Subject Matter and Dramatic Structure


The range and depth of response to these dramatic conceptions, however, depend on the individual choice of plot incidents and formal structures used to reinforce their meaning or significance. Again, it becomes evident that Beckett and Pinter have carried the work of Yeats and Eliot to a logical conclusion in expressing their vision of contemporary reality. The action of Yeats’s plays, for example, generally turns on climactic moments in the lives of the characters, either natural acts of sexual or spiritual union or even death for those in which external conflict forces characters to a crisis – the heroine’s resistance to Conchubar in Deirdre, Cuchulain’s rejection of Fand in The Only Jealousy of Emer, the victory and defeat of both Swineherd and Queen in A Full Moon in March, or the Old Man’s futile murder of his vulgar son in Purgatory. The existence or outcome of such passionate moments give shape and meaning to life. Rather than the passions or crises of our existence, Eliot organizes his plays around the normal and unremarkable activities that make up our lives; a family gathering, a drinks party, a new job, or a retirement. Even in his one heroic conception, Thomas Becket is seen as a very private and human character, a pastor concerned with the state of his own soul and the welfare of his flock. The contrast with Yeats’s more grandiose vision is obvious, and in this respect we find Eliot more modern in outlook, more faithful to the tradition of Maeterlikck on the one hand or Ibsen and Chekhov on the other.

In the case of dramatic form or structure, however, Yeats was far in advance of his time and far outstripped Eliot’s rather pedestrian methods. Based on the development of the one-act play, Yeats created a chamber drama whose economy and intensity depend on the minimization of plot and the utilization of non-verbal techniques of theater production. His earliest experiments relied heavily on classical Greek and medieval forms, but his slight acquaintance with Japanese dance drama led him to reshape his dramatic conceptions into more effective patterns. Instead of exposition, the lyrics of a chorus, supported by drum taps, sets the tenor of the action and introduces the passionate moment directly. Conflict and action are reduced to a minimum while the quality of experience is emphasized and expressed through a combination of visual symbols, sound effects, music and movement. As early as 1916. Yeats even removed his plays from the stage and made of it a kind of epic recitation, enacted in studios and drawing rooms under normal lighting conditions. The isolation of dramatic images and their independence from conventions of cause and effect or logical progression is a hallmark of twentieth-century drama. Post modernist producers and playwrights went even further in denying the importance of realistic illusionism and involving audiences more directly in theatrical action. Eliot’s dramatic forms, on the other hand, were closely tied to Greek tragedy and imitated those models. The formal device of choral interludes was abandoned in the last four play because of the need for surface realism, but the classical composition of introduction, development, crisis, resolution, and climax is certainly retained. A much more pronounced parallelism exists between the plot incidents of Eliot’s last four plays and their Greek originals than between Yeats’s four play for dancers and their Japanese models.


  The Family Reunion
The Cocktail Party
The Confidential Clerk
The Elder Statesman
At the Hawk’s Well
The Only Jealousy of Emer
The Dreaming of the Bones
Ion of Euripides
Oedipus at Colonus
Aoi no Ue

A background of widespread assimilation is here not so important as the realization that Eliot abandoned the early freedoms of "Sweeney Agonistes", "The Rock", and Murder in the Cathedral for the security of compositional orthodoxy, while Yeats continued to experiment, groping his way towards a genuinely new conception of dramatic structure. In plays such as The Green Helmet, Calvary, and The Hern’s Egg, he successfully broke away from unity of action and fragmented each plot into independent but complimentary images which constitutes the distinct facets of a single truth. The device prefigures the characteristic method of later playwrights as does his exploitation of primitive or unconscious drives through childish motifs, nursery rhymes, etc..


The subject of Beckett’s plays, his choice of characters and incidents, closely follows Yeats’s examples. The archetypal seeker as anti-hero rather than mythical ideal becomes protagonist and a series of passionless moments which the characters lend themselves to, rather than making the effort to transcend their condition and give it meaning, measures the futility of conventional conduct. The remarkable aspect of Beckettian plotting is the celebration of commonplace action which is often raised to a metaphysical proposition; taking off a boot or exchanging hats as in Waiting for Godot, talking to one’s parents or looking out of the window in Endgame, listening to a tape-recording of one’s own voice in Krapp’s Last Tape, walking to a suburban station to meet a commuting husband in All That Fall, emptying a handbag in Happy Days, or simply recalling the past in Play. Rather than the Yeatsian landmarks or turning points of temporal existence, Beckett gives us an Eliotic quotidian as transparent disguise for dramatic truth. For example, the clowns who cavort beside the lifeless tree in Waiting for Godot, filling in time and fixing their futile hopes on an authority figure who never appears, are all obvious inversions of Cuchulain’s immature expectations in At the Hawk’s Well, as well as of the haunted Old Man of Purgatory who murders his son as he had his father in the presence of riven tree and ruined house, yet cannot overcome the recurrent consequences of the past. Estragon and Vladimir actually hear "the wind in the reeds". The very conception of Krapp’s Last Tape echoes Purgatory: "The voice on the tape is describing how Krapp sat by the canal on cold November afternoon, throwing a rubber ball for a small dog as he watched the house where his mother lay dying and waited for the blind in her room to be pulled down for the last time".| 5 | [Cp. The pulled down window shade in Virginia Wolf's Mrs. Dalloway which signals Septimus Warren Smith's death.] The mother-daughter relationship in Footfalls appears to be another variation on the same theme, and the steps which symbolize May’s life-span may well be related to the thousand-odd steps approaching the saint’s well in The Cat and the Moon.

5 | Alec Reid, All I Can Manage, More Than I Could (Dublin; ?, 1968, p. 21.

The very existence of character pairs or pseudo-couples in Beckett’s drama has great affinity with Yeats’s theory of personality opposites who complement one another, constituting a unified and balanced whole. The Blind and Lame Beggars as inversions of Cuchulain and Conchubar, for example, are indeed reflected in Waiting for Godot and Endgame, as well as Footfalls. Such figures are totally dependent on one another, providing reasons for going on through the dangerous and unknowable darkness which is, in fact, a drifting between opposites of possibility. An insistence that action is imaginary rather than real is another feature of Yeats’s work from the dance plays on. "I call to the eye of the mind" is one of the cultural tags that Winnie dredges up in Happy Days, and the mother’s voice in Footfalls begins her monologue:

I walk here now. (Pause.) Rather I come and stand. (Pause.) At nightfall. (Pause.) My voice is in her mind. (Pause.) She fancies she is alone. (Pause.) See how still she stands, how stark, with face to the wall. (Pause.) | 6 |

6 | Samuel Beckett, Footfalls (London; Methuen, 1976, p. 11.

The ceremonious removal of the dust covers from the trash cans containing Nagg and Nell in Endgame is both a parody of and a commentary on the ritual unfolding of the cloth which introduces the ideal and mythic action in Yeats’s dance plays. During his early efforts to render rhythmic speech more important than stage movement or gesture, Yeats wrote that he wanted to rehearse his actors in barrels on wheels so that he could push them from position to position on stage. Beckett immobilizes Hamm in his wheeled chair, Nagg and Nell in dustbins, Winnie in a mound of earth (at first up to the waist, then to the neck) and places the characters of Play in urns giving them dialogue which is nothing short of a Yeatsian ’Dreaming-Back’. On the other hand Beckett, like Eliot, was also influenced by silent films, music hall comedy, the circus and Commedia dell’Arte. A more specific example of indebtedness to Eliot is the possibility that the action of Happy Days was suggested by the essay, "Marie Lloyd" (1923) whose art he understood to be a matter of selection and concentration of detail: "To appreciate for instance the last turn in which Marie Lloyd appeared, one ought to know what objects a middle-aged woman of the charwomen class would carry in her bag; exactly how she would go through her bag in search of something; and exactly the tone of voice in which she would enumerate the objects she found in it". | 7 | Another example might be the similarity between the innocent child in Beckett’s work, whose presence measures the horrors of conscious existence, and the woman in Eliot’s plays who is repeatedly ‘done in’, occasioning regenerating remorse. The one feature, however, that is shared by Beckett, Yeats, and Eliot is a preoccupation with a recurring past, whether seen to be relevant and operative in the present or meaningless and absurd.

7 | Selected Essays, London 1934, p. 419.

One of Yeats’s most striking archetypes is the self-conscious Old Man, trapped in his rage against the externality of European art who delivers the prologue in The Death of Cuchulain, inviting the audience to recall all of the author’s plays while the action rehearses the turning points of the hero’s life in a kind of Dreaming-Back. In Beckett’s Footfalls the same spectral replay takes place, as it does in Krapp’s Last Tape. Such ghostly reflections also provide dramatic climaxes in Ghost Trio and …but the clouds…, while the characters are further isolated from any semblance of reality by appearing within circles of light against total darkness or in dehumanized forms, as for example a floating head or a detached mouth. The irony of mute characters and disembodied voices alienate the action still further and the repetition of either speeches or stage business heightens the effect. In Beckett’s case, as in Yeats’s there is a conscious parallel of conditions over time, as in the figure of the young boy in black oil-skins who appears in Ghost Trio, reminding us of the similar appearances in Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Even the central action of Rockabye is self-consciously aware of the bound anti-hero, Murphy, in his rocking chair.