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(Re)constructing the Past/Reading the Present

The Capital of the Ruins by Samuel Beckett: Re-construction as a ‘Re-distribution of the Sensible’

The Capital of Ruins de Samuel Beckett: la reconstruction comme « partage du sensible »
Julie Bénard


Un mystère entoure The Capital of the Ruins. Dans ce compte rendu écrit à la fin de la seconde guerre mondiale, Samuel Beckett évoque son travail pour la Croix Rouge Irlandaise à l’hôpital de St-Lô, une ville française qui fut soufflée par les bombes des alliés américains. Ce texte de non-fiction devait être lu par l’auteur à la radio nationale irlandaise en juin 1946. Mais les circonstances de sa diffusion demeurent incertaines. En effet, même si The Capital of the Ruins s’avère déterminant dans le programme poétique de l’auteur, son œuvre n’aborde les questions de la guerre et de la politique que timidement, pour se concentrer sur la figure universelle de l’humain. D’un point de vue historique et politique, on peut se demander si l’embarrassante collaboration du gouvernement de Vichy et le besoin de faire taire une mémoire trop encombrante peuvent apporter une explication. Ou bien, si cette réticence est due aux tensions culturelles et sociales qui déchirent les relations entre Irlandais, Américains et Français dans une ville d’après-guerre qui tente de se reconstruire. Le présent article propose de montrer comment l’expérience de Beckett à St-Lô a influencé ses écrits d’après-guerre, par sa découverte du théâtre et de la radio, en particulier dans Waiting for Godot et All That Fall.

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1Samuel Beckett’s non-fiction piece, The Capital of the Ruins, is not an essay but a report written at the end of the Second World War, when the author worked for the Irish Red cross in the provisional free-care hospital it had established in St-Lô, a town located in Normandy, France. The text is interesting from a contextual point of view for it bears witness to the aftermath of war, and what can be expressed in terms of the ‘re-distribution of the sensible’ in France and in Europe more generally. This key concept is modelled after what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière initially defines as a ‘distribution of the sensible’. Throughout his works such as Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy, Dissensus on Politics and Aesthetics and The Politics of Aesthetics, he shows how aesthetics, politics and the distribution of the sensible overlap. What Rancière means by the distribution of the sensible is summed up in the first chapter of Dissensus entitled ‘Ten Thesis on Politics’:

I call ‘distribution of the sensible’ a generally implicit law that defines the forms of partaking by first defining the modes of perception in which they are ascribed. The partition of the sensible is the dividing up of the world (de monde) [sic] and of people (du monde) [sic], the nemeïn upon which the nomoi of the community are founded. This partition should be understood in the double sense of the word: on the one hand, as that which separates and excludes; on the other, as that which allows participation. A partition of the sensible refers to the manner in which the relation between a shared common (un commun partagé) [sic] and the distribution of exclusive parts is determined in sensory experience. This latter form of distribution, which, by its sensory self-evidence, anticipates the distribution of part and shares (parties) [sic], itself presupposes a distribution of what is visible and what is not, of what can be heard and what cannot. (Rancière 2009, 36)

2Beckett’s report can be analysed through this prism insofar as war reshuffled the way identities, space and activities were shared and divided up. Indeed, since the notion of distribution (or partition) means both to share and to divide, Rancière infers that forms of inclusion and exclusion partake in the organization of society. In reality such a distribution relies on modes of perception according to the times and places in which they occur. To put it mildly, what people can say, think, do or make, along with who does it, are related to the way activities are perceived in a given sphere of experience. ‘The ‘sensible’, of course, does not refer to what shows good sense or judgement but to what is aisthèton or capable of being apprehended by the senses’ (Rancière 2013, 89). The sensible determines what is visible and invisible. As such, the distribution of the sensible reveals forms of visibility and invisibility. It reveals who can and cannot take part in the community, ‘based on what they do and the time and space in which this activity is performed’ (Rancière 2013, 8). Roles, and thus identities, are allotted univocally and unequivocally for those who play a part in the community unlike those who do not. For Rancière, it is in that sense that the distribution of the sensible is constitutive of politics.

3The gap the philosopher describes above is at the core of The Capital of the Ruins, insofar as Beckett shows differences between those who endured the war, the people of St-Lô, and those who did not, the people of Ireland, who remained neutral during the conflict. If those differences gave way to cultural and social tensions between the inhabitants of the town and the medical staff of the Irish delegation, Beckett does not expose them overtly. The war account shows no overt political ambition. However, and given Ireland’s isolationism during the war, one is led to think that its broadcasting on the national Irish radio was aimed at setting the country’s visibility on the political scene as an actor in Europe’s recovery. Owing to this political issue, Beckett’s uneasiness and humbleness transpire in the report, whether it is expressed directly through the use of the first person singular, or from a formal point of view in relation to the nature of the report. Such major works as Eoin O’Brien’s The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett’s Ireland and Phyllis Gaffney’s Healing Amid the Ruins put into context Beckett’s The Capital of the Ruins without nonetheless analysing its poetics. On the contrary Darren Gribben’s ‘Beckett’s Other Revelation: The Capital of the Ruins’, Dúnlaith Bird’s ‘Light, Landscape and Beckett’, Phyllis Gaffney’s ‘Dante, Manzoni, De Valera, Beckett…? Circumlocutions of a Storekeeper: Beckett and Saint-Lô’ and Marjorie Perloff’s ‘“In Love with Hiding”: Samuel Beckett’s war’ aim at showing how the report acts as a bridge with Beckett’s fiction. None of those critics takes into consideration what Beckett’s text is supposed to be: a straightforward account of post-war France written for the radio. Nonetheless by disregarding such an aspect, the critics inadvertently point out a flaw. Indeed, though Beckett remains very factual, there is something derogatory that punctures and seeps through the piece of writing. The fabric of the report exposes its own failure, a failure of representation, thus challenging a mode of spectatorship. In short, it creates a disruption in the sensible.

