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Samuel Beckett’s Theatre: from “things” to “The Thing”

“Beckett: des choses comme traces à la Chose même”
Geneviève Chevallier


On pense généralement la scène beckettienne comme une scène vide ou en train de le devenir. Il est vrai que les choses, que l’on identifiera provisoirement aux objets, qui l’occupent—et occupent du même coup les personnages—apparaissent comme des restes. Dernières possessions, tantôt bien réelles sur scène, tantôt déjà absentes, et seulement évoquées, invoquées, débris de sujet, ils sont ce qui reste pour que ce sujet ait pourtant encore la possibilité de se dire, pour que “quelque chose sui[ve] son cours”. C’est ce que l’on trouve dans toutes les premières pièces de Beckett, et dont l’exemple le plus “parlant” est peut-être Oh les beaux jours. Peu à peu pourtant, les objets sont tout à fait évacués, tandis que ce qui reste est une voix. Si elle est encore parfois associée à un objet—le magnétophone de La Dernière bande, le haut parleur de Quoi où—et semble alors encore faire fonction de personnage—la voix de la mère de May dans Pas, les voix du sujet démultiplié de La Dernière bande toujours, ou de Cette fois, celle décalée de la femme assise de Berceuse—la façon dont elle est associée à la bouche de Pas moi semble suggérer une toute autre dimension. Cette voix est une chose, qui se confond avec la bouche, avec la langue, à la fois organe et parole. Désormais ce ne sont plus les choses qui permettent de parler, mais la parole qui est La Chose même, passant dans ce féminin singulier à l’irreprésentable.

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And things? What is the correct attitude to adopt towards things? And, to begin with, are they necessary? What a question! But I have few illusions: things are to be expected. The best is not to decide anything, in this connection, in advance. If a thing turns up, for some reason or another, take it into consideration. Where there are people, it is said, there are things. Does this mean that when you admit the former you must also admit the latter? Time will tell. The thing to avoid, I don’t know why, is the spirit of system. People with things, people without things, things without people, what does it matter? I flatter myself it will not take me long to scatter them, whenever I choose, to the winds. I don’t see how. The best would be not to begin. But I have to begin. That is to say I have to go on. Perhaps in the end I shall smother in a throng: incessant comings and goings, the crush and bustle of a bargain sale. No, no danger. Of that.
(Beckett 1959, 404)

1Using a novel to introduce a reflection on the part that things play on a stage may sound inappropriate. But the frontier is not so tight between Beckett’s works for the theatre, his novels or his short stories, that one may not indeed find in either of them food for thought. It is interesting to note that in this extract, translated by the author himself from the original French version of L’Innommable, Beckett only uses the word “thing”, where the original French oscillated between chose and objet. Beckett does not it take up in English: he prefers the word “thing” throughout the novel, using “object” only when he intends something like purpose.

2Let us however presuppose that, as this passage suggests, things refer to the material objects which one surrounds oneself with, which one can manipulate. It is also important though obvious to say that there are different sorts of things/objects, as those referred to in the spoken words may not be the same as those mentioned in the stage directions, equally different from those actually on the stage once the director has done his job. Patrice Chéreau insists that objects are props for the actors, not simply in the theatrical sense of the term, but as actual supports for them. And the examples are innumerable of course of objects invented, or distorted, or deleted by the director. Similarly, one must bear in mind the fact that any object present on a stage for whatever reason will be seen by the audience as a theatrical object (I have in mind the exit sign which the director of Not I in Strasbourg some years ago could not have removed for safety reasons, and to which the audience immediately attributed some sort of ironical significance in relation to the predicament of the actress/character strapped onto her chair). The audience will take it for granted that what is on stage is there for “something”, however uncertain its meaning may be.

3Yet another preliminary remark will concern the importance of objects in tragedies versus comedies. I would tend to think that objects in tragedies are scarce, always there for a very precise purpose, and to be used. In comedies, one would tend to see a greater profusion of objects, which may or may not be manipulated, but serve the setting. In contemporary drama, they will be too many or too few, and will be given too much importance or too little—thus showing a general tendency towards disproportion. Somehow, the treatment of objects in Beckett’s plays goes along that pattern.

4It is easy to start in a rather Beckettian way with some sort of a list of the “things” in Beckett’s plays, though possibly not in such an exhaustive way as the narrator of The Unnammable would have it—before trying to examine their function. I intend to show that it is when Beckett empties the stage most that he fills it best—or worst—or “fails better” in filling it.

5The first plays are indeed full of objects—at least enough for the characters to look encumbered. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon are busy with a pair of boots, a hat and a turnip, Pozzo comes along with his whip, his pipe, his vaporizer and his watch behind Lucky who carries a rope, a bag, a folding stool and a picnic basket. In Endgame,Clov moves about the room with a step-ladder, a telescope and eventually a sprinkling tin and an alarm-clock; Hamm holds onto a whistle and a toy dog. In Krapp’s Last Tape, the eponymous character manipulates at length bananas and tapes. Even Winnie, in Happy Days, buried as she is up to her waist, then to her neck in a mound of sand, busies herself with the objects that the bag next to her can contain.

6All these objects may serve as indications of the status and position of the characters for the audience: the old boots are typical of the tramps, the whip and the rope underline the master and slave relationship between Pozzo and Lucky, the pipe and the watch recall Pozzo’s past supposed greatness. The objects which Clov needs to get to the “outside” give one a sense of the characters’ confinement, while the dog and the whistle are pitiful reminders of Hamm’s still longing for some affective link. In any case, all these things are but ruins, scraps, remnants, remains even (as only bones indeed are left of the chicken Pozzo has been eating). The pair of boots is the wrong size, possibly the wrong colour, Vladimir’s pockets are “bursting with miscellaneous rubbish”, biscuits crumble to pieces, Hamm’s dog is three legged and sexless—when they are not lost, like Pozzo’s watch and pipe. The characters then list all that is currently missing, from carrots to bicycles, pap, pain-killers, sugar- plums, Turkish Delight and coffins!

7It is noticeable though that the objects which the characters still manage to manipulate appear as parts of their body. Hats and boots are extensions of heads and feet, the rope that relates Lucky to Pozzo plays the part of some sort of vital cord, while the ladder, the gaff and the telescope make up for Clov’s inability to reach the outside, supplementing his rather impaired body.

8Soon, the bodies of the characters come to blend with the objects which keep them alive—“this being that to them”, as one may say, parodying Clov. If Hamm’s armchair is not quite his body yet, one may wonder about the status of the ashbins that contain his parents. Like the man and the two women emerging from the urns of Play, Nagg and Nell have become one with their containers. Winnie’s body is nothing but the sand that makes up the mound in which she is buried. Is she buried indeed? Is not the sand the very matter of her body, her body no longer contained but turned into that container? Because she sits in the armchair in which her mother used to sit, the woman of Rockaby also turns into her own mother. If the armchair is the same, surely the characters must be the same too.

9“Accessorily”, as one may say, while the bodies of the characters may turn into objects, certain objects seem to acquire the status of subjects—provided such a status still makes sense. Thus, the main agent of Act Without Words 1 is the goad that impels the protagonists to act. The same could be said of the light on the man and the women of Play, compelled to speak when the light comes to rest on each of them, be it in turn or simultaneously—so much so that they refer to it as to someone watching them. However, this is not a main trend in Beckett’s theatre, but rather some experiment in the attempt to keep the subject at a distance from him/herself. In a more efficient way, the reification of the subject is carried yet further in the process of separation between the words uttered and the subject, the narration, the narrator and the narrated, through the dissociation of the voice from the body. This is carried out for the first time in Krapp’s Last Tape, as Krapp’s voice comes from the tapes he has spent his life recording. Already, the voice we hear for the greater part of the play is both the voice of the character yet not quite his, since it is that past voice of the self he was at 39. More strikingly dissociated from the subject are the three voices of That Time, in fact one voice, but three origins on the stage, which refer to three different states of the Listener. The same effect of distance is contrived in Footfalls, in Rockaby, in What Where, all plays in which the voice is heard at a distance from the character whom the audience may reckon it belongs to. The origin may be made obvious—a tape, a loudspeaker—or just indicated as an offstage sound. The Mouth of Not I is also an interestingly dissociated part of the body to which we shall refer more specifically soon.

10As the voice becomes a sort of autonomous entity, it comes to represent another possibility of that distance from the subject mentioned previously, the only way for the subject to be expressed, to be uttered. The voice plays the same part as the objects with which Winnie surrounds herself, as a means to ascertain her existence. Indeed, the function of the objects that occupy the stage is apparently to guarantee the existence of the subject, as the narrator of The Unnamable also suggested:

If instead of having something to say I had something to do, with my hands or feet, some little job, sorting things for example, or simply arranging things, suppose for the sake of argument I had the job of moving things from one place to another, then I’d know where I was, and how far I had got […].
(Beckett 1959, 554)

11But as there can be no certainties in Beckett’s characters, he goes on with … “no, not necessarily”. But it was a good try.

12In Waiting for Godot, Estragon addressing Vladimir and trying to reassure himself insists that “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?” (Beckett 1965, 69) The “things”, which come as avatars of that “something” are obviously there to fuel speech, so that objects do not have to be within one’s reach, as long as they can be a topic for conversation.

13It is definitely what Winnie tries to convince herself of, and what she makes perfectly explicit when she speaks of the objects around her. Her “things” (Beckett1966, 12) as she first calls them, as she considers her bag with its various toilet requisites, her parasol, her revolver, are first handled the way one would expect them to be handle—sort of. Buried as she is up to her waist into the mound of sand, Winnie still manages to brush her teeth, inspect her mouth in her mirror, put her spectacles on, wipe her eyes with her handkerchief, hold her parasol, put lipstick on, only avoiding killing herself with her revolver, the one thing which one would not be surprised of, after all. But what really matters is that the bag will always be there, even when she is left alone: “There is of course the bag. […] There will always be the bag. […] Yes, I suppose so. […] Even when you are gone, Willie” (Beckett 1966, 22). And then, still more explicitly:

Could I enumerate its contents? (Pause) No. (Pause.) Could I, if some kind person were to come along and ask, What all have you got in that big black bag, Winnie? Give an exhaustive answer? (Pause.) No. (Pause.) The depths in particular, who knows what treasures. (Pause.) What comforts. (Turns to look at bag.) Yes, there is the bag. (Back front.) But something tells me, Do not overdo the bag, Winnie, make use of it of course, let it help you… along, when stuck, by all means, but […] do not overdo the bag. (Beckett 1966, 25)

14Buried in the sand up to her neck as she is in act 2 of the play, Winnie still resorts to that bag in order to “comfort” herself—that is, comfort herself that she exists: “What would I do without them, when words fail,” she asks (Beckett 1966, 40). In act 1, she spent more time reading what was written on her toothbrush than actually using it for its expected purpose. That is, she turned the brush into words.

15Winnie’s relationship to her objects is to do with negating the passing of time. Like the child mentioned by Freud who imagines that he masters his mother’s comings and goings as he plays with the reel which he throws out of his bed and pulls back again towards him, Winnie pretends that the parasol which is set on fire will still be there the following day:

I take up this little glass, I shiver it on a stone—(does so)—I throw it away—(does so far behind her) it will be in the bag again tomorrow, without a scratch, to help me through the day […] That is what I find so wonderful, the way things…(voice breaks, head down)… things… so wonderful. (Beckett 1966, 30)

What matters is that she still be able to mention them. And what is amazing is that. . . it works. As Vladimir says, “Yes yes, we’re magicians” (Beckett 1965, 69).

16The confusion between words and objects is carried yet further in Krapp’s Last Tape. At the beginning of the play, he spends a great deal of time simply peeling a banana, then savouring it at length—then a second one, followed by a third one—throwing the skin onto the floor, so that he inevitably slips on it, in a standard clown- like fashion. And yet, what strikes one most is not so much the near fall of the clown as the way he strokes the banana (a banana, of all fruit) before he puts it into his mouth, keeps it between his lips for a while, bites off the end, pulls it out again until he eventually swallows it with obvious and extreme pleasure. Yet this only comes as an appetizer. He then sits down at his desk and rummages into his boxes to find one of the spool on which he has recorded his life, year after year. Thrilled as he is at finding the right one, “the little scoundrel”, “the little rascal”, as he says, he repeats the word “spool”, lengthening the vowel—“spooool” (Beckett 1959, 10)—and his mouth is filled with the word in the same way it was with the fruit.

17Just as Vladimir and Estragon’s stichomythic dialogues are as much a way of exhausting the possibilities of paradigmatic fields as of trying out sounds, voices in Beckett’s theatre constantly play with the rhythms of the sentences and the consonances in the words. Words are to be savoured, like kneaded within one’s mouth, sucked by the tongue—in the tongue—the way Molloy sucks at the stones which he then carefully transfers from one pocket to the other to make sure he has done them all. In The Unnamable, the narrator suggests “sorting things out”, “arranging things”. This could just as well be said of words, the lexical permutations being just another version of similar possible arrangements.

