By Marius Buning
President, Dutch Samuel Beckett Society
A public lecture delivered at TEATRO QUIJANO,
Ciudad Real, Spain, Tuesday, 2 December 1997
I am going to talk to you tonight about a play written by Samuel Beckett that is very little known to the theatrical world at large, simply because it has never been performed in any theatre. Nor is it likely to be performed in the near future, since it has been banned by the Beckett Estate. Moreover, the full text of this play was published only a few years ago, although it was written more than fifty years before. To complicate matters even further, it has already received two translations, one in American English and one in British English with, as we shall see, very different results. In addition, both the text and its translations have become causes of sharp disagreement, now known as ‘The Eleutheria Affair’ among Beckett critics.
I am referring of course to the French edition of Eleutheria that appeared in print early in 1995.1 It was preceded by a peculiar ‘avertissement’ or warning by Jérôme Lindon, Beckett’s French publisher and close friend. He was also the literary executor of the Beckett Estate, which is administered by Edward Beckett, the author’s nephew and heir. Apparently Lindon felt forced to publish Eleutheria because another close friend of Beckett, this time a trans-Atlantic one, his American publisher Barney Rosset, had threatened to publish the play in translation, claiming that Beckett had given him permission —– or almost so —– in 1986. That translation was eventually effected after considerable internal strife by Michael Brodsky, author of several books and plays that are reported to smack of Beckett (“He is steeped in Beckett,” according to Rosset).2
I am not going to discuss this embarrassing publishers’ row in detail, for I hold the view that every literary scrap of writing from one’s favourite author should be published in due course, even if this goes against the author’s own stated wishes while alive, or that of his relatives or of any Estate after his death (with the possible exception of private correspondence). Just imagine that we could have been deprived of all of Kafka’s work were it not for the foresight of Max Brod, his editor and friend, who fortunately decided otherwise. Alternatively, take the case of W. H. Auden, who insisted on withdrawing certain poems or parts of poems from the Collected Edition of his works and even highly acclaimed fragments, at that. Moreover, in the case of Beckett we know how hesitant —– almost pathologically so —– he was in granting permission for publication of much of his work. Even after his death the battle still continues. You will remember the bitter dispute some years ago over Beckett’s first novel, written in 1932, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, but only published posthumously in 1993.
In any case, my personal reason for talking about Eleutheria tonight originated from my curiosity about the new American translation, this time, of course, not carried out or supervised by Beckett himself in his own, unique manner as was the case, for instance, with the various German translations. What would the new translation look and sound like, I wondered. When I first looked into it, I was, in all honesty, both innocent and unprejudiced. However, I rapidly tumbled from innocence into experience. This is what actually happened.
Some three years ago the Dutch Samuel Beckett Society (of which I happen to be the President) decided to organise a private play-reading of Eleutheria (as Rosset had done previously in New York). It had to be private because we had obtained no permission from Lindon nor from the Beckett Estate. Once rehearsals had started, I was told by the American-trained Dutch director that the group of eight amateur Irish actors who were to read the best parts of the play felt that Brodsky’s translation was rather “clumsy” in places. But the play-reading went ahead in The Hague before a mainly non-specialised Irish audience on April 13, 1996. Performed with minimal acting and only with the help of a stage-bell announcing the many comings and goings of the visitors, the event turned out to be a great success! The audience laughed uproariously at the razor-sharp exchanges among the pretentious, hollow, upper middle-class characters, and sympathised much with the play’s protagonist, the anti-hero, Victor.
This experience greatly surprised me, given Beckett’s own firm dismissal of the play as “irrémédiablement raté” (an unredeemable failure), and his pointed refusal ever to permit its publication or performance (“Never attempted English translation... Never edition of any kind if I can help it.”3) Even four days before his death he opposed the idea of including it in a projected Collected Edition of his work. Beckett’s negative opinion was apparently taken over by Lindon, who, in his warning, expresses the fear that inexperienced readers might get the wrong impression of how to interpret this great writer. Actually, he even apologizes for having published it at all, admittedly a rather unusual thing for a publisher to do.
Beckett wrote Eleutheria between January and March of 1947. It was followed by En attendant Godot in 1948, which he always referred to as his “second play”. With the help of Jakoba van Velde, his Dutch literary friend, and Suzanne Dumesnil, his partner, Eleutheria was circulated among Paris theatre producers. It was much liked by the young avant-garde director Roger Blin who, however, finally opted for En attendant Godot simply because the latter play needed fewer roles and was less expensive to produce! In the end, Eleutheria was finally accepted for publication by Lindon in 1951. But at the last minute Beckett withdrew his permission. However many years later some portions of the play were published separately and —– curiously enough —– with Beckett’s own permission.4
My own view of the matter is that Eleutheria is definitely much better than Beckett himself thought, a view confirmed by most Beckett critics in his wake. And even if the play is a “failure” it is still worth having and, above all, worth seeing. For I am convinced that in the hands of an experienced director having a somewhat surrealistic sense of humour; an expert cast giving a speedy delivery of the many ping-pong-like dialogues; with possibly some cutting (especially in Act III); and with a good translation, in short, with all of these conditions fulfilled, there is no justification for banning Eleutheria from the stage any longer. I realize that all this may sound blasphemous to the ears of some purist Beckett critics but I’m afraid I’ll have to trespass on their territory. I entirely concur with the view of that highly experienced and successful American Beckett director, Bob Scanlan, when he states that Eleutheria is “problematic, raté, but at the same time tremendously interesting.”5
However, to return to the American translation: a simply devastating piece of criticism of it appeared late 1955 in The Recorder, written by Gerry Dukes, Irish academic and theatre critic. In his view, the American Foxrock edition “deserves recycling as a more useful paper product.”6 Another equally critical piece of his in The Irish Times ended as follows: “There has not been such a grand collection of howlers [in this translation] since Dante visited the ninth circle of Hell” —– a place actually referred to in the play and home to the worst offenders! “Eleutheria is fascinating and revealing,” he concludes, “but the company which stages this [American] version would be foolhardy.”7 We shall look at some of Dukes’s prize examples of translation howlers a little later.
Naturally, this vitriolic review sparked off some strong reactions. According to Barney Rosset, the trans-Atlantic row over the translation is “all a matter of French venom and Irish anti-Americanism, fuelled by Gerry Dukes’s diabolic, utterly wrong-headed criticism.”8 This opinion is in line with Michael Brodsky’s own, long letters of protest to the editors of the journal and the newspaper in question —– letters which, I must say in all objectivity, are themselves incredibly offensive on a personal level. Regrettably, Brodsky will defend his translation by hook or by crook, never once admitting any possible errors, even the blatant ones (as we shall see). He merely brushes aside Dukes’ criticism as “nit-picking”. To make things worse, he claims that his wife (who is French) fully corroborates the translation’s “textual integrity”.
One final point in this connection. The American publisher refers in his Acknowledgements to Brodsky’s “consummate” [i.e. skilful, bringing to completion] effort as a translator who came on board at a late and crucial moment, with a ”full speed ahead” and ”damn the torpedoes” attitude (p. xxv). Strong words, and no doubt well-meant, but in hindsight rather damning, I think. It may well be that Brodsky has indeed sunk his own translation! Or, alternatively, Rosset himself may be responsible, since he had rejected an earlier version by professor Albert Bermel, British by birth, and an experienced, professional translator, especially of French literature (Molière). His translation was brusquely brushed aside (“we didn’t like it,” Rosset says), although until today Bermel has not been given any explanation for this rejection! Personally, I find Bermel’s views quite interesting: he prefers to keep the “colloquial impulse” of Beckett’s Irish English and wishes to preserve the “amusing and impudent” style of the original (e.g. translating “les badauds” as “rubber-neckers” rather than as “gawkers”, and “le vitrier” as ”windowman” instead of “glazier”). He also insists on retaining the French names of the characters as a way of reminding the audience that they are hearing a translation.9
Much to everybody’s surprise, however, a new translation appeared with Faber & Faber just last year in 1996, prepared by Barbara Wright, a foremost British translator of modern French literature, especially of the so-called nouveau roman (Margarite Duras) and of modern French theatre (Ionesco). This time there is much more reason to rejoice; consequently, all further references to the play in my text will be to her translation. She manages to stay close to the original text and atmosphere; she keeps the punctuation marks and stage directions intact and —– unlike Brodsky —– she never imposes herself on the original. Of course, there are always minor points to quibble about but, as far as I can judge, there are no howlers in it, whereas Brodsky’s translation contains numerous points of serious disagreement.
Ms. Wright’s opinion of the play is worth quoting in full: “With each reading I liked it more, saw more in it, and in the end I could not help but feel that Beckett was mistaken in wishing to suppress it as being unworthy of him.” Although, admittedly, much different from his later work, “it is still true to Beckett, true to his philosophy —– and it is also very funny” (p. v of her translation).
It is high time now, I think, to look at some of the translation cruces in Eleutheria. I offer the following examples for your consideration; they are followed by very brief comments on my part, added in square brackets:
1/ the title: with or without accent?
Eleutheria (Lindon), Éleuthéria (Harvey, Bair); Eleuthéria (Beckett/Rosset, Brodsky). [The correct title should be Eleutheria, without any accent (Dukes and Wright), which is in accordance with the title page of the manuscript, now at the University of Texas]
2/ lexical crux: (memory of a boat trip)
M. Krap: Nous étions sur l’eau. Ton canotier avait un couteau. Je ne ramais plus. L’onde nous berçait. (Pause.) Lui aussi l’onde le berçait. (Pause.) Tu es sûre qu’íl est de moi? (Beckett, p. 62, italics mine)
M. Krap: We were on the water. Your oarsman had a knife. I was no longer rowing. (Pause) The waves rocked us. He too was rocked by the waves. (Pause) You are sure he is mine? (Brodsky, p.58, italics mine)
M. Krap: We were on the water. Your boater [straw hat] had an osprey [a feather: a millinery term]. I had stopped rowing. We were being gently rocked by the waves. (Pause) He too was being gently rocked by the waves. (Pause) Are you sure he’s mine? (Wright, pp. 58-59, italics mine)
NOTE on “canotier” (boater) and “couteau” (osprey):
Le Grand LAROUSSE Encyclopédie (1960): “canotier”: 1. matelot d’un canot; 2. forme de chapeau caractérisé par ses bords plats, plus ou moins grands suivant la mode; il se fait en feutre, paille or tissue pour les femmes; tressé en paille pour les hommes; “couteau”: nom donné aux premières pennes de l’aile des oiseaux; par extension: plume raide dressé sur un chapeau.
Le Trésor de la langue Française (1978) cites for “canotier”: Daudet (1874), Colette, Claudine s’en va, p. 173 (1913), and for “couteau” (“longue plume raide ornant parfois les coiffures féminines”) Proust: “Un simple béret qui dépassait deux couteaux de plume de perdrix”.
Le Grand Robert de la langue Française (1985) records for “canotier”: “chapeau canotier” (Colette) and (metonymically) “un porteur de ce chapeau”; “être coiffé d’un canotier”; “être en canotier” (l’idée de loisir élegant); and for “couteau”: “plume droite” (garniture d’un chapeau de femme): “canotier en feutre orné d’une plume-couteau” (Colette, Gigi (1944), p. 11).
[Surely, overwhelming evidence indeed to castigate Brodsky’s mistranslation on this point, and even more his stubborn refusal to admit it!]
3/ syntactical crux: (Victor is being threatened by the torturer)
Victor lève la tête, voit le Chinois, le sourire, la pince, recule avec épouvante. (Beckett, p. 141)
Victor lifts his head, sees the Chinaman, smiles at him, pinches him, draws back in terror. (Brodsky, p. 155)
[Note in this case the total grammatical confusion between subject and object, noun and verb!]
Victor raises his head, sees the Chinese, the smile, the pincers, recoils in terror. (Wright, p. 142)
4/ stylistic crux: (Victor explains his philosophy of life)
(Spectateur, à Victor: ...Comment vous y êtes-vous pris?).
Victor: En étant le moins possible. En ne pas bougeant, ne pas pensant, ne pas rêvant, ne pas parlant, ne pas écoutant, ne pas percevant, ne pas sachant, ne pas voulant, ne pas pouvant, et ainsi suite. Je croyais que c’étaient là mes prisons. (Beckett, p. 148)
(Audience Member: ...How did you go about it?)
Victor: By being, as little as possible. By not moving an inch, by not thinking, by not dreaming, by not speaking, by not listening, by not perceiving, by not knowing, by not wanting, by not being able, and so on and so forth. I believed that was where my prisons lay (Brodsky, pp. 164-165)
[Note here the heavy-handed repetition of the preposition “by” and the unwarranted comma after “being”]
(Spectator (to Victor) ...How did you go about it?)
Victor: By being the least possible. By not moving, not thinking, not dreaming, not speaking, not listening, not perceiving, not knowing, not wishing, not being able, and so on. It seemed to me that that was where my prisons lay. (Wright, p. 149)
[Observe the tenser rhythm in this essential passage that, by the way, already looks forward to Beckett’s famous statement in Three Dialogues (1949): ”The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”10]
5/ Americanisms: She’s gotten married, the garbage cans of Passy, I’m cutting loose, rubbernecks, Which new freak is this?, That would have gotten you nowhere, you can say it, but what’s with this bull?, Wedge it up good, he is as scummy as the rest of us, my little candy bar, so play with your little buddies, Up, sump, cut to the chase, my scratch-pad, a guy like that, a kick in the ass, death-row intimates, And then some, what a put-on, slaughterfest, a sort of outer-borough sub-Socrates, Loosen up, etcetera. (see further, Gerry Dukes in The Recorder: 138-139).
