Beckett's A Piece of Monologue
(Of An Old Artist with Coleridge)
Hwa Soon Kim
University of Incheon, Korea
Narrating a story in "faint diffuse light," an old man "stands" on the stage (265). The audience/reader seemingly watches the old man, listening to his narration. The extreme visualization of the cohesion of light, man, and word is so impressive that the audience/reader might witness "the words falling from his mouth" (268). In this exquisite atmosphere, the old man, identified only as "SPEAKER" in the play, retains the image of an old man as artist, which is a recurring Beckettian motif. In other words, Speaker performs a very special role, that is, as an intriguing author. Since the play is composed entirely of Speaker's narration of an artist's story, the narration itself unfolds the process of Speaker's creation of his work to the audience/reader. And the revelation of Speaker's creative process encourages the audience/reader to participate in the process of his creation. In a word, the audience/reader turns out to function as an eventual co author of Speaker's narration/work. Through the audience/reader's theatrical and artistic imagination of the character in the narration, Speaker completes his work as an "organic unity," for his work is "a piece of monologue." Accordingly, what the old author demands from the audience/reader is not only active participation in the play as an interpreter, but also a full commitment as a co artist through the imagination, which is as powerful as the author's. And such a demand underlies an idea that a work of art can be finally completed by the participation of the audience/reader.
In the play, it is the dialogic interactions of light, man, and word that play a significant role in the creation of Speaker's narration/work and in the participation of the audience/reader as an eventual co author. The triad of light, man, and word may be the minimum components of the theater, but Beckett makes the best of them metaphorically as well as theatrically. Intriguingly, the Beckettian triad echoes the Christian figures and Coleridge's idea of two kinds of imagination.
The origin of the triad can first be traced in the Scripture of John: "The Word became a human being," and the man was "the real light" in the dark of the world (227). In short, word (logos), man, and light are the figurative denominators which indicate Christ in the Scripture. In Beckett's play, these figures instead signal an old artist whose poetic creation is analogous to the eternal creation of Christ (God). And such a Beckettian analogy is legitimate in Coleridge's idea of the primary and secondary imagination, although the image of the Beckettian artist is far from that of the poet in Coleridge's "Kubla Khan."
In short, Coleridge's primary imagination is a universal one which all human beings possess and has an analogy with God's creation. It is the foundation of the secondary imagination, which is the imagination of art. Presupposing "the conscious will" of the poet, the secondary imagination is also analogous to the creation of the eternal act (Coleridge 470). And to Coleridge, these two kinds of imagination are distinct but not separate, for "the mind is one when it works" (Fogle 6).
In A Piece of Monologue, it is through the connection of man and word with light that the character in Speaker's narration recollects and redefines his past with "the conscious will." He is an old artist like Speaker. His will is uncompromising yet pathetic, for with his "obligation to express," he has "nothing to express" except for the story of his struggle to express. After he lights the lamp, the old artist always faces the "blank wall." The wall once "covered with pictures" of his "loved ones" works as a metaphor for the reservoir of his memories (266 68). As for the character who has spent "thirty thousand nights" on the globe, his memories of "loved ones," who were "dead and gone," seem to be the only source of artistic materials to articulate (265 69). In a word, the old artist is dwelling on his memories struggling with words like old Krapp in Krapp's Last Tape. As the opening to the gate of his memories, he lights a lamp, while old Krapp switches a tape recorder on. However, facing the "blank wall" is like facing darkness until there comes "the first word" to him:
Stand there staring beyond. Nothing. Empty dark. Till first word always the same. Night after night the same. Birth. Then slow fade up of a faint form. Out of the dark. A window. Looking west. (267)
As for the old artist, the distinction between the wall and window is not significant before the articulation of the first word, for both of them face the dark. Accordingly, before the birth of the first word, the distinction between two extremes of life becomes obscure. In other words, the difference between two opposites is dissolved in the chaos and darkness the difference between white and black, east and west, life and death, first and last, wall and window, and absence and presence. Thus, what the articulation of the first word enables him to experience is the order out of the chaos and darkness and the life through the word. And the absence of the word can signal his symbolic darkness and death of him.
