Electrifying theatre
Beckett’s media mysticism in and beyond Rough for Theatre II
in Beckett and media

With a focus on Fragment de Théâtre II (1958), this chapter explores Beckett’s artistic experimentation with symbolic logic, Boolean algebra, alternating currents, electric switches and incandescent light bulbs, linking it to the history of digital technology to inquire into Beckett’s engagement with the nexus between literary representation and electronic data processing. The chapter discusses the role of bird speech and the divine language in Théâtre II and elsewhere in Beckett’s search for the other of signification and his increasingly radical attempts to bring the game of literature to an end. The chapter argues that the notion of currents travelling (and staying) inside circuits offered Beckett a model radically different from that of intersubjective or intrasubjective dialogue. By reimagining the stage as a switching circuit, Beckett makes a step towards the media-technological realisation of non-representational drama.

‘I'm in the middle’

(Beckett, The Unnamable)

‘Da wir sie [die Sprache] so mit einem Male nicht ausschalten können, wollen wir wenigstens nichts versäumen, was zu ihrem Verruf beitragen mag’ (Beckett, 1984, 52). 1 These are the terms in which Beckett couches his early aesthetic programme in the ‘German Letter of 1937’. The statement is followed by the description of the more often referenced procedure of boring holes in language, which is in fact put forward as a merely temporary solution: ‘Selbstverständlich muss man sich vorläufig mit Wenigem begnügen. Zuerst kann es nur darauf ankommen, irgendwie eine Methode zu erfinden, um diese höhnische Haltung dem Worte gegenüber wörtlich darzustellen’ (53). 2 But the ultimate goal is clear: ‘Aufhören soll es [das Spiel der Literatur]’ (54). 3

The apparatus of Disjecta provides a translation of the letter by Martin Esslin, which glosses ‘ausschalten’ as ‘eliminate’ (172). Viola Westbrook, in the more recent edition of Beckett's letters, translates it as ‘dismiss’ (2009a, 518). Helpful as they are, both renditions misdirect the reader unversed in the German tongue: ausschalten means to ‘switch off’, primarily in the electrical sense, especially when combined with the adverbial ‘all at once’ (1984, 172).

Thus, the idea of dissolving language into silence by somehow switching it off was already a central image in Beckett's early reflections on his art. And the fact that its appeal remained unabated over the coming decades is most clearly demonstrated by the last published words Beckett wrote for the stage, the words that conclude What Where, just as the stage lighting gets turned off: ‘Make sense who may. I switch off’ (Beckett, 2006, 476). And so it seems that by the end of Beckett's career switching off the meaning-generating machine of signification had not merely turned out to be technically possible, but had indeed become a major device.

Here we have an early and a late example that frame a body of work whose fascination with the electric switch never seemed to wane (Albright, 2003, 120; Connor, 2014). But Beckett's exploration of the phenomenon of switching, this simple flick that embodies centuries of cultural development and may well determine the centuries to come, is perhaps nowhere as elaborate as in the stage play Fragment de théâtre II (translated into English as Rough for Theatre II), written in 1958 but only published in 1976 and not performed until 1979, where it literally takes centre stage.


In the summer of 1958, Beckett discussed his developing concept of the play with Robert Pinget, who, in ‘Notre ami Samuel Beckett’, gives an account of this conversation, mentioning Beckett's ‘disgust at one point for the theatre, where one doesn't say what one wants to, as in novels or poems’ (qtd. in Beckett, 2014, 167). Although we may raise the question of whether Pinget managed to capture Beckett's words with utmost fidelity, as if ‘saying what one wants to’ was ever a straightforward issue, or even necessarily an aim, in Beckett's novels, the quote nonetheless suggests that a close reading of the stage play might be in order, while establishing a direct link to the problematics of Beckett's prose fiction, especially the major novels from the preceding period, the ‘trilogy’.

But while Beckett's prose writing evolved ways of working against language in language, Theatre II already marks an apparent departure from literary writing in that the fragmentation of a life's narrative (the character C's) is not simply a matter of textual composition and syntax but is realised through the material constitution of the file system itself, compiled by the other two characters (designated as A and B), which is meant to record or produce this narrative, but which – in the very act of representing the story – causes its disintegration into discrete units:

B: [Indignant.] We have been to the best sources. All weighed and weighed again, checked and verified. Not a word here [brandishing sheaf of papers] that is not cast iron. Tied together like a cathedral. [He flings down the papers on the table. They scatter on the floor.] Shit!

(Beckett, 2006, 238)

In his journal, Pinget referred to C as ‘the defendant’ (qtd. in Beckett, 2014, 167). Accordingly, A and B, using legal vocabulary throughout, appear as defence lawyer and prosecutor; or alternatively, as angels keeping a record of C's good and bad deeds. By creating such a juridico-angelological confluence, already intimated in the very first speech, in which A calls ‘our services’ a ‘mystery’ (Beckett, 2006, 237), Beckett invokes a tradition that goes back to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and his analogy between celestial and worldly administration, between ‘the earthly and heavenly hierarchies’, with which Beckett was familiar from his reading of William Ralph Inge's Christian Mysticism (138). According to this view, ‘jurists are the earthly equivalent of heavenly angels. […] On earth as in heaven, they [take] care of daily chores by maintaining registries and compiling files’ (Vismann, 2008, 87). A and B thus recall the ‘recording angel’ from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, directly referenced in what many critics consider Theatre II's companion piece, Rough for Radio II, though misremembered by the Animator: ‘I seem to remember, there somewhere, a tear an angel comes to catch as it falls’ (Beckett, 2006, 279–80). Misremembered, but in a way that is actually an accurate description of the ending of Theatre II, where ‘A takes out his handkerchief and raises it timidly towards C's face’, who just shed a tear (249).

