Sophoclean Beckett in Performance
Keywords:Samuel Beckett, Sophocles, tragedy, parataxis
While Samuel Beckett’s innovations for the stage place him in the vanguard of late twentieth-century theatre, his debt to ancient Greek drama is seldom discussed. This article argues that the richest engagement between Beckett’s theatre and the tragedy and comedy of ancient Athens can be seen in the performance, that is, postpublication phase of his plays’ composition. Beckett’s directorial control created an ongoing compositional process; using the evidence of his production notes, I demonstrate how his performative aesthetics echo what is known of Greek practice and, in particular, how he makes mimetic use of an ekphrastic diegesis, blending telling and showing in a process of visualization. The argument is illustrated through a comparative analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and the performance history of Krapp’s Last Tape. While both play texts involve a central dramatic analepsis which triggers the realization of an unwitting quasi-nostos, in performance Beckett’s play increasingly emphasizes such Sophoclean elements as a circumscribed mise en scène, restrained bodily movement, ekphrastic spectacle, and a heightened use of both extrascenic and distanced space. Underscoring these correspondences is a shared paratactic modality, in evidence at key moments on the level of the lexis (resulting in meaningful pauses and appositional juxtapositions in the dialogue) as well as in phenomenological aspects of each play’s performance.
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