Form in postmodern English literature

There seems in the literature of the post-War period a certain preoccupation with the limitations that literary forms have to a pertinent expression of the issues that artists concern themselves with, particularly in the wake of the turbulence and fragmentation of ideals that have arisen in the period from the Second World War to the Present Day. This essay will focus on the way in which dramatists– specifically through the works of Samuel Beckett and Sarah Kane – manipulate traditional forms and conventions in order to best convey the issues that they wish to address in their work.

As Rónán McDonald suggests in his preface to Beckett’s Endgame, many writers in this era sought to present a:

challenge to orthodox values and their grammar of understanding seemed appropriate to the crisis of culture and confidence after the Second World War. If civilization could lead to such barbarism, it seemed necessary to overhaul and renovate it, including its artistic and literary heritage.[1]

With this in mind, we shall see here how form can be utilised both as a vehicle in addressing and reconciling with a rapidly changing cultural climate, and also as a symbol and symptom of this change through the challenging and questioning of its own artistic conventions.

It is in the work of Samuel Beckett that we can most explicitly see the way in which traditional formal conventions are deemed inappropriate to the subject matter at hand. In Beckett’s work, particularly Waiting for Godot and Endgame, there seems to be two primary ways in which Beckett exploits and exposes the limitations of the dramatic form. Firstly, the way in which the limitations of the genre are exposed, and secondly the way in which traditional form and convention is deemed inappropriate as a means of addressing the contemporary cultural climate, and so is reinvented in such a way that meets those needs.

Throughout Beckett’s work, from Vladimir and Estragon’s endless waiting for a ‘Godot’ that will never arrive, to the bleak emptiness of the universe in which Endgame takes place, we see the same recurring themes and ideas. Primarily, Beckett presents to us a world in which there is no meaning, no spiritual form of hope or redemption, and through the absurdity of man’s existence in light of this recognition of the world. As John Fletcher states in Samuel Beckett’s Art, ‘Man’s only fate is to die; all attempts to soften this harsh fact are lies. Life is an almost ‘pensum’, suddenly and quite inexplicably terminated in death, which often does not come soon enough’.[2] The effectiveness of this message lies in the fact that Beckett presents this ‘harsh fact’[3] utilising a form that allows the presentation this truth in a manner that is equally harsh. The presentation of Endgame, for example, is equally as unsettling to the audience as the subject matter that it carries. In the play, poignancy and banality are presented as wholly equal due to neither being of significant meaning and consequence in the context of the play, and no sense of comfort or resolution can be offered to the audience by the play itself. In addition, questions are repeatedly asked by Hamm and Clov without ever being conclusively answered, and the obvious frustration at this seemingly endless inertia in the play transfers itself to the audience. Take, for example, the following exchange:

Ham    Have you had your visions?

Clov    Less.

Ham    Is Mother Pegg’s light on?

Clov    Light! How could anyone’s light be on?

Ham    Extinguished!

Clov    Naturally it’s extinguished. If it’s not on it’s extinguished.

Ham    No, I mean Mother Pegg.

Clov    But naturally she’s extinguished! [Pause.] What’s the matter with you today?

Ham    I’m taking my course. [Pause.] Is she buried?

Clov    Buried! Who would have buried her?[4]

Questions only ever lead to more questions, and anything approaching an answer does nothing to enlighten the characters and audience alike as to what is going on. Therefore the theatrical form, and the sense of unease created in the audience by playing with theatrical convention, allows Beckett to directly relate the ideas and feelings he wishes to convey to his audience by creating a forced empathy for the characters. The discomfort of the characters is transposed onto the audience due to Beckett’s exploiting of the theatrical form’s ability to allow form and content to mimic each other.

We get a further impression that Beckett creates a theatre in which the form and content mimic each other through the way that notions of setting and the theatrical space in which a play takes place are exploited. While the characters in Endgame make reference to the nothingness that exists beyond their dwellings, Beckett makes us aware of the nothingness and absurdity that exists in the theatrical form by never allowing the audience to fully suspend their disbelief. This is achieved primarily through the way in which the characters make reference to the conventions of the play in which they ‘exist’, the most prominent example being Hamm explaining to Clov that he is trying to perform ‘An aside, ape! Did you never hear an aside before? I’m warming up for my last soliloquy.’[5] Such explicit meta-references to the fact that the play is a work of fiction, in addition to the implication that there is nothing beyond the room in which the audience is privy to, serves to further make the audience aware of the utter absurdity of the fictionality of the theatrical form. This, in turn, leads the audience to further ponder the notions of meaning and truth that Beckett is expressing in the play’s content, thus further increasing the impact of this message. As Fletcher states, the exposing of theatrical conventions within the actual play itself:

provokes in the spectator a state of mind appropriate to the theme of the play he is about to see…We are thereby made to feel the feebleness of the convention that a whole world exists across the footlights, where in reality there are only boards, wings, backcloth and flies…The artifices of drama reflect the derision of life, and vice versa.[6]

Thus we see then how Beckett is able to exploit theatrical convention in a way that reinforces the ideas that are conveyed through a play’s content; in the case of Endgame, the feeling of the meaninglessness of life and the nothingness that exists outside of it.

