The literature of the 20th century has been characterized by an intense awareness and reshaping of fundamentals. Just as the architectural vanguard led by Le Corbusier reinvented structural form, or the Cubists ‘made new’ visual space the writers working with narratives renewed and heightened their concern with how time worked in their art. Beckett was among those heir to the condition of modernity: he had seen evolution so rapid that it may be fairly termed a revolution in both the novel and the play. It is not surprising that he was among those writers who came fresh to the challenge, with his own experimental agenda. Yet the archetypal picture of a Beckett drama is one of a futile, meaningless existence, one pared down to its minimalist starkness, condemned to endless and pointless repetition. Do the plays of Beckett mark a nihilistic and joyless revolution, or do they articulate some new freedom of sorts? The critics stand divided. Judgements on Beckett’s ‘philosophy’ range from “no longer held hostage…towards a more fluid and variable mode”[1] to the distinctly morbid “about death, sterility, disintegration of the individual…a perversion of the comic.”[2]


Bradby notes “Beckett presents an image of existence as endless expectation”[3]  It is the frustration of linearity that underpins both his aesthetic experimentalism and its metaphysical implications, and will allow us – by examining time, narrative and ordering – to make some kind of judgement about the direction of Beckett’s work. In Act Without Words I, the conventions of drama have already been destabilised since the play is wordless: there is no language through which the plot can be articulated. Instead, Beckett uses the exaggerated style of mime to exploit repetition. A small amount of repetition is to be expected within a play, as it helps to structure the narrative. However, Act Without Words I, in the style of silent motion pictures, intensifies the repetition to show the hapless and futile actions of a single protagonist. There is something equally comic and equally tragic in the piece, as the Chaplinesque mime-artist stumbles through his routine, taunted by the mysterious off-stage presence, and then crumples to the floor, staring at his hands. Beckett leaves the last tone of that gesture open to interpretation, which furthers the ambiguity.


In an experimental-technical context, not only is a measure of generic fusion, breaking down the boundaries between different forms (although hardly avant-garde in a post-Brechtian world), but it plays with the idea that the characters are just slaves to the dramatist’s ordering hand. Just as the spotlight in Play deconstructs the relationship between audience and actor, Act Without Words I separates off the actor from the theatrical context, and makes him a victim. As for metaphysical ramifications, the offstage presence can clearly be viewed as an analogue to malicious fate, and thus the play articulates in a comic manner ‘Murphy’s Law.’ Yet the questions raised are deeper than that, and bring us back to the initial issue about Beckett’s pessimism. The ‘one player’ has already been seen as a puppet in the theatrical arena, but an extension of that ‘message’ leads to a dilemma. The character of the mime-artist – like the imprisoned protagonists of Play, or indeed (less obviously perhaps) Estragon and Vladimir – are trapped by the narrative of the stage. Yet modernity is about the fall of the narratives – is Beckett offering us a chance at liberating ourselves if we can only realise our shackles and enter an anarchistic, pluralistic experience of living? Or is he, conversely, making a comment about free-will, and the futility of the human condition, perhaps constrained by some kind of predetermined or malevolent fate? Beckett, using the stark essentials of dramatic narrative, is raising the starkest questions about what is art and what is life. It is a question which is complicated by the fact that the narrative has no effective closure – the man never reaches the glass, suggesting, perhaps, that the chaos of life is inimical to the tidy narratives of art.


A useful comparison is Happy Days, which is far less concerned with theatrical self-reflexivity. Instead, the ordering principle concerns the peculiar life of the central character Winnie. The audience is party to a extensive series of repeated domestic actions, interspersed with poetic and philosophical musings and the surreal and repetitive fondling of a revolver. She is enslaved to the periodic ringing of a bell, and every day is considered to be the same litany of banality: “most strange [pause] never any change.”[4] A similar effect is achieved in Waiting for Godot’s catalogue of everyday actions (pulling on a boot, sharing food) matched with the overarching expectance of Godot (which corresponds to the bell.) Unfortunately, the dilemma of Act Without Word I’s mime-artist is not resolved, but rather deferred. That Winnie is trapped, there is no doubt: she is encased with rising earth, unable to act but only to talk – incarcerated by language almost –  and her life seems utterly worthless. Yet it remains unclear as to whether this is a natural or unnatural sense of events, if the symbolism of burial is accepted: whether the bell represents some kind of tyranny, represented by the narrative and the stage, or whether Winnie’s condition is the human condition. Certainly, the tiniest chink of redemption through love is apparent at the end, although this could be viewed as a some form of placebo which reinforces Winnie’s ignorance of her predicament. Again, the final look is one of ambiguity: is the blissful gaze a sign of anodyne passivity or does it suggest something that could free them both; symbolised by Willie’s struggle to half-articulate the single syllable ‘Win.’ As Winnie says: “perhaps some day the earth will yield and let me go, the pull is so great, yes, crack all round me and let me out.”[5] In reference to the fall of grand narratives, it is interesting that Winnie refers to the need to cling on to earth and also affirms: “there is my story of course, when all else fails.”[6] There is a strong possibility that by abandoning her nostalgia for her past (her true happy days), she could also free herself. It is the narrative of her history, a microcosm perhaps of society’s grand narratives, that is truly responsible for her inaction and captivity. However, an equally valid reading might say such a freedom is nothing more than death, when she finally stops speaking and embraces ‘the end.’


