Res videns: The subject and vision in the plays of Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, and Harold Pinter
TABLE OF CONTENTS
List of Illustrations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . x Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Chapter One: Cartesian Philosophy and the Beckettian Subject . . . . . . . . . . . . .14 Chapter Two: Samuel Beckett and the Theatre of the Observer . . . . . . . . . . . . 37 Chapter Three: Sam Shepard and a Search for a Stable Identity. . . . . . . . . . . . 101 Chapter Four: Harold Pinter’s Blind-Man’s Buff. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 154 Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 210 Works Cited and Consulted . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 218
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Fig. 1 Structure of the Camera Obscura . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45 Fig. 2 Two Models of the Camera Obscura . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 45 Fig. 3 The Astronomer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54 Fig. 4 The Geographer. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 55
In the plays of Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, and Harold Pinter, vision takes a central place in defining the human subject. In their works, the significance of vision in the process of subject formation is visually expressed through creative uses of light, sets, and the actor’s body. In analyzing Beckett’s plays, I approach the question of the relation between the subject and vision and the subject-object relationship using the cogito (from cogito, ergo sum, I think, therefore, I am) as an anchor, which posits the human being as essentially a thinking thing, setting mind over body. I will examine the ways in which the definition of the subject as a thinking thing changes and develops into presenting the subject as a seeing thing—res videns (one who looks and is looked at)—in the plays by Beckett, Shepard, and Pinter. 1 More specifically, I will focus on their definitions of the subject, the subject-object relationship, and the state in which the subject is placed. While examining these issues, I will also discuss the ways in which the playwrights explore those issues using visual elements in their works.
1 Strictly speaking, while one who looks is “res videns,” one who is looked at can be translated into “res visa,” However, since in this study one of the main points of my arguments is that the human subject is both the observer and observed, hereafter I will use the term res videns to indicate both aspects.
Shepard’s and Pinter’s works reveal both similarities with and differences from Beckett’s case. They both approach the understanding of the subject’s formation in heavily visual ways. Shepard considers the formation of the subject as a socio-cultural product, and he presents the significant role that vision plays in the process. Pinter deals with the encounter between two divided subjects. Michel Foucault’s discussion of the Panopticon and surveillance provides a model to analyze Pinter’s works. Given the breadth and depth of Beckett’s works in their dealing with the problem of vision and the subject, I place him at the center of my discussion and examine Shepard and Pinter as playwrights who offer further insights into these problems and the use of visual staging techniques to explore these issues. While all three playwrights use visual elements effectively as an expressive medium in the theatre and deal with fundamental questions about identity and the human condition, they are not the only ones to do so. For example, Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco also deal with those questions using visual language. I will analyze some of their plays in the main body of this study and discuss the similarities that they share with plays by Beckett, Shepard, and Pinter. Playwrights belonging to the younger generation such as Caryl Churchill also take on the problem of identity in a heavily visual way. For example, in Cloud Nine, 2 Churchill switches the roles among the actors between the earlier and the later parts of the play and by doing so, questions the notion of identity and of racial perception by means of a visually strong statement. The work of each of these playwrights, and of several others, adds other facets to the questions of vision and the subject and to their representation on the stage. I trust that my approach to the plays of
2 Titles of plays and novels will be given in the language in which they were first written. Quotes from the texts will also be given in their original language whenever possible.
