Book Review: Samuel Beckett in Confinement

4 August 2020

Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge

James Little, Samuel Beckett in Confinement: The Politics of Closed Space (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)

In October 1960, Samuel Beckett began his move into an apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques in Paris. From his new study window, he had a view of the sinister building of the Santé Prison. He wrote to his close friend Thomas MacGreevy of this detail prior to the move: ‘the view of the Santé Prison from the den I’ll have is beginning to upset me in prospect. I’ll learn to raise the eyes to Val de Grâce, Panthéon and the glimpse of Notre-Dame’.[1]But over the following years Beckett found his eyes drawn time and again to the prison blocks and exercise yards opposite his window, even on occasion attempting to communicate with inmates through hand gestures and a mirror. It is said that he came to know the panoptic layout of the prison extremely well.[2]This gestures towards Beckett’s abiding interest in confined spaces and his sympathy for the incarcerated, though, as James Little shows, he also remained acutely aware of his own distance from such experiences of suffering.[3]As early as his 1931 essay Proust, Beckett had written of the complications in speaking with or for the other: ‘Either we speak and act for ourselves – in which case speech and action are distorted and emptied of their meaning by an intelligence that is not ours, or else we speak and act for others – in which case we speak and act a lie’.[4]Looking and gesturing towards the prison across the Rue Jean-Dolent from his window, this gulf between self and other must have seemed vast.

In Samuel Beckett in Confinement: The Politics of Closed Space, Little examines how Beckett’s oeuvre negotiates the politics and ethics of this gap in representing confinement. Given that Beckett’s works reject mimetic forms of representation and explore the boundaries of theatrical practice, his confined spaces have been seen to embody many a metaphysical quandary.[5]Little challenges this critical paradigm through focusing on the socio-political dimensions of closed space; he thus engages with a wider recalibration of Beckett studies that situates Beckett’s life and work within its political context, following on from Emilie Morin’s groundbreaking work on Beckett’s political imagination. By making an intriguing methodological link between Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s theories of spatial production and genetic criticism’s focus on textual composition, Little explores the processes by which Beckett created the textual and theatrical confined spaces of his varied oeuvre over six decades, starting ‘from the theoretical position that these confined abodes are always political’ (3). The many analyses he offers involve detailed and forensic readings of unpublished notebooks and manuscripts – the so-called ‘grey canon’ with which every serious Beckettian must engage – that reveal Beckett to be an individual fascinated yet troubled by institutional confinement, such as in prisons or psychiatric hospitals. This really is work that involves reading between (and beyond) the lines of the published works to the manuscript drafts, so as to show how Beckett engages with such institutional confinement to shape the closed spaces of his texts and plays, despite the absence of such recognizable spaces in works published after the 1950s. Little examines these palimpsestic layers to show the writing methods that went into creating what we see on the stage and read on the page, a task he manages with much intellectual sensitivity to what lies outside the visible and readable spaces of the stage and prose works.

The scope of this study will make it of interest to scholars across many disciplines. Little covers an expansive range of material from Beckett’s oeuvre across nine short chapters, from well-known theatrical works such as Waiting for Godot(1953) to little-known archival treasures such as ‘Mongrel Mime’ (dated by Little to 1982-3). This material is dealt with in a broadly chronological way, with the general line of Little’s argument revealing Beckett’s movement away from more direct – though often heavily mediated – representations of institutional confinement (between 1930 and 1950) towards an indirect art of confinement after 1950. He argues: ‘though recognizable institutions disappear in Beckett’s writing after Malone Dies [1951], his engagement with confinement continues, albeit in different forms’ (87). This aesthetic trajectory would appear to correspond with the general compositional arc of each work, with Beckett ‘undoing’ realistic psychological and geographical detail to arrive at his minimalist and abstract images.[6]But Little repeatedly demonstrates that such teleological models betray the complexity of Beckett’s compositional processes by undermining the twofold dynamic of addition and subtraction in his textual and theatrical production. In this, Little helps to nuance Beckett’s statement, made in a 1989 interview with James Knowlson, regarding his own writing method: ‘I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than adding’.[7]While it is true that Beckett ‘generally deleted more than he added’, Dirk Van Hulle notes that there is notable textual instability in the genesis of each text: details come and go in the manuscript drafts without regard for neat systems of composition.[8]Little draws out the significance of this textual instability, arguing that ‘a more nuanced understanding of Beckett’s poetics can lead to a new understanding of his politics of confined space’ (75). In discussing this and other matters, Little is wise to take heed of Beckett’s warning in ‘Dante … Bruno . Vico .. Joyce’ (1929): ‘The danger is in the neatness of identifications’.[9]

There are a number of theoretical themes that orientate Little’s approach to his material, the three most important being ethics, politics and aesthetics. One of his key arguments which brings these concepts together is that ‘Beckett’s work speaks to particular situations of suffering and oppression without claiming to speak for those who are suffering and oppressed’ (205). Little shows that Beckett’s compositional strategies inscribe spaces of institutional confinement into the aesthetic forms of vague, coercive and oppressive spaces.[10]He here employs the concept of pentimenti – a term used in art criticism to describe the underlying layers of a painting that were painted over by the artist during the composition process – to examine what he terms ‘political pentimenti’: ‘instances of the inclusion and subsequent rejection of institutional confinement in the course of the compositional process’ (94). For example, Beckett considered projecting a ‘faint shadow of bars on the stage floor’ (qtd. 94) for his production of Waiting for Godot at the Schiller-Theater Werkstatt in 1975. Although Beckett rejected this particular decision, Little argues that the striped trousers and jackets worn by the characters along with their general movement still ‘gesture towards – but refuse to provide – a fixed institutional context for the play’ (94).[11]Beckett thus engages with the socio-political context of institutional confinement to shape the space and interpersonal relations of his production, but stops short of providing his audience with specific contextual grounding. Little explores how this opens up an aesthetic space within which the play speaks to the many different forms that confinement may take without denying its otherness.

Little writes that ‘Beckett was a deeply political writer, not a street fighter’ (187). What Beckett in Confinementcontributes to the ongoing discussion of a Beckettian politics is an understanding of how the confined spaces of his oeuvre equip readers and audiences with a set of cognitive and conceptual tools for an ethical and political analysis of closed space. Little argues that the politics of Beckett’s spatial aesthetic is its resistance to the representation of enclosed spaces on the terms of the state, sidestepping hermeneutic closure to open up a multiplicity of closed spaces to socio-political critique. This is one way to explain the versatility of Beckett’s plays, the way they can be ‘reanimated in different cultural contexts’ (204). It is a powerful argument for seeing Beckett’s oeuvre as a formal engagement with politics that places the ethical question foremost, with the spatial forms of his work shaped by a relation to the inalienable alterity of confinement that retains, rather than assimilates, its difference. In Little’s study, Beckett’s politics emerge as a way of thinking about and engaging with the world that challenges and subverts hegemonic structures of representation, thereby extending the boundaries of the sensible – what can be thought and seen within society.[12]Fintan O’Toole asks in his review of Morin’s Beckett’s Political Imagination, ‘Why does someone who knew so much and cared so deeply about history and politics create a body of work in which they are approached so obliquely?’.[13]Beckett in Confinementprovides one way of beginning to answer this question, while further opening up many lines of inquiry to be pursued in the study of Beckett’s oeuvre.


[1]Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, eds. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck, IV vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), III: 1957-1965, p. 299.

[2]Emilie Morin, Beckett’s Political Imagination(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 210-1.

[3]James Knowlson writes: ‘It was from this window that, with a small pair of binoculars, Beckett used to scan the tiny, barred windows of the cells in the Santé prison, often feeling emotion for those who were imprisoned inside’. See James Knowlson, ‘A Writer’s Homes – A Writer’s Life’, in A Companion to Samuel Beckett, ed. S. E. Gontarski (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 13-22 (p. 15).

[4]Samuel Beckett, Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit(London: John Calde, 1965), p. 64.

[5]Maurice Blanchot’s depoliticised, existential readings of Beckett’s works largely shaped such interpretations. In his 1953 essay ‘Où maintenant? Qui maintenant’, for example, Blanchot writes that The Unnamable ‘is a being without being, who can neither live nor die, stop or start, the empty space in which the idleness of an empty speech speaks’. Quoted in Pascale Casanova, Samuel Beckett: Anatomy of a Literary Revolution, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2006), p. 11.

[6]The concept of ‘undoing’ is taken from S. E. Gontarski, The Intent of ‘Undoing’ in Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Texts(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

[7]James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett(London: Bloomsbury, 1997), p. 352.

[8]Dirk Van Hulle, ‘Digitizing Beckett’, in The New Samuel Beckett Studies, ed. Jean-Michel Rabaté (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 19-35 (p. 27).

[9]Samuel Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn (London: John Calder, 1983),p. 19.

[10]Slavoj Žižek makes a similar argument regarding artistic engagement with traumatic events: ‘What cannot be described should be inscribed into the artistic form as its uncanny distortion’. Slavoj Žižek, Less than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism(London: Verso Books, 2012), p. 25.

[11]Beckett wrote in his directorial notebook: ‘gen[eral] effect of moves, esp[ecially] V’s [Vladimir’s] though apparently motivated that of those in cage’ (qtd. 94).

[12]Little engages with Rancière’s argument that art and politics extends and reshapes ‘the territory of the visible, the thinkable, and the possible’ (qtd. 9).

[13]Fintan O’Toole, ‘Where Lost Bodies Roam’, New York Review of Books, 7 June 2018 <;.

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