Naturally, the birth of the first word is associated with the birth of himself:
Wait for first word always the same. It gathers in his mouth. Parts lips and thrusts tongue forward. Birth. Parts the dark. Slowly the window. That first night. (268)
Further, the birth of the first word is ultimately connected with light, for it "parts the dark." Especially, "grey light" appearing after the splitting of the dark leads him to the terrain of his memories of "pelting rain," which stimulates his emotion for the articulation (268 69). In a word, Speaker consciously applies the triad of light, man, and word to the description of his character's past and present, eventually producing his story.
In the creation of the work through this triad, it is the word of the old artist that creates a "form" out of a "dark shapeless blot" (267). Such a use of the word reflects the idea of creation in Genesis, where out of darkness the creation of the world begins through the word of God. After all, the word of the artist is a powerful and divine instrument of creation.
However, despite his creative instrument, the old artist is a finite being imprisoned in the frame of time, "two and a half billion seconds" on the globe (265). It is intriguing that what emerges throughout Speaker's narration is the amalgam of the triad's temporary nature in the theatre, yet at the same time its metaphoric permanence. The light among the triad provides a good instance.
Linda Ben Zvi points out the enigmatic light in the play:
There are actually two kinds of light in the play. There is the light that comes, the speaker says repeatedly , "Whence unknown" (p. 2). When he wakes, habitually at nightfall, and gropes to light his lamp, there is already "Faint light in room" (p. 2). This other light is always there. (13)
Here, the problematic "unknown" light is the metaphoric one which is simply visualized like "the words falling from his mouth." Unlike the Christian figurative triad, the images of the Beckettian light, man, and word are mutable and diminishing as time changes. Thus, the images of an old man, few words, and "faint diffuse light" or "edge of light" are interfused in the play. In this poetic situation, the "unknown" light which is "always there" parallels the light which "dies on to dawn and never dies" (267). Although as a human being the old artist is doomed to join "the dead and gone," he does not accept the presence of the absence of light: "No such thing as no light" (267). Here what is exposed in the delineation of the "unknown" light is nothing but the desire of the old artist for artistic permanence through the word, that is, through his work. In a word, the light of the "standard lamp" visually displays the artist's finitude as a human being, for its light cannot be infinitely constant. On the other hand, the "unknown" light which "never dies" becomes a metaphor for his word and work as contained in his pathetic wish for artistic permanence in the world of "the dying and going."
Permeating the fundamental subject of life and death, the old artist's desire for artistic permanence sustains its justification. The beginning of Speaker's narration first seems to indicate his character's insight into life and death as an old man: "Birth was the death of him" (265). In other words, to live means to be "dying and going" in his world. The last part of the narration also seems to reflect his insight through poetic associations with the triad:
Never two matters. Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and going. From the word go. The word begone. Such as the light going now. Beginning to go. In the room. Where else? Unnoticed by him staring beyond. (269)
Again, "dying and going" are at the center of the triad in the Beckettian milieu, in contrast to the Christian one in which infinite and permanence are the hallmarks. However, the old artist who has been "ghastly grinning on" overcomes the human condition in the cyclic notion of life, which is amalgamated with the Christian figurative triad (265). If "birth was the death of him," death would be the birth of him. In other words, he is like the light which "dies on to dawn and never dies." Like Christ in the Scripture who dies and resurrects, the poet/artist dies but "never dies," for the act of his creation echoes the eternal one of Christ's. In a word, the poet/artist "never dies" through his creation of the word/work. Eventually, the character's figurative perspective on life and death as artist cannot be dissociated from the artist's wish for the word/work that it would survive the obliterating time. The irony of such a wish is that it unveils an impasse, for the artist yearns for artistic permanence in the world of "the dying and going."
Pathetically, however, the old artist seems to perceive his own artistic condition which fundamentally nullifies the complete. In the play, Speaker, his character, and the audience all "wait on" words. Especially, they are "waiting on the rip word" which can expell the dark (269). In terms of "the rip word," Kristin Morrison argues, "The rip word in A Piece of Monologue is `begone'(p. 4), that word by which the speaker dismisses from his life that which he has always really wanted" (349). And Ben Zvi considers the word as "the pun on R.I.P., requiescat in pace [rest in peace], which suggests that death is the final way of ripping the dark" (15).