Beckett, Shepard, and Pinter as representative cases can significantly contribute to an understanding of other playwrights’ works that deal in various ways with the issues raised here. Striking similarities can also be found in plays that preceded those of the three playwrights by several decades. For example, the exploitation of visual elements as a way of presenting the human condition is found at the end of the nineteenth century in Maurice Maeterlinck’s Les Aveugles (The Blind, 1890). The play presents the playwright’s view of the human condition effectively through the opening stage picture. A long stage direction describes the opening scene at length. The time is night. Somewhere in an ancient forest, the blind are seated—six men and six women on either side of a dead priest. They are waiting for the priest to return to lead them safely back home, all the while not knowing that he is already among them—and dead. The irony of the situation and power of the visual image on stage is such that although the play does not present much dramatic action, it remains a powerful one. The picture says it all, and in this sense, Maeterlinck’s Les Aveugles anticipates what Martin Esslin pointed out in the works he considered belonging to the Theatre of the Absurd. In his book, Esslin observes that “the action in a play of the Theatre of the Absurd is not intended to tell a story but to communicate a pattern of poetic images” (403). He presents En attendant Godot as an example: [T]hings happen in Waiting for Godot, but these happenings do not constitute a plot or story; they are an image of Beckett’s intuition that nothing really ever happens in man’s existence. The whole play is a complex poetic image made up of a complicated pattern of subsidiary
images and themes, which are interwoven like the themes of a musical composition, not, as in most well-made plays, to present a line of development, but to make in the spectator’s mind a total, complex impression of a basic, and static, situation. (403; original emphasis) The significance of Esslin’s observation is that he recognizes the combination of the humanistic concern and its visual expressions. This “complex poetic image” reappears in the plays of Beckett, as well as in those of Shepard and Pinter. Uses of visual elements as a meaningful ‘language’ in theatre had been going on well before Esslin wrote his book. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the Western theatre underwent a great number of changes in terms of its modes of expression. Numerous experiments were made, new definitions of “theatre” were offered, and new media were introduced and explored. Each of those experiments had its own uniqueness; however, many of them can be linked through their new awareness of the potential of the visual language and of ways of using it in the theatre. Sets, lighting, and actor’s body each began to be used as an important medium of expression and communication, challenging the former dominance of verbal language. Innovative uses of visual elements in the theatre, such as stage sets and lighting, were explored by a number of directors. Among them, there was the French director André Antoine at the Théâtre-Libre who translated Emile Zola’s theory of the role of the environment into “living theatre.” The term “living theatre” underlines the concept of the stage as a space lived in by actors. With the aim of achieving truth and life on stage, Antoine
found it useful, in fact, indispensable, carefully to create the setting and the environment, without worrying at all about the events that were to occur on the stage. For it is the environment that determines the movements of the characters, not the movements of the characters that determine the environment. (Antoine 94) 3
With this belief, Antoine breathed life into the stage—formerly a showcase for the painter’s backdrop—giving attention to such problems as height of the set, width of the frame, and numerous objects. Even more importantly, Antoine recognized the significant power of light as a creative medium in the theatre. He called light “the life of the theatre, the good fairy of the décor, the soul of the staging” and argued that Light alone, intelligently handled, gives atmosphere and color to a set, depth and perspective. Light acts physically on the audience: its magic accentuates, underlines, and marvelously accompanies the intimate meaning of a dramatic work. (98) With light and sets, Antoine created the stage where he then brings actors to live in. Another important figure in the theatre of the turn of the century, Adolphe Appia, a Swiss designer and theoretician, took an opposite approach while valuing light as a crucial element in the theatre: he started with the actor. 4 Under the influence of Wagnerian theatre in which all elements are unified with the power of music, Appia approached the notion of living theatre differently from Antoine’s naturalism. He criticized both trompe l’oeil painted backdrops and lighting used to show off the
3 The original article appeared as: “Causerie sur la mise en scène,” La Revue de Paris, 10 (April 1, 1903): 596-612.
4 For discussion of Appia and other directors, see Cole’s “The Emergence of the Director” 1-77.
backdrop and instead suggested that the living and moving actor should be the sole focus of the theatre. He advocated an artistic use of light to bring out the plasticity of the three- dimensionality of the actor’s body. Appia believed: Lighting in itself is an element the effects of which are limitless; once it is freed, it becomes for us what the palette is for the painter. All the color combinations become possible. By simple or complex searchlights, stationary or moving, by partial obstruction, by different degrees of transparency, etc., we can achieve infinite modulations. (Appia 141) 5
Appia’s words could well be descriptions of uses of light in Beckett’s plays. The light here begins to be considered a living medium that can bring together, in Appia’s words, scenery, the horizontal floor, and the moving actor. Appia aims at creating the right atmosphere, not focusing on details of correct décor for the scene. In his own example from Siegfried, Appia presents a case when a character (Siegfried) is in a forest. Instead of placing an actor in front of the painted backdrop of a forest, Appia boldly claims the difference of his approach—that the stage picture does not necessarily have to give the illusion of a forest as long as the audience can see the character being in the forest. Therefore, [W]hen a slight rustling of the trees in the forest attracts Siegfried’s attention, we the spectators will look at Siegfried bathed in the moving lights and shadows; we will not look at parts of the décor set in motion by backstage manipulation. Scenic illusion is the living presence of the actor. (145; original emphasis)
5 The original article appeared as: “Comment reformer notre mise en scène,” La Revue (Revue des Revues), 50.2 (June 1, 1904): 342-349.
