The Composition of Beckett’s Closed Spaces

David Bennett (G ’20) was an MA student in English who traveled to Dublin courtesy of a Global Irish Studies Fellowship. He wrote his MA thesis about Samuel Beckett’s rejection of Romantic ideals of nature.

James Knowlson, Samuel Beckett’s biographer, tells us of an incident that occurred when director JoAnne Akalaitis attempted to stage Beckett’s play Endgame in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1984. Akalaitis and the production team decided to set Endgame in a post-apocalyptic subway tunnel, rather than the barren, indistinct location specified in the script. Beckett, though he stopped short of legal action, was unhappy with the liberties that Akalaitis was taking, writing that his play required only “an empty room and two small windows.” On the one hand, Beckett’s objection to the proposed staging may seem like an overreaction—Hamlet, for example, has been successfully adapted to almost every setting imaginable. On the other hand, if we take a broader view of Beckett’s career, the obstinacy he showed regarding the specifics of how his play was staged can be understood as the result of years of concentrated thought, effort, and experimentation regarding the portrayal of physical spaces. 

To appreciate Beckett’s obsession with space, we need to rethink some of our assumptions that we have long taken for granted. Since the premiere of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1953, and especially after Martin Esslin’s influential 1960 book Theatre of the Absurd, interpretation and criticism of Beckett’s work has often used the language of existentialism and absurdism to describe his plays, novels, and short stories. This approach has rendered Beckett’s work notoriously enigmatic, a heady exploration of darkness and being. Yet what if the argument that Beckett was an apostle of nothingness has been overstated? If we turn our gaze away from Beckett’s human subjects and towards the spaces they inhabit, we find ourselves asking quite different questions about Beckett’s work. For instance: what motivates the “empty room and two small windows” of Endgame or, stranger still, the claustrophobic closed spaces of Beckett’s later short prose like Imagination Dead Imagine?

One way to answer this question is to look at Beckett’s consistent interaction with a medium especially concerned with portraying space: painting. From the very beginning of Beckett’s career as a writer, he was as concerned with the visual arts as he was with literature. Indeed, many of Beckett’s letters center around painting, especially those to his longtime correspondent Thomas MacGreevy, a poet who later became the director of the National Gallery of Ireland. These letters, which began in the early 1930s, shed light on some of Beckett’s steady preoccupations. What comes through especially clearly is his at times vitriolic rejection of many major artists, especially those we now associate with Romantic or naturalist movements. Where these artists go wrong, in Beckett’s estimation, is in their tendency to anthropomorphize the natural world.

Beckett expressed his condemnation of the anthropomorphized space he saw in art galleries to MacGreevy in 1934: “all the landscape ‘promoted’ to the emotions of the hiker, postulated as concerned with the hiker (what an impertinence, worse than Aesop & the animals).” Beckett’s condemnation here is twofold: first, landscape and the natural world exceeds the capacity of human beings to truly conceptualize it; second, Beckett finds the idea that nature is concerned with human beings, what we might today call the pathetic fallacy, to be problematic both ethically and aesthetically. Not only does it fail to capture the reality of nature’s existence outside and beyond human use, it cheapens the artistic presentation of nature too. In the face of these objections, we might wonder: were there any painters who provided a positive model for Beckett’s writing practice, ones who offered more honest modes of representation?

In addition to his admiration for the Irish painter Jack B. Yeats, Beckett found inspiration in the work of Bram and Geer van Velde, artists from the Paris School of post-Cubist abstraction. Beckett wrote several nonfiction works to champion their painting, including “Three Dialogues,” “Peintres de l’empêchement,” and “The New Object.” In this last essay, Beckett defends the abstraction of the van Veldes by arguing that older painters, while purporting to represent all sorts of different things on their canvases, were in fact only painting one sort of object, leading Beckett to write the memorable line that “Christ, a potato and a square of red are one.” It is, for Beckett, the false sense of mastery over the natural world that leads to the hubris of artistic attempts to capture and contain nature. In Beckett’s most famous formulation from the “The New Object,” he asks “For what remains to be represented if the essence of object is to elude representation? There remain to be represented the conditions of that elusion.” If Beckett argued in his earlier letters that most artists were unwilling or unable to conceive of nature in non-anthropomorphic terms, then his argument here goes a step further here by including the objects of representation in general. What is paramount for Beckett is for artists not to present objects and the natural in an ostensibly realistic manner, but to instead carefully show the structures of not knowing and ignorance that more accurately characterize our experience of the world. Correspondingly, Beckett’s settings shift from recognizable environments, like the countryside of Ireland or London, towards the carefully structured, confined, and abstract spaces of his late fiction. 

Apparent already in Endgame’s “empty room and two small windows,” the spaces of Beckett’s writing continually shrink and retract, culminating in what is often referred to as Beckett’s “closed space” fiction. In works like The Lost Ones, a miniature society exists inside of a carefully demarcated cylinder, and in Imagination Dead Imagine, two still bodies float in a vault that is described with mathematical precision: “Two diameters at right angles AB CD divide the white ground into two semicircles ACB BDA.” These strange experiments are not just formal exercises in geometry, but a way of upending our inherited ideas about the relationship between human beings and the worlds they inhabit. Influenced by the abstraction of painters like the van Veldes, Beckett increasingly jettisons traditional methods of representing space in literature to challenge the stability of an all-seeing, anthropomorphizing human subject. We as readers are left not with the countryside or the city, much less the planet, but with enclosed, precisely calculated refuges that demonstrate the limits of human cognition. 

Paying attention to the things Beckett paid attention to, like his study of the visual arts, is not a magical key that unlocks the secrets of his complex fiction. Yet it does offer new vantage points from which to see Beckett’s seemingly hermetic work as deeply concerned with the world around him and with more responsible modes of representation. This time of quarantine and climate catastrophe has exposed the extent to which humans have viewed the natural world as existing exclusively for us, and for our use. Beckett’s fiction challenges us rethink the ways in which we form and are formed by our spatial environments: not as all-knowing subjects, but humans who understand the limits of our conception of the world and our mastery over it.