- Play title: Breath
- Author: Samuel Beckett
- First performed: 1969
- Page count: 1
Breath is a play by Samuel Beckett. No actors are required for a performance. The scene is a stage strewn with assorted rubbish. The sound effects employed are recordings of a child’s cry (vagitus) and a person inhaling and then exhaling. Stage lighting is brought up to ample brightness and then reversed to dim lighting. Beckett’s stage directions indicate precisely how each of the previously mentioned elements is to be calibrated and sequenced. The duration of a performance of this play is less than one minute: in fact, closer to about thirty seconds.
Ways to access the text: reading/watching
Samuel Beckett: The Collected Shorter Plays published by Grove Press is freely available online and contains the text of Breath. There are multiple other online sources from which to choose.
There are several different interpretations of Breath available to watch on YouTube. One of the more famous examples is a piece directed by Damien Hirst. It is worth mentioning that none of the videos of Beckett’s play correctly adhere to the stage directions laid out in the text.
Why read/watch Breath?
It is a strange experience to view a play in which no word is spoken. Breath is a meticulously calculated mix of imagery, sounds, light, temporal space, and silence. The significance of this theatre piece is the sum total of what one can decipher from it and/or project onto it. Breath may have a bland, obvious meaning or it could be exceptionally erudite and ground-breaking. Watching the play is certainly not an egregious drain on one’s time so there is little excuse to ignore it especially after having learned of the existence of this little-known work. The effect of the play on an observer is normally a quick pop of understanding and this is a worthwhile experience.
Post reading discussion/interpretation
[Almost] No Comment
It seems foolhardy, absurd and even comical to comment on Beckett’s play-ette, Breath. After all, the playwright manages to compact a complete theatrical scene, which appears to represent a human life, into the shortest imaginable timeframe. This is surely a dire warning against superfluous comment. A life is just a cry, a wheeze and an expiration! It is all over before one has time to even think about it. The litter-strewn stage may be interpreted as a wry commentary on the impact of the average person’s life achievements with the short timeframe an indication of how relatively insignificant a lifespan is when compared to eons of human history or to the even more imponderable history of the planet. One could accuse Beckett of being pretentious for assuming that he could credibly tackle such a weighty subject as human existence despite using only the most basic props and a timeframe that it little more than a few good sneezes in length. This accusation, however, would require one to ignore his Nobel Prize for literature, and the significant and influential body of work he produced prior to Breath. On the other hand, maybe we could all be accused of having egotistical pretensions: believing that our lives are so tremendously significant when, in fact, they are not. Then again, who knows for sure if Beckett’s playlet is a metaphor for a human life. This is a verbose way of saying that no comment is possibly the shrewdest commentary on Breath. In this way, one avoids looking like an affected pedant. It seems utterly incongruous for a minimalist play that communicates its message in less than a minute to result in reams of explanatory text.
Having said that, a few accomplished academics have interpreted Breath and produced worthwhile results. Three examples follow which will whet the intellectual appetites of those who require additional cerebral stimulation.
In an essay entitled “‘BREATH’ AS ‘VANITAS’: Beckett’s Debt to a Baroque Genre,” Claire Lozier provides an interesting and convincing interpretation of the play. The term Vanitas will not be familiar to everyone, but the style of painting described is immediately recognisable.
“The kind of painting known as Vanitas, is also described as “Still life with skull,” which expresses visually the saying in Ecclesiastes “Vanitas, vanitatum et omnia vanitas” (1.2) along with the Christian moral ideas of contemptus mundi (contempt of the world) and memento mori (remember thy end).”(Lozier 241)
van Utrecht, Adriaen, Vanitas still life with a bouquet and a skull. 1643 – Picasso, Pablo. Nature morte aux oursins. circa 1960.
Lozier was initially prompted to make a connection between Beckett’s short play and this style of painting due to information from Beckett’s diaries and an interview he gave in the 1970’s. The interview was with Charles Juliet in 1973 when Beckett specifically referenced how certain works of Dutch art acted as memento mori (Lozier 241). In an old diary entry from the 1930s, Beckett recounted seeing and admiring Vanitas paintings that were on display in art galleries in Germany. In addition to the above information, Lozier underlines the relevance of the re-emergence of the Vanitas style in the second half of the twentieth century, in the wake of WWII (Lozier 241). Thus, the style was not dead but rather reinterpreted and reinvigorated for a contemporary audience. Lozier also supports her argument by making the astute observation that “The very fact that this play is meant to be a single, motionless image also suggests a kind of postmodern painting” (243). It is indeed easy to forget that, apart from lighting and sound effects, an audience is presented with a wholly static scene on the stage during a performance of Breath. Upon these somewhat embryonic links, Lozier proceeds to build a full argument.