Another play which takes up this theme, and also engages heavily with repetition, is Krapp’s Last Tape. Instead of a daily ritual, Krapp’s is a yearly one. Not only a play on the dramatic convention by having several voices of the same person on stage simultaneously, Beckett uses the tape to show how Krapp defeats himself, oppressed by his own past. He claims to have liberated himself from it: “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that’s all done with anyway.”[7] However, it is clear as he obsessively returns to the same section of tape, which becomes a ghostly refrain, that the past still rules him. Like in the other plays, the narrative winds down open-endedly in an ambiguous silence. He seeks the same security that Winnie gains from her half-grave, but the intensity of his youthful nostalgia breaks the proposed edifice down into elegiac ruins of disillusion. In Connor’s words: “Krapp’s recordings are intended to provide a firm and unambiguous record of a moment of time, but instead show how every utterance can be taken up or enveloped by some other occasion…Krapps’s Last Tape moves to dissolve the dramatic qualities most associated with speech.”[8] Again, the tape-recorder clearly represents the stifling force of order, the dead repetitions which correspond to the taunts of Act Without Words I, or the daily routine in Happy Days. Nevertheless, whether Krapp is a singular tragic victim or a symbolic exemplar of all humanity remains unresolved. Is it a commentary on one man trapped by his memories, or on all men enslaved to the functions of their consciousness?


What Beckett is saying about repetition becomes clearest in his best known work, Waiting for Godot. In this longer piece, a closely related tension between two types of repetition become clear. In its tight, bipartite structure, Beckett seems to be evoking a circular repetition, where Estragon and Vladimir return to the tree day after day, encountering similar events. This is similar to other bipartite elements in Beckett, such as the interplay between present and past in Krapp’s Last Tape, the two acts of Happy Days, the circular motion from blackout to blackout seen in Play, and so on. Yet this apparently circular repetition is contained in a special form of linear narrative.


Not only does this linearity inject some narrative force into what otherwise could be a meandering and pointless play (actualised by the entrance of Pozzo and Lucky just when the audience is perhaps tiring of Vladimir and Estragon’s ramblings), but is vital thematically. Entropy – technically the tendency of a closed system to become more disordered – is the linear principle on which Beckett’s use of repetition lies. Actions are repeated, but they also decay, most evidently by the appearance of master-and-slave as mute leading a blindman. Vladimir and Estragon’s memories of the previous day have become inconsistent and fragmentary. There are clear analogues with the burial of Winnie and the decline of Krapp’s life and hopes (and indeed his memory of word definitions.) Consider also the strivings of the mime-artist in Act Without Words I, the weakening shrug in Not I and so forth. Winnie evokes entropy thus: “something must move, in the world, I can’t any more. [Pause.] A zephyr. [Pause.] A breath. [Pause.] What are those immortal lines? [Pause.] It might be the eternal dark. [Pause.] Black night without end.”[9]


Beckett subjects not only his characters, but his narratives to entropy – as pointed out above, they usually finish in unresolved silence, and this is perhaps one of the reasons for the appearance of circularity. The ordering of time itself is fragmented, involving repetitive actions, endless refrains, scrambled memories:


Pozzo: (suddenly furious) Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day like any other day, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? (Calmer.) They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams for an instant, the it’s night once more.


Vladimir’s song at the beginning of Act II, sometimes used as an example of circularity, actually shows this entropy working on circularity; and it is a entropic micro-narrative itself, mirroring that of the play. It, too, has a bipartite structure, and the second repeat becomes more disordered, and eventually tails off into silence.


