‘Prisoner of the mind, Prisoner of the Mind, Prisoner of the Mind’ : Are Beckett’s thoughts immortalized in his plays?
Conversations with Director & Playwright Gerald Thomas
Samuel Beckett is famous not only for his skill and influence as an author and playwright but also as a man who rarely spoke of the underlying motivations in his writing; this has contributed to the image of Beckett the man as enigmatic and an eccentric. Yet, influenced by politics, philosophy, history, music and psychology, Beckett’s collected works show a life dedicated to encompassing the human experience and recreating it through the arts. In Beckett’s later plays such as Catastrophe and Not I, his political, philosophical, and psychological interests become clearer. Catastrophe highlights his political involvement and Not I the psychological. This change in artistic direction reflects Beckett own shift to the interests and dedications which would dominate his writing throughout his last years. He altered his own image and allowed his original artistic approach of ‘art for art’s sake’ to transform piece-by-piece through exploration and collaboration. Beckett shaped his works in what he perceived as universal interests of both his own and of humanity’s.
“I am interested in the shape of ideas even if I do not believe in them. There is a wonderful sentence in Augustine. I wish I could remember the Latin. It is even finer in Latin than in English. ‘Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.’ That sentence has a wonderful shape. It is the shape that matters.”
Beckett’s theatre of Existence & Politics
What shapes Samuel Beckett’s plays, all nineteen of them? Some would argue that they are nebulous and difficult to follow. To the casual spectator engaging with Beckett’s works, it may seem that their sole characteristic is a transgression from the more classical theatrical pieces of the time which moved with the artist and invited engagement from both actor and audience. While Beckett’s theatre is distinct from that of more naturalistic writers, with its obscure imagery, prohibitively specific stage directions and austere set design, it is nonetheless a representation of the thoughts, desires and sensitivities of Beckett himself and the society which he found around him. To this end Beckett’s theatre captures the haphazard and arbitrary nature of a life filled with questions which are often as poignant as they are difficult to grasp. As such, Beckett’s theatre concerns itself with presenting to his audience representations of everyday existential questions surrounding politics, psychology, spirituality and relationships. Where more conventional theatre attempts to provide answers, Beckett instead seeks to represent the struggle to capture a question on some aspect of human existence, a feeling which struggles to define itself indefinitely.
Political theatre can be broadly defined as theatre concerning the relationship playwrights have with politics. This can often depend upon the pressing political events of the time. As a result, psychological as well as historical changes become clear. Theatre necessarily adapts in response to the associated changes in human nature and human existence. This raises a question of obligation on playwrights as to the degree to which they are (or are not) obliged to comment upon and attempt to capture the politics of their time in their writings and on stage. In Samuel Beckett’s case his plays were originally apolitical. After the huge impact of WWII, and as his career progressed, his works began to incorporate allusions to war and to the dilemma of human existence. Writing inevitably became an outlet for Beckett’s anxieties arising through his experiences fighting against Nazi occupation as a member of the French Resistance. Morris Dickstein notes that ‘The very act of writing stirred deep conflict, which he once described as the paradox of the artist for whom ”…there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”’. Expression within Beckett’s works is as limited as this quote would suggest as he seeks to represent the concerns which affect him through the medium of theatre.
Beckett consistently allows his characters to ask philosophical questions on being and did not grant them or the audience the tools to find the answer to such enquiries in his works, much less the answers themselves. This could represent Beckett’s views on the meaninglessness of life, for as long as questions have been asked in Beckett’s works they are necessarily philosophical in nature, and they certainly explore why we are here and for what reason. Dermot Moran writing on Beckett’s plays and their underlying philosophical tone notes, “The outwardly pessimistic atmosphere, the bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes, hopeless characters and the overwhelming sense of the aimlessness and meaninglessness of life, the ‘issueless predicament of existence.’”  Beckett recognizes the place of philosophy in human existence and how questions of an existential nature and their associated feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness are essential in a theater which seeks to represent the questions surrounding the human condition. Feldman discusses an interview in which Beckett describes how he does not understand the philosophical way of writing, and that he did not read philosophy. Feldman presents this excerpt from the interview:
Have contemporary philosophers had any influence on your thought?
