Beckett and Pinter: towards a grammar of the absurd

At the time when Godot was first done, it liberated something for
anybody writing plays. It redefined the minima of theatrical validity.
It was simple as that. He got away. He won by twenty-eight lengths,
and he’d done it with so little—and I mean that as an enormous
compliment. There we all were, busting a gut with great monologues
and pyrotechnics, and this extraordinary genius just put this play
together with enormous refinement, and then with two completely
unprecedented and uncategorisable bursts of architecture in the
middle—terrible metaphor—and there it was, theatre.1

This is Tom Stoppard speaking in appreciation of Samuel Beckett, his ancestor of the absurd. Dialogue is the dramatists’s major resource and the dramatic theorist’s major problem. First-generation absurdists—Beckett, and then Pinter—did indeed usher in a new era for dramatic dialogue, rescuing the modern theatre from the tyranny of wordiness that even John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger had failed to slough off. But little progress has been made in analysing the new language of the theatre. Critics have not understood the nature of the absurdists’ emancipation; and nowhere is the misunderstanding more flagrant than in the assumption that Beckett’s dialogue moves in the same direction as Pinter’s, that it tries to realise the same objective—greater realism. Pinter’s stripped-down idiom is that of genuine speech faithfully reproduced, mimetic both of the free rhythms and punctuating silences of spontaneous discourse. Gone is the orchestrated language that created the sense of discussion or debate even in the dialogue of dramatists, like Ibsen, labelled ‘naturalistic.’ So free of embellishment and rhetoric is his dramatic speech that it has been paid the compliment of being thought banal by the unobservant: the dramatic contexts within which it operates ensures that it never is so. But even alert critics, in assimilating Pinter’s art to Beckett’s, have failed to see that the linguistic effects created by Beckett work on antithetical principles. To liberate the modern theatre, Beckett first liberated himself from over-dependence on ordinary language, abandoning mimesis to the invention of a unique idiom, the very grammar of which is different from that of everyday speech. No-one speaks quite like Beckett’s characters do, not because the playwright has got it wrong, but because he has given up the holy grail of realism altogether.

Critical myopia in this regard is a curious phenomenon, since the techniques of stagecraft developed by Beckett, as opposed to those of language, have never been mistaken for trompe l’oeil social accuracy. Arthur Miller has pointed out that the kind of questions an audience will ask of a character appearing on stage will depend on the degree to which his dress, speech and environment are seen to be realistic.2 Thus, questions which are appropriately asked of his own characters—who are they, what is their trade, calling or profession, what sort of upbringing might they have had, where do they live—are entirely ruled out of court by Beckett’s way of presenting his characters to the audience. It is quite inappropriate to ask Miller’s questions of characters embedded in sand, neck-deep in funerary urns or buried in dustbins. Such a restriction of theatrical resources as Beckett’s plays increasingly countenance is a very conscious and important decision on the dramatist’s part. The withdrawal of the potential for expansive movement from plays like Happy days, Play and Endgame has the consequence that minute changes in position and minimal gestures will assume disproportionate importance. Another consequence of this attenuation will be a greater focussing of attention on the dialogue. In this article, I propose to examine some of the grammatical effects that obtrude themselves on the spectator’s consciousness in the play that, to my mind, most profitably combines Beckett’s linguistic and theatrical skills—Endgame. In this play, Beckett invents constructions that reinforce both his view of experience and his staging techniques. The strangeness, power and profundity of his dialogue derives, I suggest, from the imposition of a grammar that imparts to the language an extra layer of significance. The grammar itself becomes an image of the human predicament as the playwright conceives it; local linguistic effects directly reveal aspects of the experience at the heart of the play. Language in Endgame is self-advertising, arresting, continually drawing attention to its own curious properties, noticeable because in precise respects it departs from the ‘language such as men do use.’ Let us proceed to examples.

When Clov says: ‘If I don’t kill that rat, he’ll die’3 (44) we are arrested at first because the grammar has played a trick on us. The sentence poses as a genuine disjunctive of the form, ‘If not - x, then y,’ but it does not turn out to be so. There is no true juxtaposition of alternatives here—or is there? On closer inspection, it appears that the grammar and syntax have imposed on the passive verb ‘die’ an active role and this is quite appropriate to a Clov’s eye-view of experience. To Clov, dying is the supreme expression of freedom possible in the austere, debilitated world he and the rat inhabit. Suddenly, because of the way Clov frames the sentence, dying seems like a gloriously malevolent act of will on the rat’s part, the more so because it deprives Clov of a chance to act—to kill him. Here, the very grammar of the sentence is a concrete embodiment of an existential statement. Just as every movement of Nagg’s or Nell’s counts, given the constraint of the bins, this sentence has created room to move, room to act or be acted upon in a world where being killed and dying seem to be the exclusive alternatives. Earlier in the play, we come across another example of this richness in surface texture:

Clov: You shouldn’t speak to me like that.
Hamm: (coldly) Forgive me. (Pause. Louder.) I said, Forgive me.

Here Beckett exploits the peculiar feature of the verb ‘to forgive,’ that it has a form resembling a genuine imperative, which is in fact, at the strongest, ‘vocative.’ At the simplest level, Hamm is requesting forgiveness in a tone as brusque as the one that gave the original offence and this is amusingly paradoxical—‘forgive me, or I’ll beat your brains out.’ You can’t ask for forgiveness with menace. But in addition, he seems to be assimilating the locution ‘forgive me’ to the class of commands like ‘shut the door!’ which expect some performance for their satisfaction. But what would constitute the performance, in virtue of which Hamm could be satisfied that he had been forgiven? Some act of ritual absolution, perhaps? God alone is entitled to use the word ‘forgive’ as a genuine imperative as in ‘forgive thine enemies!’: perhaps Hamm is playing God and trying to arrogate to himself some of the Divine authority. At all events, this is, like the previous example, a very suggestive use of grammatical ambiguity, seeming to point beyond itself to the deeper pre-occupations of Beckett’s drama. ...

B.S. Hammond


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