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History in Tatters: Bodies and Things in Samuel Beckett’s Theatre

Lambeaux d’histoire: les corps et les choses dans le théâtre de Samuel Beckett
Anna McMullan


Se fondant sur des concepts tirés de Le Visible et l’invisible de Merleau-Ponty, tel le chiasme, cet article tente de démontrer que le théâtre de Beckett crée un espace scénique dynamique incluant un spectre d’entités allant de l’humain à la chose. Pareille perspective pourrait être qualifiée de post-humaine, en ceci qu’elle présente une critique de l’humanisme anthropocentrique. Toutefois, un certain transfert entre corps et objets se met en place (depuis l’arbre de Godot au fauteuil à bascule de Rockaby), si bien que la subjectivité, voire l’affectivité investit l’ensemble du champ visuel, incluant corps et objets, visible et invisible. En outre, les choses, des accessoires aux costumes, font office de références historiques et s’opposent au espaces an-historiques de Beckett pour suggérer un feuilletages d’histoires et de périodes. Le théâtre de Beckett met en scène une visions qui, alors même qu’elle s’enracine dans la phénoménologie du présent, encourage une perception élargie plaçant l’humain au cœur d’une création en dysfonctionnement qui inclut l’humain, l’animal, le végétal et les choses, et le situant également dans un cadre temporel qui stratifie et fait se sédimenter le présent en termes de fragments de mémoire et d’histoire, ancienne et récente.

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WINNIE: Ah Yes, things have their life, that is what I always say, things have a life.
(Beckett 1986, 162)

1Although they are usually diminishing in quantity, things not only have a life on the Beckettian stage, they also have a history. I am particularly interested in the way in which things, including stage properties and costume, materialize historical references and counter the sense of Beckett’s a-historical spaces to suggest multiple, layered histories. In his much-acclaimed book, The Stage Life of Props, Andrew Sofer argues that props are both temporally and spatially immediate: “[Props] are propelled through stage space and real time before historically specific audiences at a given performance event. At the same time, props are retrospective: in Marvin Carlson’s apt expression, they are ‘ghosted’ by their previous stage incarnations, and hence by a theatrical past they both embody and critique” (Sofer vii). I will argue that Beckett uses props and costume to evoke theatrical and other histories. As part of this argument, I will look at the body/object interface, arguing that Beckett’s theatre creates a dynamic stage space that includes a spectrum of being from human to things. On the one hand, this might be termed a posthuman perspective, in that it presents a critique of anthropocentric humanism; on the other, a kind of transference takes place between bodies and objects (from the tree in Godot to the rocking chair in Rockaby) so that subjectivity or indeed affectivity is invested in the entire visual field, including both bodies and objects or parts thereof, both the seen and the unseen. Beckett’s theatre therefore stages a vision that, while rooted in the phenomenological present, encourages an expanded perception which places the human in the frame of a dysfunctional creation including the human, animal, vegetable and for want of a better word, things, but also in a temporal frame that layers the present with fragments of memory and history, both recent and ancient. Things play an important role in establishing those extended frames.

  • 1 There are of course significant differences between Beckett and Merleau-Ponty’s visions. Ulrike Mau (...)

2I will be referring to some of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concepts, including that of the ‘chiasm’ in The Visible and The Invisible, as a way of conceptualising the fundamental interrelationship between subject, body and things in Beckett’s theatre. Merleau-Ponty uses the term chiasm to articulate an ontology that accounts for the interchange between the given material world and the human subject’s reflective and expressive conception of the world. The body is the medium of that interchange, as it partakes of both the material and the subjective. For the phenomenological subject: “the sensible is in his eyes as it were his double or an extension of his own flesh. [. . .] There is overlapping or encroachment, so that we must say that the things pass into us as well as we into the things” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, 114, 123). Merleau- Ponty asserts both the material and dynamic embeddedness of the subject in the world and the body, and the continual re-positing of world and body as the human subject reflects upon them, rearticulates them, and indeed is articulated by them.1

Intercorporeal Environments and the Archaeology of Things

The body is our general medium for having a world.
(Merleau-Ponty 1962, 146)

  • 2 Henceforth cited as Godot, as quotations are given from the English text. 3. See Knowlson 1994, 95, (...)

