Cambridge companion to beckett

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FORM AND THE VOID Beckett's Fin de partie and Ionesco's Les Chaises
T H E ST ARTING-POINT for this study is the observation — which I am not the first to make — of the remarkable degree of similarity in setting between Ionesco's Les Chaises and Beckett's Fin de partie, the one first produced in 1952, the other in 1957. Martin Esslin notes the similarity in passing;1 Rosette Lamont devotes anarticle2 to a comparison between the two plays, characterizing them as 'metaphysical farce', but does not draw any particular conclusion from the parallel stage settings. Richard M. Goldman notes the comparison made by critics, but in order to dismiss any real similarity between the two.a The points of comparison can be stated briefly. In both plays the set is extremely bare; we are inside a room,the walls forming a semi-circle in the case of Les Chaises. In both settings there are windows symmetrically placed to right and left, and a step-ladder in front of one of the windows. The symmetry in Fin de partie is emphasized by Hamm's position in his wheelchair in the centre of the stage, and his fanatical preoccupation with being exactly in the middle suggests a semi-circular stage rather thana square or oblong one, although this is not stated in the stage-directions. We learn subsequently in the case of both plays that the action takes place on a kind of island, isolated from the rest of the world by water. The lighting at the beginning of Les Chaises is dim; in Fin de partie it is 'greyish'.
The setting for Beckett's play has proved a fertile ground for symbol- hunters. Bell GaleChevigny has called it a 'womb-like room',4 and made it a visual image of Beckett's reportedly 'terrible memory of life in his mother's womb'.s She evokes another image, which has been observed by other critics,6 that of a skull, with the two windows as eyes on to the outside world, an image which would reinforce the feeling ofsemi-circularity which one has about the setting. In this interpretation,the stage becomes psychic reality itself, with the various characters representing different aspects of the psyche, complementary or warring. The interpretation of Beckett's couples — here Hamm and Qov — as opposing parts of the same individual's psyche is a commonplace of Beckett criticism — Beckett himself has given support to the idea in talking of his 'pseudocouples' — and, in so far asIonesco puts into the same kind of setting a similarly complementary couple, the same interpre- tation could be given to Les Chaises. It is clear that in neither case is there any attempt at conveying social reality: we are given a mythical, non-realistic setting, and any kind of interpretation we make is bound
to involve the inner world of the mind. Similar couples occurthroughout Beckett's work, Vladimir and Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky in En attendant Godot, Willie and Winnie in O les beaux jours being the best known. Among Ionesco's characters, Am£d6e and Madeleine in Amedie ou comment s'en dibarrasser spring to mind, and seem to represent the same sort of split as do the old couple in Les Chaises.
If we take the representation of some kind of psychic reality as astarting-point, the comparison begun in the basic stage setting can be continued along other lines. The couple in each case is made up of a creative part, the mind7 — Hamm's main occupation is the spinning of his tale, his 'novel', whereas the Old Man's life-work in Les Chaises is the preparation of a 'message' which will be communicated at the end of the play by the Orator — and a part whichassures day-to-day existence: Qov is the mobile one of the Hamm-Clov couple, and sees to Hamm's physical needs, while the Old Woman in Les Chaises is the epitome of the caring, suffocating and ultimately uncomprehending partner to would-be genius.
Other emotional and family ties are represented in the two plays. In Fin departie these are given concrete form in Hamm's aged parents who live in...