However, given the context of the dialogic interactions of the triad between the Christian and Beckettian milieus, "the rip word" must be "finished." To the character in the narration, it signals both completion and liberation as an artist who is "homo loquens." It also means his artistic accomplishment dispelling the dark of the absence, that is, the absence of permanence, from which his desire for artistic permanence paradoxically originates. Finally, the artist can be emancipated from the shackles of his artistic "obligation to express" with "nothing to express."
As for Speaker, his "rip word" also indicates both completion and liberation the word which intimates completion of and liberation from his peculiar role as actor and author. And the audience/reader has to also "wait on the rip word" because of our participation in the creative process of Speaker's work. However, the old artist in the narration declares that there is "no such thing as whole" in the world of "the dying and going" (268). Thus, "there all three" Speaker, the character, and the audience/reader in the theater can only "wait on the rip word" (266). In this perspective, the title of the play is significantly symbolic.
Interestingly, when Speaker's character listens to his "piece of monologue," Speaker and the audience/reader are also listening to and watching "a piece of monologue" in the "faint diffuse light" : "Stands staring beyond half hearing what he's saying. He? The words falling from his mouth. Making do with his mouth. Lights lamp as described" (268). Although Speaker witnesses "the words falling from his [character's] mouth," the audience/reader can behold them "falling from his [Speaker's] mouth" and from his character's. Again, "there all three"―light, man, and word on the stage bind the theatrical experience of Speaker/audience and the audience/reader. And their interaction also helps the audience/reader participate in the creation of Speaker's narration/work.
Here, it is worthwhile to review the notions of the Beckettian actor audience and active audience. Emphasizing "an audience actor relationship" in Beckett's plays, Shimon Levy states:
In . . . Not I, Footfalls and That Time, the notion of the audience is part of what constitutes the relationships of the characters to themselves, but even in these dramatically condensed plays there always remains an actor audience situation on stage. (78)
Levy also points out the significance of the role of the active audience who can "perform" the work in the inner theater of the mind to appreciate Beckett's plays.
The Beckettian "actor audience situation" is especially remarkable in A Piece of Monologue. And such a situation is illuminated in the process of the creation of the old author's work. Like the audience, the author gazes upon his character's world throughout the narration. However, what is extremely unique in the play is the audience/reader situation.
In a subtle, symbolic way, the play unfolds a theater―within theater like Chinese boxes. And it is mainly through the word that enables Speaker to share his experience as audience/author with the audience/reader, for in the "faint diffuse light," the old author narrates only a story of an artist. As mentioned earlier, the audience/reader seemingly observes Speaker on the stage and listens to his narration. However, once Speaker begins his narration, the audience/reader notices that another theater is being formed in the very mind of Speaker, for Speaker turns out as an author. Regardless of whether he is narrating a story about himself, he envisions not only his character but also particulars of the character's circumstances throughout the narration. Simultaneously, listening to his narration, the audience/reader begins to imagine Speaker's character in the theater of the mind. After all, three different theaters are being produced while Speaker narrates a story of an artist: Speaker's theater in his mind, the audience/reader's in his/hers, and the substantial stage of the light, man, and word as the corresponding theater of the locus between two theaters of the respective minds. Under such circumstances, what requires of the audience/reader is Coleridge's two kinds of imagination. In other words, even the audience/reader necessitates the imaginative power as creative as the author's to gaze upon his character only through his narration.
In this intriguing context, the following statements display how powerfully Speaker plays the role of the audience/author:
Where is he now? Back at window staring out. Eyes glued to pane. As if looking his last. Turns away at last and gropes through faint unaccountable light to unseen lamp. White gown moving through that gloom. (268)
Speaker also describes the details of his inner stage: "White foot of pallet edge of frame stage left" (269). Here, the question of the old man's identity in the narration is worthwhile to re examine.
