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Articulating Movement on the Beckettian Stage

2 June 2022

Jonathan McAllister, University of Cambridge

A way of walking is no less a refrain
than a song or a little coloured vision.

– Gilles Deleuze.[1]

In this short essay, I will articulate several meanings that reside in the performing body of Samuel Beckett’s play Footfalls (1976).[2] The aim of such an exercise is to sketch a few distinctive significations and practices that pertain to the Beckettian body.

The word articulate contains two opposite meanings: to join and to split. It is derived from the Greek word for an anatomical joint, arthron, which can be found in such words as arthritis—disease of the joints—and arthrosis—articulation of the joints.[3] To articulate, then, means to allow coherent movement through a joint that connects two separate parts.

Our bodies, therefore, are always articulating through their movements. It is a necessity of being in time that bodily forms continually vary; yet the meanings of these articulations are difficult to grasp. Since bodies always vacate their own space, they never fully coincide with their own meaning. We might say that bodies occupy a preconscious and shifting expressive realm, their meanings evading while approximating linguistic expression.

Before continuing, a brief description of Footfalls may be useful here. In this play, a slightly hunched woman—May—paces back and forth across the stage while slowly speaking to a disembodied Other, to whom she refers as Mother. The sound of her rhythmic tread measures the distance in feet, with the echo of one step taken by the place of another. Although May’s steps are audible, her feet are concealed by a worn grey wrap: her body remains beyond our perceptual grasp, continually dissolving in sound. This ghostly figure is faintly visible on the shadowed stage as she compulsively paces these ‘life-long stretches’,[4] gradually slowing until she disappears.

The character seen on stage thus exists between the real and the virtual. She consists in a form that dissolves and recomposes itself, both audibly and visually. Her condition entails not quite being there, but also not quite not being there. Asked by the actress Billie Whitelaw, who played the role in 1976, ‘Am I dead?’, Beckett replied, ‘Let’s just say you’re not quite there’.[5] May consequently paces out her being to quell the tormenting anxieties of nonbeing that follow in her footstep.

Walter Asmus, the assistant director of the 1976 German production, notes that this ‘walking should be like a metronome’.[6] But a metronome keeps time from a position exterior rather than interior to that which it regulates. Hence, it makes no sense for pace to be kept regular by the body, since the temporality of the body is irregular. If the body acts to keep time, then time becomes unsteady and malleable—the time of the organic rather than the mechanical.

The slowing of the walk over the course of the play accordingly expands the time and space of the stage. The body fails to keep a stable tempo, and in turn a stable temporality. When May asks, ‘What age am I now?’, and the voice responds, ‘In your forties’, she replies, ‘So little?’.[7] We might say that her time is out of step with our own. Confined to a narrow strip of stage, May wheels ceaselessly into a world where time is stagnating. Her motion eschews steady time; it instead warps and stretches time. In relation to the spectator, this woman exists in an expanding space-time vortex.

Besides such spatio-temporal effects, the slowness of this movement is significant itself. May’s motion derives its expressivity from slowness. Steven Connor terms this an ‘aesthetic defection from speed’.[8] Despite the stagnation of her world, May can never quite get in step with her own body. ‘I saw nothing, heard nothing, of any kind. I was not there’, May says.[9] Thus, she cannot quite live in the moment of her living.

This is the difference between what Connor terms going slowly and slow going.[10] He writes, ‘Going slowly is something we attempt to do to time; slow going is what time does to us, through us’.[11] In Footfalls, the spectator sees May slow towards herself. Yet, she is never able to curb the steady elapsing of time. The play asks whether we can ever come to coincide with our own bodily form through slowness. That is, whether we can ever have ‘done … revolving it all’.[12] It closes on the intimation that repetition cannot eliminate the difference seeded by time.

Whitelaw remembers that Beckett spoke at length of May’s movement. He lay particular emphasis upon ‘the changing of the body’s posture as the play progressed, as though the character was slowly turning inward’.[13] With each length she paces, May turns in upon herself. ‘Watch how feat she wheels’, says the voice.[14]

In performance, Whitelaw maintained the tension of this contorting motion that persistently pulled her inward. As she remembers, ‘I made a slightly off-centre curling shape, the head at an angle, the waist at another angle from the body, the spine slightly twisted’.[15] Whitelaw therefore inhabited the body of the character to find her way of moving. She discovered that ‘the body had its own laws’ dictating motility.[16]

Whitelaw’s posture formalised the condition of our upright bodies, which are held vertical by vertebrae. Michel Serres reminds us that the root word of both vertical and vertebrae is the preposition vers. This root has both the meaning of going towards and rotation—it is derived from the Latin verto, meaning to turn.[17] This accurately describes the movement the spectator sees on stage: May repeatedly sets off in a straight line that steadily turns in upon itself. Her periodic revolutions distort her body as it slowly spirals into the ground, evoking what one critic expressively terms a ‘visual punctuation mark’.[18]

Like Whitelaw, many performers begin in Beckett’s theatre by finding the body of the character, determining their physicality. They thus assimilate the character’s body into their own joints. Only then can they articulate with the body of the Other.

Therefore, performers must not act the idea but rather the form of Beckett’s characters. The action is obscured by emotions if performers play out an idea or psychology. This was the mistake made by the performer Hildegard Schmahl during rehearsals for a 1976 production of Footfalls. Beckett wrote, ‘Berlin gang a bundle of pale grey nerves, yapping for psychological securities’.[19] In adopting a psychological approach, Schmahl’s movement was inarticulate: there was an excess of uncontrolled motion produced by emotion.

By instead adopting a precise embodied form, Schmahl was able to find the character’s own principles of motion. Beckett advised, ‘Slip into the movement’.[20] This idea of finding a body with which to move is formulated by Oliver Sacks in the following way: ‘The knowing-what-to-do [has] no theoretical quality whatever – it [is] entirely practical, immediate – and compelling’.[21]

The body knows how to move when positioned in a particular way, and so a performance becomes convincing when the actor finds the correct form of the body. We find the motion of our bodies without much thought: our musculature intuitively adapts to its environment or form.

Schmahl found the precise pacing she had been seeking by adopting these principles. Asmus commented that Schmahl ‘was able to hold her body stiffly, avoiding all uncalculated movement, and that new tautness in turn affected her articulation’.[22] In other words, this stylisation of the body produced an economy of movement. It effectively conveyed the inwardness of the character, her ‘being for herself’.[23] Therefore, the meaning of the performance was no longer interior but exterior. It was articulated by the particular body of the performer: her way of pacing, turning, standing, and speaking.

To repeat the epigraph above: ‘A way of walking is no less a refrain than a song or a little coloured vision’.[24]


Sources

[1] Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Exhausted’, trans. by Anthony Uhlmann, SubStance, 24 (1995), 3-28 (p. 10).

[2] Samuel Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 237-43.

[3] “articulation, n.”, OED Online, Oxford English Dictionary, March 2022 <https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/129613?rskey=hA9FLc&result=1#eid&gt; [accessed 10 May 2022].

[4] Walter D. Asmus, ‘Rehearsal Notes for the German Premiere of Beckett’s That Time and Footfalls’, in On Beckett: Essays and Criticism, ed. by S. E. Gontarski (London: Anthem Press, 2014) pp. 253-64 (p. 255).

[5] Billie Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, Who he? (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995), p. 143.

[6] Walter D. Asmus, ‘Rehearsal Notes for the German Premiere of Beckett’s That Time and Footfalls’, p. 256.

[7] Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays, p. 240.

[8] Steven Connor, Beckett, Modernism and the Material Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 117.

[9] Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays, p. 243.

[10] Ibid., p. 116.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays, p. 243.

[13] Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, Who he?, p. 141.

[14] Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays, p. 241.

[15] Whitelaw, Billie Whitelaw, Who he?, p. 145.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Michel Serres, Variations on the Body, trans. by Rudolph Burks (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Univocal, 2011), p. 112.

[18] Cal Revely-Calder, ‘Choreographer Footfalls’, Journal of Beckett Studies, 27:1 (2018), 54-68 (p. 55).

[19] Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, ed. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck, IV vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), IV: 1966-1989, p. 435.

[20] Walter D. Asmus, ‘Rehearsal Notes for the German Premiere of Beckett’s That Time and Footfalls’, p. 261.

[21] Oliver Sacks, A Leg to Stand On (London: Picador, 2011), p. 103.

[22] Jonathan Kalb, Beckett in Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 64.

[23] Walter D. Asmus, ‘Rehearsal Notes for the German Premiere of Beckett’s That Time and Footfalls’, p. 261.

[24] Deleuze, ‘The Exhausted’, p. 10.

Image Credit: John Haynes, Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls, 1976.

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