In the work of Sarah Kane we see similar artistic principles to those identified in Beckett’s work, but taken to a more explicitly political extreme. In Kane, particularly her 1995 work Blasted, the theatrical form is utilised in such way that forces the audience to directly engage with the message she wishes to convey. The parallels between Beckett and Kane’s methods of engaging the audience is achieved through the very manner in which one is receptive of a play compared to, say, reading a novel. As Mark and Juliette Taylor-Batty state in their work Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

A reader is free to read the book anywhere and at any speed, to refer back or forwards to other parts of the text, and to draw conclusions about the central meaning or significance of the text at his or her leisure. An audience, on the other hand, experiences a play in a specific place and for a specific length of time as governed by the author and director, and consumes information in a paced linear manner.[7]

It is through this utilisation of the theatrical form’s predisposition to gauging an audience’s attention that Sarah Kane is most effectively able to convey the underlying message and meaning of her work. In the case of Blasted, Kane is able to force the audience to be confronted with the true nature and reality of violence in an extremely matter-of-fact manner, without any degree of reverence or superfluity. Take, for example, the Soldier recounting to Ian the various acts he has witnessed during the war:

Women threw their babies on board hoping someone would look after them. Crushing each other to death. Insides of people’s heads came out of their eyes. Saw a child most of his face blown off, young girl I fucked hand up inside her trying to claw my liquid out, starving man eating his dead wife’s leg.[8]

This graphic yet frank description, along with on-stage depictions of rape, abuse and the eating of a baby, allows Kane to create an impression of violence in a very real, direct fashion. Much in the same way that Beckett depicts a universe utterly indifferent to the existence of humanity, Kane presents violence as an unforgiving inevitability. Her desire to present violence in this very direct manner is due to the fact that this is the very nature of violence: a brutal, degrading act that cannot be conveyed through decorative prose or melodramatic action. As Annabelle Singer states in ‘Don’t Want to Be This: The Elusive Sarah Kane’, ‘Unlike our familiar film, television and video game violence, Kane’s Blasted…refused to distance us with a stylized wink or gift-wrapped moral.’[9] This perception of violence is one that can be most brutally conveyed in the theatrical form, where an audience is forced to witness the ordeal with the same traumatic discomfort and horror as the play’s characters. As Christopher Wixson suggests in ‘“In Better Places”: Space, Identity, and Alienation in Sarah Kane’s Blasted’, Kane employs these ‘graphic depictions of sex and violence’[10] as a means of:

challenging the conventions of realistic theater by extending to the audience her characters’ estrangement from their environment…She resists neoclassical discretion in her representation of violence, mandating us to confront what comfortable theatergoers in the West put aside in our day-to-day lives.[11]

This is perhaps the most significant way in which Sarah Kane manipulates formal convention and audience expectation in order to create a more poignant and effective impact upon the audience. Treating violence in this brutally straightforward manner serves to create a juxtaposition between the violence in Blasted and the mannered nature of violence in more traditional theatre, thus highlighting to the audience the brutality and, most importantly, reality of the violence in Blasted. Perhaps the most explicit way we see this in Blasted comes in the fifth scene, in which the audience bares witness to a fragmented depiction of Ian’s actions in the hotel room in Cate’s absence. Through using the stage lighting to create a series of miniature ‘scenes’, Kane  distils the squalor in which the play takes place to its purest and minimalist conclusion.

With this in mind then, both Beckett and Kane can be seen to seek to challenge the conventions of the traditional, realist theatrical form, and as such confront their audience with the unsettling and ironic notion that realist theatre is simply not realistic in nature. Through Beckett’s relentless nihilism and Kane’s brutal violence the audience is presented with the harsh truth of reality, thus creating a form more pertinent to addressing the social and political climate in which they were writing.

[1] Rónán McDonald, ‘Preface’ in Samuel Beckett, Endgame (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), pp.vii-xvi, p.xiii

[2] John Fletcher, Samuel Beckett’s Art (London: Chatto and Windus, 1967), p.13

[3] Ibid.

[4] Samuel Beckett, Endgame (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), p.26-7

[5] Samuel Beckett, Endgame, p.46

[6] John Fletcher, Samuel Beckett’s Art, p.47

[7] Mark Taylor-Batty and Juliette Taylor-Batty, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (London: Continuum, 2008), p.11-12

[8] Sarah Kane, Blasted (London: Methuen Publishing Ltd., 2002), p.50

[9] Annabelle Singer, ‘Don’t Want to be This: The Elusive Sarah Kane’, Drama Review 48.2 (2004), 139-171 (p.140).

[10] Christopher Wixson, ‘In Better Places: Space, Identity and Alienation in Sarah Kane’s BlastedComparative Drama 39.1 (2005), 75-91 (p.75).

[11] Ibid., (p.75-6).