Beckett: I never read philosophers.
Beckett: I never understand anything they write.
Feldman states, “Beckett was not reading philosophers for influence in the present tense by 1961, he had certainly read, and derived sizeable influence from, philosophy in the past tense.” Clearly, Beckett’s past interest and reading of philosophy helped to shape his works and form a few of his pieces. Beckett revealed that Endgame derived from his experience at his brother’s death bed, “…he shows how the mainsprings of ”Endgame” lay in the agonizing months Beckett spent at the bedside of his dying brother.” Philosophy is often employed as a means to cope with death, and so it is understandable that Endgame possessed some of Beckett’s most philosophical undertones present throughout all his writing. Of course, Beckett’s own philosophical method is as necessarily atypical as the theatre he uses to represent it but is nonetheless defined by his own experience and his need to explore, interrogate and question. Beckett’s prose piece All Strange Away is about just such a prisoner of the mind, a man who wants to break free from his imagination: however, he cannot.
When attempting to define Beckett’s theatre there is an understandable tendency to group his works with those of the theater of the absurd; this is detestable in a sense as Beckett lacks works avoid the use of artifice often associated with such works. The true nature of Beckett’s theatre and the argument that he should not be grouped with theater of the absurd artists is supported by an email exchange between the writer and Gerald Thomas, a theatre director and playwright who worked closely with Beckett in the 1980’s. Gerald Thomas grew up in Brazil, and during the 60s to the 80s the military regime was strict and enforced relentless censorship. As a result, Brazilian artists were forced to adapt to escape the eyes of authority. They responded by creating pieces which might have seemed generic, but which actually spoke out against the government in a codified and concealed way. In much the same way, Samuel Beckett was forced to conform to external demands when first producing his works and had to submit his writing to the Royal Court Theatre. Beckett later in his career supported an initiative called Index on Censorship, ‘Beckett became drawn to the case of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel and committed to bringing world attention to the way writers were being banned.’
A further series of emails exchanged between the writer and Gerald Thomas allowed for great insight into Beckett’s rehearsal process and the underlying message of his plays. In 1984 Thomas staged Samuel Beckett’s prose piece All Strange Away, adapting it for the stage. Thomas said in the process of adapting the piece for theatre Beckett said, “It looks better on a printed page, but you might try it on a stage.” Gerald Thomas confided, “So, I tried it on stage and it worked.” In this exchange Gerald Thomas discusses the influence politics had on him as an artist. For the first time in the email exchange he mentions the idea of, ‘a prisoner’ which he claims Beckett engaged with wholeheartedly. Indeed, if in Thomas’ production of All Strange Away the constrained actor is confined to his own image, in the below interview Thomas notes how he confined the actor into a plexiglass cube with mirrors surrounding, creating the image of thousands of reflections in all directions. Thomas directed All Strange Away on two separate occasions in 1984; the world premiere being at the La Mama theatre in Greenwich village with the actor Ryan Cutrona and again at the Harold Clurman Theatre with a different actor, Robert Langdon Lloyd. The device of the mirror plays a significant role, it confines the ‘actor’; the same can be said of devices affecting characters in Beckett’s other plays. In an article in the New York Times, it is mentioned how in the second production, ‘Mr. Thomas has wisely stripped away artifice he originally added. No longer does the actor preface his monologue by miming simian stances, and later interpolations have also been excised’.
