The Portrayal of Existentialism Within Beckett’s Play, Rockaby “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. ” The words of Samuel Beckett, from his play Worstward Ho, written in 1983, echo the ideals and philosophies behind absurdist theatre and Existentialism. Created in the early 1950s, absurdist theatre rejects the conventional techniques of theatre in favour of strange and absurd conventions in order to create an impact and impression, and present the worldview of Existentialism to an audience through an artistic medium.
Absurdism is influenced by the Existentialist worldview, especially the notion of human existence preceding any essence in life. Absurdist playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, present a distorted view of humanity in their plays, through their own worldview which echoes the tenets of Existentialism. Samuel Beckett’s play, Rockaby, is one such play that incorporates non-? realist (absurd) theatre techniques to accentuate the existential worldview. Beckett effectively manipulates the Dramatic Languages and Elements of absurdist, non-? linear narrative, symbolism and voice, to demonstrate Existentialism through an artistic illustration of the worldview.
Beckett effectively exploits the technique of absurdist, non-? linear narrative to accentuate the philosophy of Existentialism within Rockaby. One of the most common quotes used to explain Existentialism is “existence precedes essence. ” This phrase can be translated into the notion of not knowing anything about the past or future, but just ‘being’ – existence comes before any meaning of life interpreted from knowledge of historic or future events. The technique of non-? linear narrative, used within Rockaby, expresses this belief perfectly in dramatic terms.
Absurdist, Non-? linear narrative is utilised through the circular, repetitive nature of the script – a technique that highlights the existentialists’ view of life as meaningless and the repetitious passing of time waiting for death. Furthermore, this circular narrative provides no beginning or end, emphasising the existential belief of existence coming before any meaning of life, including both knowledge of history as well as future (beginning and end). The play begins with the word ‘more’. There is no context, no understanding of what has happened or is about to happen. The woman just appears, says ‘more’, then the play begins.
This continues in each of the four sections, beginning with ‘more’, and ending with silence, broken only by the next ‘more’. This circular motion highlights the meaningless state of life, and the absurdity of living only to wait until death. The circular narrative is irregular in that it still develops and evolves, with the narrative progressing from sitting at a window, to drawing the blinds, to moving down the stairs, to waiting in the rocking chair for death, to dying.
Though this does not perfectly follow a circular narrative, it still does highlight Existential belief: that life is meaningless, useless and absurd, that the only choice we have in a meaningless life is to exercise our minds, to understand our absurdity and therefore become responsible for our own existence.
The play begins with the woman sitting at the window, searching the outside world for another like herself – another who can give her meaning and prove her existence. This action in itself is an exercise of her mind. However, her standards drop later in the play and her mental stimulation grows less, as she becomes content just to see movement within one of the windows opposite hers as proof of the existence of another life, and therefore creating meaning in her own life. Upon the realization it was ‘time she stopped’ this searching in vain, she closes the blind (a symbol of death) before
descending – both literally and emotionally – to her rocking chair, where she sits and waits for death. Though the narrative is somewhat circular, it still conveys a story of the woman’s original searching for meaning, a realisation of her absurdity and isolation in a meaningless world, her acceptance of the absurdity, and her resolve to wait for death. Through this use of absurdist narrative, Beckett brings out the philosophy of Existentialism stronger than through any of the other dramatic techniques he incorporates.
In a similar way, Samuel Beckett incorporates symbolism within Rockaby to effectively present the worldview of Existentialism to the audience. One of the most significant principles within Existentialism maintains the belief that life is meaningless, useless and absurd, and that humans live to die and evaporate into nothingness in an empty, meaningless universe. The focus subject in the play, ‘W’, and her actions, are used to convey this belief to the audience.
One of the first, most obvious uses of symbolism is within the costume choices. Beckett’s  notes on the play, as published in the ‘Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett,’ are very particular in describing what sort of gown should be worn: “Black lacy high-? necked… Long sleeves.
Jet sequins… Incongruous headdress set with extravagant trimming to catch the light” – A funeral gown. This highlights the feeling of death and ending of life, a concept that is echoed throughout the play. The notion of ‘drawing down the blind’ is another symbol for death, according to Professor Eoin O’Brien  who states, “A drawn blind is an old custom signifying death”. The last thing the woman does before sitting down in her rocking chair is “let down the blind,” therefore emphasising the morbid, meaningless ideals of life portrayed in absurdism and its existential foundations.
The window is also use to create symbolism, as a representation of the woman’s search for another “one living soul… like herself,” which alludes to the yearning for meaning, order and the finding of self-? value and self-? definition in the discovery of another life. Beckett echoes the implications of Bishop Berkeley’s words: “to be is to be perceived. ” [Cited in Davis, R. : 1988] Berkeley is saying that life is nothing more or less than the state of being perceived. It is this existential purpose and meaning of life that the woman searches for.
