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The strategies of waiting : a study of action in Samuel Beckett's plays White, Richard Kerry

Abstract

This essay is principally concerned with the nature and possibilities of action in Samuel Beckett1s four major stage plays: Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp's Last Tape, and Happy Bays. The problem arises from the fact that each of these plays is organically inconclusive, indicating that the action is not causally structured in the Aristotelean sense. Action is therefore examined in terms of the characters' separate activities: how they are initiated and terminated, their internal order, and their relation to each play as a whole. The three basic sources employed for criteria are Beckett's critical essay, Proust; his early novels, Murphy and Watt; and Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens. Proust provides a clear indication of Beckett's theories on time, habit, and friendship; Murphy and Watt are seen as character prototypes; and Homo Ludens is useful in that it supplies a working definition of play. After a detailed examination of each play in the above terms, the general conclusion reached is that in all cases Beckett has portrayed a state of being as opposed to a process of becoming. In other words, the characters feel and act as though they are caught in an endless present: in their situations they feel cut off from their past, and at the same time they cannot plan and project their activities toward a known goal, for the future is completely uncertain. Consequently, aside from those moments when the characters have no effective control over their actions, and aside from those actions governed by some form of necessity, everything they do during the course of the plays is done simply to fill the enormous void of time. Considered separately, each activity or strategy of waiting is seen to conform to the characteristics of play as defined by Huizinga, and furthermore, each activity is seen as a habitual response to reality. The similarities between one activity and another are conditioned by two fundamental factors: a subject-object dichotomy, or the relation between the individual, the world, and other people; and death, the one event in human life which is certain, but not fixed. The differences between the various activities, on the other hand, are conditioned primarily by the ages of the characters: the older a character is the more he loses contact with the world and other people, and this affects the scope of his activities. It is finally concluded that Beckett has portrayed the fundamental isolation of western man—the tragicomedy of individualism. Cut off from others and time, man's habitual response to life and the external world has been to devise strategies of waiting for the time when it will all end.

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