The crucial link between the Vanitas genre and Breath is that they essentially depict the same things and thereby communicate the same theme: “Vanitas, vanitatum et omnia vanitas,” or vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Lozier explains that, even though “there is no skull or hourglass [in Beckett’s play], miscellaneous rubbish is perfectly fitted to signify time passing, decay and death, the inanity of life and the vanity of pleasures and possessions” (244). Beckett is referencing a style of art, but without necessarily paying homage to it. It is Lozier’s opinion that, “Beckett himself invites us to adopt a satirical reading in describing Breath as a “farce in five acts” (244). M. H. Abrams gives a broad definition of farce as “a type of comedy designed to provoke the audience to simple, hearty laughter – “belly laughs,” in the parlance of the theatre (39). Is life a joke: an all too brief farce? Beckett’s response seems to be yes. Lozier explains that “The allegorical dimension of the play is in fact so obvious that it destroys the allegorical effects and realises, instead, a tragic-comic caricature of the Vanitas” (245). Beckett is reworking an old genre of painting by placing it in a theatre setting and manipulating it so that the effect on the audience is quite different; a laugh replaces melancholic musings.
One may still be left pondering the significant difference between a Vanitas painting and Beckett’s play, which accounts for the first being serious while the second is comedic. The answer lies primarily in a non-religious interpretation of Breath. Lozier summaries the action of Beckett’s play to have the following meaning. Note the importance of the word nothingness.
“Inspiration as a movement of opening betokens ‘life,’ expiration as closure, ‘death’ – to expire is here indeed to die. The silence that is held twice for “about five seconds” suggests the nothingness from which life emerges and to which it returns.”(Lozier 246)
It is the apparent absence of an afterlife that distinguishes a style of art inspired by an anti-materialist message in a book of the Bible (Ecclesiastes) from a play that shows the accumulated rubbish in our lives as the sole thing that remains after we are gone! Lozier sums up her interpretation of Beckett’s play as follows – “Far more than a mere play or a game with the codes of a certain kind of painting, Breath is above all to be read as a poetical text offering a tragic-comic view of the postmodern condition” (249). Beckett’s play is very much situated in the modern world; it just owes a debt to an old genre.
Dror Harari endeavours to find a comprehensive meaning for Breath by looking at the influences of the artistic world upon Beckett. Unlike Lozier, who cites 17th-century-art, Harari seeks to understand the play by examining the significant interplay between the emerging artistic trends of 1960’s France and Beckett’s dramatic output. This does, notably, include the contemporary paintings of that era. According to Harari, “Given their minimalist aesthetics, Samuel Beckett’s shorter plays tend to be read in light of the reductive tendencies operating in modernist literature, or as self-contained and independent objects that incorporate their own explanatory code” (423). As already highlighted by Lozier, the allegorical meaning of Breath is almost too obvious and that in itself becomes ironically frustrating. Harari explains a consequence of this fact by writing of how “The critical tendency responds not only to Beckett’s growing use of condensational techniques, but also to his consistent abstention from interpreting his own writing, which challenges his researchers to find more in less” (423). Harai accepts the challenge. For instance, he writes “Even if a reading which suggests that this play is a metaphor for ephemeral existence is self-evident …. Why rubbish (“miscellaneous rubbish,” to be more precise)?” (425). For context, Armand Fernandez (Arman) was a French artist who created an exhibit in 1960 entitled Le Plein which consisted of a whole gallery stuffed full of trash (image below). For Harari, it is not so much the message of Beckett’s play but how that message is communicated and the influences underlying the choice of style.
Harai gives an erudite overview of the cultural and artistic influences at play in 1960’s France and their likely impact on Beckett’s work and he lays most emphasis on the resulting form of Breath. He writes, “It is not unreasonable to perceive Breath as an instance of innovative theatre in the tradition of twentieth-century experimental modernism” (424). Harai makes his definition even more specific by labelling Breath as an example of performance art. The play is a painting of detritus that comes to life: a performance sans actors told in real time and possessing a clear symbolic meaning. The argument is that Beckett produced a piece of New Realist art. Harai explains that the young artists of the “French School of New Realism” (426) were “invent[ing] new creative methods and modes of representation, in direct reaction to a growing materialistic culture that was obsessively engaged in over-production, over-consumption, and the mythologising of capitalist abundance” (426). In the abstract of Harari’s essay, he writes that Breath will be “consider[ed] as a manifestation of “new theatre,” which blurs the line between theatre and the plastic arts” (424). One cannot fault the author on the resulting essay since it accomplishes its goal.
The third critical response to Breath is by William Hutchings in his essay entitled, “Abated Drama: Samuel Beckett’s Unabated ‘Breath.’” Hutchings opens his essay by comparing the message of Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure with Beckett’s Breath. In both works, the human breath is employed as a most powerful metaphor for life. Hutchings explains that “Whatever else Beckett’s characters lack — limbs, mobility, sight, memory, or even life itself—They “are” breath; that is, their existence is confirmed by (and their subsistence consists of) breath shaped into words” (85). For Hutchings, “Breath — the most succinct of Beckett’s “dramaticules” — offers the ultimate distillation of his inimitable world-view” (86).