18The confusion of words as objects, speech and voice, language and tongue, tongue and tongue is perhaps most impressive in Not I. While objects in Beckett’s theatre may at first have been used to give tongue, to voice through words, words have now become objects in the voice, a matter of sound indeed, definitely matter. To sum up the play briefly, one could say that it is to do with a Mouth, emitting a flow of words which the fast rhythm of utterance may render difficult to grasp—telling the story of a woman, now seventy, but born too early of parents soon vanished (as if never quite completely born, as is the case of other characters in Beckett’s plays), first speechless, senseless, experiencing neither suffering nor pleasure, just possibly guilty, without any idea as to what sin she should be punished for, then her head filled with a buzzing, her mouth now unable to stop the stream of words that comes out of it, the same stream as that which we hear and see the Mouth now spitting out on the stage. In the stage version of the play, the Mouth, as indicated in the directions, is raised above stage level, apparently addressing the figure of an Auditor, standing on a podium closer to the audience. The television version is much more impressive, as it is a continuous close-up on a Mouth which thus occupies the whole screen, and leaves no possibility for the audience to avert their eyes. This version emphasizes the absence of a distance between the Mouth, extremely organic, vagina-like even, obscene, and the words that come out of it. The Mouth is no longer a mouth, the stream of words is an organic matter which is being vomited. This is where we get close to what in the title of this paper was referred to as the Thing.

19I use the word Thing in reference to Freud’s das Ding, a concept which Lacan further developed. The aim of this paper is by no means to elaborate a psychoanalytical reflection but simply to strike a certain number of chords and show how they resound and might provide a new perspective on the nature of the object. Das Ding, as Freud defines it in his “Project for a scientific psychology” (Freud 1966, 295-297) is that which one continuously endeavours to talk about without ever managing to do so. In Lacan’s seminar published under the title Ethics of Psychoanalysis, the Thing, as it is also called, is defined as that which is “initially isolated by the subject […] as being by its very nature alien” (Lacan 1997, 52). “[D]as Ding has […] to be identified with […] the impulse to find again.[…] Since it is a matter of finding again, we might just as well characterize this object as a lost object. But although it is essentially a question of finding it again, the object indeed has never been lost” (Lacan 1997, 58). Yet Lacan insists that it is at the same time never to be found again. The lost object is associated to the loss of the mother’s body. Without going too far into biographical analysis, one cannot but think of Beckett’s lifelong painful relationship to his mother, the impossible severance from her, just as one might find echoes of it in the story of that little girl who was never quite totally born, missing her mother’s body since she was born too soon (which recalls the case of that little girl Beckett once heard Jung mention in a conference evoked in All That Fall, one of Beckett’s radio plays, with the same predicament).

20But if the Thing cannot be found, it is because it corresponds to that empty zone where pleasure would be so intolerably intense that it must be prohibited, a zone which is at once closest and most distant from one—Lacan coins the word extime, to refer to this intimate exteriority. In Not I, this zone is created through the Mouth’s rejection of identity. The story that is being told is that of a woman who matches exactly what the audience may expect the story of the Mouth on stage to be or have been. Yet, that very Mouth reacts to an unheard suggestion that she may be the subject of the story indeed, as she repeatedly exclaims: “What? Who? No… She!” Her refusal to acknowledge the story as hers suggests a sense of guilt, which “I” could not bear and needs to shift onto some exteriorized “she”, a defective identity, in the impossibility to admit the intensity of the pleasure that Mouth is describing. Her refusal? Its refusal? For the denial of the first personal pronoun implied in Mouth’s words raises the question of the identity of the Mouth indeed, not the object of discourse but its grammatical subject, and yet at the same time no longer a subject, just an object that empties itself of words.

21What we see on the stage of Not I is a vortex of words, with the lips as the edges of a void. Be it a mouth or a vagina, uttering words without self, in what is more of an ejection, fast as those words are spoken, it may well be some sort of representation of the drive to fill the emptiness.

