Friday, 22 February 2002

Samuel Beckett: Collected Shorter Plays (1984)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1984
Review number: 1075

Contents: All That Fall (1957),
Krapp's Last Tape (1958),
Act Without Words I and II (1959),
Embers (1959),
Words and Music (1962),
Cascando (1963),
Play (1963),
The Old Tune (adaptation of La Minivelle, by Robert Pinget) (1963),
Come and Go (1966),
Eh Joe (1967),
Breath (1970),
Not I (1973),
Footfalls (1976),
Ghost Trio (1976),
Rough For Radio I and II (1976),
Rough For Theatre I and II (1976),
That Time (1976),
...but the clouds... (1977),
Ohio Impromptu (1982),
A Piece of Monologue (1982),
Rockaby (1982),
Catastrophe (1984),
Nacht und Träume (1984),
Quad (1984),
What Where (1984)

Beckett has a reputation as one of the most difficult twentieth century writers, many finding even his most accessible and most famous play, Waiting for Godot, impenetrable. As a follower of Joyce, there is certainly something in this, as is perhaps particularly apparent in the thirty or so short dramtic pieces collected here, which actually make up the bulk of his output.

They stretch the meaning of the word "play" somewhat; originally written for radio, film and TV as well as the stage, they include mimed pieces and pieces without action as well as ones where what is spoken is not in itself important in a traditional way. Some are extremely short (Breath, for example, lasting only seconds), while the longest is about an hour (radio play All That Fall).

What they share, in spite of the diversity of form, are the themes which are common to all Beckett's writing. These are also all present in Waiting for Godot, which can really be seen as the essential Beckett play. These themes are meaninglessness, decrepitude and ageing, guilt, lack of identity, and death. In some plays, this forbidding list is leavened by a Joycean fascination with language. (In fact, the precision of Beckett's use of words - and his prescription of performance practice - are among the most interesting aspects of his work, given his obsession with non-meaning. He clearly found it necessary to specify things exactly in order to get what he wanted.) One cannot help admiring Beckett's cleverness, and many of the pieces come to life in performance, but they could never be described as cheerful.

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