Interrogating Theatre: Samuel Beckett’s Negative Theology and the Eschatological Performance

“The bastard! He doesn’t exist”

Endgame, Samuel Beckett

Beckett’s oeuvre reflects the ‘transcendental homelessness’ of modernity and his characters illustrate dilemmas of inauthentic existence, that is, of life unable or unwilling to take responsibility for its actions. These existential concerns, the vague but persistent hint at some transcendental meaning, mixed in with Beckett’s uncompromising aesthetics of reduction prompts one to delve into deeper intersection between Beckett and what due to lack of other term is known as apophatic or negative theology.

Beckett’s style, never very ornate, from Proust onwards became more and more minimal in approach. Beckett turns towards sentence fragments without verbs to infuse them with action, so that they turn into images with very little of the linear thrust of discourse. On the other hand, sometimes a single sentence undergoes a set of variations that are so minimally different from one another that they also approach motionlessness. The late theatre abandons plot, character and ‘set’, in any conventional sense. In a play such as What Where the singularity of character is replaced by a succession of interchangeable ghosts that differ from each other by nothing more than the middle phoneme of their name (Bam, Bem.Bim, Bom), by a phonetic place of articulation that slides progressively forward. Plot is non-existent in Beckett’s late plays; nothing is resolved because nothing ever happens. And finally Beckett’s set do not define places. They are non-places, as in the case of Ohio Impromptu, for example, or metaphoric image of some abstract meaning equally non-place able as in Not I or Rockaby.

In Beckett’s late theatre, there is a recognizable tendency towards ‘less ness’- a tendency that could be described as ‘negative’, logic of subtraction prevails. What then is ‘negative’ in ‘negative theology?’ Does it also subtract something? Negative theology holds that God cannot be captured by human conceptuality and therefore by language. So it is negative only in the sense that, since we cannot know what God is, or since God ‘is’ not anything in the sense that he is not a being(confined within meta-physics), it is sometimes easier to say that God is ‘not’. Negative theology subtracts only insofar as it can state with certainty that God is not good (or bad, for that matter), but it cannot say in positive terms what He is, since that is outside of human power to conceive.

Representation is doubly framed in Beckett’s late plays, as the text constitutes the characters’ attempts to represent them, to bear witness to their existence through their narratives. The fictional world of the plays therefore revolves around the production and performance of narratives. In many of the plays, these performances occur on a stage which is primarily a scene of judgement, but in others, the performances constitute the rites of transformation or metamorphosis which resist the structures of identity and representation authorized by the dominant laws. The plays also draw attention to their own status as performances.  In each case, the impulse or imperative to create order and coherence, on the part of the audience and the characters, is set against the failure of both the characters and verbal/visual text to achieve the fixity and mastery  with which the traditional structures of narrative and  visual representation  are associated.  In this way the minimalist approach of Beckett debases the traditional language of theatre and brings

profane within the arena of theatre. Some of Beckett’s plays questions the authority of traditional theatre and its link with theology, where the writer/director is the all knowing God. With Beckett’s questioning of the whole process of theatricality the omnipotent gaze of the writer or director falls apart and with the characters he himself becomes a part of the self –reflective performance happening on stage. This process of negation of authorial position questions the coherent identity of theological discourse within theatre itself, but it is never a total negation of theology within the performance. So, it would be easier to say that Beckett uses ‘negative theology,’ as a process to make his plays profane but never a total overcoming of theology is ever attained.

 Theatre can also present itself either as an already constituted world or draw attention to the process of its staging. The former practice can be seen as reproducing the model of a universe and created  in all material respect abandoned by an absent creator who yet remains the guardian of the truth or meaning of the created world. Derrida points out the theological implications of such a conception of theatre in his essay on Artaud, The Theatre of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation: “The stage is theological for as long as its structure, following the entirety of tradition, comports the following elements: an author creator who, absent and from afar, is armed with a text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulates the time or the meaning of the representation…..He lets representation represent him through representatives, directors or actors, enslaved interpreters who represent characters who, primarily through what they say, more or less directly represent the thought of the ‘creator’. Theatre which posits the dramatic universe as an already constituted world and theatre which disrupts this position are always in a tension in Beckett’s work. Beckett in Waiting for Godot mimics and exploits the theological structure of theatre focusing on an absent master or in the case of Play, What Where and Catastrophe to tyrannical figures. He neither affirms, nor negates. This distinctive feature of Beckett, associates him with the tradition of ‘negative theology’, which is neither ‘theology’ nor ‘atheism’, but never less corrupts the theological.