AR: I notice how ‘Catastrophe’ was published and first performed only two years before you staged ‘All Strange Away’. I wonder at the involvement of politics in Beckett’s later works, as well as for yourself as a theater director. In your earlier email you said,
GT- “I did confine THE ACTOR, in both productions, into a plexiglass cube. I could simply have left him loose on the stage – roaming about. But confined to his own image, reflected a thousand times in all directions – he became a prisoner of his own image, a prisoner of the text and a prisoner of the audience”
AR- Prisoner is a really interesting choice of words here. Especially since, only two years before 1984 Beckett dedicated his play Catastrophe to Vaclav Havel. Does this imprisonment in the sense that you say force the actor to reflect on anything in particular as well as force the audience to reflect? Maybe on human existence?
GT- Great point, Alyssa. Beckett’s involvement in La Résistance was quite intense. He was always political in our meetings and, of course, he knew of my involvement in Amnesty International’s International Secretariat in London during 1974 – 1979 (and The Russell Tribunal). I avoided going too far in my previous email re: mentioning Vaclav Havel.
But I think that “prisoner of the mind” (ever revolving thoughts provoked by the sounds and meanings of words and their echoes) … was actually what interested him more.Alan Schneider posted a letter to him at the Hampstead Post Office and, on the way back to the theater, to continue rehearsing a collection of Pinter plays, looked the wrong way – and was hit by a bike, hit his head on the curb and died. That letter arrived in Paris 3 days later and I happened to be there with SB. Beckett was inconsolable.
I remember Beckett murmuring “prisoner of the mind” (I think he was actually referring to himself, SB, because later that week he told me was struck with grief and could not go further on a given text.). “I sit by the window and watch the world go by”. This one sentence kept being repeated over and over again, as we walked from the café opposite his apartment on Boulevard St Jacques to a restaurant in Les Halles. But yes, to your point: metaphorically or not, “prisoner” is certainly a concept that Beckett adopted wholeheartedly.
‘Prisoner’ in the sense that Beckett uses, whether its origins lie in politics or elsewhere, is meant to be a universally-recognized concept, it invokes the image of the forlorn man who is at a loss. To give this man freedom of movement and flowing consciousness is to disallow total control and defeat. Many of Beckett’s characters are ‘imprisoned’ in some way. Perhaps reflecting Beckett’s own feeling of imprisonment by his dark thoughts. Nag and Nell in Endgame are stuck in bins, Winnie in Happy Days is covered by sand in a mound. Memory seems to be unreliable, yet vital to mull over. Gerald Thomas claims that Beckett was referring to himself as the, ‘prisoner of the mind’ . If this is the case, then Beckett lends a significant bit of himself to his characters. Their reflection as well as feelings of unease are the same unease Beckett himself felt.
GT- He’s absolutely realistic in what he says and writes. There are NO rhinos in the room or no hanging chairs such as in Ionesco’s plays. Beckett needs no artifice
Seemingly, Thomas learned how Beckett’s plays spoke for themselves through his collaborations and discussions with Beckett. In Thomas’ works following his two productions of All Strange Away in 1984 and his Beckett trilogy project in 1985 in New York which featured Julian Beck. The same can be said of other artists who were greatly influenced by Beckett, they carried his lessons with them throughout their careers. Thomas particularly highlights Beckett’s influence on him through reminiscence and fond memories of their collaborations. Thomas frequently questioned Beckett and was not subservient in their interactions as other directors might have been. In discussion with Gerald Thomas, he described an instance where he questioned Beckett regarding the lighting in All Strange Away, Thomas said that Beckett did not answer, he only smiled:
AR- What do you think Beckett meant by not responding to your question, was it common for him to do that?
GT- He used to be bombarded with questions. But, on the other hand, he used to test me, try me: “He was a painter and an engraver…. where does that come from Mr. Thomas?” and I would instantly reply … “Endgame, Mr. Beckett!” and a smile would ensure. We used to play this quiz show. But when it came to him answering…. he used to express a certain exhaustion or, better still, deliberately leave certain questions unanswered. Maybe…who knows, certain things look better when forever enigmatic?