4In this way Beckett’s war account fits in with what Rancière identifies as the politics of art. Indeed, the philosopher is not only concerned with politics but also with art and literature, by striving to show how the different fields are interlinked. In The Politics of Literature, Rancière explains that he is neither interested in the writers’ ‘commitment to the political and social issues and struggle of their times’ nor in ‘the modes of representations of political events or the social structure and the social struggles in their books’ (Rancière 2004, 10). Literature does politics by helping shape a ‘polemical common world’ (Rancière 2004, 10) in which ways of being, speaking and doing do not merely co-exist but come into friction due to the ongoing reframing of the world’s perception and configuration. Literature is involved in the distribution of the sensible by doing politics. It is a political practice or activity rather than a political appropriation or enabler for some ‘rebellious impulses’ (Rancière 2009, 149). It is a practice that ‘shakes up the distribution of places and competences, and which thereby works to blur the border defining its own activity. Doing art means displacing art’s borders, just as doing politics means displacing the borders of what is acknowledged as the [sic] political’ (Rancière 2009, 149). The Capital of the Ruins does politics by being divided into the political purpose it was ascribed and Beckett’s war experience in St-Lô. The non-fiction piece remains factual but lets failures, and more precisely, aesthetic discontinuities filter through, enabling Beckett to be at the same time prosaic and poetic. The piece of writing displaces borders between the prosaic world, to which it is bound through description or representation, and the poetic signs it mirrors, through aesthetic discontinuities, by creating friction.

5It is important to bear in mind that Rancière places the politics of art, and the distribution of the sensible it entails, within a larger framework through his conception of an ‘aesthetic regime’. This regime pits oneself against the ‘representative regime’ that Rancière identifies hierarchy that distinguishes between high and low genres as it comforts the existing horizons of expectation and rules out any form of opposition by consolidating the conventions that define it. For Rancière ‘there is no criterion for establishing a correspondence between aesthetic virtue and political virtue. There are only choices’ (Rancière 2013, 57). There is no place for politics in this enclosed and unequal system and as such no cause for the arts to be involved in the reassessement of the political coordinates. However if forms of art can cut loose from the representative regime and become critical of it, it is no so much by ‘reveal[ing] the forms and contradictions of domination’ as when they ‘questio[n] [their] own limits and powers, refus[ing] to anticipate [their] own effects’ (Rancière 2009, 149). This condition must be renewed for art to remain autonomous and available to all. What was once defined as a horizon of expectation is thus replaced by a horizon of emancipation. As McCann puts it, ‘it is in the productive tension between the representational and the aesthetic regimes that Rancière identifies “the promise of emancipation” (2009, 41)’ (McCann 10). For Rancière the essence of politics resides in the displacement of art’s borders as well as in their friction through the aesthetic experience such a process implies.

6The Capital of the Ruins stands astride the two regimes Rancière describes, underlying its indeterminate place in Beckett’s work. Neither an essay nor a fiction, the report is not to be found in Ruby Cohn’s collection of Beckett’s disjecta membra, which includes essays, letters and drama, but in the author’s complete short fictional prose. In fact, and to use Rancière’s phrasing, the report ‘re-articulates connections between signs and images, images and times, and signs and spaces, framing a given sense of reality, a given “commonsense”’ (Rancière 2009, 149). In this article, I will explore the aesthetic discontinuities in Beckett’s short piece of reportage by turning to Rancière’s key concept of the (re)distribution of the sensible as explored and performed in literature while using as backdrop the ordeal of St-Lô’s re-construction. In this way, I will show that Beckett was led to create a poetics of the gaze along with what can be identified as a practical sense of idleness. Finally the report’s intertextuality will help me foreground another kind of poetics, that of metamorphosis. I will also address Beckett’s first plays for the theatre and the radio, respectively Waiting for Godot and All That Fall, so as to understand how they find an echo in The Capital of the Ruins within the coordinates of the (re)distribution of the sensible.

