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Jennifer Stebick (John Carroll University)
Beckett’s Stage Fright: the Inadequacy of Performance in Play

When one looks for criticism and scholarship on Samuel Beckett’s Play, one finds the market more or less “cornered” by Florida State’s S.E. Gontarski. One cannot deny the validity in Gotarski’s arguments about Beckett’s transformation from playwright to theatrical artist in what he calls Beckett’s “late theatre,” but perhaps Play is not the catalyst for this change; perhaps we do not have to accommodate Play with a “liberal” view of Modernism—that performance is text. In my essay, I argue that in Play, one can see a more conventional, Joycean Modernism, that the text is autonomous art and the performance an outside referent, that Beckett’s drama indicates a need to cling to traditional Modern aesthetics of authorship. Indeed, one may even go as far as to say that Play exposes the inadequacy of performance and how performance violates texts, while it also dramatizes the playwright’s struggle between loyalty to his texts and their performances.

The first half of my essay considers Play’s stage directions12 and Beckett’s comments to producers and actors involved with Play’s performances. In so doing, I conclude that Beckett’s drama resists and limits performance, and suggests a playwright who is reluctant to “offer an object” he creates on a paper to the stage. Yet despite the evidence I find in stage directions and production notes, one cannot forget that Beckett chooses to write Play in a genre that demands performance. With a look at the “story” in Play, one can see how the playwright struggles to define where his original, definitive work lies. To reduce Play to a compositional allegory of sorts seems a fatal mistake, but as this drama features a conventional story-line so rare in Beckett’s oeuvre (in Play’s case, the love triangle), one must believe that the story serves as much more than mere story, or the remnants thereof. That said, one may say that the tension between a married man (M), his “wife” (W1), and his mistress (W2), colors the tension between playwright (M), text (W1), and performance (W2). My essay offers a careful consideration of this possible allegorical triangle to deduce that Play should not be the beginning of Beckett’s eventual embrace of performance as an autonomous piece of art. What, then, is Play’s legacy in Beckett’s body of work? Could Play imply that Beckett’s move to an authorial role as director is more of a struggle than a smooth transition, more of a necessity than a choice?

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