[Comment: Leaving aside the debatable question of whether Beckett’s work should be translated into American English at all, it is obvious that Brodsky’s translation is much too colloquial if not vulgar in many places. Given the strong Irish undercurrents in the play (such as hidden topographical and autobiographical allusions, and a strong sense of verbal wit), I for one would welcome a translation into Anglo-Irish, for that matter.]
Well after this brief excursion into the minefield of translation (according to Beckett, always “a losing battle”), let us now come “Zur Sachen selbst”, as the German philosopher said (“To things themselves”). I will first give a brief description of the play in case you have not yet read it, including some comments on the major characters, if such they may be called. Then I shall focus on what is called towards the end of the play its “negative anthropology” (p. 147), or what I would, tentatively, like to call its via negativa 11 —– a topic that is dear to me, as some of you may know. Finally, I will attempt to ‘place’ Eleutheria within the Beckett canon, especially with regard to En attendant Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape, and in a wider sense to the contemporary or avant-garde theatre at large, which is the subject of our Conference.
The setting of this highly satirical, melodramatic, bourgeois comedy of ideas —– aptly called a “Säurebad” (a sulphurous bath) by a German critic 12 —– is Paris, with many references to actual street names such as the Boulevard Montparnasse and the Boulevard Pasteur. Victor’s room is in a lodging house in the ‘Impasse de l’Enfant-Jésus’, one of the many wry Beckettian puns in the play. There is no time indication other than “three successive winter afternoons”, but I strongly feel that the play breathes a slightly pre-World War II atmosphere, as does its French syntax. So the time setting might be around the year 1938, that is, shortly after the great Surrealist Exhibition that took place in 1936 (which is possibly referred to in the play).
Most of the middle-aged, decrepit characters (all of them puppets or ‘flat’) have ‘allegorical’ or ‘speaking’ names —– at least to an English ear —– that reveal in a burlesque way (and often obscenely, at that) one dominant trait of their character. All of them are poseurs or pretenders, only interested in themselves. In order of importance they are:
M. Henri Krap (with 1 “p”) is a cynical, sharp-witted, lecherous, aged writer, sharing the same intestinal problem with the later eponymous Krapp (with 2 p’s) in Krapp’s Last Tape (1959). Evidently, he is tired of marriage and indeed of life itself, comparing himself to “the cow who arrives at the gates of the slaughterhouse and only understands all the absurdity of the pastures...I am in a circle [of Hell]. The ninth” (p. 20). It is noteworthy that the family name KRAP is homonymous with ’crap’ in the colloquial sense of rubbish (a load of nonsense) and with faeces (to crap is to defecate); the excremental meaning is highlighted by Henri Krap’s confession that he prefers to write in the “shit genre” (p. 37). Appropriately, he dies at the end of Act I.
Mme Henri Krap is equally fed up with her partner. Her major concern is her body, in particular her “bas ventre” or “prolapsing womb” (p. 18), the fallen uterus being perhaps symbolic of her sexual frustration. Moreover, she is most worried about her son, Victor, the bohemian, who left the house two years ago preferring his own sordid surroundings to the comforts of the parental home. In order to get him back she even hires a Chinese torturer, Chouchi, who threatens Victor with his pincers to try and force him to confess up and to go home (See earlier, translation crux 3). Naturally, Victor feels threatened. More generally, it can be said that there hangs an atmosphere of insistent questioning, if not interrogation, over the play that points forward to much of Beckett’s later theatrical work.
Mme. Andre Piouk (“puke” means ‘vomit’ in English), is Mme Krap’s sister, though not a very friendly one. She recently got married to Dr Andre Piouk, the most repellent of all the characters, the Molièresque villain of the play and its catalytic agent at the same time. He offers drastic remedies for all of mankind’s problems:
Well, then. I would ban reproduction. I would perfect the condom and other devices and bring them into general use. I would establish teams of abortionists, controlled by the State. I would apply the death penalty to every woman guilty of giving birth. I would drown all newborn babies. I would militate in favour of homosexuality and would myself set the example. And to speed things up, I would encourage recourse to euthanasia by all possible means, although I would not make it obligatory. Those are the broad outlines (pp. 44-45).