3The major change in Beckett’s dramaturgical approach between his first full- length play, Eleutheria (written in 1947) and En attendant Godot2 (written between 1948 and 1949 and premiered in Paris in 1953), was the discarding of the bourgeois domestic interior. Beckett stripped down the stage space, erasing evidence of an already constituted world, so as to focus on the creation of a world through the interaction between the performer’s body and the other bodies and material elements on stage. This may be one source of his resistance to productions that sought to particularize, locate or clutter the playing space of Godot (such as the Peter Hall English language London premiere in 1955, or the suggested Irish bogland of Alan Simpson’s Dublin production a few months later in 1955). The emptying of the space enables the construction of an open theatrical architecture that can accommodate layers of diverse historical and cultural references, and is a dynamic intercorporeal space where the elements of set, properties and costume are intimately connected with the corporeal struggles of the characters.

  • 3 See Knowlson 1994, 95, 401.

4As James Knowlson has pointed out3, the two dominant material elements of the set—the tree and the mound—are associated with the two characters Estragon and Vladimir, suggesting a network of significations and formal motifs which fold body and environment into a chiasmic interrelationship: Vladimir is linked to the air and with an upward vertical axis (and with hat, tree), and Estragon with the horizontal axis of the earth (and with boots, ailing feet). This chiasmic interrelationship is also worked out through a set of references, articulated verbally and scenically, to bones: from the chicken bones that Estragon pounces on and devours, to the tree that is specifically described as the colour of bone by Beckett in his Berlin Schiller-Theater production Director’s Notebook (Knowlson 1994, 153). Knowlson comments that: “The tree designed by Matias for Schiller and duplicated for San Quentin was indeed skeletally thin and ashen pale” (Knowlson 153). These bone references are reinforced by the verbal exchanges. In the first few moments of the play, Vladimir complains to Estragon: “When I think of it. all these years. . . but for me. Where would you be? [Decisively.] You’d be nothing more than a little heap of bones at the present moment, no doubt about it” (Beckett 1986, 11).

In the second act there is a stichomythic exchange where thought itself is linked to corporeal catastrophe:

     Vladimir: What is terrible is to have thought.
     Estragon: But did that ever happen to us?
     Vladimir: Where are all these corpses from?
     Estragon: These skeletons? (Beckett 1986, 60)

5Knowlson comments that the actor Bud Thorpe’s script from the 1984 San Quentin Drama Workshop production in which he played Vladimir: “contains the annotation ‘mental murder’ by this line with arrows pointing to ‘corpses’ and ‘skeletons’ below” (Knowlson 1994, 151). Lucky’s speech continually returns to “the skull, the skull in Connemara” (Knowlson 43). Indeed, what most elegiac of symbols of the human/material interface, than the skeleton, and most of all, as Hamlet knew, the skull.

6This cluster of motifs around voice, bone and stone recurs throughout Beckett’s writing, as in the poetry collection, Echo’s Bones (see Hunkeler 1998). Godot references these stages of metamorphosis: from the live characters’ dialogue to all the dead voices, to the various verbal and material bones, to the stone on which Estragon sits. As Andrew Sofer notes, the skull symbolizes the stages of transformation between voice and bone, between the living and the dead: “Long a staple of the visual arts, by the early seventeenth century the skull had been appropriated by prostitutes and fashionable young men as an ambiguous symbol with a more mordant and disturbing message. Developing a dramatic equivalent of the trick image performed by the anamorphic skull in Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, Jacobean playwrights conveyed the skull’s oscillation between live subject and dead object” (Sofer ix).

7Joseph Roach connects the bones references in Godot, not just to the recent historical experience of World War II and the Holocaust, but to a palimpsest of other historical catastrophes, and in particular, the Irish Famine: “The setting of Godot (with its depopulated horizon of stones, bones, and stunted tree, with its harrowing imagery of food, scarcity, rot and want, and with its haunted threnody, ‘All the dead voices’) evokes the greatest hole in Irish history and one of the greatest in modernity– the Famine” (Roach 311).

8Bones also key into history à la longue durée (as in the work of Fernand Braudel who drew on the philosophy of Bergson) denoting long term historical structures: so we can speak of multiple temporalities of individual human memory, human history, cycles of geological time which place the human in an extra human landscape. Beckett plays with these multiple temporalities, and in so doing, I’m suggesting, expands our perception, both synchronically and diachronically or historically. By doing so, he appals us with the vistas of suffering evoked through the ages, but also places human history in a postanthropomorphic perspective. Several of Beckett’s decimated landscapes suggest human history itself in ruins, from Fin de partie/Endgame or Happy Days to the “Ash grey all sides earth sky as one all sides endlessness” of the prose piece Lessness (Beckett 1984, 153).