  • 1 The full text of Cuellar’s lectures on “La Chose de Freud et Lacan”, given at Paris VIII in 2003-20 (...)
  • 2 Those are Martin Pigeon’s words to define sublimation, in an article entitled “La Sublimation: une (...)
  • 3 “Thou knowest the place is round,
    And notwithstanding thou hast journeyed far,
    Still to the left desc (...)
  • 4 “… revolving it all […]. In your poor mind. […] It all”, the Mother says in Footfalls, while the da (...)

22Beckett yet provides us with a second, possibly more obvious, version of the representation of the Thing. In a series of lectures entitled “La Chose de Freud et de Lacan”,1 David Pavon Cuellar mentions an article by Nathalie Charraud, “Topologie de Das Ding”, in which she describes the Thing as “a hole to which one can indefinitely get close but without ever reaching the edge”, a hole which recalls of course the mouth in Not I, but possibly more strikingly still what is at the centre of a play for television which Beckett, thus experimenting with other modes of “a proof of the impossible”,2 wrote exactly ten years (1972 to 1982) after Not I, and entitled Quad. While Not I is elaborated around a Mouth, Quad turns around a hole. In the play, four players draw out the diagonals and sides of a square as they pace along them, always turning left, like the figures the poet meets in Dante’s Hell,3 exhausting all the combinations, as the stage directions indicate. While doing so, they delineate the place in the centre of the area where the diagonals meet, and which they repeatedly avoid: a sort of hole which recalls “the emptiness that signifiers edge”, a “black hole” delineated by the sudden deviation of their “courses” as Beckett calls them. Like the Mouth trying to say “it all”,4 the figures in Quad try to pace “it all”, exhausting possibilities, in an attempt to figure out what cannot be represented by literally getting around it. In Le Sexe et l’effroi, Pascal Quignard relates that Roman architects considered the proscenium in the theatre as a “locus certus”, to which they opposed the “res incerta” where the vanishing point of the perspective rested. In the same way, one may consider that the hole where the diagonals cross is a vanishing point, with the theatrical stage as the frame given to the representation of a “res incerta” (Quignard 1994, 64-65).

  • 5 One will of course have in mind the urns of Play, or the containers of Endgame, as anticipations of (...)

23Thus, while Beckett’s first plays staged the objects as avatars of the Thing, which was beyond any representation, the last two plays mentioned seem to present us with the most extraordinary approximation of it, as absence seems to be physically circumscribed on the stage. Lacan, referring to Heidegger, recalls the image of the vase that the potter makes5 “as an object made to represent the existence of the emptiness at the centre of the real that is called the Thing” (Lacan 1997, 121). The potter, he says, creates the vase around an emptiness, starting with a hole. And the void thus created “introduces the possibility of filling it”, which is the condition of the creative process. The Thing, which is forever lost yet never so, this absolute yet absolutely empty object, is what enables the process of sublimation which a work of art represents, to take place. Through sublimation, Beckett has confronted his audience with a representation of what cannot be represented: that proof of the impossible.

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Beckett, Samuel, The Unnamable, Paris: The Olympia Press, 1959.

Beckett, Samuel, Waiting for Godot (1956) London: Faber, 1965.

Beckett, Samuel, Happy Days (1961) London: Faber, 1966.

Beckett, Samuel, Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) London: Faber, 1959. Collected Shorter Plays, London: Faber, 1984.

Freud, Sigmund, The Standard Edition (1955) London: The Hogarth Press, 1966.

Lacan, Jacques, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, translated by Dennis Porter, New York: Norton, 1997.

Quignard, Pascal, Le Sexe et l’effroi, Paris: Gallimard, 1994.

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1 The full text of Cuellar’s lectures on “La Chose de Freud et Lacan”, given at Paris VIII in 2003-2004 may be found on the internet:

2 Those are Martin Pigeon’s words to define sublimation, in an article entitled “La Sublimation: une mise au travail du sujet”: <>.

3 “Thou knowest the place is round,
And notwithstanding thou hast journeyed far,
Still to the left descending to the bottom,
Thou hast not yet through all the circle turned.”
(Dante, Inferno: canto XIV, 126-129, translated by H.W. Longfellow.)

4 “… revolving it all […]. In your poor mind. […] It all”, the Mother says in Footfalls, while the daughter “revolves” on the stage.

5 One will of course have in mind the urns of Play, or the containers of Endgame, as anticipations of the effort to edge a void.

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Geneviève Chevallier, « Samuel Beckett’s Theatre: from “things” to “The Thing” »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2019, consulté le 29 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Geneviève Chevallier

Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis

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