The failure of Representation

7If the historical circumstances of the writing of The Capital of the Ruins are quite clear, its poetic composition is on the contrary uncertain. Indeed it seems that the devastated town of St-Lô inspired Beckett with another text, a poem which was published in The Irish Times on June 24th, 1946, almost two weeks after the alleged broadcasting of The Capital of the Ruins. The poem, which is understatedly entitled ‘Saint-Lo 1945’, is minimalist:

Vire will wind in other shadows
unborn through the bright ways tremble
and the old mind
sink into its havoc. (Beckett 2012a, 105)

8This poem and the opening sentence of Beckett’s report bear an uncanny resemblance for they debunk our generic expectations. The poem resorts to a hackneyed literary trope, that of pathetic fallacy, whereas the introductory sentence of the non-fiction piece remains factual by using description. Let us first start with the very first word which refers to the river that crosses St-Lô. As Marjorie Perloff has previously noted, the name of the river comes from the French ‘virer’ (to veer) which in turn comes from the Latin ‘vibrare’, which means ‘not only to vibrate or quiver but also to gleam or scintillate’ (Perloff 102). In the poem, it morphs into closely related words, such as ‘wind’, ‘bright’ and ‘tremble’. A ‘phonemic chiming’ (Perloff 102) occurs right from the very first line initiated by the opening word Vire. The alliteration in ‘v’ becomes alliterations in ‘w’, by undergoing a distortion through its reverberation in the words that follows, ‘will’, ‘wind’ and ‘shadows’. The river is running its course towards the end of the poem. In between, polyphonic assonances in ‘o’ sustain the river’s flow before it finally crashes against the harsh ‘k’ sound, found in ‘sink’ and ‘havoc’, as it would do against rocks. In this final line, one may realize that a circular sound pattern has been produced for the two words ‘wind’ and ‘havoc’ respectively echo the words ‘mind’ and ‘Vire’ found at the beginning of the poem. The very first word of the piece, ‘Vire’, and the word ‘havoc’, echo each other through alliterations in ‘v’, enabling the river to roll on. Yet the pathetic fallacy has been turned inside out. This is conveyed by what may appear as incoherences that are too blatant to be ascribed to mere aesthetic hesitancy. For instance, one may first wonder if the opening word of the second line ‘unborn’ is linked to ‘shadows’ or ‘Vire’. The use of the preposition ‘through’ also appears ‘ungrammatical’ (Perloff 102) for one may want to read it as the conjunction ‘though’ so as to clarify the grammatical nature of ‘bright ways’. In this way the verb ‘tremble’ would be allocated a subject, until one reaches the end of the poem and realises that the ‘old mind’ of the poet, which has been ‘ghost-abandoned’, cannot sink into its own havoc. Indeed, the possessive pronoun ‘its’ does not belong to the mind of the poet but to the river that unceasingly engenders chaos through a circular sound pattern.

9In the opening sentence of the war account, polyphonic assonances in ‘o’ are also heard and are furthermore strengthened by polyphonic assonances in ‘a’. ‘On what a year ago was a grass slope, lying in the angle that the Vire and Bayeux roads make as they unite at the entrance of the town, opposite what remains of the second most important stud-farm in France, a general hospital now stands’ (Beckett 1995, 275). Here, the poem’s seeming incoherences give way to the delaying and stretching of the descriptive horizon. Indeed, the branching structure of the introductory sentence, made up of co-ordinated and subordinate clauses, delays the appearance of its subject, ‘a general hospital’. On the one hand the intricate sentence structure demands the listeners’ full attention, while on the other hand it gives them some time to picture and sense in their mind the intersection of the river and the roads that leads to St-Lô. The periodic sentence abruptly stops on the edge of its last comma to end its course with a much shorter clause that catalyses what it has tried to summon so far in the listener’s mind: ‘a general hospital now stands’. Hic and nunc St-Lô becomes alive and Beckett assigns to this opening a clear poetical and aesthetic purpose. As a matter of fact the fabric of the text derives from this initial pattern.

10The Capital of the Ruins is organized in four paragraphs of equal length. Each of them starts with complex and compound sentences that Beckett dismissively acknowledges as ‘circumlocution’ (Beckett 1995, 276). Indeed, any series of intricate clauses gives way to a simpler clause or sentence in such a way that it breaks with the dullness of factual description or representation to expose an aesthetic discontinuity. For instance, after he has explained the functioning of the hospital by describing how it is built and by providing us with facts and figures, Beckett uncommonly resorts to a simple sentence. The description abruptly ends so that one hears in a timespan shorter than it takes to enjoy it, ‘Accident cases are frequent.’ What follows takes a poetical turn, ‘Masonry falls when least expected, children play with detonators and demining continues’ (Beckett 1995, 276). The paratactic structure of the sentence causes the listener to provide the missing connection between the two clauses, before and after the comma. Indeed the graphic withholds the potential meaning of the words as the listener, but also the reader, hold their breath. This suspension of meaning can be associated with Schiller’s ‘aesthetic state’, which Rancière describes as ‘a pure instance of suspension, a moment when form is experienced for itself’ (Rancière 2013, 19). This suspension is also emphasized by a contradictory association between the adjective ‘least’ and the verb to ‘expect’. Meaning is delayed and will not be overcome in the co-ordinated clause linked by ‘and’. The conjunction creates a disjunction between description and affect by connecting ‘demining’ and ‘detonators’. It produces an alliteration while allowing Beckett to be at the same time poetic and prosaic. For Perloff, one particular sentence especially ‘explodes the script’s air of reasonable reportage’ (Perloff 84). Though the new hospital in St-Lô was designed to be provisional, Beckett observes that ‘“Provisional” is not the term it was, in this universe become provisional’ (Beckett 1995, 278). As Perloff puts it, ‘what is [sic] the meaning of the word “provisional” when the universe has become itself provisional?’ (Perloff 84). This precarious balance is mirrored in the two simple sentences that frame the last paragraph. ‘St-Lô was bombed out of existence in one night. […] This will have been in France’ (Beckett 1995, 277–78). Read together the two sentences create an interesting shift in tenses. St-Lô’s existence before the bombing cannot be retrieved if only remembered, which allows Beckett to contemplate its reconstruction by setting a prospective gaze as well as a retrospective one. Past and future are intermingled. The past cannot be retrieved as the future paradoxically impinges on it. Beckett’s complex phrasing connects and disconnects meaning so as to catch the listener unaware, somehow exposing a failure to communicate.