9Endgame continues the skull imagery: the set suggests the interior of a head, with the two windows as eyes. Hamm complains of: “Something dripping in my head, ever since the fontanelles” (Beckett 1986, 116). Fontanelle is a region in north eastern Italy, but it is also in medical terms: “one of the spaces, covered by membrane, between the bones of the fetal or young skull”. This chiasmic intertwining of body and space recurs throughout Endgame. The opening of the play constitutes an “unveiling” of the set, miming or exteriorizing the act of waking (see Gontarski 1992, 45), and Beckett confirmed that the lifting of Hamm’s handkerchief could be seen as a double of the theatre curtain, another example of the chiasmic life of things in Beckett’s theatre.

10Indeed the props of this world proclaim its status as a site constructed from other histories: the dust sheets and ash cans, and once unveiled, Hamm’s throne/chair, with its Shakespearean references to King Lear or the player prince. As Andrew Sofer emphasizes, things have their history, and that includes the history of stage handkerchiefs: “In Beckett’s Endgame (1957) Hamm’s bloody handkerchief invokes a long line of stage cloths stretching back beyond Shakespeare’s Othello (ca. 1603) and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1587–92) all the way to the best known medieval liturgical drama, the tenth-century Visitatio Sepulchri” (Sofer vii). He continues to argue that: “the Elizabethan stage appropriated the divinely efficacious magic of holy cloth and sacred blood for strictly commercial ends” (Sofer ix). Beckett’s purpose is rather different, but it does evoke a self-conscious theatrical history of representation and masquerade, and places Hamm as a dysfunctional creator figure, like Pozzo an imposter, as cruel as he is needy and impotent: more crucifier than crucified.

11The Veronica veil becomes a theatrical curtain (undermining the authenticity of this vera icon) and the play becomes a meditation on a representational history of blinkered authority figures from the Biblical Pharoah with his granaries of corn during the years of famine, to Shakespeare’s foolish King Lear with his wise Fool, the magic-wielding Prospero with his enslaved Caliban in The Tempest, or Hamlet’s player king. Hamm is a botched creator, having abandoned his creatures to their decimated resources: “Hamm: All those I might have helped. [Pause.] Helped! [Pause.] Saved. [Pause.] Saved! [Pause.] The place was crawling with them” (Beckett 1986, 125). The lack of things foregrounds the entropic system of the play: everything is running out, from bicycle wheels to painkiller. Myths of creation are reversed (see Lyons 1964): God separated the earth from the water now they’ve become almost indistinguishable. As well as a vast temporal perspective, the deteriorating world of the play invokes a spectrum of creation from flea to dog to human to divine—even if He turns out not to exist or at least “Not Yet” (Beckett 1986, 119). The perspective of the play is both tightly focused on the enclosed space of the stage (likened to a chessboard), and vast, both microscope and telescope.

Prosthesis and the Body/Object Interface

  • 4 See Tajiri 2007 for a detailed exploration of prosthesis in Beckett’s work.

12It was with Endgame that Beckett began to really explore on stage the expansion of perception and agency through prosthesis.4 Hamm’s chair, his gaffe, or Clov’s telescope extend action or perception prosthetically. Merleau-Ponty cites the blind man’s stick in The Phenomenology of Perception: “To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely to convert them into the bulk of our own body” (Merleau-Ponty 1962, 143). Mark Hanson elaborates on Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of the blind man’s stick as prosthesis in his Bodies in Code: interfaces with digital media: “What happens in such schematic rearrangement is a passage between the body proper and the world of things. . . at stake is a ‘transplantation’ of the body into things and an ‘incorporation’ of things into the body that, with each new habit and thus each new prosthesis, leaves the boundary between them that much less discrete” (Hanson, 44).

13What these writings theorise is extended agency: I respond to that empowering drive in Merleau-Ponty’s and Hanson’s work, but I would also stress Beckett’s profound critique of an agency divorced from an interrogation of the structures of power and authority. In Modernism, Technology and the Body, Tim Armstrong draws on Freud’s essay “Civilisation and ist Discontents”, where Freud refers to modern man as a “prosthetic god”, as technology offers him compensation for the losses and limits of the body. Armstrong argues that “increasingly, that compensation is offered as a part of capitalism’s fantasy of the complete body: in the mechanisms of advertising, cosmetics, cosmetic surgery and cinema; all prosthetic in the sense that they promise the perfection of the body” (Armstrong 3). In contrast, Beckett produces imperfect, incomplete, body fragments or body shadows. Prosthetic devices in Beckett tend to emphasize the limits or distortions of vision rather than increased agency—even the blind man’s stick, Hamm’s gaffe—is of no use to him—and he eventually discards all props, including the whistle (though not the Veronica handkerchief with he which re-veils himself at the close of the play).