This understanding places the actor at the center and expands the use of light beyond attention to realistic details involving actual objects but to “forms, light, and colors” that lighting can bring to the theatre. These formal elements were in turn emphasized by the English director Edward Gordon Craig. Craig emphasized the bringing together of all the various elements of the theatre under the unified vision of a director. In regard to the visual elements, Craig went as far as to assert that “The theatre of the future will be a theater of visions, not a theater of sermons nor a theater of epigrams . . . an art which says less yet shows more than all” (qtd. in Cole 42). Thus challenging a long tradition of word-dominated theatre, Craig considered words as just one element of the theatre alongside other elements such as action, line and color, and rhythm. 6 Opposing the view that the most important element in the theatre is the text written by ‘a poet,’ Craig asserted that it was in fact such an over- valuing of written texts that drained life out of the theatre. He believed that the theatre did not need a written text for its existence and success and instead emphasized a strong sense of performance and theatricality—theatre as spectacle, as he believed it had been in the ancient theatres. If the theatre is something to be seen, certainly Beckett, Shepard, and Pinter provide some very interesting and striking images to be seen on stage. What Enoch Brater says in Beyond Minimalism about Not I can be applied equally well, for example, to Happy Days. Brater points out that in Beckett the impact of the visual image presented on stage is much stronger and more important than what is verbally spoken by the characters.
6 See Craig, The Art of the Theatre. London: T.N. Foulis, 1905.
In Happy Days, the audience finds a woman, Winnie, on stage, talking about her bygone days and how she manages to get by every day with her limited resources. She talks, prays, reminisces, and her husband Willie does not respond much. The play’s verbal content does not appear as anything striking—something that can be set in a middle-class living room—until one starts to look at the stage and experiences the entire play as a striking visual experience. When the curtain rises, Winnie is buried in a mound up to her waist. In the second act, she is buried up to her neck. With a literal visualization of the expression “buried in life,” Beckett presents the audience an unforgettable image of the human condition as he sees it: a life full of sufferings with one thing certain—that one must go on living however hard it might be. And Winnie has her share of difficulties. She is under blazing light from the clear sky. She tries to hide herself from the heat with a parasol, and her parasol catches fire. She tries to sleep and a bell rings, waking her up. She wants to see her husband, but he is in back of her mound. The poetic image does not discuss but show the human condition in this piece. In fact, this is the ultimate example of what Esslin has called the “complex poetic image.” In Happy Days and Beckett’s other works, striking visual images are thus integrated closely with the concern for the human condition. Beckett’s treatment of the human condition has triggered a number of humanistic readings, which later post- structural readings (in an anti-humanist vein) sharply criticized. Humanism has a number of assumptions about literature, such as: literary texts reveal timeless truths about human nature, the self, and the human condition, and they can be found through close analyses of the literary text at hand. The self is something unique and essential in defining each of us while meaning can be revealed to the reader
through close readings. The belief in the universal truth and interest in the essence of the self defines important aspects of humanism. 7
Post-structuralists question the validity of such assumptions and emphasize relativity, uncertainty, and the impossibility of finding the truth about anything including the meaning of a text. In such a view, language cannot lead a reader to the truth hidden in the text, but itself becomes a system of unreliable signs, into which we are born. At the extreme, text becomes a language game, and discussing the human condition using such an approach becomes a rather futile exercise. As Beckett deals with such questions as the self and its relation to the world, he introduces Cartesian philosophy deep into his works, as I shall show in Chapter One. Although he does not simply endorse the ideas, he nonetheless takes Cartesian philosophy as a locus for examining key elements such as the self, which he questions in his writing. The Cartesian presence is an important place for Beckett studies. From the earliest stages of Beckett scholarship, Cartesian elements in his works have been pointed out, analyzed, and compared. The problems of the cogito, the subject, the subject-object relationship, and the dualism of mind and body have saturated Beckettian analyses. The way Beckett deals with such concepts as the self or its obliteration is through strongly visual elements. However, in examining his works, the majority of scholarly analyses focus on Beckett’s verbal language, more specifically the text as written by the author. While this may not be surprising when critics are analyzing Beckett’s prose works, even when they are dealing with non-prose works such as plays or scripts for film
7 Humanism is a broad term that is applied to various beliefs and philosophies that place the human subject at the center of the discussion. It is most often used to indicate Renaissance Humanism. Here I use the term in the way it came to be used during the 1960s. For an extensive discussion of humanism, see Davies’ Humanism.
