Silence exists as an eternal character in Beckett’s plays, itself giving form to the utterances of the characters which inhabit them. Their speech and movements exist as though emerging from this blanket of silence, a silence which is both deadening and paradoxically enabling. To consider Beckett’s plays without this state of silence is akin to attempting to give personality to a lifeless corpse; it can only be fundamentally lacking. To examine this silence, furthermore, as existing solely as the pauses which bisect the works is also to misread it. I would argue that the utterances of Beckett’s plays exist merely as breaks within a totalizing state of silence. That is, the void. Speech results only when a break in such a silence emerges; silence, as it were, breaks down. For whatever reason we are left unsure. What we are certain of, however, is that the utterances of Beckett’s characters cannot counteract this condition, everything begins and ceases adhering to its logic, regardless of their subjective attempts. There is ‘nothing to be done’, as with Krapp this silence (like his banana skins) continue to trip him up, to envelop and anticipate his attempts to escape this cycle, and in the process to disavow such a state. We know, after all, that Krapp will fall once again though he has taken caution to avoid such a predicament. The futility of such an action is made apparent, as with any speech (or gestures) within Beckett’s plays. What pervades in finality is silence, regardless of those who attempt to negate it. The pause, then, is not a pause after all, but rather a pause, a break, in silence. In this sense there are no pauses per se in these works.
So too with the physical staging of Beckett’s works. The bodies of actors and the sparse furnishings of the stage exist as unforeseen positives emerging from a somber nothingness. The props such as the tree in Waiting for Godot do hold great significance however. This is both in spite of and because of their unforeseen emergence from said nothingness. In spite of their seemingly pathetic presence in counteracting such a void, and indeed because of this very ludicrousness, they imbue the plays with a metaphoria central to the narratives (If we can call them narratives, that is). Gerard Byrne is one artist who has played with the metaphorical implications of these props, which although functional, occupy positions elevated beyond mere utility. The tree in Waiting for Godot, appearing from the darkness of the void, occupies an emblem of hope. Yet the hope is a fatalistic one; the possibility of suicide. However as in An Act Without Words I the protagonists are even denied the chance at self-annihilation- they don’t have a rope. The tree, therefore, acts as a signifier of the vain hope of redemption from the pervading silence of the void. Though it occupies a physical position on the stage, what it promises is ephemeral and wholly illusory. The darkness which surrounds it is the more real of the two, though we cannot grasp it.
But what is this silence or void and why does it occupy such a central position within Beckett’s oeuvre? Perhaps it exists as that which Lyotard calls ‘an incredulity towards meta-narratives’– an experiential expression of the atypical post-modern condition (1984). Perhaps. But that said, even the manifestation of said incredulity results in what one could easily term a meta-narrative. So can silence be described as the new meta-narrative? However, as Critchley affirms, to try to affix philosophical sticking-points to the work of Beckett is both absurd and short-sighted- he sees you coming with your pretensions and laughs at you. Like Krapp, you’ll keep tripping on that damn banana skin. Everything is there in the texts and can be expressed with much more clarity and precision than that of the most dense philosophical texts. So to attempt to affix the concept of meta-narrative to the void could be the most self-defeating of tasks: interminable in scope and duration by its very nature. However its presence in the work of Beckett is felt as the tireless expression of such incredulity. Everything means nothing, and nothing means everything. Though this does not deter the protagonists in their efforts to rekindle a kind of innocence or capacity to believe. To ‘charm back the luxury of a child’s soul’ as Kavanagh so evocatively longs for. However, we know their efforts are doomed; they are amnesic and fail even in their attempts to commit suicide. But that doesn’t stop them, we know Vladimir and Estragon will continue just as they are indefinitely. As with John Cage who said ‘I have nothing to say, and I’m saying it’, so too with the characters of Beckett. They have plenty to say but at the same time nothing which can counter the inherent futility of their existence. Though I admit I could listen to them speak nothing all day.
Beckett, Samuel Waiting for Godot (1949)
Cage, John “Lecture on Nothing” (1949)
Critchley, Simon ‘Beckett Is My Hero (It’s Alright)’ An Interview with Simon Critchley
Kavanagh, Patrick Advent
Lyotard, Jean-Francois The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984) trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press