11Beckett’s report is carefully built up. There is a slow progression that prevents the report from being too formal and formalist. Right from the second paragraph, after the description of the surroundings of St-Lô and the functioning of the hospital, propped up by the mention of a few figures, Beckett decides to turn the text against itself by calling upon the Irish radio listeners for whom the was meant:

These few facts, chosen not quite at random, are no doubt familiar already to those at all interested in the subject, and perhaps even to those listening to the present circumlocution. They may not appear the most immediately instructive. […] These are the sensible people who would rather have news of the Norman’s semi-circular canals or resistance to sulphur than of his attitude to the Irish bringing gifts, who would prefer the histories of our difficulties with an unfamiliar pharmacopeia and system of mensuration to the story of our dealings with the rare and famous ways of spirit that are the French ways. (Beckett 1995, 276)

12Beckett not only addresses the reasonable listeners, but also challenges their expectation of a report full of details and commonplaces. To do so, he undermines information by displaying his medical knowledge while avoiding the pitfalls of other accounts that relate ‘the utter devastation and suffering’ (Gribben 271) caused by the bombings in St-Lô. What is at work is a play of negativity, inviting the listeners to engage in an act of aesthetic reflection rather than an act of reception. Beckett does not describe ‘what wartime France was [sic] but how it felt’ (Perloff 102), ‘—the smile deriding among other things, the having and the not having, the giving and the taking, sickness and health’ (Beckett 1995, 277).

13Although it was the author’s first work for the radio, The Capital of the Ruins testifies to Beckett’s extreme attention and the way he took into account the aesthetic experience its broadcasting implied. In fact Beckett took into account both the listener’s aesthetic experience and his own when he first discovered post-war St-Lô.

The Poetics of the Gaze and ‘Practical Sense of Idleness’

14The report puts Beckett’s gaze in perspective right from its beginning. Indeed, the opening sentence syntactically revolves around the word ‘stud farm’ that appears in mid-sentence. The St-Lô surroundings as well as the location of the hospital are described in relation to the stud farm. As a matter of fact, it is in this very place that Beckett had to work for a while as a storekeeper until the hospital was set up (Knowlson 447). From this location he could see the grass slope and allow his gaze to linger over its curves, and the intersection of the Vire and Bayeux roads that led to the hospital in front of which the stud farm stood. The opening sentence emulates Beckett’s point of view by means of a progression that mimics the logic of his gaze.

15Further in the text, Beckett reveals what is really at stake: the difficulty of a reciprocal gaze between those who endured war and those who did not. Indeed, the author adjusts the lens through which the French people of St-Lô and the Irish medical staff perceive each other. Two chiastic structures are noticeable: first, ‘the occasional glimpse obtained, by us in them and, who knows by them in us’ (Beckett 1995, 277). Second, ‘I [Beckett] suspect that our pains were those inherent in the simple and necessary and yet so unattainable proposition that their way of being we, was not our way of being they, was not their way. It is only fair to say that many of us had never been abroad before’ (Beckett 1995, 277). A cultural gap is emphatically suggested before Beckett turns it into a matter of politics. Indeed, the writer ends the second extract with a reference to Ireland’s political isolationism during the war, as if to underline the importance of his presence in view of Ireland’s political position in post-war Europe. This feeling is to be emphasized by the polysemic use of the word ‘way’. In the aforementioned excerpt, the term refers to a ‘way of being’ whereas earlier in the report it assumes a plural form: ‘the story of our dealings with the rare and famous ways of spirit that are the French ways’ (Beckett 1995, 276). Here, ‘ways of thinking’ are associated to ‘ways of doing’, suggesting tension and enabling Beckett to portray a community within which one is perceived and defined in relation to what one does. As such Beckett subverts Berkeley’s famous aphorism, ‘To be is to be perceived’, for ‘To be is to be perceived “doing”’. The way identities, space and activities had been shared and divided up before the war was now re-distributed. At that time the affaire de l’hôpital irlandais (Gaffney 57), as it was known in the press, caused an uproar. Indeed, with the setting up of the Irish hospital, war casualties were taken care of for free but at the expense of the other smaller French hospital and the local doctors. Tension reached its climax when the medical union of St-Lô took legal action to make the Irish medical staff leave (Gaffney 67). The re-construction of St-Lô upset the social organisation of the town and resulted in a re-distribution of the roles in space and time. The end of the war re-assigned St-Lô’s community to a time and place in which the distribution of ‘exclusive parts’—allotted roles—were lost, whereas the experience of war still involved a ‘shared common’ (Rancière 2009, 36), that is to say a common experience of the world.