and television, an emphasis has been placed on verbal language as dialogues are quoted and analyzed from virtually every angle. Beckett’s drama and works in a variety of performance genres are a crucial part of his oeuvre, and to adequately understand these works, the analysis of verbal language alone is “Not enough,” as May says in Footfalls. For example, as scholars have pointed out, Beckett’s drama Play cannot be completely understood in literary terms alone (Knowlson and Pilling 116). 8 An extensive analysis of the visual language of Beckett’s theatre is essential. The case is even more seriously unbalanced in Pinter studies. Traditionally, Pinter analyses have been focused on the playwright’s uses of silence and words in spite of the fact that even during his early writing career, Pinter approached the problem of the subject from a distinctively visual direction. In this study, I use “visual language” as a comprehensive term that encompasses elaborate uses of everything visual on stage, which include the set, objects (props), the actor’s body, as well as light. The reason I specifically use the term “language” is that the ways in which Beckett, Shepard, and Pinter use visual elements are such that they communicate and express even abstract ideas and situations with a subtlety and an impact equal to that of verbal language. Particularly when I use the term “stage picture,” I use it in the sense Bert O. States used in his book Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, as “a composition in time and space” and as “a kind of fluid painting.” States makes a perceptive observation about the stage picture:
8 In making this point, the authors draw from George Devine’s dispute with Kenneth Tynan (in I. Wardle, The Theatres of George Devine, Jonathan Cape, London 1978, pp. 207-208).
[T]here is even a level on which actors cannot be distinguished from furniture, since both are aspects of a composition in time and space. Designers and directors know this as artistic common sense, audiences as a vague impression of the stage as a kind of fluid painting. (50) Emphasizing the significance of the introduction of an actual chair on stage during the nineteenth century, States argues, “with the chair we see the gradual atrophy of verbal scenery: the stage picture ceases to be a construct of language” (45). This statement points out the increased significance of visual scenery from the nineteenth century throughout the next century. As the most representative cases of verbal scenery, States presents William Shakespeare’s plays, where the playwright deftly constructs every detail of the setting without relying on the actual presence of elaborate sets and special effects. In other words, in Shakespeare’s plays, the words spoken by the actors create and move the setting of the work beyond the scope of most elaborate sets. States’ definition of scenery in Great Reckonings in Little Rooms is instructive for our understanding of the visual language of the theatre. He defines two fundamental modes in which scenery is created and perceived: “the acoustical,” or the scenery that is heard, and “the optical,” or the scenery that is seen. In other words, he considers the stage picture to be not just scene design per se, but “seeing everything on the stage scenically: that is, as a shifting image in time and space, formed by the interplay of visual and aural events” (50-51). States uses Pinter’s Old Times as an example of the scenery that he just defined. When Anna speaks of Kate and Deeley living on the seacoast, the audience sees it in their mind’s eyes, hearing the sound of the sea, and this seacoast becomes “a qualitative extension of the setting” (52). In such a definition, visual
elements obtain a broader meaning extending from the most literal use of set design to include the visual metaphors and images discussed in the conversation. In this study, as materials for discussion and analysis, I will include stage directions and visual references in dialogues, as well as playwrights’ notes and essays. In discussing Beckett and Cartesianism, as well as Beckett and post-structuralism, it also becomes necessary to discuss Beckett’s novels, particularly Murphy, because they are the backbone of Beckett scholars’ approach to philosophical issues. In addition to performance pieces including film and television scripts, poems and prose (most importantly Beckett’s Long Observation of the Ray) will be examined where relevant. The first chapter will be devoted to discussing Beckett and Cartesian elements. The issue is relevant not only for understanding Beckett’s works but also for a discussion of Shepard’s and Pinter’s later works. Examining Cartesian elements in relation to Beckett’s works enables one to adequately narrow down the topic of the subject and how to understand the subject’s position within the world. By defining the problems through a concrete analysis of Beckett’s case in Chapter One, I will be able to apply the terms and relevant models to the examination of Shepard’s and Pinter’s works. In taking Beckett as the central locus of the discussion, I am following the example of Stanton Garner, Jr., who put Beckett at the center of the discussion in his book Bodied Spaces and brought in other playwrights’ works in close relation to Beckett’s works. In the main body of the study I will present at the center of each chapter close readings of several of each playwright’s works. Secondary readings and theoretical discussion will be presented as needed. I have placed Shepard between Beckett and Pinter in spite of the fact that Pinter was Beckett’s contemporary. In my reading,
Shepard has in many ways greater affinities to Beckett’s works, and therefore, continuing the discussion from Beckett to Shepard offers a chance to compare and contrast the two playwrights’ works with greater clarity. Pinter also has similarities to Beckett; however, in my view, the back-to-back analysis of Beckett’s Fin de partie and Shepard’s Action allows me to develop my thesis more effectively. Overall, the amount of space devoted to Beckett is greater than that given to each of other playwrights’ cases. Beckett, after all, is the center of this discussion because of the unsurpassed rigor with which he examined the link between the subject and vision.