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Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Silence in the Theatre


From its earliest beginnings in Greek Tragedy through its history to the modern day, drama has exerted a fascination for philosophical aesthetics. There have been times when drama has responded to this critique and times when it has blithely followed its own course. This series of articles aims to follow some of the continuities and the evolutions in drama - to give a selected overview of the interest that drama has held for aesthetics, whilst examining the idea of an aesthetic experience in the theatre.

6. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Silence in the Theatre

Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Silence in the Theatre

Samuel Beckett © The Jane Bown Literary Estate / National Portrait Gallery, London

Samuel Beckett’s plays are sometimes described as minimalist: partly because of their stylistic sparseness and restricted action and partly because, conceptually, they deal with absence and the unattainability of knowledge and meaning. It is the purpose of this article to show that for every structural element that Beckett has refused or reduced, the strength of presentation is increased. Equally, where knowledge and meaning have been shown to be absent, their significance is all the greater.

In Endgame Clov says "I use the words you taught me. If they don't mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent." (Beckett, 1986, p.113). Clov has said this to Hamm who, a little later says:

"One! Silence! [Pause.] Where was I? [Pause. Gloomily.] It's finished, we're finished. [Pause.] Nearly finished. [Pause.] There'll be no more speech [Pause.]" (Beckett, 1986, p.116).

After the first performance of Endgame concluded at the Royal Court in 1957, it was followed by a first performance of Act Without Words I. The latter is a play, as the title clearly states, that has no dialogue. It is often referred to as a mime play. Neither Act Without Words I or II are wholly silent since the action is dynamic enough to produce sound; especially the sound of falling. However, what has been silenced is the process of expression through words.

Mime plays have a history as long as that of dialogic drama and therefore mime is not, in itself, an unusual choice for Beckett. Furthermore, in the early part of the twentieth century, the cinema made of mime a form of entertainment known and enjoyed by millions (and, indeed, Beckett created a silent film, Film). However, the very title Act Without Words seems to have a significance beyond mime, as if here is a dialogic play shorn of its dialogue.

Act Without Words. Coonagh, H.

It would be a false conclusion to infer that Beckett's paring down of dialogue or his minimalizing of the content of his characters' speech follows an obvious progression into silent drama. After all, Beckett wrote numerous later plays employing dialogue. Instead, what is being constantly reduced is the presentation of the play into its barest form. All extraneous presence and influence are being removed.

Another way of exploring this bare presentation can be found in Krapp's Last Tape where almost all of the dialogue comes from a tape recording. Much of the dialogue that the actor playing Krapp himself delivers is read either from a ledger or from a dictionary. Krapp, therefore, has only one single freely delivered speech in the play but even that is delivered to the tape recorder as he records his own words. These recorded words stand in stark, bare contrast to the words in the recording spoken by a version of himself thirty years younger: two identities of the 'same man' placed side by side. His reaction to his own words "Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that." (Beckett, 1986, p.222) are the words of a man speaking of a stranger.

This effect is created not merely by the simple placing together of two different points in time but by the elimination of any interference. Although only one man speaks in the play, it cannot properly be called a monologue. Equally, it cannot straightforwardly be called a dialogue. The actor does not deliver lines in any conventional sense: the words that are spoken are simply presented (and most of those words, because they are recorded, will be identical for every performance of the same production). The dialogue has become virtually a tableau vivant of sound.

Franks, E. John Hurt in Krapp's Last Tape

Another play by Beckett that is not silent but eschews the spoken word is Breath. This play, according to the stage directions, is intended to last for "about" thirty-five seconds. The directions are broken up into durations of ten and five seconds relating to lighting and silence. There is no actor on stage, just littered rubbish. The 'action' is composed of a moderate increase and decrease in light, an intake of breath and exhalation, two cries, and periods of silence. In fact, the light, breathing, and cries are divisions of the silence.

This series of articles began with the argument that the most basic element of the aesthetic experience was the moment of apprehension: of sensation and perception being assumed into the mind. This final article argues that that same element is, within Beckett's plays, refined and intensified (even if, paradoxically, much of that sensation and perception is being excluded).

Steven Connor in Samuel Beckett. Repetition, Theory, And Text writes,

When Alan Schneider questioned Beckett as to whether the Auditor in Not I was a death figure or a guardian angel, Beckett shrugged his shoulders, lifted his arms and let them fall to his sides, just like the Auditor in the play ... If Beckett had merely said 'Search me', then it might have left the field for interpretation more open than it does; but the fact that the story has Beckett mimicking the action of the play in fending off interpretation of it, confers textual sanction on the gesture of helplessness ... This kind of 'naked' repetition asserts the solidity of the play that preceded it, and discredits the inauthentic supplement of interpretation, opposing an authority which is inward with the play 'itself' to a critical activity which is made to seem violently alien to it. (Connor, 1988, p.189).

The moment of apprehension is not well served by interpretation, inauthentic or otherwise: the moment of apprehension is best served through it consuming entirely the present moment and all of our attention without ratiocination. By interpretation, therefore, is meant both the contemporaneous interpretative acts of an audience as they receive the play and the retrospective acts of interpretation that critics perform when they analyse the play.

By restricting the spoken words to short and often repeated phrases, by narrowing or reducing the concepts of what can be expressed by the characters, by limiting what happens in the play to very little, and by constricting the world such that it is only the stage that has any extension in space (where there seems to be nothing beyond that stage), Beckett at once focuses the mind and gives the mind that which requires no analysis.

Haynes, J. (1976) Billie Whitelaw performing in Footfalls.

A similar point was made by the actress Billie Whitelaw who worked with Beckett for twenty-five years (and has sometimes been described as his muse): "What struck me was that whereas most writers would have written a three- or four-act play about this given situation, Beckett wrote a short breathless one-act play, which does not seek to illustrate the subject, but simply presents it.

There is one line in Play where [a] character says: '- pardon, no sense in this, oh, I know.' I feel that's Beckett responding to those critics and academics who are trying to analyse their own ideas about 'sense'." (Whitelaw, 1995, p.77).

As was quoted in the previous article, Martin Esslin in The Theatre of the Absurd writes "The Theatre of the Absurd has renounced arguing about the absurdity of the human condition; it merely presents it in being - that is, in terms of concrete stage images." (Esslin, 1991, p.25). The theatre, in this way, draws some of the spatial presence and energy of the visual arts into its presentation: there is a 'take-it-or-leave-it' immediacy, even in the dramatic dialogue, that may be found in abstract painting or sculpture.

T.S. Eliot, when asked by some students what the opening line of the second part of Ash Wednesday, "Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree" (Eliot, 1974, p.97) means, is famously said to have replied 'It means: Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree' ".

In addition to the impoliteness of asking an author to explain himself - saying, in other words, please write this better - there is also the issue of diluting the artwork, weakening it with additional, extraneous words. The writer presents what he has written and intends that the form and content combine to persuade the reader or audience into understanding. Where, in the drama of Beckett, it has been stripped already of all superfluity, it could be said that there is no further solving of the equation possible, the terms cannot be further simplified.

Here, clearly, there is a differentiation to be made between understanding, where the mind merely recognises or accepts what is before it, and understanding that involves an explanation or where this understanding has been reasoned out. The 'concrete stage image' does not invite explication because it is not an argument: it is scarcely a discourse between characters and is not a discourse with the audience. This understanding by acceptance, this re-cognition, is what the audience does in their everyday lives. However, in everyday life, the understanding of recognition may become something we barely notice, no more than a habitual activity. In Beckett's drama, conversely, the audience is faced with an intensity of acceptance, with a fullness of focused presentation.

"For the theatre to be theatre, it must be observed, must be staged in a particular place for a particular audience. Traditionally, the playwright and actor have depended upon, and sometimes regretted, this necessity. Billie Whitelaw has recently said that Beckett himself thinks of his plays as ideally a drama without an audience" (Connor, 1988, p.125).

The dilemma is that the audience dilutes and interferes with the play, as soon as it is observed by even the most purely receptive audience, it is no longer the drama 'as written' - but, if there is no audience, then it is the theatrical equivalent of the unwitnessed tree falling in a forest. Put another way, there is an aesthetic uncertainty principle: that observation changes the nature of that which is observed.

Set of Endgame

In a sense we return to one of the oldest and most fundamental issues in philosophy as expressed, for example, by Parmenides: both in 'Thou canst not be acquainted with what is not, nor indicate it in speech' and in 'Of what is, all that can be said is: it is' (Furth, 1974, pp. 241-270). What is being proscribed here is a statement such as 'he does not exist' because that literally means 'he that is, is not' since one must have a concept of 'he' as existing to be able to think or speak about him.

When Clov in Endgame speaks of using the words he has been taught to use and says that, if they no longer mean anything, "teach me others. Or let me be silent.", he is echoing this proscription. There is little of any sense that he can say about what is and he cannot speak of what is not without talking nonsense. And yet the characters in Endgame repeatedly talk of what is not. In essence, they are driven to it: there is no time, there is nowhere else, no nature, nothing is happening (except for an unspecified 'something' taking its course), no happiness, there is even a question over whether there is truly any light. In such an 'existence' there is only nonsense (or a sense that cannot be discovered, let alone expressed).

Hamm questions whether they "mean something" which Clov takes to be a joke but Hamm persists and toys with the idea that "perhaps it won't have all been for nothing!" (Beckett, 1986, p.108). However, later on when he uses the phrase 'better than nothing', Clov responds: "Better than nothing! Is it possible?" (Beckett, 1986, p.121); as if nothingness cannot be improved upon.

Speech has been philosophically inverted: all that can be spoken about is 'what is not' because, paradoxically, where there is no sense, nonsense has the greatest legitimacy and nothingness has the strongest presence. It is noticeable that when Hamm has said "There'll be no more speech." he carries on talking in one of the longest speeches in the play. But that speech is a demonstration of the inadequacy of narrative speech. He adopts a narrative tone and what he relates is rambling and vacuous. By contrast, the dialogue that speaks of meaningless emptiness has all the force that the speech that tries to have meaningful content lacks.

Nonetheless, this existential reversal cannot be sustained indefinitely and there can be no solution but for all of it to end in silence: a silent theatre. All theatres fall silent, but in Beckett there is the inescapable idea that the silence is a continuation. The silence has its own drama. It is what is left when all else has faded.

"You cried for night; it falls: now cry in darkness. [Pause] Nicely put that. [Pause] And now? [Pause] Moments for nothing, now as always, time was never and time is over, reckoning closed and story ended [...] Well there we are, there I am, that's enough." (Beckett, 1986, p.133).


Beckett, S. B. (1986). The Complete Dramatic Works. Faber and Faber.

Connor, S. (1988). Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text. Blackwell.

Eliot, T. S. (1974). Ash Wednesday. In Collected Poems 1909-1962. Faber and Faber.

Esslin, M. (1991) The Theatre of the Absurd. Penguin.

Furth, M. (1974) Elements of Eleatic Ontology. In A.P.D. Mourelatos (Ed.) The Pre-Socratics. Anchor.

Whitelaw, B (1995) Billie Whitelaw...Who He? Hodder and Stoughton.

Image references:

Bown, J. (1976) Samuel Beckett sourced from

Coonagh, H. Act Without Words. Sourced from

Haynes, J. (1976) Billie Whitelaw performing in Footfalls. Sourced from

Set of Endgame Sourced from


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Oliver Nicholson

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