A and B's role is thus to mediate between C and his memories, delivering – and failing to deliver – messages from his past, while mentioning a ‘Post Office’ (241), an unsent letter (245), even a ‘dead letter’ (246). (The context of the latter evokes all four senses of the word we find in the OED: the opposite of a writing's ‘spiritual’ meaning, a command that has lost its force, an action of no value, and an unclaimed piece of mail or one that cannot be delivered due to faulty address.) Indeed, the Greek angelos means ‘messenger’, originating from angareion, which denoted a courier in the ancient Persian postal network, an early relay system of message delivery. The play builds on this etymology, which already contains the germ of a media theory: ‘Angels remain in a medial position; […] they are messengers’ with a ‘relay function, […] they are switchpoints’ (Vismann, 2008, 88). Or, as Michel Serres argues in his book which sets out to explicate the concept of mediation on the model of angelic contact, ‘communication, interference, transmissions […] work in the same way as angels’ (Serres, 1995, 43), either connecting distant worlds with each other or separating them: ‘When the messenger takes on too much importance, he ends up diverting the channel of transmission to his own ends. We can thus understand the sin and the fall of angels, who are normally faithful intermediaries, by the good or bad, successful or unsuccessful functioning of their message-bearing’ (99). If, as their information-theoretical definition suggests (Shannon and Weaver, 1949, 34), media are constituted in the acts of transmission bridging spatial or temporal distance, then Beckett's play appears to replace the theatrical paradigm of interpersonal dialogue with a telecommunication model.

Daniel Albright makes a similar point about Rough for Radio II, describing it as ‘a sort of dream of a new medium in which every electronic function of broadcasting and receiving is re-imagined as action performed by human beings’ (Albright, 2003, 114). Anna McMullan argues more generally that in the radio and television plays Beckett explores the idea of ‘body-circuits or body-transmitters’ (McMullan, 2010, 80). Likewise, Theatre II presents a stage reconceived as a technical transmission system, in which the basic operation is that of making or breaking contact. Indeed, at the top of the first page of the play's manuscript dated 15 August 1958, Beckett drew a stage diagram not included in published versions. The square representing the ‘walls’ of the stage closely resembles a simple circuit diagram, broken by the ‘window’, where C is positioned, indicated by dots that could be the point where the flow of the current can be interrupted. In this set-up, A and B could even stand for the positive and negative terminals (Beckett, 1958).

In the play's communication network, the characters A and B function as a veritable relay station: they identically repeat messages from absent senders, the people from C's past providing the testimonials that provoke nothing but a ‘spark’ in C, the receiver. But in the process, the relay's text-transmitting postal version is gradually overwritten by its signal-transmitting electrical instantiation: ‘I knew he had a spark left in him’ (Beckett, 2006, 241), says A, but B ‘Could never make out what he thought he was doing with that smile on his face’ (245). The two different semiologies are distinctly juxtaposed: while the smile is an indexical sign that refers to something else, an inner state of mind, through a connection that requires an interpreter to define it, the spark – at least in one of the senses activated by this context – is an electrical unit without a semantic dimension.

Albright concludes his argument by stating that ‘Radio, television, tape recorder – all these technologies gave Beckett clues for reconceiving the human animal as a playback device, as an entertaining conglomeration of a human being and an electronic machine’ (Albright, 2003, 120). But, despite its brilliance, doesn't this analysis, perhaps more so than Beckett's aesthetic, remain too deeply indebted to nineteenth-century analogies between electrical telecommunications and the human body (Otis, 2001), prefigurements of Marshall McLuhan's portrayal of electronic media as simultaneously extensions and amputations of the senses and the nervous system? Instead of stopping at the description of human–machine entanglements, perhaps we could take a cue from David Wellbery, who makes the following pointed argument about the underlying concern of Beckett's aesthetic project: ‘Es geht hier nicht um einen Menschen, sondern um die Zwänge des Sinns, seine In- und Exklusionen’ (Wellbery, 1998, 34). 4

Beckett's work has often been seen as a response to the modernist crisis of representation, as a work expressing the notion that the function of meaning is not to provide access to the world or the self but merely to produce further meaning (Wellbery, 1998, 23). Much poststructuralist thinking about Beckett has grappled with this aporia. But by paying close attention to the technological operations staged in Theatre II, and to the historical development in which these technologies are embedded, we may be able to, if not supplant, at least supplement this approach, overcoming what many have come to regard as a totalising concern with language. If the play can indeed be seen to dramatise a self-perpetuating sequence of distinction-making, it does so by taking recourse to abstract formalisation, a process whose long history begins in language and ends, at least from today's perspective, in computers. On one level – and this would lead to a more conventional reading – the play can be seen as the staging of ‘memory’ (Beckett, 2006, 239), as the mind's internal dialogue with itself in the Platonic tradition. But we should also note that its basic premise is that two figures are caught up in the apparently interminable task of reducing textual – one could even say, literary – interpretation to a yes/no decision: should C commit suicide or not?

A major emblem of this kind of endless oscillatory movement, both in the play and in much critical thinking about technology, is the switch. The word ‘switch’ is mentioned twenty-three times in the short play, in which the characters keep switching on and off two lamps (emphatically described as ‘reading-lamp[s]’ in the stage direction [2006, 237]), to which we have to add the eight instances when the malfunctioning lamp, with its ‘faulty connection’, ‘switches itself’ on and off, inducing the characters to start contemplating the ‘mysterious affair’ of ‘electricity’ (242–3), and critics to describe the incident as a classic example of Beckettian slapstick (Connor, 2014, 72). This lamp gag may have been inspired by Gertrude Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights (1938), in which the protagonist becomes unable to control his technological invention, the electric lights, which similarly take on a life of their own. As one of the simplest digital devices, electric lamps are operated by bistable switches that control an electric circuit with only two possible states: at any one time the switch can take up only one position, which necessarily erases the previous position. At the same time, each position can only be defined in relation to the other which, however, is only there to replace it. In other words, the point of a switch is to be switched.