  • 1 ‘Consensus means precisely that the sensory is given as univocal’. (Rancière 2009, 149)
  • 2 See specifically the notion of ‘dissensual subjectivation’. (Rancière 1999, 50)

16In Waiting for Godot, Beckett stages a world which Vladimir and Estragon don’t want to be part of. Estragon tells Pozzo as if too clear up any misunderstanding, ‘We’re not from these parts, sir’ (Beckett 2012b, 19). And Vladimir reminds Estragon, ‘nobody ever recognizes us’ (Beckett 2012b, 46). Yet both share ‘the “conception of a humanity in ruins”’ (Gribben 263). As Vladimir puts it, ‘at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not’ (Beckett 2012b, 76). Contrary to what Vladimir’s line may suggest, time and space are undetermined coordinates in the play. Indeed, Vladimir and Estragon spend their time wandering and waiting for Godot on a road that seems to lead nowhere. By appointing ‘this’ place and ‘this’ moment of time, Vladimir thus highlights their raw presence in a world that tries to keep a semblance of order. Indeed, if waiting (which was the initial title of Waiting for Godot) has become the central activity in the play, it paradoxically implies a sense of action through inaction. Waiting does not stand for mere apathy but rather embodies a practical sense of idleness. As such it creates politics by aesthetically challenging the ‘police order’ Estragon knows all too well. According to Rancière’s key concept, the distribution of the sensible is constitutive of politics as opposed to the ‘police order’ that helps maintain a ‘consensus’1 or ‘status quo’ (Rancière 2009, 6). The police order thus precludes politics by quelling any modes of dissensus.2 As such, it can be defined as ‘an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying, and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task; it is […] not so much the “disciplining” of bodies as a rule governing their appearing, a configuration of occupations and the properties of the spaces where these occupations are disturbed’ (Rancière 1999, 29). At the beginning of the two acts of Waiting for Godot, Estragon has fallen prey to the police order. Indeed, Vladimir finds him all beaten up, first because he slept in an inappropriate place, then because he was doing nothing.

VLADIMIR: [Hurt, coldly.] May one inquire where His Highness spent the night?
ESTRAGON: In a ditch.
VLADIMIR: [Admiringly.] A ditch! Where?
ESTRAGON: [Without gesture.] Over there.
VLADIMIR: And they didn’t beat you?
ESTRAGON: Beat me? Certainly they beat me. (Beckett 2012b, 5)

ESTRAGON: I tell you I wasn’t doing anything.
VLADIMIR: Perhaps you weren’t. But it’s the way of doing it that counts, the way of doing it, if you want to go on living. (Beckett 2012b, 55)

17The two protagonists live in a bare world where waiting, whether in a ditch or on the road, has been codified. But although they are well aware of it, both characters undermine it. In the first extract Estragon does not point to the ditch in which he slept though he has named its location. A disjunction between what is read, seen and told is thus opened. A few lines before the second excerpt, Vladimir sings an epic poem before noticing that Estragon has been mistreated. In this poem, a dog is beaten up and killed for stealing a crust of bread. He is then buried by other dogs who write on his tomb ‘for the eyes of dogs to come’ (Beckett 2012b, 52). The poem continues as it started. The circular pattern foreshadows Estragon’s unavoidable assault as it echoes the disjunction between what is told, written and read. During those moments of aesthetic tension, when sense perception is called upon, form can be experienced in its plurality.

18In All That Fall, Beckett’s first play for the radio, Mrs Rooney is in a rush for she has to fetch her husband at the train station of her village. The rural sounds to be heard in the background create an acoustic mimetic space while making the listeners aware of the context. The surroundings take shape as Mrs. Rooney walks. She conjures hes surroundings for the listeners just as Beckett did in St-Lô when he conjured the surroundings of the hospital. Mrs Rooney encounters other inhabitants whose activities immediately stop. Whenever it happens, a sense of impending catastrophe is produced. She nearly gets Mr. Tyler run over while Mr. Soclum squashes a hen by giving her a ride. Finally, Mrs Rooney draws the attention of the entire village by turning to Miss Fitt for help, although she is too engrossed in religious thoughts to notice her. Mrs Rooney thus disturbs the routine of her neighbours by disrupting their daily activities. As a result, they are not where they are supposed to be, and sometimes prefer to cut her short, as is the case of Mr Barell, the train station manager, who prefers to curtail his little chat with Mrs Rooney, ‘[Testily.] What is it, Mrs Rooney, I have my work to do’ (Beckett 2006, 181). Tommy’s case, Mr Barell’s subordinate, is also revealing. After he has helped Mrs Rooney get out of Mr Soclum’s car in which she was stuck, Tommy is scourged by Mr Barell, ‘What are you doing stravaging down here on the public road? This is no place for you at all! Nip up there on the platform now and whip out the truck!’ (Beckett 2006, 180). ‘Stravaging’ means both to roam and to stroll. It implies a sense of idleness but also of weariness, which might be reminiscent of Beckett’s own reticence regarding his duties at the St-Lô hospital: ‘it was time-consuming and so we will share the job’ (Gaffney 38). In the radio play, Tommy, the railway worker, is reprimanded because he fails to focus on his work. In fact, by standing idle on the public road, a place where he should not be, Tommy blurs the distribution of identities, space and activities. The public road here proves a fruitful metaphor for the public stage.

