10 Minutes On… Samuel Beckett’s Breath

10 Minutes On… Samuel Beckett’s Breath

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>>Cathrine Brown: 10 Minutes on Samuel Beckett’s
Breath”. Curtain. One. Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous
rubbish. Hold about 5 seconds. Two. Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration
and slow increase of light reaching maximum together in about 10 seconds. Silence and hold about 5 seconds. Three. Expiration and slow decrease of light together
reaching minimum together light as in one in about 10 seconds and immediately cry as
before. Silence and hold about 5 seconds. Curtain. So here, between the two words ‘curtain’ , you’ve
got the entire script of a play. It has three acts, if act is the word, given
that the first is 5 seconds of silence over a stage littered with rubbish. The second’s a cry and then taking in of breath
for 10 seconds, which is held for a further 5. In the third act, there’s 10 seconds of breathing
out, a cry and then a further 5 seconds of silence. The lighting goes up with the inhalation and
down with the exhalation from 3 to 6 and back again if nought is darkness and ten is bright
as the stage directions tell us. This is a work by Samuel Beckett in his minimalist
phase after his most famous plays such as “Waiting for Godot”, “End Game” and “Happy
Days”. So what’s it about? Given that there are not many details to interpret
we may as well consider all of them. We find that the cry at the beginning and
the end is an instant of recorded vagitus. Of what? Vagitus – a baby’s birth cry. So maybe then this play is about human life
as reduced to its fundamental function, sound and metaphor – breath. And since there’s also expiration and the
play uses that word, not exhalation, it’s also about death. On this reading then we are born into a world
of rubbish. We breathe in, we breath out and that’s it. In the middle we wait, perhaps in our prime,
wait with bated breath to see what’s going to happen and as in “Waiting for Godot” not
very much does. As Pozzo says in “Godot” which written 16
years earlier: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams and instant, and
then it’s night once more” or as “A Piece of Monologue” written 10 years later more
succinctly puts it: “Birth was the death of him.” How on this reading should the breath sound? It is an amplified recording, but even then
I think, for it to be audible sound has to be made either by the lips
or by the throat and expiration using the first would sound light a sigh of relief. Thank goodness that’s over. When using second would sound like a helpless
death rattle. But why in this case does the lighting only
go from 3 to 6 and back again? Even if we accept that life is never bright,
surely death should be represented by darkness. And why have a second identical birth cry
after breathing out? To indicate that someone dying makes room
for someone else’s birth or to suggest second childhood or to suggest that we never really
grow up? In the play’s first performance as a skit
in Kennet Tynan’s erotic review “Oh!Calcutta!” on Broadway in 1969 it was eroticised by naked
bodies which were strewn among the rubbish. After all, there would be no birth cries without
sex and the word ‘vagitus’ is hardly innocent suggesting, as its first syllable does, more
the mother than the child. But Beckett, as was his wont when his stage
directions were stretched, was furious and nearly attempted legal action. Now, what grounds would he have had, his directions
specify miscellaneous rubbish, but does that mean that the rubbish may not have any particular
character? And he did write: “no verticals, all scattered
and lying.” So Beckett’s opposition in itself doesn’t
mean that we have to reject the an erotic interpretation, but as with our first idea,
there are problems: the slowness of the breathing, the pause in the middle. Is this tantrism? Other directors have imposed other interpretations,
also through the choice of rubbish. Damien Hirst’s film, viewable on Youtube,
uses medical rubbish along with an ash tray decorated with a swastika. You could, of course, always use a female
breath and see what that does to the play’s universality. Or perhaps this late 60’s play is in its minimalism
the equivalent of the painter Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 canvases of white paint or the composer
John Cage’s 1952 piano work, “4 minutes 33 seconds of silence”, in which the pianist
never plays a note. The responders to these works find meanings
according to the precise circumstances in which they’re responding to them. Light, which falls on the uneven paint
surface. The coughs and rustling programmes in the
audiences of Cage’s piece. Yet, “Breath” scarcely allows sufficient silence
for the audience to focus on the conditions in the theatre and unlike the Rauschenberg
and the Cage, “Breath” has several details which suggest certain interpretations and
yet don’t all work with any of them. The life and death interpretation doesn’t
quite work nor does the sex interpretation, so maybe “Breath” is like a mathematical equation
without a solution. You can try inserting any value of x, but
no value of x will solve the equation. That’s assuming that you attend to all of
the details, but only a reader of the play can do that, not a viewer. The viewer doesn’t know about the word ‘vagitus’
unless the entire script of the play is reprinted in the programme, and at present, doing that
would be for copyright reasons unaffordable. And that isn’t the greatest challenge of putting
on this play. How would you do it? As a stand alone piece of 35 seconds? Or as an introduction or epilogue to another
play? But which one? Damien Hirst making a film of the play didn’t
have to answer those questions and now that one’s thinking of an artist putting it on
perhaps it would work as installation art in a gallery, in a room of itself, with its
own lighting, playing on a loop; but in that case the breathing would be continuous and
life, albeit hesitantly, continuing. So let’s go back to the original. When Tynan asked Beckett for a contribution
to his review, Beckett wrote his contribution on the back of a postcard. Perhaps this play is not just set amongst
rubbish, but is rubbish. Was it a joke on Tynan, who was hoping for
something that would fit into his erotic review? And has it subsequently become a joke on us
for scrabbling around for meaning in the rubbish? Is in not so much a play as playing with us? Beckett decribed it as a farce in 5 acts. Is the farce not that of human life, but of
criticism? But in that case on whom is the joke given
that 85 milion people saw the 1314 performances on Broadway between 1974 and 1989, meaning
that is is by far the most watched of Beckett’s plays. He had, in any case, reached an extreme point
of his minimalism if not of irony. He wrote “Breath” soon after “Come and Go”
in which three women come and go off stage for a few minutes, and not long before “Not
I” the monologue of a very mouthy mouth. After that his plays, especially in the 1980’s,
became more obviously thematic. Beckett could have gone further in his minimalism,
he could have left out the suggested details and perhaps it tells us something that this
master of describing nothing and of draining away meaning, chose not to do so. Meanings are still in play. Thank you.

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