Samuel Beckett's handling of identity

Samuel Beckett's handling of identity

Discuss Samuel Beckett's handling of identity in his plays Waiting for Godot and Happy Days

The work of Samuel Beckett can be seen to span both the Modernist and Postmodernist paradigms (Bradbury and McFarlane, 1991; Green and LeBihan, 1996), on the one hand being influenced by such canonical Modernist writers as James Joyce and Luigi Pirandello (Knowlson, 1996) and on the other relying heavily on Postmodern notions such as the transgression of the body, the performative identity and the failure of grand narratives such as language and truth. This point is made by Richard Begam in his study Samuel Beckett and the End of Modernity (1996):

“Beckett's conception of his undertaking, what we would now call his postmodernism, recognized that an absolute break with the past, a complete supersession of what had gone before, was itself the product of a teleological or modern form of thinking. Proust and Joyce therefore became not figures to be replaced or surmounted but telling points of reference in an ongoing dialogue between past and present.” (Begam, 1996: 14)

Beckett’s position as a liminal writer, spanning two distinctly different but obviously connected intellectual regimes, allows us to examine not only his work but the larger context of critical and performance theory. With this in mind, in this essay I would like to look at two main areas of Beckett’s work that are both metonymous with changes in post-War theatre (and perhaps literature) as a whole. Firstly I would like to concentrate on the notion of Postmodernism as it relates to performance, looking at leitmotifs and tropes as they appear in Waiting for Godot (1955) and Happy Days (1961), and secondly I would like to go on to look at the whole notion of identity and its dissolution in these same texts before drawing conclusions as to what this treatment says about the place of performance in contemporary theatre and, perhaps, the wider context of society itself.

First of all, however and as a foundation for my later exposition, I would like to offer a brief summary of Postmodernism.

Postmodernism, as Fredric Jameson points out, can be best understood through its relationship and difference to Modernism[1], a philosophical and artistic concept that had it roots in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century (Bradbury and McFarlane, 1991). In an artistic sense, the Modernist work was characterised by experiment and a rejection of the Romantic subjective self. Works such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1989) and James Joyce’s Ulysses (1977) exemplify both the Modernist propensity for innovation and the removed authorial voice and we can certainly see this in many, if not all of Beckett’s theatrical works.

Postmodernism, as Jean Francois Lyotard declared in his essay “The Postmodern Condition” (1991) reflected the breakdown and disillusionment felt by the failure of the very foundations of Modernism; foundations that included such hitherto accepted givens as truth, the self, the homogeneity of Literature and the Arts and many of the other systems of thought that Lyotard termed the ‘metanarratives’ (Lyotard, 1991: 36). Whereas Modernism sought newness and innovation, Postmodernism resulted in the adoption of style over content (Robertson, 1996: 3), the questioning of accepted constructs of knowledge (Foucault, 1989) and the language (Derrida, 2004) and, as we shall see with Beckett the exposure of the artistic machinery.

This last point, I think, is crucial to an understanding of Beckett’s place as both a Modernist and a Postmodern writer. As I have already stated, we can recognise certain Modernist images and leitmotifs in Beckett’s work (Eagleton, 1992: 186): the starkly bare characterisation, the dour vision of humanity that we also find in Eliot and Woolf and the conscious effort to experiment and innovate but, underneath this, we also detect a distinctly Postmodern sensibility; one that delights in the deliberate exposure of the performative nature of both the theatre and life.

In Waiting for Godot, for instance, there is a constant comic antagonism created between actor and audience, as ideas and lines of narrative are picked up and abandoned without the usual dramatic sense of resolution (Schechner, 1988). In the first Act for example, Estragon begins a joke that is never finished:

“Estragon: Tell it tome!

Vladimir: Ah, stop it!

Estragon: An Englishman having drunk a little more than usual goes to a brothel. The bawd asks him if he wants a fair one, a dark one, or a red-haired one. Go on.

Vladimir: Stop it!” (Beckett, 1955: 16)

The antagonism and frustration engendered by this un-ended joke is more than a mere literary device it is also a performance device that sets up a markedly different actor/audience relationship. Unlike, say, classical Aristotelian dramatic theory that asserts the imperative of the “incentive moment” (Hartley and Ladu, 1948: 14) the “rising action” (Hartley and Ladu, 1948: 14) and the resolution, here Beckett (as indeed he does throughout the play) creates a deliberate anti-climax that immediately calls in to question the binary between reality and performance.

