Act Without Words

Myth, Absurdity, and Human Conditioning in Beckett’s Act Without Words

In Act Without Words (1956), Samuel Beckett strips the human condition to its barest level of existence, the “last extremity of meat – or bones” (Connor 181). The play is no longer than four pages, but, in those few pages, Beckett confronts humanity’s unceasing struggle with its disturbingly absurd, thrown condition. It mimes the thwarted attempts of a nameless character, an everyman, hurled onto the stage, the desert, to obtain a carafe of water, hovering just out of reach. Tools and objects descend to help his objective, each one confiscated once he figures out their more beneficial use: suicide. Ultimately, the failed efforts result in his refusal to participate or respond to the world; the useless passion of all human endeavors.

Beckett’s short piece may appear simplistic, and perhaps a bit understated, however, every line and its corresponding action requires a significant amount of “unpacking.” He creates a complex weave of allusions, drawing from numerous sources, from the Greek myths of Tantalus and Sisyphus to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Beckett was a defining member in the Theatre of the Absurd, giving an artistic dimension to the attitudes of the French Existentialists, especially Albert Camus. The Existentialist...

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