14Prostheses in Beckett’s theatre often refer to vision, but in a deeply ironic manner. Hamm’s glasses for example, both conceal and reveal his blindness. There is so little to see, that Clov’s telescope does not seem to be of much use. He does see the boy at the end of the play, but we are not entirely sure if this is perception on Clov’s part, or fiction. Peggy Phelan has drawn attention to the central role of modes of vision and blindness in Beckett’s work:

At the center of Beckett’s project is a question about how to see and how to be seen. [. . .] What is startling about the account of seeing that his work offers is how deeply it touches the consequences of not seeing. [. . .] Like many artists who came of age after World War II, he was deeply affected by the scandal of ethical blindness underlying the catastrophe of the Holocaust. But he was boldest in exploring the relation between this blindness and the imperative to see that serves as the aesthetic orthodoxy of modernist art. Pozzo in Godot and Hamm in Endgame dramatize blindness in a theatre of mordant spectacle. We see them not seeing, and in that insight we are made aware of what we cannot and do not see in the scene. (Phelan 1281)

15Impaired vision recurs throughout Beckett’s work: the blind, chair-bound Mrs Williams (a precursor of Hamm) in Beckett’s first play, Eleutheria, the short-sighted Krapp, or the blind man in Rough for Theatre I. In Film, the last photograph which O scrutinizes, the photograph of himself alone, anticipates the final confrontation of E and O—it is here that we realize that O wears an eye patch, explaining his partial, blurred vision, but also repeating a motif of prosthetic eye pieces or devices, from the couple’s lorgnon and pince-nez, to the camera itself.

16Interchanges between body and object in Beckett’s theatre are prosthetic in complex ways: the tape recorder in Krapp becomes another body between Krapp’s own past body and the body of his female others; the lamp which doubles the Speaker’s body in A Piece of Monologue translates the fragility of individual and created life into a register of fading light, or the rocking chair in Rockaby which enfolds W.’s body as both cradle and coffin. Beckett does seem to be enacting the concept of the chiasm or flesh in Merleau-Ponty’s terms: the intertwining of body and matter through the mise en scène, where the body becomes image or ghostly mirage, and objects become uncanny body-doubles, intertwining the body with the non- or extra-corporeal in an expressive field that mediates between body, object and space, between human history and the temporality of things.

Costume: Body and History as “a tangle of tatters”

17The interface between body and object and between the present moment and the traces or remnants of history is frequently accentuated through costume in Beckett’s mises en scène. As well as communicating information about class or status (the costume of Vladimir and Estragon in contrast to that of Pozzo, for example), costume sometimes almost becomes the flesh in Beckett’s theatre: in Footfalls, the ghost-like May describes her fictional double, Amy, as “a tangle of tatters”, which is what the audience see before them (like a ghost, her body is her shroud). The hats and costume in Come and Go differentiate the three women instead of their faces, which we do not see, and in Ohio Impromptu, the identical grey wigs and long black coats indicate the identification-in-difference of the two figures, who, in the course of many nightly visitations, have grown “to be as one” (447). In Beckett’s interplay of substitutions, where the body takes on multiple guises, the interface between body and costume becomes blurred.

  • 5 Beckett-MacGreevy correspondence, held in Trinity College Library, Dublin, TCD MS 10,402.

18Beckett also uses costume to materialize remnants of history: either in the stage directions, or in some cases, in production. Godot has few notes on costume, except for the tramps’ hats and boots, and items such as Pozzo’s monocle. So the choice of costume in production is interesting to follow. The costuming of Pozzo as an English gentleman farmer in the French premiere in 1953 (see Blin Interview in Oppenheim 1997, 304–7) and frequently since, highlights the references to Irish colonized history in the text (see below). Changing conventions in the tramps’ hats are significant. In the premiere and in early productions, they wore bowler hats. The bowler hat references Charlie Chaplin or “Charlot”, and the silent comedy tradition: such a generic framework is an important means of preventing the audience from naturalizing the body/identity of the “character” and cites a history of representations. But the semiotics of the bowler hat also has very precise class connotations in relation to Beckett’s own biography, indicating respectable middle class affiliation: of his parents, he complained to Tom MacGreevy: “They want me to wear a bowler!”5 Beckett’s plays are deeply sedimented with personal memory and with historical fragments drawn from literature as well as more popular forms of entertainment. In Happy Days, both Winnie’s and Willie’s costume evoke middle class custom and historical layers of the first half of the twentieth century: Willie wears a boater, associated with turn of the century, and in his theatrical notebook, Beckett referred to his Battle of Britain moustache (1940).