The same also could be said about much of the dramatic structure of Happy Days, as the workings of the performance are constantly exposed to the gaze of the audience. Here, for instance, Winnie second guesses the thoughts of the audience members as she talks to a passer-by:

“Winnie:…What’s she doing? He says – What’s the idea? He says – stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground – coarse fellow – What does it mean? He says – what’s it meant to mean – and so on.” (Beckett, 1961: 32)

Here Beckett deconstructs the very essence of the performance itself, exposing the bewildered reaction of the audience to his own drama. In a Postmodern dissolution of identity boundaries, the performer here becomes playwright, audience, character and actor as not only are the thoughts of the character exposed but so too the thoughts of the audience. This is not the only deconstruction of performance Beckett employs in the play. We see, for instance, the questioning of dramatic convention; Happy Days is, for all intents, a monologue but it features two characters, it is about the movement of time but, ironically, the main actor is static throughout and although it is primarily a play about words and not actions it is peppered with pauses and space[2]. All factors that point to both plays as being as much rooted in Postmodernism as Modernism.

We have touched upon it already but the overriding sense in both Waiting for Godot and Happy Days is the search and struggle for identity and this also, as we shall see, has a marked impact on the performance of the play and what it means regarding the audience/actor dialectic.

The social background to Happy Days was described, in an affective way by Harold Clurman in an early review:

“Beckett is the poet of a morally stagnant society. In this society fear, dismay and a sort of a stunned absent-mindedness prevail in the dark of our consciousness, while a flashy, noisy, bumptious, thick-headed complacency flourishes in the open.” (Clurman, 1998: 235)

It is against this backdrop that the characters in the play struggle to maintain their scant identities. Even before the action begins we are made witness to the difficulties in establishing an individual existence as the characters’, names, Winnie and Willie, straightway blur their respective personal boundaries. We see this also to a greater extent in Waiting for Godot, as Gogo, Pozzo and Godot, combine to form a linguistic homogeneity that suggests a group rather than an individual identity.

The mise en scene of Happy Days is part Eliotesque wasteland:

“Expanse of scorched grass rising centre to low mound. Gentle slopes downto front and either of stage. Back an abrupter fall to stage level” (Beckett, 1961: 9)

part Postmodern irony, as the backdrop reveals itself to be a self conscious trompe-l’oeil that represents “unbroken plain and sky receding to meet in far distance.” (Beckett, 1961: 9). Within this, Winnie literally stands as part of the scenery, only half visible that is, in itself, a symbolic representation of both time passing and the extent that she has already lost a great deal of her personal identity.

As I have already hinted at, Winnie deconstructs the notion of movement and stasis; on a psychological level she moves quickly between times as in this passage where she and us are taken back into her personal history prompted by the news of a death of a friend:

“Winnie: Charlie Hunter! (Pause) I close my eyes – (she takes off spectacles and does s, hot in one hand, spectacles in other, Willie turns page) – and am sitting on his knees again, in the back garden at Borough Green, under the horse-beech.” (Beckett, 1961: 14)

Physically however she is literally trapped, unable to move or stop the flowing of time swallowing her completely. Her identity becomes fashioned by her memories as at first, in the initial Act, they form a reasonable homogeneity and then, in Act Two become more and more diffuse, more and more fractured until by the end of the play she exists as merely snapshots of a life that has been:

“Winnie: Win! (pause)Oh this is a happy days, this will have been another happy day! (Pause) After all (Pause) So far.

Pause. She hums tentatively beginning of song, then sings softly, musical box tune.” (Beckett, 1961: 47)

As John Pilling suggests in his study of Samuel Beckett (1976: 85), the playwright twins the enormity of the search for identity in an alienating world with the minutiae of everyday living, as Winnie spends a great deal of the play’s time conducting worthless searches for toothbrushes, or lipsticks or many of the other incidental objects of existence.

Ultimately, her search for a personal identity is proved fruitless as she becomes subsumed in that which surrounds her, perhaps a particularly twentieth century vision of the struggle of the personal psychology in the face of the modern city. Waiting for Godot, I think, concerns itself with similar themes and similar characters.

Martin Esslin characterised Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as “concerned with the hope of salvation through the workings of grace” (Esslin, 1968: 55) and we can see that is certainly a major thread in the play. However, we can also note that it concerns itself not with a general salvation but with a very a personal one, with each character desperately searching for their own identity amid the alienation and ennui of the surrounding environment. Most of the play’s linguistic rhythm arises out of the characters’ attempt to assert their own identity in the face of the others:

“Vladimir: Charming evening we’re having.

Estragon: Unforgettable.

Vladimir: And its not over.

Estragon: Apparently not.

Vladimir: Its only beginning.

Estragon: Its awful.

Vladimir: Its worse than being in the theatre.” (Beckett, 1955: 34)

The tooing and froing of the dialogue here is a perfect example of this point, with neither Vladimir nor Estragon willing to surrender themselves to the other. The same can be seen in a more graphic sense with the Pozzo/Lucky relationship that is, at its heart a Hegelian dialectic of the master and slave, with each party attempting (and failing) to break away from the other[3].