In the light of this we can discover the exact same structure mirrored in the decision sought but not found (life or death), in the dualisation of C's life (‘Now let's have the positive elements’ [Beckett, 2006, 240]), in the references to electricity and the polarity on which its movement depends, or simply in the dialogue that constitutes the play: a constant switching between A and B. In this connection it is worth noting that Theatre II is Beckett's only dramatic work in which the characters have diegetic names – Bertrand, Morvan, Legris (French version) / Croker (English version) – but are nevertheless referred to as A, B and C both in the stage directions and in the speech headings. In all other plays with two or three characters named using the first letters of the alphabet, the personae are either not identified by names in the diegesis (as in Rough for Theatre I), or they explicitly represent the same voice (as in That Time) or self (as in Nacht und Träume). The fact that A and B have diegetic names only highlights their abstract rendering in the script. Thus, the letters A and B do not only name the two characters, 5 but also stand for a different notion of the sign, the symbols of formal logic, in which individual letters replace complex statements made in natural language, facilitating the analysis of their logical content. This kind of abstraction is what enabled both the development of George Boole's algebra – in The Mathematical Analysis of Logic (1847) and in The Laws of Thought (1854) – which reduced logical propositions to the binary digits of 1 and 0, representing truth and falsehood, and its technological realisation by Claude Shannon in A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits (1938), which proved that all logical operations can be automated using electrical switches or relays, laying the groundwork for the development of digital electronics.

Ever since Hugh Kenner's The Mechanic Muse, Boolean algebra has from time to time been evoked to help elucidate aspects of Beckett's writing. But a question less often raised is from what source, in what context, did Beckett derive his notion of it. One possible answer is Fritz Mauthner. In the third volume of his critique of language, which Beckett read thoroughly, in the chapter ‘Inference’ from the section ‘Language and Logic’, Mauthner discusses Boole (Mauthner, 1923, 443), and symbolic logic more at length. Concluding his discussion of algebraic logic, Mauthner contends that ‘die Hoffnung eitel ist, mit Hilfe mathematischer Abstraktionen vom Sprachgebrauch ernsthaft über die Mängel der Sprache hinauszukommen’. 6 And he goes on to assert even more radically that ‘Wo keine Logik der Sprache ist, da hat die Algebra der Logik ihr Recht verloren’ (445–6). 7 Thus, for Mauthner formal logic and algebra are only variations on everyday language.

And this stance is what gives us reason to believe that Mauthner was at least one of Beckett's sources. In formal terms, there is a noticeable correspondence between Theatre II and contemporary developments in communication technology. As Shannon famously pointed out, in a technical system the ‘semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem’ (Shannon and Weaver, 1949, 31). But his colleague Warren Weaver is quick to clarify the claim: ‘this does not mean that the engineering aspects are necessarily irrelevant to the semantic aspects’ (8). Correspondingly, Beckett enlists switching circuits not in order to circumvent everyday language but to exhibit the basic operations that generate meaning; or put differently, to display the data-processing capacity of language reduced to its bare bones.

In ‘Les Deux Besoins’, often considered the second half of Beckett's early aesthetic programme initially developed in the ‘German Letter of 1937’, Beckett makes a statement that gives a striking twist to this constellation:

S’il est permis en pareil cas de parler d’un principe effectif, ce n’est pas, Dieu et Poincaré merci, celui qui régit les pétitions de principe de la science et les logoi croisés de la théologie […] Cela avance à coups de oui et de non comme un obus à détonateurs, jusqu’à ce que la vérité explose. […]

Autrement dit, le saint sorite, lubricum et periculorum locus. Rien ne ressemble moins au procès créateur que ces convulsions de vermisseau enragé, propulsé en spasmes de jugement vers une pourriture d’élection. Car aux enthymemes de l’art ce sont les conclusions qui manquent et non pas les prémisses.

(Beckett, 1984, 56–7)

Known for its attack on science and religion, the passage actually has a different focus. Beckett's concern here is not so much science and theology as such, but an ‘effective principle’ or rule that ‘governs’ or regulates them and which, more importantly, ‘proceeds by sequences of yes and no’. What is more, these sequences are explicitly conceived as a technical process – here associated with ‘obus à détonateurs’, that is to say, army equipment, which, as Friedrich Kittler liked to argue, is the laboratory from where most modern media technologies emerged – a technical process that incorporates logic into itself. It is a very specific kind of logical operation at that, the ‘sorites’, or a string of syllogisms, a procedure characterised by sequential execution. It is this binary logic of ‘yes and no’ and the sequential meshing or interlocking of each successive step in a technological process that links Beckett's elaborate imagery, written in 1938, to Shannon's technical model comprising switching circuits or relays connected in series that carry out the operations of Boolean algebra in an automated fashion, published the very same year (Shannon, 1938, 717).

It may be that Beckett first encountered the concepts of the sorites and the enthymeme in T. K. Abbott's The Elements of Logic while a student at Trinity College Dublin. But we should note that Mauthner also mentions these two specialised terms (and only these two) when discussing chain inferences (Mauthner, 1923, 447), but, unlike Abbott, he does so while disparaging logic, very much in the spirit of ‘Les Deux Besoins’. By saying that ‘Wir wissen bereits, daß die hypothetischen Schlüsse nur eine andere sprachliche Form für die hier behandelten künstlichen Denkoperationen sind’ (446), 8 Mauthner clearly asserts that algebraic logic in the manner of Boole is of the same nature as the sorites. But he goes even further. According to Mauthner, the enthymeme and the sorites constitute a form of discretisation: ‘die Schlüsse und Schlußketten sind auseinandergezerrte, schablonisierte, künstlich verlängerte und verdünnte Gedankensprünge. Man könnte die Tätigkeit des Logikers dabei mit dem Photographieren von Anschütz vergleichen (neuerdings noch besser mit den Teilbildern eines Films für den Kinematographen)’ (447). 9 In other words, these logical operations are structured the same way as the discontinuous image sequences (standardised at twenty-four frames per second in 1927) that comprise film, making it a digital-analogue hybrid medium.

