Act Without Words


The action takes place in a desert illuminated by a "dazzling light".[1] The cast consists of just one man, who, at the start of the play, is “flung backwards”[2] onto the stage. After he lands he hears a whistle from the right wing. He “takes the sound for some kind of call, and after a bit of reflection, proceeds in that direction only to find himself hurled back again. Next the sound issues from the left. The scene is repeated in reverse.”[3] There is clearly no exit. He sits on the ground and looks at his hands.

A number of objects are then lowered into this set beginning with a palm tree with “a single bough some three yards from the ground,”[1] “a caricature of the Tree of Life.”[3] Its arrival is announced, as is that of each object which follows, with the same sharp whistle. On being made aware of its existence the man moves into its shade and continues looking at his hands. “A pair of tailor’s scissors descends from the flies”[1] but again the man doesn’t notice them until he hears the whistle. He then starts to trim his nails.

Over the course of the play other items are lowered from above: three cubes of varying sizes, a length of knotted rope and – always just out of reach – a “tiny carafe, to which is attached a huge label inscribed WATER.”[4]

The rest of the sketch is a study in frustrated efforts. “Armed with two natural tools, mind and hands, those tools, which separate him from lower orders of animals, he tries to survive, to secure some water in the desert. The mind works, at least in part: he learns – small cube on large; he invents, or is given inventions – scissors, cubes, rope. But when he learns to use his tools effectively, they are confiscated: the scissors, when he reasons that in addition to cutting his fingernails, he might cut his throat; the blocks and rope, when he discovers that they might make a gallows.”[5] (Vladimir and Estragon also contemplate suicide in this way at the end of Waiting for Godot). Beckett is here drawing on his viewing of the silent screen comedies of the like of Buster Keaton, Ben Turpin and Harry Langdon all of whom would have encountered objects on-screen apparently with minds of their own.

Eventually it looks as if he’s given up and he sits on the big cube. After a while, this is pulled up from beneath him, and he is left on the ground. From this point on he refuses to ‘play the game’ any further; even when the carafe of water is dangled in front of his face he does not make to grab it. The palms for the tree open, providing shade once more, but he doesn’t move. He simply sits there in the dazzling light looking at his hands.

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