In the comic scene towards the end of the play that depicts Vladimir and Estragon exchanging symbolic identities in the form of their hats (Beckett, 1961: 71-72) we can note Beckett’s observation on the ironies of Postmodern life:

“Vladimir takes puts on Lucky’s hat in place of his own which he hands to Estragon. Estragon takes Vladimir’s hat. Vladimir adjusts Lucky’s hat on his head. Estragon hands Vladimir’s hat back to Vladimir who takes it and hands it back to Estragon who takes it and hands it back to Vladimir who takes it and throws it down.” (Beckett, 1955: 72)

The absurdity of this scene arises from the fact that each hat is the same, or at least very similar, so that it makes very little difference which hat ends up on which head. This is, I think, symbolic of the larger treatment of identity within the play; with the playwright suggesting the absurdity of the search for personal individuation. Are not identities much like hats, asks Beckett, remarkably the same?

If Happy Days is a study of the search for identity under the crushing weight of time passing, Waiting for Godot is the search for identity within the lightness of forgetfulness. Time in the latter is meaningless, it passes with no affect in fact Estragon can not even remember the events of the day before. Within this, the characters desperately cling to the remnants of their identities whether that be in the form of an oppressive relationship to another, an item of clothing or the feint hope of someone who will never arrive.

We can see then that the treatment of identity within Beckett’s two major plays mirrors the questions arising out of Postmodernism, questions that concern the nature of identity and the Self. For Postmodern theorists like Judith Butler (1999) and Michel Foucault (1990) the Self is a performative construct, both given to us by society and adopted as a mask and we note some of this sense in Beckett. Ultimately, then, Beckett’s work deconstructs the very notion of a theatrical performance, suggesting that this is merely one of a number of performances that occurs at any one time.

The relationship, then, between the audience and the actor changes from one of passivity to one of dialogue as the former is exposed as relying as much on performance as the latter. This can be seen to be a reflection of Antonin Artaud’s assertions on the Theatre of Cruelty in his second manifesto:

“…just as there are to be no empty spatial areas, there must be no let up, no vacuum in the audience’s mind or sensitivity. That is to say there will be no distinct divisions, no gap between life and theatre.” (Artaud, 1985: 84)

Beckett’s work says as much about the identities of the audience as the characters and as much about the performative nature of the wider society as the performance of the theatre.


  • Artaud, Antonin (1985), The Theatre and its Double, (London: John Calder)
  • Beckett, Samuel (1961), Happy Days, (London: Faber and Faber)
  • Beckett, Samuel (1955), Waiting for Godot, (London: Faber and Faber)
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  • Butler, Judith (1999), Gender Trouble, (London: Taylor and Francis)
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  • Clurman, Harold (1998), “Happy Days: Review”, published in Culotta Andonian, Cathleen (ed), The Critical Responses to Samuel Beckett, (London: Greenwood Press)
  • Eagleton, Terry (1992), Literary Theory: An Introduction, (London: Blackwell)
  • Esslin, Martin (1968), The Theatre of the Absurd, (London: Pelican)
  • Foucault, Michel (1990), The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, (London: Penguin)
  • Green, Keith and LeBihan (1996), Critical Theory and Practice: A Coursebook, (London: Routledge)
  • Hartley, Lodwick and Ladu, Arthur (1948), Patterns in Modern Drama, (London: Prentice Hill)
  • Jameson, Fredric (1991), Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (London: Duke University)
  • Kenner, Hugh (1973), A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, (London: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)
  • Knowlson, James (1996), Dammed to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, (London: Bloomsbury)
  • Lyotard, Jean Francois (1991), “The Postmodern Condition”, published in Jenkins, Keith (ed), The Postmodern History Reader, (London: Routledge)
  • Pilling, John (1976), Samuel Beckett, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul)
  • Robertson, Pamela (1996), Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna, (London: Duke University)
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  1. [1] “The first point to be made about the conception of periodization in dominance, therefore, is that even if all the constitutive features of postmodernism were identical with and coterminous to those of an older modernism -- a position I feel to be demonstrably erroneous but which only an even lengthier analysis of modernism proper could dispel -- the two phenomena would still remain utterly distinct in their meaning and social function” (Jameson, 1991: 5)
  2. [2] This is what Cormier and Pallister (1998) called the “anti-formal nature” (1998: 104) of the play, “As we have seen, the play has no plot, thus no climax and no dénouement ; it has no character development (no hero); and its genre is not clear-cut. In other words, we have a deformation of classical tragedy, a deformation of a conventional concept of the hero and a deformation of the stylistic devices of the traditional drama. (1998: 104)
  3. [3] Note here for instance how Pozzo convinces himself that he is going to sell Lucky knowing all the while that he needs him as much, possibly more, than the other way round.

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