Thus, in Mauthner as in ‘Les Deux Besoins’, discretisation emerges as the basic characteristic of logic and one that it shares with the digital technology of switching circuits. But when eleven years later Shannon and Weaver published their theory of communication, they named two classic examples of a discrete system: ‘written speech, telegraphy’ (Shannon and Weaver, 1949, 8). As the coupling of these two examples indicates, the ABC – or literature – and the alternation of A and B belong to the same order in that they both operate with a limited set of discrete symbols/signals. Using the alternation of ‘line open’ and ‘line closure’ in circuits for the transmission of messages had been a familiar practice since the invention of the electric telegraph, which still served as an important model at the dawn of the computer age. The evolution of electric telegraphy had largely been completed by 1837, when the painter Samuel Morse patented a system of representation now known as the Morse code, essentially contriving an order of meaning for the simple difference between the dits and the dahs. ‘In all probability, it was his invention of the code that led so many to credit him with inventing telegraphic communication as a general concept’ (Otis, 2001, 133), a clear indication of the kind of delusional absorption in reference and meaning that Beckett's play – this like many others – never tires of parodying. Indeed, much of the play's slapstick charm arises from juxtaposing the breakdowns of linguistic communication in A and B's circular dialogues with the electric lamp, which appears to automate the ‘line open’ and ‘line closure’ on which its operation depends, repeating them in a loop. Correspondingly, Beckett's punning on the ‘heirless aunt’ who is taken to be ‘hairless’ (Beckett, 2006, 242) typifies the elementary – in this case, graphemic – differences that are the building blocks of signification.

In his seminar session on ‘The Circuit’, held in 1955, Jacques Lacan delves into the parallels between digital signalling and everyday language, and to illuminate his point he chooses to illustrate it with, of all things, an electric lamp:

What is a message inside a machine? Something which proceeds by opening and not opening, the way an electric lamp does, by yes or no. It's something articulated, of the same order as the fundamental oppositions of the symbolic register.

(Lacan, 1991, 89)

By simply switching between its two positions, the lamp enacts the principle of difference which structures semiosis. In its material construction, the switch represents the logic of the symbolic register: meaning is distinction-making. (Nota bene, this is exactly how formal semantics, admittedly not the only paradigm, describes meaning through componential analysis.) Thus, the opening and closing of an electric circuit embodies the fundamental operation of all signifying practices:

If there are machines which […] do all the marvellous things which man had until then thought to be peculiar to his thinking, it is because the fairy electricity, as we say, enables us to establish circuits, circuits which open and close, which interrupt themselves or restore themselves. […] Everything we call language can be organised around this basic element […], that is to say concrete languages […] with their ambiguities, their emotional content, their human meaning

(Lacan, 1991, 302–5).

This will be the case, Lacan adds, once the effects of the imaginary are introduced into human discourse (306). But that does not change the fact that ‘syntax exists before semantics’ (305). But in Beckett's hands this separation of material substrate (the electric circuits in which syntax is realised) and semantics extends to the play itself. I have already referred to the prominent split between the level of diegesis and the script storing and transmitting it. But there is further indication of this ‘rupture of the lines of communication’ (Beckett, 1984, 70), notably in the following remark: ‘Et dire que tout ça c’est de la fusion thermonucléaire! Toute cette féerie!’ (Beckett, 1978, 52). This aside immediately follows the lamp gag, and so may also be read as an allusion to the source of electric power (and not just the star-filled sky).

The first commercial nuclear power plant in the UK, the Calder Hall reactor in Cumbria, was opened in 1956, and although it was powered by fission, the 1950s marked the beginning of a major research effort into harnessing the energy potential of nuclear fusion (still an unfulfilled possibility). The French word ‘féerie’, on the other hand, means not only ‘magic’, but also the make-believe world of a theatrical production. Thus, Beckett emphatically disconnects the real of the staging from the imaginary of the performance. (The solution Beckett found for the English translation is ‘faerie’ [Beckett, 2006, 244], a clear allusion to Edmund Spenser's romance and thus fiction.)

In foregrounding the material operations that allow the construction of symbolic systems, Theatre II represents an important juncture in Beckett's developing aesthetic and a significant move away from the devices of literature. As the switching between the two states of the lamp becomes ‘automated’, signification emerges as ‘an order which subsists in its rigour, independently of all subjectivity’ (Lacan, 1991, 304). The notion of currents travelling (and staying) inside circuits offered Beckett a model radically different from that of intersubjective or intrasubjective dialogue, the supposed commun(icat)ion between self and self conveying an interiority. It enabled him to further abstract from the routines of everyday language, to externalise the signifying operation, moving it out of the human psyche. As a result, the stage action loses its foundation in linguistic representation and starts obeying a dramaturgy conceived in technological terms. By reimagining the stage as a switching circuit, Beckett makes a step towards the media-technological realisation of non-representational drama.

A note to practitioners

In The Flame of a Candle, published in 1961, Gaston Bachelard is overtaken by a wave of nostalgia:

Dreamer of words that I am, the word ‘lightbulb’ makes me laugh. […] Who can say ‘my electric light bulb’ in the same way that he once said ‘my lamp’? […] The electric lightbulb will never provoke in us the reveries of this living lamp which made light out of oil. We have entered an age of administered light. Our only role is to flip a switch. […] We cannot take advantage of this act to become, with legitimate pride, the subject of the verb ‘to light.’ […] A little click says yes and no with the same voice. […] With an electric switch one can play the games of yes and no endlessly.

(Bachelard, 1988, 63–4)

Here Bachelard connects the notions of binary logic, electricity and loss of control with that of endlessness, all emblematised by a switch connected to a light bulb. And in Theatre II, too, the role of the electric lamp seems to be to ‘play the games of yes and no endlessly’, keeping C flickering between life and death. But Bachelard's nostalgia may be in need of an update. For the play's basic poetic device, the switching, is conceived to work on multiple levels, and in a way that makes it – like many of Beckett's media plays – vulnerable to obsolescence.

