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Beckett’s Bodies, 1953–1983: Movement, Gesture, and Posture



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McAllister, Jonathan 


My thesis offers an account of the non-verbal, physical practices of Beckett’s dramatic works from the 1950s to the 1980s. These works are unique for the precision with which the body is choreographed on stage, offering an insight into mid-twentieth century concerns and anxieties about embodiment. This thesis thus brings together archival material, performance theory, and close readings of published visual and textual material to articulate the performing body in Beckett’s dramatic oeuvre. It develops a way to read the concerns of the Beckettian body by attending to the lesser-known mime works (published and unpublished), which bracket Beckett’s dramatic career. Since they concern the expressivity of the body as such, these mimes suggest a way to read the drama that articulates from rather than onto the performing body—from the body to theory, rather than from theory onto the body. Beckett’s bodies can thus be described and analysed in detail for what they suggest about postwar embodiment, instead of made to conform to a preconceived theory. This does not mean that theory has no place in this thesis. It draws extensively on and is informed by twentieth- and twenty-first-century poststructuralism, phenomenology, and philosophical anthropology—especially the works of Erwin Straus, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gilles Deleuze, Peter Sloterdijk, Giorgio Agamben, Michel Serres, and Slavoj Žižek—where relevant and necessary to an understanding of bodily practices and effects. This provides a perspective by which to explore what may be termed a Beckettian body knowledge: the disciplined physical practices and techniques Beckett used to explore questions concerning what it meant to be embodied in the late twentieth century. I claim that Beckett developed a repertoire of performance practices drawn from the early- to mid-century Parisian avant-garde to conceive of a performing body for the late century. This assertion orientates my readings of the dramatic works which focus on the bodily disciplines, practices, and techniques necessary to their performance. My first chapter traces the development of the performance practices of drama and mime in inter- and post-war Paris to provide a context against which Beckett’s mime works are then read. The mimes are not the crucible of Beckett’s movement practices, I argue, but inflect and highlight the distinctive use of the body that he worked on over thirty years in the theatre. Chapter Two is concerned with the place of movement in the performance of Beckett’s bodies. I read several of Beckett’s works— Film, Footfalls, Quad, and Endgame—for the way their styles of movement articulate a specific form of embodiment produced through a strenuous exertion of the obstructed or impeded body. In Chapter Three, I consider the work that the Beckettian aesthetic does with and to gesture as an expression of embodiment by reading three works that emphasise the gesturality of the body and its parts—Ghost Trio, Happy Days, and Not I. The chapter argues that the gestural aesthetic of Beckett’s works highlights his concerns with bodily limitation and fragmentation as an expression of late-twentieth-century embodiment. In Chapter Four, I treat Beckett’s approach to postural signification as a reflection of late twentieth-century cultural concerns regarding the concept of the human by reading three of the dramatic works—Waiting for Godot, Rough for Theatre I, and Catastrophe. It is within the context of a crisis of humanism, I argue, that many of the postural forms found in Beckett’s dramatic works of the mid- to late century can be read, with the philosophical concept of the human being brought radically into question.





Wills, Clair
Connor, Steven
Svendsen, Zoe


Samuel Beckett


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Jebb Studentship at the University of Cambridge Jesus College in the University of Cambridge The Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge