant)
I belive that the world…(desperate)
I believe that the world ….(lost)

The lack of existential progression is counterpointed by an affective dimension that is constantly writhing to take up new positions to threats that cannot be assimilated or escaped. Stanley will sink into silence, and eventually laugh.

Goldman and McMann are straight out of Kafka and Beckett. Think of them as importing a Beckett play into a middle-class seaside town. We are haunted by Beckett plays. Their dialogue runs out of control, a sort of fractured stichomythia abrupting into the otherwise natural dialogue of Meg, Petey and Stanley.   

George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion (1914)

Influenced by Marx, so worth thinking about seemingly conservative linguistic gestures are can be read as socially progressive, even radical. In the play, Higgins observes that language cuts across economic strata: money has skewed social relations, now solving problems, but creating new ones, including humans of all classes being deracinated, disordered, etc. According to the Preface, Shaw sees the play, and all of his work (all art in general), as explicitly didactic in one way or another: he calls for a reformer in the guise of an “energetic phonetic specialist.” In general, Shaw thinks we need a “new sort of human being” to face the problems of modernity; Pygmalion dramatizes the process (sometimes violent) of trying to create this new human. Once said that vegetarian do nto live on vegetables any more than

Drawing from Marx, Shaw does believe that we use the world to satisfy our needs, but that the world is the means through which we express our creative faculties. Shavian “new speech” is one such expression. The broad range of styles in Pygmalion illustrate the “inclusiveness” of this language in contrast to Higgins’ rather narrow idea of what language should be. Higgins has a problem, in short, with Metaphysics, thinking that there is some essence (linguistic, human, etc,) that can be posited and achieved, rather than a more ambiguous collection utterances and performances. One could think of the play itself as a destabilized “absence” that is supplemented by a long preface and a prose conclusion that finishes the story. In other words, the boundaries between performance, real life, drama, fiction, etc. Drama takes on fictional quality, for instance, when in the frist scene the characters are no indicated by their names, but by generic place-holders (flower girl, mother, daughter, note taker) that will be filled out in the coming scenes: this a readerly effect that can’t be performed on stage.

Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot (1954)

Act 1

Vladimir and Estragon, two “friends” are waiting for Godot, who never shows up. The domineering Pozzo shows up with his slave, Lucky.  After much confusion and mistaken identity, it becomes somewhat clear that Pozzo owns the land on which Vladimir and Estragon are waiting. Estragon is invited to kick Lucky, but Lucky suddenly kicks him. Pozzo and Lucky (who has long monologue that is pretty much senseless) leave, and then a boy comes along who claims to have been sent by Godot with a message that he will come tomorrow.


Act 2

Starts off much the same as Act 1, but it appears that Estragon remembers nothing that happened the day before despite Vladimir’s attempts to reconstruct the day for him. They come up with various ways to pass the time, such as hurling insults at one another or engaging in an S-M fantasy. Pozzo and Lucky come along again, but Pozzo is now blind and in great pain. He remembers nothing of the day before. Vladimir and Estragon first try to help him and then beat him with little remorse. Eventually they all get up. Then Vladimir kicks Lucky and hurts his foot. Pozzo and Lucky eventually leave. Estragon falls asleep and the same boy comes, remembering nothing of the day before, and bearing the same message from Godot. Estragon wakes up and they decide to go, but before they move, the curtain drops.

Preliminary Notes:

Beckett claimed that ‘the early success of Waiting for Godot was based on a fundamental misunderstanding, that critics and public alike insisted on interpreting in allegorical or symbolic terms a play which was striving all the time to avoid definition’. This gets at the crucial difference between symbol and device which runs throughout twentieth-century literature, from Howard’s End to Godot. Godot is not a symbol with a meaning (he can mean many things of course), but is rather a device with a function. Similarly, the tree on stage, while symbolizing just about everything…also manages through this very polyemy to mean very little. Rather, its function is to dramatizes the resources of signification from which we draw meaning.

Godot was written right after Watt:

‘When I was working on Watt, I felt the need to create for a smaller space, one in which I had some control of where people stood or moved, above all, of a certain light. I wrote Waiting for Godot.’ (Beckett)

Ironically, this smaller space manages to become textually voluminous in its many reference: its sparseness of form, it textual silence, is the occasion for a quasi-Lacanian appearance of the Signified—that is, its absence is registered. So, while metonymy functions in the various repetitions, the occasional broken reference, silence, syntactical “tatter,” etc. become points de capitan—i.e. the emergence of metaphor. This play, between repetitive habit and the break in that habit, is central to Beckett’s dramatic “ontology”:

Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is habit. Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals. The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day. (Beckett)

In other words, Beckett fully accepts Freud’s notion of the death drive, but reverses its affective force by granting it creative power. The idea of an identity that constantly changes is potentially liberating, if chaotic. Elsewhere, Beckett writes, “To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist.”



Ann Banfield – Beckett’s Tattered Syntax (2004)

Beckett’s work accuses this compensatory wisdom of preventing “suffering…[from] open[ing] a window in the real (Proust, 28). But it is inly via conception of history, both personal and literary, that runs counter to the myth of progress–“in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation”–that all can “change utterly,” that an individual might escape the round of generation, that “the object of desire might be perceived as particular and unique and merely the member of a family” (proust, 22), that art can find a language to say something new…Beckett’s linguistic crisis is hence one of the mother tongue. (7)

Here we are returned to the theme f generation. Beckett pares down the reproductive organs  over and again to the digestive processes of the most primitive and rudimentary  organism, ‘‘Worm’’; generation is ‘‘a question of elimination’’ (Unnamable, 365).  The model is a conduit with an aperture—mouth, ear, eye, or the hole Molloy’s  ‘‘muse’’ makes him mention—at either end, for the entrance or exit of substances:  variously air, liquid, or solid. Moreover, there is no difference between entrance and  exit. This gives ‘‘the anatomy the geometry’’ of  How It Is (55), where the series of individuals in the mud are linked by ‘‘contact of mouth and ear’’ (140). Engender- ing is ‘‘pumping one’s likes,’’ the infinite series of‘ ‘brotherly likes,’’ Murphy, Molloy,  Malone, Mercier and Camier, Pim, Pam, Bem, Bom, Kram, Krim, Skom, Skum: ‘‘We are talking of a procession advancing in jerks or spasms like shit in the guts  till one wonders…if we shall not end…by being shat into the open air’’ (How It Is, 124). (9)

This same model produces language similarly via the conduit, speakers ‘‘launching their voices, through the hole, there must be a hole for the voices too’’ (Unnamable, 359). ‘‘Two holes and me in the middle, slightly choked. Or a single  one, entrance and exit, where the words swarm and jostle like ants.’ ’Words ‘‘keep pouring out of my mouth,’’ the Unnamable says, ‘‘dribbling,’’ or, alternatively,  ‘‘ramming a set of words down your gullet,’’ you are ‘‘branded as belonging to their breed’’ (Unnamable, 310,324). (9)

We can hypothesize that the minimalism of Beckett’s late style is a result of an attempt to create an art made largely out of syntacticon, while scarcely exploiting the dictionary–forming what Beckett calls “tattered syntaxes” or “syntaxes up ended.” (17)

For it is the proper name that fails first. Only a language weaned of such productive categories, like that of Swift’s Struldburgs, can “back unsay” and write the elegy for the lost mother tongue in a pure grammar, accomplishing the revolution of the syntax. It produces a work of memory in which the series of fathers and mothers is replaced by a losswards history. (23)