Alternating current, the form of electricity that comes from domestic power sockets, reverses the flow of electricity periodically, reaching a certain amplitude. This oscillating motion is repeated in cycles indefinitely. With a frequency of 50 Hz (in Europe) and at zero volt twice per cycle, AC turns the filament in the light bulb on and off a hundred times per second. The only reason we don't see the flicker is that the wire has no time to cool off (the light intensity does drop as a result). While the coiled wire in filament bulbs conducts in both directions, the driver integrated into LED bulbs converts AC into DC so that the current can only travel from the cathode to the anode, always in the same direction; LEDs have nothing in common with the poetics of Beckett's play. Since 1 September 2018, incandescent light bulbs have been practically banned from the EU, as they are inefficient: only a fraction of the energy ends up as light, most of it is converted into heat. Hence the name incandescent, ‘glowing with heat’. No wonder the self-extinguished lamp instantly prompts B to say: ‘May I come to you? [Pause.] I need animal warmth’ (Beckett, 2006, 244).

The fact that those tiny halogen bulbs with the cap types G4 and G9 are still allowed to exist on the market is cold comfort for the general disappearance of the classic incandescent lamp: how much dramatic power can be retained after having downsized the bulb, arguably a main protagonist in the play, to exactly one centimetre in diameter? Therefore, all practitioners planning to stage Rough for Theatre II, a play whose dramaturgy is so thoroughly permeated by both the idea and the technology of alternating current, would be well advised to stock up with supplies of any traditional filament light bulbs they can still lay their hands on.

A Beckettian ornitho-logology

In a letter sent to Pinget on 3 September 1958, Beckett describes how he is planning to conclude the play:

J’en suis au gag des lampes. Envie de le pousser jusqu’à la frénésie. Mais n’en ferai rien. Et j’ai trouvé un oiseau chanteur, dans un coin. Je ne l’avais pas vu, rapport à l’obscurité. Tout d’un coup il chante. […] Discussion ornitho. Plumage, ramage. Etc.

(Beckett, 2014, 166) 10

Linda Ben-Zvi may be right in calling the discovery of the songbird a ‘deus ex machina’ (Ben-Zvi, 2013, 132), especially since, in a compositional sense, it does seem to bring the play to a conclusion. Having discussed with Beckett the development of the play, Pinget noted the following point in his journal: ‘The drama is resolved by an accident, an unforeseen event, which sets free the defendant’ (qtd. in Beckett, 2014, 167). This is indeed as good a definition of the deus ex machina as a dramatic device as any. But in what sense could the birdsong provide a resolution to the problem of interminability? As we saw, the cyclical interminability resulting from the structure of sense-making, expressed verbally in The Unnamable and realised dramaturgically in the earlier stage plays such as Waiting for Godot and Endgame, is here quasi-technologically implemented in the switching between A and B, between ‘on’ and ‘off’. But, as Wellbery maintains, ‘Es bleibt jedoch die Sehnsucht nach Erlösung, […] die Becketts Texten ihren unverwechselbaren Ton verleiht, […] nach einem Zustand jenseits der sich ins Unendliche fortsetzenden Reihe sinnhafter Elemente, nach dem unaussprechlichem Ende’, einem Zustand jenseits des ‘heillosen Entweder/Oder als der Differenzlosigkeit sinnhafter Differenzierung’ (Wellbery, 1998, 34–5). 11

In his letter, Beckett himself contrasted the birdsong with the lamp gag. But why is the ‘discussion ornitho’ significant enough to be mentioned in that short note? After a ‘brief burst of birdsong’ is heard (Beckett, 2006, 247), the characters make three attempts to identify the bird: first as Philomel (that is, a nightingale), then as a lovebird, and finally as a finch. This series constitutes a trajectory that tells the story of replacing linguistic communication with avian singing, already implied in the mythical symbolism of Philomel. In all likelihood, Theatre II alludes to the version of the gruesome myth as reworked by Ovid in Metamorphosis, an early influence on Beckett: Tereus gets enchanted by the voice of her sister-in-law Philomel, and after raping her, cuts out her tongue to stop her from speaking about the crime. Later, to save her life, the gods turn Philomel into a nightingale. Lovebirds, on the other hand, are a type of parrot. The intertextual link created by this reference extends to many instances of the parrot discourse in Beckett's oeuvre, but most notably to The Unnamable, whose English translation Beckett completed earlier that year and which was published by Grove Press in September:

It all boils down to a question of words […] It is they who dictate this torrent of balls […] A parrot, that's what they're up against, a parrot. If they had told me what I have to say […] But God forbid, that would be too easy, my heart wouldn't be in it, I have to puke my heart out too, […] it's then at last I'll look as if I mean what I'm saying, it won't be just idle words.

(Beckett, 2003, 338)

A closer look reveals that this is taken almost verbatim from Descartes: ‘parrots can utter words as we do, and yet they cannot speak as we do: that is, they cannot show that they are thinking what they are saying’ (Descartes, 1985, 140). In Discourse on the Method, Descartes defines human beings through linguistic utterances that represent them as subjects. Since the parrot's words don't represent thoughts, it's indistinguishable from a machine (141). In the parrot's speech, exactly as in electrical signalling, the connection between vehicle and reference is severed. Making the characters in Theatre II read out quotations in a markedly mechanical fashion essentially constitutes a dramatisation of the parrot discourse from The Unnamable. The staging of reading as a mechanical activity may have also been influenced by Beckett's encounter with Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, which contains a thought experiment about a human ‘reading machine which translate[s] marks into sounds’ (§157), ‘not counting the understanding of what is read as part of “reading”’ (§156). (This thought experiment is also mentioned in David Pole's The Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein (1950, 22–3), which Beckett read that same year.)

However, the parrot's role in Beckett's oeuvre is not uniform but characterised by a telling paradox. In Malone Dies we find a second angle which marks the limit of human language from the opposite direction:

I wonder what my last words will be, written, the others do not endure, but vanish, into thin air. I shall never know. I shall not finish this inventory either, a little bird tells me so, the paraclete perhaps, psittaceously named.

(Beckett, 2003, 250)

Parrot and Holy Spirit superimposed on each other through a near-homophony (parakeet/paraclete), the passage is a nod to Flaubert's Un Coeur simple, in which the traditional dove is replaced by a parrot as the representation of the Holy Ghost. Besides, as Brigitte Le Juez reminds us, ‘Beckett was familiar with pre-eighteenth-century manifestations of parrots in art, especially the medieval tradition of Biblical illustrations in which the parrot represents the Divine Word. […] The Beckettian parrot thus performs an important function in the creation of a dichotomy contrasting the Divine Message with the human struggle with words’ (Le Juez, 2013, 212). It is in the space opened up by the two distinct roles accorded to the parrot that linguistic communication can be situated: ‘The parrot's capacity to speak, which enabled it to become part of the menagerie of Descartes’ philosophical animals, and the fiery tongues of the Holy Spirit are the two non-human poles framing all the theories of human language’ (Siegert, 2015, 66).

In an ornamental footnote that now proves illuminating, Ben-Zvi (2013, 137) identifies the species of the birds in Theatre II, which A simply takes for ‘finches’ (Beckett, 2006, 248), as blue-faced parrotfinches, based on Beckett's description of the male's colours. While lovebirds are actually parrots, parrotfinches are, in spite of the ambiguous denomination, genuine passerines: ‘Note moreover the characteristic warble, there can be no mistaking it’ (248). Located at the threshold between talking birds and songbirds, the avian in Theatre II appears to suspend the psittacine irony of Malone Dies. One might wonder whether Beckett was familiar with the fact that in the occult or mystical tradition the ‘language of the birds’ (of songbirds, that is) was conceived as the original or Adamic language of which all fallen human languages are merely corrupted imitations.

To complement its logology, the play contains another key reference to the divine language. When, in the middle of the lamp gag, B tries to read out a particularly obscure passage from a testimonial, the following dialogue ensues:

B. – Où est le verbe?

A. – Quel verbe?

B. – Le principal!

A. – Moi je n’y suis plus du tout.

B. – Je m’en vais chercher le verbe et laisser tomber toutes ces conneries au milieu. (Il cherche.) « Fusse … pusse » … tu te rends compte ! … « tinnse … ignorasse » … nom de Dieu!… ah … (1978, 49)

The religious allusions throughout the play, and especially the ‘nom de Dieu’ – however profanised it is – in the immediate context of the word ‘verbe’ activate its theological meaning: in French, ‘le Verbe’ also means ‘the Word’, the ‘Verbum’ of the Vulgate. And so from behind the surface operation of syntactical parsing a different notion of language shines through.

It is no coincidence that the allusion is to the Johannine Gospel, which describes the event of incarnation as a linguistic process: ‘Et Verbum caro factum est’. The problem of the verbum concerns ‘the mysterious unity […] of Spirit and Word’ (Gadamer, 2013, 437), where the word is ‘consubstantial with thought’ (438). Thus, when B sets out to ‘make the middle disappear’ (the first meaning of the phrase ‘laisser tomber’ is to ‘ignore’ or ‘make completely disappear’), he simply conjures up the theological doctrine that the verbum is language without reference, without the intervening process of the semiosis which separates sign and meaning; in the verbum this process ‘disappears in the immediacy of divine omniscience’ (442), the signifier and the signified perfectly coincide. Accordingly, B searches not just for any verb, but ‘le principal!’: ‘the divine Word is one unique word’ (444), whereas ‘the human word is essentially incomplete’ and ‘must necessarily be many words’ (442).

But since the beautifully rich phrase ‘laisser tomber’ also means ‘to utter’, as in ‘to let words fall from one's lips’, and so the ‘drivel in the middle’ (Beckett, 2006, 243) is not only ‘ignored’ or ‘made to disappear’ but also spoken (as it very much is, demonstrated by the above quote), the phrase is ultimately figured into an exquisite example of the rhetorical self-cancellation Beckett took to such heights. Through its layered figuration, which introduces into the sentence precisely the kind of ambiguity that the verbum is free of, the sentence both describes and enacts a miniature linguistic drama which amounts to the following: the act of renouncing fallen human language is nullified by being performed as a verbal statement.

Thus suspended between the extremes of ‘articulation’ and ‘disappearance’, the ‘drivel in the middle’ is of course also a hint at the ultimate referent of all the discourse fragments whose piecing together is what seems to be at stake in the play: C. Or to use the diegetic name in the French original, which renders sensuous what C denotes symbolically: ‘Legris’ (Beckett, 1978, 42), that is to say, ‘the grey one’. This (non-)colour is situated in the intermediate zone between the binaries of black and white, a colour with infinite shades that not only gives a twist to the symbolism of light and darkness that drives the dialogues, but also represents the ‘dead zone’ between the two stable positions of switches, the dead zone to which no value corresponds, along which the switch travels every time but only to overcome it, ignoring and excluding it as it must if the system is to remain operative. Critics of digital technology often claim that the grey area in the middle left out by the 0s and the 1s, by high and low voltages is the domain of the analogue, of phenomena that cannot be captured and processed by binary logic. The poetic prose piece ‘neither’, which Beckett wrote in September 1976, not long after translating Fragment de théâtre II into English, seems to evoke precisely this dynamic of discreteness, describing the ‘to and fro in shadow’ in the ‘unspeakable home’ of ‘that unheeded neither’ ‘between two lit refuges’ (Beckett, 2010, 167).

Theatre II stages a search for the ‘other’ of signification. What the songbird's ‘warble’ and the verbum have in common is that they both lack the duality of vehicle and meaning. Since its partner has died, dissolving the binary of the couple's dialogical situation, ‘[a]nd he goes on singing!’ (Beckett, 2006, 248), the bird's song is freed from the last residue of communicative function. Of course, this lonely song is also a kind of ‘dead letter’ of the avian world, not without the special poignancy of an enunciation broadcast into a gaping void bereft of all recipients. But the ‘warble’ is nonetheless the opposite of ‘drivel’: a language not failing at, but being without, mediation.

‘that flame… that burns away filthy logic’: deus ex machina à la Beckett

This search already appears to have acquired mystical overtones. The word ‘mystery’ itself occurs twice in the play in prominent positions, while the figure of C can legitimately be described, in a literal sense, as a mystical character. The root of the word ‘mystery’ is the Greek μύειν meaning to keep the lips and the eyes closed. ‘Mystes’, a related word, denotes a person initiated into mysteries, but more specifically it refers to someone sworn to silence. C is not only voiceless, but the only Beckettian stage character that neither speaks nor shows his face to the audience. However, we are not left in the dark about his expression:

B: And his eyes? Still goggling?

A: Shut.

B: Shut!

(Beckett, 2006, 245)

But most importantly, the play contains a clear allusion to the great medieval mystic Meister Eckhart: ‘I knew he had a spark left in him’ (241). Beckett had already incorporated Eckhart's notion of the ‘spark’ into his first novel, Dream of Fair to middling Women, in which the mystical theologian ‘Dionysius the Areopagite’ and Eckhart's ‘Fünkelein’ are both mentioned, even if only ironically (17). In Dream the ‘Fünkelein’ is associated with a star in the Lyre. And in Theatre II, too, there is an astral connection, ‘Sirius’ (2006, 239), only it is more pronounced: the Greek Σείριος literally translates as ‘sparkling’. Beckett's source for his early novel was Inge's Christian Mysticism, extensively excerpted in his ‘Dream’ Notebook, including the note ‘Eckhart's “Fünkelein”: organ by which the personality communicates with God & knows him’ (Beckett, 1999, 100). In Inge's book we can read an extended discussion of ‘The curious doctrine which we find in the mystics of the Middle Ages, that there is at ‘the apex of the mind’ a spark which is consubstantial with the uncreated ground of the Deity’ (Inge, 1899, 7). Later Inge remarks that ‘what is most distinctive in Eckhart's ethics is the new importance which is given to the doctrine of immanence’ (155).

This doctrine is directly related to Eckhart's notion of the medium. Pre-technological and metaphorical through and through, it is, however, not entirely unlike its modern information-theoretical counterpart; it is conceived as a channel that transmits between two distant points while necessarily generating noise: ‘it is contrary to the concept of a medium that anything is silent or at rest in it’ (Eckhart, 1986, 173). Thus, as his Commentary on the Book of Wisdom explicates, the medium is not only a bridge but also a chasm that separates what it is supposed to connect; it is a means that intervenes. The doctrine of immanence, as applied to the idea of the spark, follows from this premise: ‘therefore it is necessary that the very idea of a medium be removed, given up, be silent and at rest’ (173).

And if Wellbery is right in claiming that ‘Becketts Sehnsucht ist der mit dem Bewußtsein des Sinns einhergehende Bezug zur unvordenklichen Indifferenz als einem Undarstellbaren, Namenlosen’ (35), 12 then we can easily see why Eckhart's spark made an impression on him: this ‘Divine spark [is] a pure nothing; rather nameless than named, rather unknown than know. […] It is absolute and free from all names and all forms, […] For in all these there is still distinction’ (qtd. in Inge, 1899, 157; emphasis in original). Eckhart seems to offer an answer to the apparently unresolvable tension between the dynamic of discreteness sketched here, the infinite sequence of distinctions and the ideal of ‘laisser tomber toutes ces conneries au milieu’.

On 11 November 1977, four and a half decades after Beckett had made his notes of Inge's work, a conversation took place between Charles Juliet and Beckett which ended as follows:

I mention the mystics: Saint John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Ruysbruck… and ask him if he ever rereads them, if he likes the spirit of their writings.

– Yes… I like… I like their… their illogicality… their burning illogicality… that flame… that flame… that burns away filthy logic.

(Juliet, 1995, 167)

But, in terms of the aesthetic possibilities of its staging, the act of ‘burning away logic’ does not have to be a mere metaphor any more at a time when logic had already been hypostasised in the real. At a time when logic, previously housed in ordinary language and then algebra, was already being electronically implemented, as series of switching operations, in relays, electron tubes, transistors and – since 1958, the year of Beckett's first draft – in integrated circuits. ‘Burning away logic’ is exactly what happens in an electronic system during a short circuit.

Beckett had already experimented with the idea in earlier works. The short circuit proved to be an important disruptive force in the novel Murphy (1938): ‘“Love requited,” said Neary, “is a short circuit,” a ball that gave rise to a sparkling rally […] It was the short circuit so earnestly desired by Neary, the glare of pursuit and flight extinguished’ (Beckett, 2009b, 5, 21). Beckett had probably taken the idea from André Breton's ‘Second Manifesto of Surrealism’ (1930), in which inspiration is figured as a mechanism that ‘prevents our being, for every problem posed, the plaything of one rational solution rather than some other equally rational solution, by that sort of short circuit it creates between a given idea and a respondent idea’ (Breton, 1930, 161). While here the short circuit is already meant to counteract logic, it is still created between ideas. In Murphy, on the other hand, the short circuit is a means of ‘extinguishing’ a process, that is, of switching off a light (‘the glare’) or burning it out, reducing it to silence.

Once what happens on the theatrical stage, however, is conceived as an electric circuit, it can actually be short-circuited. Three years before Murphy was published, the philosopher Ernst Bloch asserted that in the era of electric light religious mysteries had become impossible (Bloch, 1998, 316), adding that ‘Only candle flames can […] be extinguished […] uncannily. Whereas the failure of an electric bulb does not betray the existence of any spirit world […] but only the existence of a short circuit’ (315). And this is where we can catch a glimpse of Beckett's media mysticism as developed in Theatre II: Beckett reinterprets Eckhart's ‘divine spark’ through electrical engineering and turns it into a dramatic device that adds a second meaning to the term deus ex machina. 13 A spark in the physical sense is an electrical discharge resulting from the dielectric breakdown of an insulating material, which in turn may lead to the short-circuiting and failure of an electrical system. In Dream, Beckett describes Beethoven's music in terms remarkably reminiscent of a dielectric breakdown, as a ‘punctuation of dehiscence’ in which ‘continuity […] fall[s] apart, the notes fly about, a blizzard of electrons’ (Beckett, 1993, 139). In Theatre II, he devises a way of short-circuiting the medium that corresponds to the information-theoretical model developed by Shannon and Weaver: ‘The channel is merely the medium used to transmit the signal […]. It may be a pair of wires’ (Shannon and Weaver, 1949, 34).

Electricity turns an insulated metal wire or the ‘flex’ (Beckett, 2006, 242), through which it flows, into a cable, that is, a medium that transmits something (Gethmann and Sprenger, 2015, 14). As McLuhan insists, electricity is a ‘pure […] medium without a message’ (2003, 19): by simply hooking up two points with each other, the electrified wire creates the structure of transmissivity. The point of a cable is that it is never only here, but also somewhere else (Gethmann and Sprenger, 2015, 18). Putting the flow of electric current on the stage thus means keeping the performance in a permanent oscillation between a ‘here’ and a non-representable ‘elsewhere’. Little wonder (or is it a little wonder?) that the play ends with an unelectrified epilogue in which the scene is illuminated by the light of a match. In the match there is no perpetual reversal, no either/or, no endless game of ‘on’ and ‘off’, and no dead zone of the bistable switch: ‘L’allumette se consume, A la laisse tomber’ (Beckett, 1978, 61).

It is in the spark, in the dielectric breakdown and the short circuit, that ‘electricity’ becomes ‘mysterious’ (Beckett, 2006, 243). This process is what unites the physical and the Eckhartian definition of the ‘spark’ – and this is where Beckett's imagery and the technical real of electric circuits coincide. It is, in other words, one of Beckett's early technological solutions to the self-imposed task of eliminating – or better, switching off – the intervening medium.


1 ‘Since we cannot switch it [language] off all at once, at least we do not want to miss any opportunities to bring it into disrepute.’ (My translation. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations in the notes are mine.)
2 ‘Of course, for the time being, one makes do with little. At first, it can only be a matter of somehow inventing a method of verbally demonstrating this scornful attitude vis-à-vis the word’ (Beckett, 2009a, 519).
3 ‘Let it [the game of literature] cease altogether!’ (Beckett, 2009a, 520).
4 ‘What is at stake here is not a human being, but the compulsions of sense-making, its inclusions and exclusions.’
5 Emilie Morin has recently put forward the intriguing suggestion that the three characters may actually have ‘uncharacteristically realist referent[s]’, and that naming one of them ‘Bertrand’ may have been inspired by ‘the chief French expert in cryptography during the Second World War’, Gustave Bertrand, who helped break the Enigma code (Morin, 2017, 226–7). But a different conjecture, no less applicable to the play's dramaturgy, can also be proposed. Beckett read Henri Poincaré's La Valeur de la Science (1905) and took extensive notes of it in the ‘Whoroscope’ Notebook in 1938. Poincaré discusses the mathematician Joseph Bertrand (simply referred to as M. Bertrand) both in La Valeur de la Science and, more at length, in La Science et l’Hypothèse, published two years earlier. These volumes constitute the first two instalments of Poincaré's trilogy based on the same lecture series. While the notes in the ‘Whoroscope’ Notebook are from the second volume, there is no reason to exclude the possibility that Beckett encountered the first volume too. The book's final chapter on the history of electrodynamics contains extended discussions of Ampère's experiments with electric currents and their effects on each other, which all revolved around a circuit C (or current C) set up between a positively and a negatively charged conductor, designated as A and B, currents running between and through them throughout the chapter. Poincaré describes the forces acting on A, B and C in quite a dramatic fashion, interspersed by summaries of Helmholtz's related theories and Bertrand's polemic with Helmholtz. Reading this account, one could be inclined to believe that the real M. Bertrand might have actually uttered the words ‘Mysterious affair, electricity’ (Beckett, 2006, 243).
6 ‘It is vain to hope that we can actually overcome the deficiencies of language relying on mathematical abstractions of language use.’
7 ‘The algebra of logic is no longer justified once it has abandoned the logic of language.’
8 ‘We already know that the hypothetical inferences are only the linguistic equivalents of the artificial thought operations discussed here.’
9 ‘The inferences and chain syllogisms are in fact leaps of thought pulled apart, moulded into a set pattern, and artificially made longer and thinner. We could compare the logician's activity to Anschütz's photography (or, today, even more appropriately, to the individual images of the film used in the cinematograph).’
10 ‘I've got to the lamp gag. Feel like pushing it all the way to frenzy. But I'll do no such thing. And I've found a songbird, in a corner. I hadn't seen it, because of the dark. Suddenly it sings. […] Bandying of bird-lore. Plumage, song. Etc.’ (Beckett, 2014, 167).
11 ‘There remains, however, a desire for release […] which gives Beckett's texts their unmistakable tone […] the desire for a state beyond the infinite series of meaningful elements, for an unspeakable end’, for a state beyond ‘the hopeless alternation of either/or as the principle of semantic differentiation which admits no alternative’.
12 ‘Beckett's desire is the wish that accompanies all awareness of meaning, a wish for an undividedness that precedes all thought, as something non-representable, unnamable.’
13 In other words, Beckett simply makes use of these mystical ideas for aesthetic purposes. Perhaps his remark made about Berkeley's ‘esse est percipi’ in the script of Film applies here too: ‘No truth value attaches to above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience’ (Beckett, 2006, 323). For a classic discussion of Beckett's relation to religious mysticism, see Bryden (1998).

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