Cam M. Roberts
November 10th, 2011
ENG 301: Samuel Beckett
Prof. J. Holdridge
Dedicated to Václav Havel
Czech playwright, essayist, poet,
dissident and politician.
Written in French in 1982.
It was first performed at the Avignon Festival in 1982.
First published in English by Faber and Faber, London, in 1984.
1. The change which produces the final
event of a dramatic piece; the dénouement.
2. ‘A final event; a conclusion generally
unhappy’ (J.); overthrow, ruin.
3. An event producing a subversion of the
order or system of things, esp. in Geol.
A sudden and violent physical change, such
as an upheaval, depression, etc.
(See CATACYLSM, CATASTROPHISM.).
4. A sudden disaster. (Used very loosely.).
Beckett on Film
D: Harold Pinter
A: Rebecca Pidgeon
P: John Gielgud
directed by David Mamet
John Gielgud & Rebecca Pidgeon
in a 2000 TV production of Beckett's Catastrophe
Photograph: Channel 4 Television/PR
This was John Gielgud’s final performance.
Gielgud died of natural causes on May 21st, 2000.
He was 96 years old.
“… a related image resurfaced when Beckett came to write
Catastrophe in support of the Czech dissident writer Vaclav Havel. In
Catastrophe the Protagonist, humiliated, reduced, ‘baited’ throughout the play,
‘raises his head, fixes the audience,’ and reduces their applause to a stunned silence.”
“… Catastrophe focuses on the presentation of a silence body as visual
spectacle by a figure of institutional power.”
“… Catastrophe… while powerful in performance and penetrating in its
equation of theatrical and totalitarian impulses, is a political play whose relatively
conventional agonistic structure lies outside the mainstream of Beckett’s lifelong
(Gontarski, ed., 379)
“‘Visual Abstinence’ is rather a good term for Beckett’s late theatre, since
he often employed only a single or a double image, illuminated in the surrounding
dark, empty spaces…”
(Knowlson & Haynes, 44)
Catastrophe is arguably, almost self-evidently, Beckett’s most overtly political
play in his entire oeuvre.
The subordinate protagonist ‘P’ is denied certain requisites of ‘Character’ status,
however ‘P’ does not fulfill an identity of ‘Actor’, which otherwise would ideally
construct a hypothetical analogy between the Director–Actor Dynamic and the
Authoritarian Narrator–Character: Protagonist Dynamic. Traditionally in both
plot-driven and narrative-driven dramas, symbolic carriers (ex. metaphor, simile,
metonymy, synecdoche, tableaus, mimetic images) are the expressive agents
which denote meaning. This is not the case in Beckett’s theatre since his dramas
for the theatre (especially his most cinematic plays) are never symbolic carrying
Protagonist – in drama, the character(s) who drive forward the progression of
the plot (or the play’s sequence of events through physical action in order to
achieve a ‘super’ objective and/or to overcome a major obstacle. The term is
given life by Aristotle in his Poetics and Constantin Stanislavski.
“As often with Beckett, there is a kind of black humour even in the grimmest of
subjects: since the protagonist is continually being given orders by a theatrical
producer, the play can be seen both as a kind of parody of agit prop plays as
well as a statement of the similarity between a dictatorship (whether of the
proletariat or not) and the way in which a director treats his actors.”
Richard Roud, Manchester Guardian Weekly, August 21st, 1983. p. 20.
“At the end, after some order shouted by an unseen light man, Protagonist stands on a
dark stage with only a spotlight on his frightened face. Director predicts an enthusiastic
response from the audience; a sound effect of applause follows, in which I thought I also
heard hoofbeats and the turning wheels of a tumbrel – but maybe not, maybe that was
only an aural hallucination from my own spellbound imagination… Even without the
dedication, the political implications are clear.”
Edith Oliver, The New Yorker, June 27th, 1983. p. 75.
Beckett in Performance
Interview with Alvin Epstein.
March 4th, 1986.
Epstein acted in numerous American Productions of Beckett’s work:
Waiting for Godot (1956), Endgame (1958), Alan Schneider’s TV film of Godot (1961),
the triple-bill Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe, What Where (1984),
and the radio productions All That Fall (1986) and Words and Music (1987)
EPSTEIN: “There’s an ambiguity there, in acting […]. Beckett’s always doing
that. I mean even in Catastrophe where the Protagonist is
standing on a pedestal, on display, and the director is
directing, and the assistant is like the assistant director, and
they’re arranging him for a performance, and the
performance is going on while you’re doing it. At the end
the director is out in the hall, out among the audience,
talking about a future performance, but there’s a
performance going on now. So he plays games, the same as
in Godot and Endgame. End-Game.”
Beckett in Performance
Interview with David Warrilow.
May 18th, 1986.
Beckett wrote A Piece of Monologue (1980) for Warrilow.
His other Beckett work includes Ohio Impromptu (1981), a stage version of Eh Joe (1981),
Catastrophe (1983), What Where (1983), Cette Fois (That Time) (1985),
and radio productions of All That Fall (1986) and Words and Music (1987).
WARRILOW: “In Catastrophe, for example, I would give myself over to a
more traditional form of theatre and play it out that way. I
far preferred to play the Protagonist in Catastrophe; that’s a
much more interesting role to do, much more interesting.
For one thing because it’s sculptural, and there’s an infinite
amount of delicate muscular work to be done. It’s also very
interesting to deal with the problem of not feeling like a
victim. He can look whatever way he looks to the audience,
but not to be involved in self-pity while standing on that
block is a very interesting task.”
“Those who saw David Warrilow perform in Catastrophe will recognize the… phenomenon of the
mask: his Protagonist was a faceless victim until the final moment when his spirit seemed to escape his mask
(indeed, his skull) to confront the audience with his transcendent accusatory stare. ”
“And it could be, like the ‘fibrous degeneration’ in his play Catastrophe, felt at
considerable cost. One of the… conditions from which Beckett himself suffered – a thickening of
deep tissue that passes from palm to fingers, causing the hands to claw – it was inflicted on the
character P, the barefoot protagonist up on a plinth who seems nothing more than a prop – fists
clenched, face down, black wide-brimmed hat, black gown, not hooded or veiled, but like the
now-notorious figure at Abu Ghraib, up on a pedestal too, with electric wires attached to his
hands. With D, the director as chief sadist, the torture is a performance, or the performance
torturous, prepared by precise instruction to A, the more than willing female assistant…”
(Ben-Zvi & Moorjani, eds., 41)
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