19Indeed in The Politics of Aesthetics, Rancière explains that ‘the question of fiction is first a question regarding the distribution of place. From the Platonic point of view, the stage, which is simultaneously the locus of a public activity and the exhibition-space for “fantasies”, disturbs the clear partition of identities, activities and spaces’ (Rancière 2013, 8). For Rancière, the Platonic proscription of the poet relies less on the actual content of the fables than on the principle of a well-organized community in which ‘each person does the one thing they were destined to do by their “nature”’ (Rancière 2013, 39). By being confined to the sphere of work, the worker does not have time to participate in the public life of the community, unlike the mimetician who ‘brings confusion to this distribution: he is a man of duplication, a worker who does two things at once. […T]he mimetician provides a public stage for the ‘private’ principle of work. […] It is this redistribution of the sensible that constitutes its noxiousness, even more than the danger of simulacra weakening souls’ (Rancière 2013, 40). Thus a confusion of spheres takes place and becomes visible on the public stage. In All That Fall the public stage stands for the public road along which Mrs Rooney’s wanderings take place. In fact, the public road is the very locus of the village’s activities while also revealing Mrs Rooney’s private thoughts. ‘Do not flatter yourselves for one moment, because I hold aloof, that my sufferings have ceased’ (Beckett 2006, 185). Thus the public road becomes the place where the distribution of the sensible is disrupted. Be it with Tommy or Miss Fitt, Mrs Rooney diverts them both from their work.

20In Waiting for Godot, and contrary to All That Fall, the public road guards one against the legitimacy of one’s presence. Indeed, after entering the stage for the first time, Pozzo, who claims to be the landlord of the place, first questions the legitimacy of Vladimir and Estragon’s presence before realizing that they find themselves on the public road:

POZZO: Waiting? So you were waiting for him?
VLADIMIR: Well you see—
POZZO: Here on my land?
VLADIMIR: We didn’t intend any harm.
ESTRAGON: We meant well.
POZZO: The road is free to all.
VLADIMIR: That’s how we looked at it.
POZZO: It’s a disgrace. But there you are.
ESTRAGON: Nothing we can do about it. (Beckett 2012b, 20)

21The public road does not only suspend the question of the legitimacy of one’s presence or doings. On the public road, one does not need to explain one’s presence or activity. In the play what matters is not a way of doing but a way of being, whether it is akin to waiting or wandering. Vladimir and Estragon are just there waiting and they can do nothing about it. Waiting implies a sense of idleness which is nonetheless practical. ‘Thus when Godot has once again failed to materialize and Estragon says, “I can’t go on like this”, Vladimir responds sardonically, “That’s what you think”. One does what one has to do. In a provisional universe, it can hardly be otherwise’ (Perloff 88).

The ‘Incongruity’ of Re-construction

22Human activity becomes as necessary as it is futile in a barren world whose re-construction is at stake. St-Lô can be described as barren not because it was deserted but because the land itself was systematically upheaved. ‘During Beckett’s time in St-Lô, the earth was constantly churned up, both by the continuing search for bodies and the construction of the new hospital’ (Bird 244–45) (O’Brien 324). As Beckett notes in a letter addressed to T. M. Ragg, the town became a ‘sea of mud’ (Knowlson 345). But if mud proved to be an obstacle in the reconstruction of St-Lô, one may argue that the mud was a result both of the town’s destruction and re-construction. In both cases, mud remains ‘a sign of human activity’ (Bird 245). In the text it becomes a powerful metaphor to convey the ambiguity of such a re-construction. Indeed, after describing the material in which the walls and ceiling of the operating theatre of the hospital were sheeted, ‘in aluminium of aeronautic origin’, Beckett uses the following metaphor, ‘a pleasant variation on the sword and ploughshare metamorphosis’ (Beckett 1995, 275). It is important to bear in mind that St-Lô was not destroyed by the German forces but by the Allies in order to prevent the German armies from invading Normandy. The ‘aluminium of aeronautic origin’ is thus a reference to the American planes that bombed St-Lô ‘out of existence’ (Beckett 1995, 275) (Bird 242). It also prosaically refers to the tradition of converting military weapons into civilian tools. The weapons used to destroy St-Lô were also used to rebuild it. This dimension is poetically emphasized by Beckett’s reference to Ovid’s ‘metamorphosis.’ In fact, it is in the Fasti rather than in The Metamorphoses that a comparison is made between sword and ploughshare. However, there is a noticeable discrepancy between the English and the French version. ‘The earth of old was tilled by men unlearned: war’s hardships wearied their active frames. More glory was to be won by the sword than by the curved plough; the neglected farm yielded its master but a small return’ (Ovid 1959, 95). / ‘Les hommes autrefois cultivaient peu la terre; leurs bras toujours armés s’exerçaient à la guerre. Du fer né pour le soc le glaive était forgé; la gerbe rendait peu dans un champ négligé’ (Naso 1804, 181). If in the English translation the idea of a sword born out of the material of the ploughshare is lost, the comparison between the two devices still stands. Further in the first book of the Fasti. The said metamorphosis appears but the gap between the English and the French version still cannot be bridged: ‘Long time did wars engage mankind; the sword was handier than the share; the plough ox ousted by the charger; hoes were idle, mattocks were turned into javelins, and a helmet was made out of a heavy rake’ (Ovid 1959, 53). / ‘La guerre occupa longtemps le bras des hommes; la charrue était dédaignée pour l’épée; le taureau laborieux pour le coursier de Bellone. Les sarcloirs étaient oubliés; on forgeait des glaives avec les hoyaux, et on voyait le soc pesant prendre la forme d’un casque’ (Ovid 1834, 51). In the English translation, spades, instead of swords, are turned into weapons. Despite this slight difference, both adaptations suggest that the ploughshare can do harm. In the first book of The Metamorphoses the comparison between sword and ploughshare is justified insofar as both are capable of inflicting injuries: ‘Nations peaceable and secure, lived in soft tranquillity, without the help of the soldier. The earth too of herself, untouched by the harrow, nor wounded by plough-shares, plentifully furnished all kinds of fruit’ (Naso 1797, 11).