As Fernandes quotes from Robert Sandarg, ‘Beckett is far too pessimistic to believe in any theatre of political action or to hope for any general human emancipation.’ If this is the case, why would he concern his plays with politics. The answer may lie in Beckett’s own interests, and engagement with public affairs of the time. Questions of philosophy, psychology, immortality, relationships; to Beckett these were of utmost importance to human existence at the time and so it came through in his later plays. Beckett may not have believed in theatre of political action, but he did recognize the human plight in philosophical thought and the struggle with feelings of meaninglessness.
AR- I have an idea that Beckett’s Catastrophe captures, well one of the many feelings it captures, is the feeling of artists of the time, their feeling of obligation to deliver to audiences what they needed in those distressing times
GT- ‘Catastrophe’ does capture the many feelings of artists at the time – almost like Costa Gavras’s “Z” endorses an entire generation of desperate artists who wanted to SCREAM against their oppressors! But, honestly, I don’t think that Thatcher was ‘draconian’ enough in that regard. But, then again, who says that a ‘timeless’ author such as SB would need to place his scream at a defined era? Why would he need to rebel against a specific politician if, as in All Strange Away, he makes it so clear that the borders are: A, B, C, D and so on. Meaning that they are timeless and could be in today’s Syria or…. During the Third Reich or…. during the crucifixion. 
Gerald Thomas suggests that Beckett’s works are timeless. That they could take place at any point in time. Beckett leaves no exact metaphor for particular events; however, he does allow for the possibility that his works do cover many events, not just one. For instance, in Catastrophe the play is dedicated to Vaclav Havel, although Havel’s situation is not the only one that Beckett alludes to. As David Smith, Imogen Carter and Ally Carnwath’s article on Beckett states, ‘Even a great work such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible operates on two discernible levels: the literal story of the Salem witch trials, and the metaphorical narrative of McCarthyism.’ In much the same way, Beckett’s plays work on multifaceted levels. They continue, by saying, ‘Plays which are designed to be a metaphor for particular correlatives have, I imagine, a very short lifespan.’ This is why Beckett’s works are timeless. Their applicability is as vast as can be imagined.
A film production of Catastrophe was directed by David Mamet for the Beckett on Film project. It stars Harold Pinter, John Gielgud and Rebecca Pidgeon. A few lines of the text as well as one gesture is changed by the director. One instance which stands out as a considerable difference is that in Beckett’s written text the Assistant suggests to the director that they fold the protagonist’s hands. Meanwhile, in the film production this is changed to the Assistant suggesting that they point the Protagonist’s finger. This is more of an accusatory image. The pointing of the finger which is associated with identifying a person and attributing responsibility in everyday conversation, while the folding of the hands is a docile image. Mamet must have had reason enough to make this change, however with the knowledge of how meticulous Beckett was with his stage directions and precision, one has to wonder at how open Beckett himself would have been to such a change. The protagonist in Catastrophe could represent Beckett himself, or Vaclav Havel, or the artists of the time. Catastrophe owes its brilliance in part to the protagonist’s physicality reliance upon the Director and Assistant manipulating his appearance. In the stage directions Beckett writes, “Age and physique unimportant.”  In this way we see that reality for Beckett became more easily expressed in images rather than words, and this is partially why his works grew sparser and sparser in number and visual content.
In Beckett’s only film, which is entitled Film, Buster Keaton is the sole actor who plays a man in a shabby apartment, locking himself in from the outside world. “It’s typically Beckettian theme concerns a man who attempts to achieve a state of non-being by fleeing from the perception of others.” To put it mildly, Beckett’s ‘film’ was not well received. It was experimental in nature, and while Beckett’s hopes may have been high for the project, it was generally met with silence if not booing from spectators. However, Beckett’s works and their relationship to film are not as calamitous as his own ‘film’ would suggest. As Michael Colgan notes, ‘you could argue that without Beckett, Pinter would not have written what he did in the way that he did, and likewise, without Pinter, Mamet’s work as we know it would not have existed. There’s a definite and definable lineage there.’