In fact, the images of the stages for both Speaker and his character share almost common descriptions: "white hair," a "white nightgown," "white socks," a "white foot of a pallet bed" and its position on stage, "a standard lamp," and "faint light" (265 69). In particular, time references mentioned twice in Speaker's narration seem to indicate an indissoluble relationship between two characters: "And now. This night" (265). That relationship is then refuted and reassured twice in Speaker's rhetoric question of "He?" throughout the narration (268 69). The position of Speaker's bed on stage corresponds to that of the character's in his narration. Thus, the character in the narration seems identical with Speaker on the surface level of the play's context.
In terms of the identity, some critics point out that Speaker talks about himself throughout his narration. Ben Zvi suggests "the image of man's dual nature":
The speaker talks about "he" while the outer figure remains completely motionless. The form is the most daring experiment that Beckett has yet adopted in an attempt to create what he has described repeatedly in his fiction, the schismatic nature of man. (17)
And Morrison illuminates Speaker's story of himself on stage: "Now, at eighty two, the speaker tells a `story' of a man so much like himself that it is clear he is simply speaking of himself in the third person" (349).
Further, such a relationship seems to be confirmed through eventual fusion of the last scenes in the three respective theaters. At the final lines in the narration,Speaker and the audience/reader imagine the character in "unutterably faint" light in each one's theater of the mind (269). And the audience/reader also witnesses Speaker in the identical and substantial scene: "Lamp out. Silence. SPEAKER, globe, foot of pallet, barely visible in diffuse light" (265). Accordingly, Speaker's stage seems to be the mirror image of the character's in his narration.
However, two characters' rooms are slightly different although they share many similarities. The audience/reader cannot assure that Speaker's room has a window facing the west, which is of significance to his character. And there is no stage direction about the wall in Speaker's room, either. In other words, the audience/ reader cannot find the blank wall facing the east, which can be clearly witnessed in his character's room.
Given the sophisticated nature of modern theater, one can suggest that the director of the play can eliminate any doubt about the character's identity through the reproduction of the stage of Speaker's mind upon the substantial one before the audience/reader. On the other hand, as to the slight difference between two stages, one can argue that the relationship of Speaker to his character in the narration parallels that of an author to a character in his/her work. In this perspective, Speaker rather creates a new person even though he delivers an authentic story of himself. And the play challeges the intriguing relationship between the author and his/her character. Accordingly, the audience/reader has to cope with the question of fictionalization, which is emanated from the creation of a character in the name of theatrics. Although some parts of Speaker correspond to those of the character in his narration, the notion of fictionalization naturally excludes the possibility that Speaker and his character are identical. Under such circumstances, the audience/ reader can also revive the image of Speaker's character in the theater of the mind as an eventual co―author.
After all, one can suggest that the fusion of the three respective theaters in the final scene of the play reconciles and unites Speaker (the author) with the audience/reader through the theatrical imagination. And the unity can be more successful in the form of a play/theatre rather than in any form of art because of its ritualistic aspect. Further, the fusion of the theaters indicates that the play is multidimensional although it is simply composed of an old man's narration.
Ultimately, with the counterpoint of light, man, and word, Speaker creates a story of an old artist through the blend of the Christian triad and Coleridge's notion of imagination. The dialogic interactions of the triad in the play unveil the artist's dexterous experiment of a new apparatus for the expression. They also enlarge the artistic experience of the audience/reader as an active agent in the creative process of his work presupposing the maximum, theatrical imagination. With the minimum components of the theater, the play provides new horizons of the theatrical experience for the audience/reader. However, such a role of the audience/reader as co artist reveals another impasse in which artistic egalitarianism collides with artistic elitism, for the secondary imagination, that is, the imagination of art is essential even to the audience/reader. In other words, despite its openness to the audience/ reader's participation in the creative process, the play insinuates that it is inevitably selective about the audience/reader.
When the light of the "standard lamp" on the substantial stage fades away, the audience/reader cannot fail to notice the significance of light, man, and word on the stage. In the void of the triad, what remains in the mind of the audience/reader is the image of an old artist toiling to produce his work. Cherishing the desire for artistic permanence of his word/work, he seeks for the inspiration in the act of creation itself associated with the act of creation in "the infinite I AM" (Coleridge 470). He is an old artist, with Coleridge, who conceives that he can only articulate "a piece of monologue" in "faint diffuse light" of the world of "the dying and going."
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