23The word plough also refers to Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars (1926), which is a critique against the Easter Rising. The play materializes a shift in the playwright’s writing, which became more socialist than nationalist. This shift explains O’Casey’s disappointment in James Connolly, the commandant of the Irish Citizen Army, of which the playwright used to be a member. By making an alliance with Patrick Pearse, the commandant of the Irish Volunteers, Connolly was betraying the cause of workers. For O’Casey, the cause of Irish freedom took precedence over the cause of labour. In the play, this especially transpires through The Covey, a dismissed member of The Irish Citizen Army, who accuses the commandant of the Irish force of dishonouring the flag, the Plough and the Stars, by marching alongside the Irish Volunteers (O’Casey 11). Fluther, a carpenter, is also an interesting character for he is careful not to say anything ‘derogatory’. Fluther embodies political correctness to such an extent that his use of the term ‘derogatory’ is made redundant by suiting all occasions in the play. However, if its use is consensual, its meaning expresses a form of dissensus. Taking this into account, O’Casey’s play sheds a new light on Beckett’s reference to the plough. The reference does not only foreground the report’s intertextuality but also reveals something derogatory about it. Indeed, Beckett’s metaphor is somewhat unexpected given the sense of precarious permanence on which the war account ends. ‘But I think that to the end of its hospital days it will be called the Irish Hospital, and after that the huts, when they have been turned into dwellings, the Irish huts. I mention this possibility, in the hope that it will give general satisfaction’ (Beckett 1995, 278). Beckett’s concluding words also prove to be a ‘final assertion of nationally inflected continuity’ (Matthews 130), revealing his difficulties in constituting a political narrative. Instead, the writer introduces aesthetic discontinuities paradoxically contributing to a re-poetization of sorts of a barren world concerning which he evinces what Stephen Matthews defines as ‘confusion’ and ‘misapprehension’ (130). Such uncertainties provide an alternative discourse by underlying the difficulties there is in constituting a political narrative. Beckett’s aesthetic discontinuities create gaps in the report and expose what may be perceived as ‘confusion’ and ‘misapprehension’ (Matthews 130).

24But whether they are makeshifts, discontinuities, highlights or gaps, they prevent Beckett from turning the ruins of St-Lô into an aesthetic that would fall in line with some sort of romantic tradition. In fact, the ruins are present but they are only glimpsed at, beginning with the opening sentence of the report: ‘On what a year ago was a grass slope, lying in the angle that the Vire and Bayeux roads make as they unite at the entrance of the town, opposite what remains of the second most important stud-farm in France, a general hospital now stands.’ (Beckett 1995, 275) St-Lô is slowly morphing, embracing the natural elements that once shaped its surroundings, the slope, the river and the roads. Beckett is putting the town in perspective without yet revealing its name while referring to a past activity which is quickly overshadowed by the introduction of the new hospital. One reads or listens to the opening lines, as he or she embraces St-Lô’s view in symbiosis with Beckett’s gaze. But if Beckett overtly describes what shows on the surface, he also covertly describes what lies underneath. For that matter Waiting for Godot reveals what Beckett only suggests in The Capital of the Ruins through the metaphor of the ploughshare: an archaeology of the ground.

  • 3 After the war, people chose to live amid the debris and what remained of their house, in cellars. S (...)