It appears then that Beckett’s works being adapted to film are seminal in the theatrical world. Indeed, Beckett’s plays themselves (well, most of them, anyway) are generally considered superb: theatrically innovative, startling in their minimalism, and deeply moving in their interrogation of themes of alienation, stoicism and despair. Just as Beckett’s earlier works were powerful while apolitical his works began to more closely reflect universal politics of the past as well as the present as his career progressed. Beckett’s plays were hugely influential on other playwrights, directors and artists; including a continuing influence on Gerald Thomas, on the late Harold Pinter and Alan Schneider to name a few.
Harold Pinter & Politics
In alluding to Holocaust imagery Pinter forces his audiences to contemplate current political issues and atrocities associated with the Thatcherite government in a similar fashion to how The Crucible uses the Salem witch hunt to allude to McCarthyism. Pinter’s’ Ashes to Ashes uses the Holocaust as a vehicle to encourage audiences of the time to evaluate current affairs and to provoke change. Indeed, why would a man concerned with current politics be wrapped up in the past? While Pinter harbored memories and felt obliged to account for the atrocities of the Holocausts and to draw attention to the atrocities of current politics. Importantly, while Beckett influenced Pinter, Pinter’s works were political from the start while Beckett’s found his political voice later in his career.
In Harold Pinter’s Nobel Lecture, he discusses the idea of the exploration of reality through art. Ashes to Ashes can be interpreted through multiple lenses. Pinter proposes that politicians use a language which keeps citizens in the dark and in a state of ignorance. While it may be a broad church, the purpose of political theater is to search for truth and to encourage audiences to join in questioning and searching. To this end, during his Nobel speech, Pinter speaks of the conflict in Iraq. Pinter demands that atrocities committed by the US be recorded in history and that they be held accountable for its atrocities during war just as others have been. Just as Arthur Miller did in The Crucible Pinter is uses the Holocaust as a widely accepted mask through which he can scrutinize American Politics and British involvement in the Iraq war.
Ashes to Ashes was later removed from the programme in the Royal Court Theatre less than three months after its first performance on Pinter’s’ direction. It seems then that the responsibility lies with the playwright to be perceptive in understanding that within a society which may be enduring social or political crisis, their works will be subject to censorship. Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett dealt first hand with legal censorship of their work, when censorship was law. This may have led the two authors to employ metaphor and symbolism in their works to interrogate and highlight political issues to avoid the censors.
- Self-Imposed Censorship and Repetition
Darren Gribben comments upon self-imposed censorship within Samuel Beckett’s prose-piece All Strange Away. He writes “The repetitions allow for the possibility of reading the text for key phrases around which a story is told. Beckett encrypts the text, keeping the story hidden from the censors.” In much the same way, Harold Pinter who was heavily influenced by Beckett, encrypts Ashes to Ashes in a way which strategically avoids censorship since its ultimate message is encoded and hidden from the casual reader. Pinter’s strategy was to encrypt the deeper message of his play so those who paid close attention could discover it while not allowing those who would engage with the text in a superficial sense to retrieve it. To achieve this Pinter used language he had previously used in political speeches to signpost encrypted discussion in his works. This approach proved successful as Ashes to Ashes was not met with the aversion which its larger political undertones would suggest. As Gribben says of the audience of Beckett’s works, ‘they must be imaginatively engaged with the story to understand it.’ The same goes for Pinter’s audiences and those of other playwrights of political theatre. As with many of Beckett’s works, the first production of Ashes to Ashes was apparently met with confusion and upset by audiences. Evidently the responsibility lies with the playwright to be perceptive in understanding that within a society which may be enduring social or political crisis, the playwright’s works will be subject to censorship.
The Case of Rachel Corrie
The motives for Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner to compile activist Rachel Corrie’s emails and diaries into a play lie in Rickman’s sincere belief that Corrie’s voice would resonate well on stage. As a political activist Rickman attempted to accurately capture Corrie’s essence and activism with My Name is Rachel Corrie.