In searching for another living soul, she yearns to find meaning for herself, a search that is in vain, as she finds no one and is seen by no one. The woman’s life and act of living is further explored through the symbol of the rocking chair. The title, Rockaby, refers to a children’s lullaby, and, the original French name, Berceuse, translates to mean both ‘rocking chair’ and ‘lullaby’. In using this title, Beckett brings together two juxtaposed concepts: that of birth (in the sense of the Rockaby baby nursery rhyme) and death (the baby falling from the treetop).
This is further explored in the use of the childlike demand for “more” coupled with the symbolic references to old age and death, through the costume and demeanor of the woman in the chair. Therefore, it is evident that Beckett incorporates many different symbolic references within his play to bring to the forefront the philosophy of Existentialism. Furthermore, Beckett utilises the techniques of voice to emphasise the absurdity within his play, Rockaby.
“The Absurdists’ plays reflect… that human beings have lost the ability to communicate. ” [Crawford, A. , et al. , 2003] This is reflected in many of Beckett’s plays as the techniques of voice and language frequently carry a disjointed, nonsensical, empty tone that is characteristic of absurdism. This is no different in Rockaby, where the voice over, recounting the life of the woman in the chair, follows a very disjointed, yet rhythmic, pattern. This disjointedness echoes the concept of juxtaposing youth with frailty and old age. The simplicity and fragmentation of the voice creates a childlike sentiment, but the frailty of the voice maintains the notion of age and weakness.
Rhythm in voice is also a frequently used technique in absurdist plays. The script of Rockaby follows a rigid ‘to and fro’ feeling, following the trance-? like state of the rocking chair and the dimetric flow of the lines, which are very verse like: “Time she // stopped Sitting at her // window Quiet at her // window Only // window Facing other // windows Only other // windows All // eyes All // sides High and // low Time she // stopped” The techniques of silence and pause within the voice are also widely used within absurdist theatre, and Rockaby is no exception.
The voiceover used often pauses, adding stress and effect to the verse-? like lines. Silence is further incorporated in the break at the end of each ‘section’ of the play. The woman in the chair intermittently joins in with the last lines of each section: ‘time she stopped’, ‘living soul’ and ‘rock her off’. This leads to a silence, ended only by the woman’s demand for ‘more’, before the voice over continues the disjointed, rhythmic narrative. Each time the woman joins in with the narration, her voice grows weaker and more fragile, slowly diminishing until, at the end of the last section, she fails to join in, falling into darkness and death.
Absurdism is even further explored in the voice through the way the voice over speaks in third person, yet is the woman’s own voice. This detaches the woman from the voice over, through the use of the word ‘she’, yet they are still one in mind, through sharing the same thoughts, feelings and intentions. Furthermore, voice represents the only proof of the woman’s existence; a point that is strongly related to absurdism and easily falls into line with Existentialism. Just as Berkeley said, “to be is to be perceived,” so too is voice the only object that ‘perceives’ the woman.
There is no other ‘living soul’ that acknowledges her existence, therefore, the only way she can prove her existence is through the narration of her life from the voiceover: “Voice has become the woman’s own Berkeleyan observer, without whose surveillance any claim to existence would be invalidated. ” [Brown, V. , 2005] Therefore, it is evident that the use of the dramatic language of voice has been effectively manipulated within Beckett’s play to create the appropriate absurdist impression, which demonstrates an effective portrayal of the existentialist understanding seen through the absurdist techniques.
In his play, Rockaby, Samuel Beckett incorporates many different techniques of Absurd Theatre, which accentuates his worldview of Existentialism. The quintessential belief of Existentialism – existence recedes essence – is brought to the forefront of the audience’s attention through the use of the absurdist techniques of symbolism, voice, and non-? linear, absurdist narrative. Beckett effectively manipulates these Dramatic Languages to create a play that is not necessarily about Existentialism. Rather, it is a play that highlights the philosophy through the narrative, and silently conveys the principles and ideals of Existentialism, without directly referring to the philosophy itself.
In this regard, Beckett has effectively communicated the philosophy of Existentialism to a contemporary audience through the manipulation of the Dramatic Languages. Bibliography: Beckett, S. , (1984) ‘Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett,’ London: Faber and Faber, p 273.
Brown, V. (2005) ‘Yesterday’s Deformities: A Discussion of the Role of Memory and Discourse in the Plays of Samuel Beckett’ (Doctorate paper in Literature and Philosophy), University of South Africa. Crawford, A. , Hurst, C. , Lurgering, M. , Wimmer, C. , (2003), ‘Acting In Person And In Style in Australia,’ Macquarie Park: McGraw Hill Australia Pty Ltd. Hale, J. A. , ‘Perspective in Rockaby’ in Davis, R. J. and Butler, L. St J. , (Eds. ) ‘Make Sense Who May’:
Essays on Samuel Beckett’s Later Works (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1988), p 74. O’Brien, E. , ‘The Beckett Country’ (Dublin: The Black Cat Press, 1986), pp 197,198 ‘Rockaby’, (2012), Wikipedia – the Free Encyclopedia, URL found: http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Rockaby (Last Accessed Saturday 27th October, 2012).
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