25In Waiting for Godot, the setting is bare. There are a country road, a tree and a muckheap. Indeed, the play features a non-visual mimetic space. The setting does not refer to any specific location. However, geographical references, such as Normandy in the French version of the play, are mentioned. Distinctive features also appear throughout Vladimir and Estragon’s dialogue. They speak of ‘bog’ (Beckett 2012b, 11) and ‘mud’ (Beckett 2012b, 56), which recalls Beckett’s Ireland, and St-Lô’s sea of mud. The bareness of the stage and the geographical references create a gap in the spectator’s perception of the scenery. Vladimir and Estragon also perceive the scenery differently. For example, in the second act, the tree, which is a distinctive feature of the scenery for Vladimir, is not recognized by Estragon. Such a difference of perception lies in their difficulty at identifying a place. In the first act, the tree is identified by Vladimir as the place where they are to meet Godot. But Estragon sees in the tree a ‘bush’ (Beckett 2012b, 10) and Vladimir a ‘shrub’ (Beckett 2012b, 10). Here, the tree is defined in relation to the aesthetic appreciation of its viewers. What they describe then, is not a place but a landscape. However and contrary to Vladimir, Estragon’s landscape is not associated to the tree: ‘All my lousy life I’ve crawled about in the mud! And you talk to me about scenery! […] Look at this muckheap! I’ve never stirred from it! […] You and your landscapes! Tell me about the worms!’ (Beckett 2012b, 56). For Estragon, the muckheap, along with the mud and worms, embody the landscape. However, the mention of worms suggests an ‘activity underground’ (Bird 245). It echoes the turning up of earth in St-Lô but also an archaeology of the ground,3 for Vladimir mentions a ‘charnel house’ (Beckett 2012b, 60), the place where bones are stored. Combined together, these two visions reveal what mud really is, the possible sign of a former place where hidden things may rise to the surface again.

26Despite what its title may intimate, The Capital of the Ruins does not depict a town in ruins but the way a community engages in re-construction after war. Though the report largely remains factual, it also foregrounds its own potential failure. What is at stake is not so much what is shown—representation—, but the potential failure of representation. This potential failure stems from the political, cultural and social antagonisms and reshufflings that tore the community of St-Lô apart. Poetic signs infiltrate the mimetic world of the war account and produce what has been identified as aesthetic discontinuities. Conversely, what the writing of The Capital of the Ruins, along with Beckett’s experience of war, brings in the author’s post-war writing is a double vision of art, one that ‘bear[s] witness to catastrophe’ and ‘another whose purpose is to attend to the social bond’ (Rancière 2009, 193). As Vladimir again puts it, ‘at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not’ (Beckett 2012b, 76). Vladimir’s line highlights a double presence on stage and in the world, reminding us that art and what stands outside art, that is to say reality, are closely intertwined.

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Beckett, Samuel, ‘All That Fall’, Samuel Beckett: The Complete Dramatic Works, Croydon: Faber & Faber, 2006.

Beckett, Samuel, ‘The Capital of the Ruins’, Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989, ed. S. E Gontarski, New York: Grove Press, 1995.

Beckett, Samuel, ‘Saint-Lô’, The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett, eds. Sean Lawlor, John Pilling, London: Faber & Faber, 2012a.

Beckett, Samuel, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts, Croydon: Faber & Faber, 2012b.

Bird, Dúnlaith, ‘Light, Landscape and Beckett’, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui: An Annual Bilingual Review/Revue Annuelle Bilingue 24 (2012): 239–47.

Gaffney, Phyllis, Healing Amid the Ruins, Dublin: A.& A. Farmar, 2000.

Gribben, Darren, ‘Beckett’s Other Revelation: The Capital of the Ruins’, Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies 38.2 (Autumn-Winter 2008): 263–73.

Knowlson, James, Beckett, trans. Oristelle Bonis, Arles: Solin Actes sud, 1999. 

Matthews, Steven, ‘Bodily Histories: Beckett and the phenomenological Approach to the Other’, eds. Ulrika Maude, Matthew Feldman, Beckett and Phenomenology, London: Continuum Publishing Corporation, 2009. 128-143

McCann, Fiona, ‘Introduction’, A Poetics of Dissensus: Confronting Violence in Contemporary Prose Writing from the North of Ireland, New York: P. Lang, 2014.

Naso, Publius Ovidius, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, trans. Joseph Davidson, London: B. Law et al., 1797.

Naso, Publius Ovidius, Les Fastes d’Ovide, trans. Ange-François Fariau de Saint-Ange, Paris: Levrault Schoell et cie, 1804.

O’Brien, Eoin, The Beckett Country: Samuel Beckett’s Ireland, Dublin: Black Cat Press in association with Faber and Faber, London, 1986.

O’Casey, Sean, The Plough and the Stars, London: Faber & Faber, 2001.

Perloff, Marjorie, ‘In Love with Hiding: Samuel Beckett’s War’, The Iowa Review 35.1 (2005): 76–103.

Ovid, Œuvres complètes d’Ovide, Volume VII, trans. Théodose Burette et al., Paris: C.L.F. Panckoucke, 1834.

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1 ‘Consensus means precisely that the sensory is given as univocal’. (Rancière 2009, 149)

2 See specifically the notion of ‘dissensual subjectivation’. (Rancière 1999, 50)

3 After the war, people chose to live amid the debris and what remained of their house, in cellars. See particularly Gaffney and O’Brien. (O’Brien 324)

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Julie Bénard, « The Capital of the Ruins by Samuel Beckett: Re-construction as a ‘Re-distribution of the Sensible’ »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 20 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Julie Bénard

Julie Bénard is a fifth-year Ph.D. student in English literature of Paul Valéry University Montpellier 3, France. She works on the aesthetics of voice and image in Samuel Beckett’s work. She focuses on the author’s pieces for theatre, the radio and television.

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