19The photographs in Film also specifically evoke the larger historical context indicated by the film’s moment of 1929. The costume of the characters is specified—the Mother’s “big old-fashioned beflowered hat”, but especially the uniform of O in photograph 6, which identifies him, as Beckett noted, as “newly enlisted” (Beckett 1986: 334). In other words, 1929 does not just denote the Wall Street crash, or a Europe not yet cognisant of the gathering threat of Nazism, but a world still marked by the memory of World War 1. The sense of loss is not just deeply personal, but keyed into cultural memories of loss and trauma, stretching back beyond the second World War to the first: as Stan Gontarski notes, the film was originally to have been set in 1914 (Gontarski 106). Those layers of catastrophic history are inscribed on the body in the last grim photograph of the protagonist alone, one eye covered with an eye-patch, another example of thing as flesh substitute, denotating loss and wounding.


20This essay meditates on some of the ways in which Beckett’s theatre explores the spatial and temporal interface between the body and things: exploring the perceiving subject as sensible material while expanding our perception to consider the place of the human in a dysfunctional creation, revealing palimpsestic layers of history where blindness or blinkered vision has piled up heaps of bones: “Where are all these corpses from?” Yet Beckett also returns to the bones their voice or their echo: “all the dead voices / they make a noise like wings / like leaves / like sand / like leaves” (Beckett 1986, 58). Like Sofer’s props, things in Beckett’s theatre have a phenomenal life and also reincarnate the remains of history. The body in Beckett’s later theatre is radically denaturalised and rematerialised in a more abstract form, between the visible and the invisible, the sensible and the material, while things such as the tape recorder, rocking chair or lamp, become expressive of a non- psychologized being: an exchange of flesh Merleau-Ponty might say between the embodied human world and the world of things.

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Armstrong, Tim, Modernism, Technology and the Body: A cultural study, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Beckett, Samuel, The Complete Dramatic Works, London: Faber & F., 1986.

Beckett, Samuel, Collected Shorter Prose, London: Calder, 1984.

Braudel, Fernand, Écrits sur l’histoire, Paris: Flammarion, 1985.

Gonstarski, S.E., The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Texts, Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

Hanson, Mark, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media, London: Routledge, 2006.

Hunkeler, Thomas, “La Paille des mots et le grain des choses: stratégies de dévalorisation chez Beckett”, Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourdhui 7 (1998): 135–148.

Knowlson, James and Dougald McMillan, eds., The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett, vol. I: Waiting for Godot, with a revised text, New York: Grove Press, 1994.

Lyons, Charles, “Beckett’s Endgame: An Anti-Myth of Creation”, Modern Drama 7 (1964): 204–209.

Maud, Ulrike, “The Body of Memory: Beckett and Merleau-Ponty”, ed. Richard Lane, Beckett and Philosophy, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, 108–122.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, London & Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, The Visible and the Invisible, followed by working notes, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingus, Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1968.

Oppenheim, Lois, ed., Directing Beckett, Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997.

Phelan, Peggy. “Lessons in Blindness from Samuel Beckett”, PMLA 119.5 (2004): 1279–1288.

Roach, Joseph, “The Great Hole of History: Liturgical Silence in Beckett, Osofisan, and Parks”, The South Atlantic Quarterly 100.1 (2001): 307–317.

Sofer, Andrew, The Stage Life of Props, Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2003.

Tajiri, Yoshiki, Samuel Beckett and the Prosthetic Body: The Organs and Senses in Modernism, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

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1 There are of course significant differences between Beckett and Merleau-Ponty’s visions. Ulrike Maud points out Beckett’s resistance to what is sometimes a rather utopian or transcendent concept of the body in Merleau-Ponty’s writing (Maud 120).

2 Henceforth cited as Godot, as quotations are given from the English text. 3. See Knowlson 1994, 95, 401.

3 See Knowlson 1994, 95, 401.

4 See Tajiri 2007 for a detailed exploration of prosthesis in Beckett’s work.

5 Beckett-MacGreevy correspondence, held in Trinity College Library, Dublin, TCD MS 10,402.

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Anna McMullan, « History in Tatters: Bodies and Things in Samuel Beckett’s Theatre »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2019, consulté le 07 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Anna McMullan

Queen’s University Belfast

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