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Dario Del Degan (University of Toronto)
The Portrait of that Time

    A new phase in the scholarship on the work of Samuel Beckett began in 1996 with James Knowlson’s finding that the visual arts held a prominent position in the artist’s aesthetic development. The biographer’s discovery and analysis of six notebooks/diaries that Beckett kept during a six month pilgrimage to Germany as a young man in 1936-37, together with insights provided by the artist himself during the composition of his memoirs, initiated a new discourse in Beckettian aesthetics; one that converges on visual art principles. The revelation of Beckett’s profound appreciation for the phenomenon of perception generated by visual art accounts for his distillation of language in his prose, and for his attention to the strong visual component of the stage. A Beckett play in performance displaces the cause and effect structure of traditional drama with the concentration of the dramatic action into a precise stage picture. Based on the knowledge that visual art influenced Beckett’s stage imagery, this paper investigates the ways in which the theatre offered the playwright the possibility of creating “staged paintings” by examining his interplay of text and image in That Time to generate a theatrical situation wherein images engender words and language create images.

    At the outset of That Time, Beckett educes the experience of viewing a painting by introducing into the verbal text a memory fragment recalling a time when the protagonist, Listener, sought comfort from dreary weather by viewing portraits in an art gallery. Emanating from one of three recorded voices played back in performance, voice C’s recollection of looking at pictures of people offers the auditor an indication that the piece presents Listener’s portrait. The figure on stage does not move or speak, but listens to voices from three distinct periods of his life recounting past experiences, uncovering a lifetime of isolation, emptiness, and misery. Aside from five brief interjections of facial expression--amounting to no more than the opening and closing of Listener’s eyes when the order of the three voices shifts, and closing the piece with a smile--the only visual focus for the entire play remains Listener’s face, suspended in midair under a tightly focused spotlight.

    Based on the first holograph of the play, James Knowlson and John Pilling assert that the inspiration to create a visual image of an old man sitting in the dark with long hair standing on end likely originates from one of William Blake’s engravings portraying the suffering of Job. The playback of Listener’s recorded memories from three distinct audio speakers “coming to him from both sides and above,” creates a triangular sonic form that closely resembles in shape the three girls who surround Job to listen to his past misfortunes in a Blake engraving entitled Job and His Daughters. Based on this transposition of aesthetic form, this paper examines how Beckett’s inspiration from visual art transpires in his stage works by examining how he uses text to invest the dramatic action in a strong stage picture.

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