He offers Victor a pill to that effect, which the latter refuses, however. Instead, Victor announces at the end of the play how he will while his life away:
I shall rub my chains one against the other. From morning to night and from night to morning. That useless little sound will be my life. I don’t say my joy. I leave that to you —– joy. My peace and quiet. My limbo [Dante’s Purgatory] (p. 164).
However loathsome Dr Piouk may seem to us, he should not be treated too seriously nor too realistically, I think. For there is a good deal of sardonic comedy in Beckett’s characterization of him, which is reminiscent of that great Irish satirist, Jonathan Swift (much admired by Beckett) who (you will remember) was the author of a notorious pamphlet, called A Modest Proposal (1729), suggesting to eat up all first-born children in order to relieve the country’s starvation problem!
The other minor female characters are: Mme. Meck (referred to as a “relict” of the late Marshal Meck, whose last words were: “Vive la France”), who is a friend of the Kraps. Next, Mlle. Olga Skunk (“skunk” is the name of a highly smelly animal in English), Victor’s supposed fiancée and utterly naïve, at that. However, in the end she accepts a double-edged invitation by Dr Piouk to a dinner of oysters (sic) in restaurant Terminus —– another wry Beckettian pun of course. And lastly, there is Mme. Karl, Victor’s landlady, whose main concern is how to collect the rent for Victor’s room.
In sharp, satirical contrast to this loathsome set of upper-middle class representatives are:
The Glazier, who has been called in to repair a window that has been deliberately broken by the rebellious Victor who has thrown his shoe through it. As a common-sense representative of mankind and a practical man, he questions in a long series of interrogations Victor’s motives for living the sordid way he does, but to no avail. According to Beckett himself, the dialogue at the end of Act II between the glazier and his obedient, rather lethargic, ten-year-old son Michael, was to become the source for the exchanges between Vladimir and the young boy in Waiting for Godot.13 The glazier also assumes the role of mediator between the stage events and the audience.
And there is a Spectator (“Spectateur” in French, or an audience member in English), who powerfully intervenes in Act III. He not only urges Victor to explain himself (like others have done before him), but also loudly condemns both the play Eleutheria itself (calling it “rubbish”) and also its author, whom he scathingly refers to as: “Béké, Samuel”. [“Béquet” in the French text]. “Béké, Béké, he must be a cross between a Jew from Greenland and a peasant from the Auvergne” (p. 136), one of the many examples of indirect, caustic Beckettian self-depreciation. It may be amusing to know that ‘Béquet’ also means a small part of a scene that an author either adds or alters during rehearsals. Originally it is a Huguenot proper name.14
This delightfully witty Spectator may be seen, I suggest, as the embodiment of the play’s meta-dramatic dimension, while at the same time effecting a Brechtian sense of alienation. Endowed with the unmistakable Irish gift of the gab (“I am a lover of words. I am a poet and nobody knows it”), he also provides a good deal of highly necessary comic relief. One is, inevitably, reminded here of Pirandello’s great play, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), which Beckett is known to have seen in Dublin and to have much liked. Therefore, we might say that Eleutheria is about eight characters in search of one character —– close to Beckett himself —– named Victor, literally The Winner, a common name in French comedy (e.g., Roger Vitrac’s play of the same name, written in 1928 and published by Gallimard in 1946).
It is to Victor that I now turn since he is, in my view, the play’s pivotal centre, and Beckett’s alter ego to boot. He can best be understood in the light of the play’s rather stand-offish title, which is Greek for “freedom”. Surprisingly enough, this Greek word had been used by Beckett before, as the following quotation from Murphy (1938), his first novel, makes clear. In the seventh chapter Miss Coulihan stirs a fire in vain: “The turf was truly Irish in its eleutheromania [frantic search for freedom], it would not burn behind bars.”15 A witty, seemingly flippant remark, whose more serious implication Beckett was to pick up some ten years later. Moreover, he originally called the play Éleuthéromane (The Eleutheromaniac), according to Deirdre Bair, Beckett’s first biographer —– a title he apparently found unsatisfactory.16 In my view the eponymous character in the novel Murphy should indeed be considered the ancestor to Victor Krap: both are world-weary anti-heroes, failed writers, and seedy solipsists, who share the search for Nothing and non-being, as the following quotations will make clear. After having played a game of chess with Mr Endon, a mental patient, Murphy experiences a supreme moment in which he sees Nothing:
He began to see Nothing, that colourlessness which is such a rare postnatal treat, being the absence (to abuse a nice distinction) not of percipere [to perceive] but of percipi [to be perceived]. His other senses also found themselves at peace, an unexpected pleasure. Not the numb peace of their own suspension, but the positive peace that comes when the somethings give way, or perhaps simply add up, to the Nothing, than which in the guffaw of the Abderite [the laughing philosopher Democritus] naught is more real (p. 168).