In fact, the entropy of meaning and language is one of the primary reasons Beckett has gained the tag ‘absurdist.’ The ‘borrowings’ from other modes of performance – vaudeville, for example – become entangled and the play ends up as a generic collage. The characters, particularly in Waiting for Godot, engage in endless word-play – clashes of diction, mispronouncing names, and Lucky’s long speech which is a linguistic counterpart to the entropic narrative. It fragments, loses temporal and syntactical cohesion, becomes increasingly hesitant and interspersed with repetition before eventually sliding into a few words and pauses before silence.  This can also be seen in Not I, a very similar monologue the disjointed structure of  which becomes saturated in  repetition, denial and refrain. As Brewer points out: “forgetting, repetitions, discontinuities and breaks in the exchanges between characters succeed in suspending the power and authority of any singular semiotic structure.”[10]


What is paradoxical is that we have seen that it is the power structures – the authorities themselves – that enforce the initial repetition, and (as we have also seen) any series of repetitions in Beckett’s drama tends towards disorder and eventual disillusioned silence. The fact is that Brewer overstates her case. It seems to apply locally to Waiting for Godot that the absence of Godot leads to entropy. Yet it is the clear the presence of authority or structure, via the off-stage sadist of Act Without Words I, the tape-recording in Krapp’s Last Tape, or the bell in Happy Days, also leads to much the same result. Any structure of authority will create an entropising of the human will, whether it is the dramatist’s dictatorship of narrative in Act Without Words I, or the daily monotony of Winnie. They all end up in a state of utterly passive inaction. Light can be shed on Waiting for Godot by referring to Nealon’s influential deconstructionist reading of the play: Estragon and Vladimir are still in thrall to the idea of Godot, but Godot will never come. All they have to do is relinquish their desire for a unifying structure and they can reach the state of  postmodernity “in which fragmentation becomes a condition welcomed and enjoyed.”[11] Thus the authority structure is still present, but merely in the desires of Estragon and Vladimir.


It is not that authority causes entropy. Beckett’s lesson is nothing more than the statement of simple scientific fact: entropy occurs. It is more that compliance with authority, and an expectation that it can lead to order, progress and stability, will lead to disillusion in the face of entropy. Entropy would occur whether or not Godot figured in Waiting for Godot, whether or not Krapp taped his history, whether or not a bell dictated the life of Winnie. It is rather the bondage to such structures which Beckett is pointing out. The piece Play is unusual in slightly disrupting the usual entropic pattern: instead, the protagonists rebel against the tyranny of the spotlight, and this suggests a positive reading of Beckett can be made, that disillusion is not the inevitable state of the human condition. However, it cannot be ignored that most of his characters are entrapped, oppressed, beaten people. If the authority/entropy/disillusion trinity is not inevitable, then it is certainly prolific and deep-rooted in the human psyche. What Beckett suggests is that the entropy of repetitive sequences – the disintegration of ordered purpose – is unavoidable. Whether this leads to a freer state or nihilism is left up to the reader or audience to decide, dependent on whether meaning is reducible to linear teleology, or whether something more fluid and dynamic can be valid.  Hence, in true 20th Century style, Beckett’s plays are partially empty vessels, demanding both reception and expression to create their full meaning.



Samuel Beckett, Waiting For Godot (1956)

Samuel Beckett, Happy Days (1961)

Samuel Beckett, Faber Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (London, 1984)

Richard Begam, Samuel Beckett and The End of Modernity (Stanford, 1996)

Steven Connor, Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text (Oxford, 1988)

Ruby Cohn, Just Play: Beckett’s Theatre (Princetown, 1980)

Macmillan Casebook: Samuel Beckett, ed.Ruby Cohn (Basingtoke, 1987)

Modernism/Postmodernism, ed.Peter Brooker (London, 1992)

Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (Manchester, 1995)




[1] Richard Begam, Samuel Beckett and the End of Modernity (Stanford, 1996) p.31

[2] Richard Keller Simon, Beckett’s Comedy and the Critics (1987) collected in Macmillan Casebook: Samuel Beckett, ed.Ruby Cohn (Basingtoke, 1987) p.113

[3] David Bradby Beckett’s Shapes (1984) collected in Cohn p.120

[4] Samuel Beckett, Happy Days, p.21

[5] Ibid. p.14

[6] Ibid. p.26

[7] Krapp’s Last Tape, collected in Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett p. 62

[8] Steven Connor, Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text (Oxford, 1988) p.130

[9] Happy Days, p.29

[10] Maria Minich Brewer, A Semiotics of Waiting (1985) collected in Cohn, p.154

[11] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (Manchester, 1995) p.93


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