Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I wanted to comment on something that was said in class the other day. I'm paraphrasing here, but it was "without action, there is no play. There is a performance, but no play." My question is, why then, is Samuel Beckett considered one of the greatest PLAYwrights of the 20th century. His most famous work (arguably) would be Waiting for Godot, which was described to me as "a play where nothing happens...twice. Indeed, I can't say there is much action in Godot, just a lot of waiting, a couple of strange characters, and an immense amount of dialogue that doesn't seem to go anywhere. If you had to list the "actions" in that play it'd be quite difficult and you'd end up having a rather short list. Yet the play goes on for 2 hours. Another work, ironically titled Play consists of three heads peaking out from three giant urns, talking almost overlappingly, all describing the same love scenario, from different points of view, rather abstractly. Again, nothing actually happens. They talk about things that happened, but even then, it goes so fast, its very hard to keep up (Beckett does the audience a favor by having the 2nd act be a repetition of the first case you didn't catch it all the first time around). Another example, Happy Days: the main character is buried up to her waist in the middle of the desert. In the 2nd act she's buried up to her head. Not exactly a lot of action there. Maybe a story. Maybe nothing at all. (I'm still trying to understand Beckett, I just know I love him)

I could keep going down the list of Beckett plays. Most of which follow this similar pattern of dialogue with little action or need for a story. Well, theres usually a story, but its not very often obvious, and I'd dare to say, even less important. So then how is it that without actions, Beckett has been able to create some of the most avant-garde, influential, and unique plays of the last 100 years? 

I think we have to come back to that question of "What is a play?" which I find just as impossible to define as "What is music?" or "What is art?" Aristotle definitely had some thoughts on the subjects, but lets be honest, there wasn't that much variety when he was around. In an age where an overturned urinal is voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century, I'd have to say that the lines that have previously confined the realms of theatre (and really all art) have been no only blurred, but completely erased. Beckett's shortest play lasts 45 seconds. It's called Breath. Here it is, in a nutshell: lights up on a mess of a stage; long inhale; long exhale; lights down. Now there are definitely categories within theatre that have their...not boundries, but guidelines: a "well-made-play," realism, experimental, post-modern, etc. But to stay that one performance is a play and another isn't because of a set of criteria I find a little absurd and contradictory to the very nature of art. 

But maybe thats just me.



  1. Couldn't agree more.

    I see the traditional rules about theater (plot, action, three-act structure, unity of time and space et cetera) a bit like physics: you take years in school to learn about speed and volume and gravity and all that crap, and when you go to college you learn quantum physics and find out everything you had studied so far was wrong.

    Frustrating, but there's no way around it. You need both: without high school physics you would never be able to understand quantum physics, and without quantum physics you would take an oversimplified version of the way things work to be the absolute truth.

    Someone said you've got to know the rules before you break them. I'll second that, and add a bit of my own: rules are better understood not as laws, but tools. You don't have to use every tool available at the hardware store, but you've got to be familiar enough with them to know what they were made for, what other uses you can find for them in your personal experience and when it's in your best interests to cast them aside and get your hands dirty.

    PS: love Beckett, too. "Endgame" is certainly in my all-time top five personal favorite plays. "Happy Days", though, sucks ass. Big time.

  2. i would argue that happy days's success depend entirely on the actress playing Winnie. if you have a good actress, she can carry the show. otherwise it'll fall on its face very quickly.
    when i saw it, fiona shaw played winnie!