This unexpected confession should be seen in connection with an earlier reference in the novel to the seventeenth-century Belgian philosopher, Arnold Geulinx: “Where you can do nothing, there wish nothing, or in other words, Nothing is to be done for naught. [This is] the highest principle of ethics.”17 Murphy feels the same impulse to renounce everything: “I am not of the big [external] world, I am of the little [interior] world,” he already announces at the novel’s beginning; his mind becomes “a mote [speck] in the dark of absolute freedom (p. 123).
Here are Victor Krap’s seminal digressions on Freedom and Nothing:
I have always wanted to be free. I don’t know why. Nor do I know what it means, to be free. If you were to pull all my nails out, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But although I can’t put it in words, I do know what it is. I have always desired it. I still desire it. That’s all I desire. At first I was a prisoner of other people. So I left them. Then I was the prisoner of myself. That was worse. So I left myself (p. 147).
When asked how he manages to live, he answers:
By being the least possible. By not moving, not thinking, not dreaming, not speaking, not listening, not perceiving, not knowing, not wishing, not being able, and so on. I believed that that was where my prisons lay (p. 140).
The emphasis put on ‘doing nothing’ in order `to be nothing’ by both Murphy and Victor clearly points up the philosophical concept of the Void or the Naught, which is also a key notion in a certain type of mysticism throughout the centuries that goes by the name of Negative Mysticism, as opposed to what is more widely known as positive, lyrical mysticism. To experience ‘Nothing’ is the mystic’s ultimate aim, though this mystical at-one-ness is seldom fully achieved. Already in Beckett’s very first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, the protagonist calls himself “un mystique manqué” (a dud sage) and a “John of the Crossroads...a border man” —– a richly ironical reference to St John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century Carmelite contemplative, and the author of such mystical works as The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul.18
In my view, Beckett’s work can be read (among other valuable approaches) as fictional and dramatic renderings of the successive descents into that Dark Night, the via negativa —– a topic that Beckett was well acquainted with, as is evident extra-textually from his jottings in the Dream notebook and from his conversations with Charles Juliet. It is also evident from the many intertextual references in his work, notably to the fountainhead of negative mysticism, Pseudo-Dionysius, to Areopagite and, somewhat simply, to Denis, the famous 5th century Syrian monk who speaks of the Godhead as the “Absolute Nothing” which can only be referenced through language in terms of negation. God or Ultimate Being can only be approached through detachment from the world, dispossession of all material things, annihilation of the self, and renunciation of all forms of being and knowing, in a word: non-being.19
I consider Victor’s great and moving monologues on freedom and nothing, then, to be the first stirrings in Beckett’s drama of the via negativa as the necessary prerequisite to his becoming an artist and perhaps a saint, although a failed one at that. Admittedly, too often to our taste Victor refuses to elaborate, restricting himself to the refrain “I don’t know” (also a recurrent phrase in Waiting for Godot) but then even the later Beckett always strove to avoid definition. At the very end of the play, we see him lying down, “turning his emaciated back on humanity” (p. 170). In any event, Beckett’s profound philosophical pessimism, accepting waiting, solitude, and silence, has —– strangely enough —– a liberating effect on readers and spectators alike. Eleutheria is actually far less of a failure, thematically speaking, than is usually thought. But I do admit that in Beckett’s subsequent drama beginning with Waiting for Godot, his philosophy or Weltanschauung is much better incorporated within the plays themselves, whereas in Eleutheria it is —– to use Henry James’s well-known distinction —– more “stated” than “shown”.
To end, some brief comments on the play’s dramatic structure. Comparatively speaking, Eleutheria is certainly much better than Beckett’s earlier attempts at writing drama in Le Kid (1931), apparently a pungent satire on Corneille’s Le Cid and its dramatic conventions, and Human Wishes (1936), left unfinished, both of which are indeed (in the words of Ruby Cohn) “false starts.”20 Eleutheria is not only his first completed play, but also the first play in which Beckett puts forth —– albeit in embryonic form —– his views on drama and dramatic structuring. He evidently wishes to free himself from the Aristotelian conceptions of drama as having a proper beginning, middle and end and offering a final apotheosis accompanied by the classic catharsis or purgation of the audience’s emotions. Beckett hated what he called in his 1931 lectures the “snowball effect” of the ‘well-made play’, which he found untrue to the facts of life, the deplorable human condition, as he saw it.
