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Beckett’s Absurdist Plays are a Tragic Comfort for the Twenty-First Century Person

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

By Lillian Mottern

I recently saw Samuel Beckett’s very short play Quad (also called Quad i + ii) at the Hammer Museum, in a production directed by UCLA drama professor Michael Hackett. Quad is rarely done because it’s short and it’s weird -- weird even for Beckett who is famous for writing a three-hour play about a woman buried in a pile of sand -- but the simple strangeness of the piece makes it striking when contrasted with Beckett’s longer, more complex works. Reliant on movement to make its points, Quad does away with language altogether, so there is little fluff to distract from what Beckett is trying to say. There’s very little fluff. It’s kind of pushing it to call Quad a play, actually, but I digress.

In Beckett’s script, Quad is described as "[a] piece for four players, light, and percussion." In performance, it consists of four figures, each one in either a white, blue, red, or yellow hooded cloak, who, accompanied by dissonant-sounding percussion instruments (each character is accompanied by their own specific sound), move around and through a square of white masking tape secured to the floor. Unlike movement pieces that rely on improvisation, the imaginative work that has come out of the improv game Viewpoints, for example, Quad’s movements are calculated and predictable; routine, almost. The players move on and off-stage according to a specific geometric pattern; it’s such a predictable pattern that, after about five minutes, Quad actually becomes a bit hypnotic. My friend who’d accompanied me rubbed her eyes when the lights came back up. “Jesus, I think I was in a trance,” she said. Quad is thankfully only twenty minutes long; who knows how much control Beckett would be able to exert over our minds, given the time?

Other than the incredible feeling of being smarter and better-dressed than everyone else, an emotion inevitably felt by the audience (several of whom were wearing berets) during our twenty-minute viewing of Quad, the play doesn’t give its viewers much to take away. But this is fine if Quad is approached not as a stand-alone example of Beckett’s work but rather an accessory to his other plays; a device with which to illuminate the broader themes that characterize all of his work. In all its peculiar repetition, Quad is relatively simple to dissect, if we do, in fact, look at it in the context of Beckett’s other pieces. What do the characters in Quad spend the entire play doing? The same thing; they cannot stop doing the same thing over and over and over. Admittedly, there are more complex interpretations of the piece, but Quad seems best characterized as a heavily distilled version of the trope that permeates most of Beckett’s work; the idea of being trapped in a perpetual state of stagnancy, while the outside world is decentered and out-of-control.

Broadly, Samuel Beckett’s plays are eerie explorations of the stagnancy of human life and often come to the conclusion that a stagnant existence, be it physical, mental, or existential, will inevitably drive one to madness. Beckett’s most well-known play, Waiting for Godot, has immobility in its very title and the concept of immobility is represented within the play by Godot, an elusive character who, because he never actually shows up, prevents the two main characters Estragon and Vladimir from ever escaping the constraints of the stage where they must wait for him. It was in Waiting for Godot that Beckett penned the line that would define much of his later work: “habit is a great deadener.” Beckett equates the idea of “habit” with immobility and stagnancy, implying that with habit comes stability or the lack of movement. In a striking juxtaposition to this idea, though, most of Beckett’s plays are actually about the absence of stability. Be it, Winnie, a woman buried up to her neck in a pile of sand in Happy Days, or Estragon and Vladimir, the unfortunate protagonists of Waiting for Godot, who are obsessed, amongst other things, with the idea of hanging themselves, Beckett’s protagonists do not evoke the stability associated with “habit.”

Yet, all of these unstable characters are obsessed with routine; Winnie peers into her hand mirror every morning to asses the face that barely surfaces the pile of sand, and Vladimir and Estragon are waiting, of course, for the elusive Godot, and spend every day pacing a small plot of land, hoping he’ll show up, their actions growing increasingly monotonous with time (they take off their boots, they put on their boots, they eat carrots, they eat turnips). As Estragon comments dryly, but with a certain tragic earnestness, to Vladimir, “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?”.

Beckett became a key figure in le théâtre de l'absurde (the theatre of the absurd) movement that emerged in post-World War Two Paris, which is a theatrical movement that focuses on characters operating within worlds devoid of meaning. The lack of meaning causes the characters to become obsessed with routine, which inhibits their mobility. In this sense, the environment plays a large role in the development of the individual character and it is likely that the immobility of Beckett’s characters is indicative of their unstable environment. In assesing the world surrounding Beckett’s characters, we’re forced to contemplate the side-effects of a fragmented society. Could an obsession with the “deadening” repetition of familiar habits, in fact, be a sign of a decentered world?

In the present day, when our culture seems to invent a new version of reality every day (often through a tweet), the fragmentation of Beckett’s society feels frighteningly relatable. A few weeks ago, Trump was acquitted. Last week California caught on fire again. Several of my acquaintances have been convinced (incorrectly) that they’ve contracted the coronavirus, and our climate is on the brink of collapse. To say our society is destabilized is putting it nicely. Still, even while our world is highly decentered and unstable, there is no denying that we each ascribe to a set of established routines; patterns of existence that give us the structure we need to live our lives with the semblance of stability. Beckett’s characters are all mad but they are zealous in their routine existences. Beckett’s plays are striking because they’re so accurate, in all their mad absurdity, to the experiences of people in the real world. I’d argue this is why Beckett is still done so frequently, why an obscure play of his like Quad was deemed interesting enough to produce in 2020; we see something of ourselves in his deranged protagonists and their volatile environments.

“My humanity is consuming me,” I told my friend, a few hours later as we ate the childish dinner we often eat, which is buttered pasta, on the floor of her apartment. “Every day of my life is the same. Society has ruined me.” My friend reminded me that I am 19-years-old and have plenty of time to eat things other than buttered pasta.

The thought that one might be unconsciously trapped in their routine existence is understandably disturbing and Beckett doesn’t deny his fear of stagnancy, but he also embraces the feeling of being stuck in place as inevitable in a fragmented world. A line from one of his prose pieces, the absurdist novel Murphy, expresses this idea quite well; Beckett writes, with his signature mix of tragedy and comedy, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” This quote, in addition to being a great quote, is indicative of what Beckett has been pointing to throughout all of his work: the inevitability of stagnancy. The sun cannot help but shine and, because of its position in the sky, it must shine on the Earth. In one sense, this is tragic, because the sun is immobilized by its stagnant existence, but on the other hand, it’s comical that there is no other option for the sun; it has to shine on the sorry assemblage of human beings below it. Its stagnancy is inescapable.

In a similar sense, human stagnancy is inevitable and must be accepted as such. Winnie will remain buried up to her neck in sand and we will continue to eat pasta cross-legged on the floors of our apartments and obsessively watch the news; we will attempt to maintain our sense of stability, even as the world crumbles around us. (It’s very easy to become overly-dramatic when discussing Samuel Beckett, but, personally, I think it’s warranted drama.) The unfortunate truth of Beckett’s work is that in a fragmented society, it is difficult not to become immobilized by one’s own routine existence; routine is necessary in a decentered environment; it’s a survival mechanism; it gives the illusion of stability. And as human beings, it’s inevitable that we will fall prey to it. Basically, we’re doomed to be a little bit boring and predictable forever. Now get me a colorful cloak before I freak myself out too much.

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