Plans to stage a production of My Name is Rachel Corrie were foiled due to the untimely death of the judge who deemed Rachel Corrie’s death an ‘accident’. Alan Rickman was outraged by the New York Theatre workshops decision to ‘censor’ the production of the play and he held them accountable for the censorship of the play.
The Rachel Corrie example of self-censorship by the venue is evidence of feeling that one ‘must’ self-censor and this is born out of fear. This fearful censorship greatly contrasts with Beckett’s use of ‘self-censorship’ as a form of limitation. As Beckett was meticulous in forming his pieces and would have crafted his plays in a way that made them applicable throughout time; it is possible to use his plays as a political statement due to their existential focus; making them more generally utilizable than specific works such as Ashes to Ashes & My Name is Rachel Corrie. Beckett’s plays were well received in times of turmoil as they allowed the audience the narrative space to use their imaginations to fill in the pauses and obscurities within the text. Beckett wanted his staged productions to be perfect, ‘Graham Fraser employs the concept of “vaguening” to define Beckett’s tendency to blur his objects and subjects as strictly and rigorously as possible.’  In an interview with Billie Whitelaw on the BBC, Whitelaw mentions how even if slight word changes occurred Beckett would shake his head or raise his hands to his face. Beckett’s method was precise, his art-form minimalist and meticulous. Directors and actors alike respected it because of his vision, which when it worked was remarkable. Pinter and Beckett maintained power over their pieces through their own use of language. To force people to speak and say what they do not want to admit is also to have power.
On the night of the performance when you are listening and watching, what is your responsibility as an audience? It may be causal and for the purposes of entertainment at its purest and least intellectually engaged, a form of escapism if you will. However, this may lead us to fall into the trap with plays such as those of Beckett, Ashes to Ashes or My Name is Rachel Corrie as the superficial reader recoils from the political meaning of the text due to the constraints of society.
In a way Rickman’s constraints were too recognisable in Rachel Corrie, while Pinter’s’ weren’t recognisable enough, leading its content to be appreciated only through the closest of readings by those familiar with the playwright himself. Meanwhile, Beckett seeks not to answer, only to repeat the issues in a meticulous fashion which is as minimalist (or ‘boiled-down’ and ‘purified’ as possible’). In this sense Beckett seeks not to find the answers but to define the questions of existence, and politics. A process as alien to us as the answers we, as a society, hide from ourselves through the type of censorship which deeply affected Ashes to Ashes and My Name is Rachel Corrie leading them to be hidden from view.
Beckett’s temptation to censor is not to avoid the censors themselves and encode his answers and criticism to avoid censorship a la Corrie (to avoid detection) or a la Ashes to Ashes (to self-censor) but to deny his own temptation to answer. Beckett instead seeks to represent the difficulty in nailing down and effectively posing a definite political question in a text which requires strict existential analysis; Beckett mirrors this difficulty in his strict existential conditions for actors and directors attempting to stage his works. Political theatre leaves its writer prisoners of the mind as they seek answers; Beckett’s political theatre leaves him a prisoner of the mind as he seeks questions.
AR- Any final quote or phrase you’d like included about censorship in Beckett, or from your own experiences of theatre?
GT- Censorship exists. Whether it’s imposed by external forces or internal demons, it’s always there. “the artist” is always ‘someone else’ as Saul Steinberg put it. And this ‘someone else’ (obviously a Freudian analogy), is a repressive self. This someone is NEVER there to help us ‘enlarge the stage, the canvas, the road. This is a mean self and this is – perhaps – the self WE, “the artist” hold true to be the eye of the audience: our greatest fear and most adored enemy.
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 ‘In Godot we Trust’, Guardian
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 Rabaté, Jean-Michel. “Editor’s Introduction: Irish Modernism.” Jml: Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 38, no. 2, 2015, pp. v-vi.
 Thomas, Gerald. “ON censorship.” Received by Alyssa Rogers. 22 April 2018. Email Interview
DUBLIN, MAY, 20, 2018