The Eschatological Performance

Among the Indian dramatist, Badal Sircir is closest to Beckett. His Ebong Indrajit became a hallmark of modern Indian theatre during the 60’s. Written around 1963, the play revolves around a writers search for subject of his play. He summons Amal, Vimal, Kamal and Indrajit out of the audience for the subject of his play. The first three pass from school to college to working life, following the predictable vector of middle –class tedium. They are therefore unsuitable for dramatic work. Indrajit however is markedly different. Forever restless, he looks for a way out. Drained by a life of meaninglessness, Indrajit realizes that each break he makes from his pre-ordained middle class life, but still it brings him back in the same track. He then admits to the writer that he is indeed Nirmal. But the writer refuses to accept. While the others are content with their banal existence, the writer says to Indrajit that both of them are different-special.

Ebong Indrajit, very much belongs to the sub-genre of ‘Absurd- Theatre’, where human beings inauthenticity is vividly portrayed. When mans basic needs are fulfilled, then his quest leads him to the basic question ‘what next’? Here Indrajit becomes Camus’ Sisyphus. Sircir’s other two plays from this era Baki Itihaas (The Other History, 1964)

and Pagla Ghora (Mad Horse, 1969) are landmark of his ‘existential’ phase. The first deals with a couple imaginatively reconstructing the circumstances of a casual acquaintance’s suicide, only to realize that neither of their dramatic re-creations is true.   The man killed himself because of the burden of that ‘other history’, (for instance Auschwitz or Vietnam), the history that kills millions of people everyday but no one takes the responsibility directly. Sircir places the collective responsibility for this heinous crime on all of humanity. Pagla Ghora depicts four men at the graveyard overseeing the cremation of a suicide victim, a girl whom they all knew. Through scenes from each of their lives, we are lead to understand that every one of these men is responsible for the death whether literal or metaphorical.

With these productions and publications Badal Sircir became a common  name in Indian theatre. Yet everything was not well. Richard Schechner captures this mood of the dramatist in one of his letter “Badal knew that ‘modern theatre’ of psychology, drama, the spoken word, proscenium stage, the box set, separate audience was dead. Worse, it was rotting”. [1]

Sircar, was dissatisfied with stage, but he simply could not go back to Indian traditional folk theatre. He believed that the time of proscenium stage was over. With the withering away of the stage it was truly a time of ‘End of Theatre’ and birth of a third theatre or we may call it ‘After-Theatre’ or the ‘Eschatological Performance’. Improvisation in performance had a role to play in this kind of performance rather than the written script. The status of written word gets debased and through it the theological concept of “Book” is desacralised. Third theatre gives prior importance to bodily performance than elaborate stage craft or anything. In fact generally there is no stagecraft at all. Human bodies become street, house, bridge etc. In this way the body becomes the central category in the performance rather than the theological emphasis on speech. In the earlier section we discussed how the director/writer is an omnipresent factor in theatre and like ‘God’, armed with a script and from afar controls the actors and passive audience. In third theatre of Badal Sircir this role of the author/director is curtailed through the breaking of the hierarchy between director and actors by giving more space to innovation. On another level the hierarchy between the actors and audience is broken by encouraging the audience to participate in the performance, like Michil (1972). By tracing the genealogy of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ we can say Samuel Beckett in his plays debases traditional theological perspectives of theatre through his use of negative theology. On the other hand, in our sub-continent Badal Sircar, after doing some absurd plays moves on to totally negate ‘proscenium stage’, and by it dismantles the structure of theology ingrained in theatre itself.

-written in 2015, Calcutta


1) Anna MacMullan :- Theater on Trial : Beckett’s later Drama
2 ) Kavita Nag :- Indian Theater : Modern

Jeet Bhattacharya
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