The Extinction of the Pantomimic Literary Imagination: Beckett’s Acts without Words

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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Figure 187: “Pierrot with Jumping Jacks” (1923) by Estonian artist Ado Vabbe (1892-1961); Tartu Museum, Tartu, Estonia

Beckett’s Acts without Words

Performers and directors completely defined pantomime culture after World War II, even if literary works sometimes inspired them. Pantomime came from performers and directors who wanted to control the imaginary lives they lived on stage rather than perform the lives assigned to them by the authors of dramatic texts. The literary imagination, which exerted so much influence over pantomime at the beginning of the twentieth century, has been completely absent from pantomime culture since Herzmanowsky-Orlando wrote scenarios in 1941 that he never even published, although by then he realized that theater implacably regarded pantomime as an obsolete genre. Since then, writers have seemed incapable of thinking pantomimically, incapable of imagining theatrical performance without speech, without assuming that spoken language causes and resolves all conflicts. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a sector of the Austro-German literary imagination turned to pantomime as a response to a perceived “crisis” in language. Pantomime allowed them to represent “invisible” zones of reality that eluded the power of language to reveal. Since World War II, however, dramatic writers generally have perceived a different sense of crisis in language: if anything, they have tried to restore credibility to language, which otherwise seemed to lack “authority” unless backed by incredible, unprecedented levels of physical violence. In reality, the dramatic literary imagination was afraid of performing bodies that did not speak, could not imagine life without voices, whereas actors and directors could.

In 1956, an English dancer and actor, Deryk Mendel (1920-2013), performed in a Paris cabaret a clown act based on the character of Frollo in Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. The management asked him to come up with a new Frollo piece for the next program. Mendel contacted several French absurdist dramatists in Paris, including Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), inviting them to write a piece for him. Beckett agreed, after his companion Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil (1900-1989) reported enthusiastically about Mendel’s performance. He wrote Act without Words, a pantomime for one actor, but the cabaret could not stage it because the text requires the suspension of scenic objects over the stage and the theater had no flyweight system (Knowlson 1996: 377-378). Eventually Mendel staged the piece in April 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, following the premiere performance of Beckett’s drama Endgame. Beckett saw the pantomime as an opportunity to commission his cousin John Stewart Beckett (1927-2007) to write incidental music for it. He claimed to have written the piece out of his affection for comic silent film performers like Buster Keaton (1895-1966), Ben Turpin (1869-1940), and Harry Langdon (1884-1944), but he probably would never have written a pantomime if Mendel had not invited him to and if Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil had not encouraged him to do it as a way of breaking out of a creative “impasse.” Act without Words takes place in the “dazzling light” of a desert. It begins with a man “flung” backwards on to the stage. He responds to the sound of a whistle to the right and to the left, but gets flung back each time. After performing each action, he “reflects,” but all of his actions fail to alleviate his lonely, isolated situation. Objects descend from the sky: a palm tree, a pair of tailor’s scissors, a carafe labeled “water,” a big cube, and then a smaller cube, but he does not notice the objects until the whistle calls his attention to them. He looks at his hands while “reflecting.” He tries to pile the cubes to reach the carafe, but falls instead. The carafe pulls away from his reach. A rope descends; he tries to climb it to reach the carafe, and when this fails, he cuts the rope to make a lasso by which he can capture the carafe, but this strategy also fails, as does his effort to hang himself. Another whistle beckons him from the right wing, but when he tries to exit, he gets flung back. When, however, a whistle sounds from the left wing, he does not move, but merely “reflects” and trims his nails with the scissors. The objects fly upward. When he sits on the big cube, it pulls upwards and dislodges the man. He lies on the ground. The carafe drops down to a few feet from him. The whistle sounds. But the man doesn’t move. The palm tree disappears, the whistle sounds, but the man doesn’t move. “He looks at his hands” (Beckett 1984: 37-40). In Act without Words, Beckett uses pantomime to construct an existential parable of human existence: a human body gets thrown into a deserted, inhospitable place from which no escape is possible. Life in this space offers temptations, rewards, hopes, opportunities, but these are all beyond man’s capacity to realize, they are illusions that leave man in a space he longs to escape. After much “reflection,” he realizes that he must refuse to obey the whistle calls of illusion, that he must find purpose within himself, in his hands, in his powerlessness, his non-response to external distractions. 

Beckett apparently wrote Act without Words II around the same time that he wrote Act without Words, but this second short pantomime did not have its premiere performance until 1960, in London. In this piece, the spectator sees a “neat pile of clothes” beside which, in “frieze effect,” are two sacks, B and A, and each contains a man. A long pole, called a “goad,” enters horizontally from the right. The goad patiently succeeds in prodding the man in sack A to move. “A, wearing shirt, crawls out of sack, halts, broods, prays, broods, gets to his feet, broods, takes a little bottle of pills from his shirt pocket, broods, swallows a pill, puts bottle back, broods, goes to clothes, broods, puts on clothes, broods, takes a large partly eaten carrot from coat pocket, bites off a piece, chews an instant, spits it out with disgust, puts carrot back, broods, picks up two sacks, carries them bowed and staggering half-way to left wing, sets them down, broods, takes off clothes (except shirt), lets them fall in an untidy heap, broods, takes another pill, broods, kneels, prays, crawls into sack and lies still, sack A being now to left of sack B.” The goad enters again, this time on a wheel, and prods B, who crawls out of the sack and performs a variety of different actions, among others: “he consults a large watch, puts watch back, does exercises, consults watch, takes a tooth brush from shirt pocket and brushes teeth vigorously, puts brush back, rubs scalp vigorously, takes a comb from shirt pocket and combs hair, puts comb back, consults watch, goes to clothes, puts them on, consults watch, takes a brush from coat pocket and brushes clothes vigorously, brushes hair vigorously, puts brush back, takes a little mirror from coat pocket and inspects appearance, puts mirror back, takes carrot from coat pocket […].” He takes off his clothes and puts them in a pile and moves the sacks to their original position and crawls into his sack to the left of A. The goad enters again now on two wheels and prods A to repeat the action all over again (Beckett 1984: 41-43). The pantomime dramatizes a mechanistic condition of human existence. “Life” is dormant, “sacked away,” until prodded or goaded awake by an abstract, inhuman mechanical power. Existence consists of performing and repeating a series of mundane actions until a moment of “brooding” or “consulting” compels the performer to return to a state of dormancy after arranging the sacks so that he will not be “goaded” awake too soon. Theaters around the world continue to perform either of the two pantomimes fairly often, both were part of the Beckett on Film (2001) project, a Hollywood animation company made a 1960 cartoon film of Act without Words, and the pieces have inspired some complex scholarly commentary (cf. Lamont 1987; Zilliacus 1993; Zhghenti 2014). But after 1956, Beckett never returned to pantomime. With these two little pieces, he prescribed all the actions a voiceless body could perform to represent his existentialist view of humanity.

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