Clearly, he also sought to free himself from the dramatic conventions of characterization. His characters are not intended to be full-fledged representations of reality, but are to be seen as staged embodiments of his personal views on life and the theatre, presented through irony, pastiche, and caricature. Hence the fact that the play offered no explanations for the behaviour of its characters.
Eleutheria is also quite interesting with regard to its detailed stage directions, in which Beckett distinguishes between the Main Action (“strictly speaking, less an action than a site, often empty”, my emphasis), taking place in the Krap’s family salon, and the brief, pantomime-like Marginal Action, which is the actor’s “own business”, taking place in Victor’s room. In the last act, the Krap salon has been pushed into the (orchestra) pit —– another Beckettian ambiguity, perhaps symbolising the death of the conventional theatre. If this is the case, Eleutheria would qualify as an example of the conference notion of aesthetic transgression or what I like to call dramaticide, that is, the killing of the conventional theatre conventions. There is, moreover, some sort of resemblance between Eleutheria and Ionesco’s absurdist play La cantatrice chauve (1950; The Bald Soprano), especially the first act, with a similar social setting (the Smith family) and a similar parodic content, although without Ionesco’s ultimate dramatic frenzy and collapse. I tentatively suggest, then, that Beckett’s Eleutheria can be seen as a minor antecedent or forerunner of this century’s avant garde theatre, Waiting for Godot, of course, being the prime example.
As is to be expected, the play abounds with self-conscious, meta-theatrical allusions, ranging from Henri Krap’s acid comment: “From the dramatic point of view there’s no point in my wife’s absence” (p. 24), to the Glazier’s pointed answer to the question about the play’s supposed meaning, “We have to keep the punters [“les badaux” - the gaping onlookers] amused” (p. 96) and his mocking conclusion, “Can’t you see that we’re all revolving round something that has no meaning? We have to find a meaning for it, otherwise there is no other option than to bring the curtain down” (p. 112).21
Since my time is running out, these few examples will have to suffice in order to illustrate, however briefly, the many ‘pre-echoes’ or foreshadowings in Eleutheria that point forward to Beckett’s later works, notably Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape, Embers, and Company. Nor can we go more deeply now into the play’s rich intertextuality, that is, the many literary allusions to some twenty or so other European authors (above all Shakespeare. Victor, for example, ‘hamletizes’ throughout the play: “I must say...I am not”; “to open [a door] or not to open, that is the - ”; “Where is the method in this madness?”; “our time here is ended”; “there are the rubs,” etcetera). There are also several witty allusions to and parodies of works of Irish dramatists like Sheridan’s A School for Scandal and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest —– plays that are similarly peopled by a salon of hypocrites —– and to Ibsen and Strindberg and also to the French theatre, especially Molière’s comedies, Alfred Jarry’s violent farce Ubi Roi and to the contemporary George Feydeau-like bourgeois theatre in Beckett’s own days.21
So all in all there is much to praise in Eleutheria, in spite of the complaints of most early Beckett critics about the play’s essentially static nature and about Victor’s “facelessness” (Knowlson and Pilling), the “crude” technical device of a split stage in order to achieve a contrapuntal action (Fletcher & Spurling) and other crritics’ grievances.22 Surely, the latter complaint ignores the symbolic effect of the two simultaneous sets or stage territories, representing the two opposed ways of life of the Krap circle and of Victor Krap. However, Ruby Cohn’s dissatisfaction with Victor as not being presented ironically enough (unlike the other characters), and of the play as being too “full” holds more water.23 Indeed, we are yet very far away from the famous marginal note in the typescript of That Time: “Less is more.” It must be remembered, though, that Eleutheria was only Beckett’s first exploration into the new territory that was to yield such a rich harvest later.
This brings me to the final question for tonight: Why did Beckett consider it a failure, and why was he so strictly against it being printed and performed? Even recognizing all of its artistic weaknesses (especially in Act III), his main reason, I suspect, was because of the inclusion of certain personal biographical reminiscences that ultimately prevented him from achieving the kind of artistic distance that he needed but could not find at the time of writing. I am thinking of the absurdly intense hunt for Victor organized by his anxiety-ridden mother, who like Beckett’s own mother, preferred her son to have a decent profession rather than to live in “sordid inertia”. Beckett may also later have found the long digressions on euthanasia and suicide, offering an escape from the horrors of existence, to be too direct and therefore embarrassing, as are also some of Victor’s outcries against the horrors of life. Or, for example, the play’s central passage, again quite possibly autobiographical in nature, describing Mr. & Mrs. Krap’s boat trip, which, in part, resembles a similar event so movingly described in Krapp’s Last Tape where it finds its proper place, thematically integrated into old Krapp’s memories of a former love affair. Finally, Victor’s dream of his father standing on the diving board, telling his son to plunge in after him (pp. 118, 154-155) might well have been an unpleasant memory for Beckett, which only much later found its proper place in Embers, and in Company.
However that may be, I hope to have at least convinced you that Eleutheria is worth having, worth studying, and —– above all —– worth seeing. I also hope you are by now as eager as I and many others all around the world are, to see it actually performed in full freedom (pace Lindon and the Beckett Estate).
Amsterdam, December 1997. Marius Buning
1 Samuel Beckett, ELEUTHERIA. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1995, with an ‘avertissement’ by Jérôme Lindon.
2 Eleuthéria: A Play by Samuel Beckett. New York: Foxrock Inc, 1995. Trans. Michael Brodsky, Introd. by S.E. Gontarski, Acknowledgements by Barney Rosset. The American edition was favourably reviewed by Mel Gussow, “Waiting for Eleuthéria,” (although with some reservation about the translation) in The New York Times Book Review: June 25, 1995, and by Jonathan Kalb, “Eleuthéria,” in The Village Voice: June 1995.
3 Cited by H. Porter Abbott in Beckett Writing Beckett: The Author in the Autograph (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 1996), pp. 66-67. On Eleutheria Abbott writes: “it is indeed a remarkable play, hardly the dismissable text that some have made it out to be” (p. 86). James Knowlson in his Samuel Beckett: A Life (London: Bloomsbury, 1996) quotes Beckett as saying that the play was “too dreadful to be published” (p. 669).
4 Dougald McMillan, “Le Discours de la Méthode inédit de Samuel Beckett,” in Revue d’Esthétique, numéro hors-série, ed. Pierre Chabert (Paris: Editions Jean-Michel Place, l99O): lO1-109; ibidem, “Eleuthéria: extrait du manuscrit inédit”: 111-135.
5 Richard Begam, “Waiting for Eleuthéria,” in The Beckett Circle, vol. 17, no. 1 (Spring 1995): 13.
6 Gerry Dukes, “Eleuthéria: A Play in Three Acts,” in The Recorder, The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, vol. 8, no.2 (Fall 1955): 133-139.
7 Gerry Dukes, “A version that makes free with Beckett,” in The Irish Times, Saturday, June 24, 1995.
8 Barney Rosset in a telephone communication, 15 April 1996.
9 See n.5, pp.13-14.
10 For the full text of Three Dialogues, see R. Cohn (ed.), Samuel Beckett. Disjecta, Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder, 1981), pp. 138-148 [p. 139].
11 Marius Buning, “Samuel Beckett’s Negative Way: Intimations of the ‘via negativa’ in his late plays,” in European Literature and Theology in the Twentieth Century: Ends of Time, eds. D. Jaspers and C. Crowder (London: Macmillan, 1989): pp. 129-142.
12 Jurg Laederach, “Salonkomödie und Säurebad: Über Samuel Becketts nachgelassenes Stuck Eleuthéria,” in Theater Heute, vol. 10, no. 1. (1995): 1-5.
13 Dougald McMillan and Martha Fehsenfeld, “Le Kid, Human Wishes & Eleuthéria,” in Beckett in the Theatre (London: John Calder, 1988), p. 47.
14 According to S.E. Gontarski, see n.2, p. 134.
15 Samuel Beckett, Murphy (London: Calder & Boyers, 1970), pp. 91-92, italics mine.
16 Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (New York: Harcourt
Brace, Jovanovich, 1978), p. 361. According to H. Porter Abbott, another possible source might be Oscar Wilde’s diptych of poems entitled “Eleuteria” (see n.3, p. 59).
17 See n. 13, p. 54.
18 Samuel Beckett, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (Dublin: The Black Cat Press, 1992), p. 186; for a reference to Pseudo-Dionysius, see ibid., p. 17.
19 Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names and Mystical Theology, ed. John D. Jones. Milwaukee: Marquette UP, 1980.
20 Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973), p. 122.
21 For intertextual details, see n. 13, pp.35-45.
22 J. Fletcher & John Spurling, “The One That Got Away: Eleuthéria (1947),” in Beckett: A Study of his Plays (London: Methuen, 1972), pp. 47-54; James Knowlson and John Pilling, “Eleuthéria,” in Frescoes of the Skull (London: John Calder, 1979), pp. 23-38.
23 Ruby Cohn, “The Play That Wasn’t Staged: Eleuthéria,” in Just Play (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988), pp. 163-172.
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