Much like Lozier and Harari, Hutchings does not approach Breath as a play of hidden or obscure meanings – “The theme of Breath is the most comprehensive in all of literature: the human condition and the state of the world in which this life is passed” (87). However, while Lozier focuses on the satirical tone of Breath and Harari looks to the cultural milieu that helped birth the play, Hutchings provides a somewhat wildcard reading of the end of the play.
“Considered in the context of Beckett’s other works, the final cry seems especially disheartening, even though it is a cry of (re-) birth and not a “death rattle” as a number of critics (including Ruby Cohn in the passage cited above) have claimed.”(Hutchings 88)
It is Hutchings’ contention that the second vagitus is “an indicator of entry into an unknown post-mortem realm” (88). This clashes with Lozier’s solid interpretation that Beckett’s play is indeed a farce due to the lack of an afterlife: the lack of the religious certitudes that made the Vanitas paintings of old so replete with cautionary meaning. Hutching’s does not say that it is a specifically Christian afterlife. He just provides an intriguing interpretation of the second cry and then confidently states that “The precise nature of the other-worldly existence in Breath remains unknowable” (89). It is something rather than nothing and may even be a form of eternal obscurity and abandonment. However, it is an interpretation that jolts one into a reassessment of a seemingly simple play. Hutchings closes his essay by praising Beckett for what he achieved with such a slight piece of theatre work.
“To have proffered an image of the human condition and the state of the world in a mere thirty seconds, in an “act of theatre” without characters, during a performance without the presence of actors, in a scene without dialogue, through a Shakespearean metaphor expressed without language, in a “dramaticule” without plot, is, indeed, Samuel Beckett’s Breath-taking achievement.”(Hutchings 94)
The problem with Breath is that it is almost too concise. The examples of the various readings by Lozier, Harari and Hutchings prove this point. Academics feel that the piece, which on the one hand has a message too obvious to require any explanation, needs to be padded with contextual explanations, artistic progenitors or protective praise. The written text of the play fits on a single page and yet no one, especially theatre directors, seems to be content to stage the work as the playwright originally intended. There is an insatiable desire to tweak something. For example, there is the infamous example of Kenneth Tynan who received permission from Beckett to stage Breath (along with some other playwrights’ short plays) before performances of his own record-breaking revue called Oh! Calcutta! Tynan decided to have naked actors on stage amid the rubbish which infuriated Beckett. S. E. Gontarski explains that after the Beckett-Tynan debacle, Beckett “wrote to agent Jenny Sheridan on 27 April 1972: “I have come to the conclusion it is almost impossible to do Breath correctly in the theatre so I must ask you to decline this request and all future ones for the play” (147). Beckett was notoriously demanding when it came to strict adherence to his stage directions, but it would have been infuriating for anyone to deal with deviations from the instructions for a play that takes only half a minute to perform.
Breath is a stand-alone piece, but it somehow attracts attention that is alternately aggrandizing or deprecating. Defending the play and thus falling into the former camp, Hutchings wrote, “the longest word in the OED — floccinaucinihilipilification — accurately describes the prevailing critical assessment of Breath: the act of estimating something as worthless because it is small or slight” (90-91). Probably the sincerest approach to Breath is to read it, imagine the scene in one’s mind’s eye and interpret it instinctually. Admittedly, academic interpretations of Breath are captivating, but they inescapably pull one away from the simple, impactful message that Beckett crafted. In short, it is best to refrain from commenting on Breath since comment is largely superfluous and I include this essay in that criticism. The below quote outlines how Breath was originally conceived and written, and this will surely pierce any stubborn bubble of pretentiousness that remains. The play says quite enough and maybe our communal discomfort with the simple message, so much so that we long to obscure it, reflects its primal power.
“When Ruby Cohn asked Beckett in the summer of 1968 whether or not he had a new play in the offing, ‘He answered, almost angrily, ‘New? What could be new? Man is born – vagitus. Then he breathes for a few seconds, before the death rattle intervenes’ (qtd. in Knowlson and Knowlson, 129). He then wrote out the entire play called Breath for Cohn on the paper table cover of a café.”(Gontarski 139)
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms: Seventh Edition. Boston: Thomson Learning, Inc. 1999.
Beckett, Samuel. The Collected Shorter Plays. Grove Press, 1984.
Gontarski, S.E. “Reinventing Beckett.” Reading Modern Drama, edited by Alan Ackerman, University of Toronto Press, 2012, pp. 135-156.
Harari, Dror. “‘BREATH’ AND THE TRADITION OF 1960’s NEW REALISM: Between Theatre and Art.” Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui, vol. 22, 2010, pp. 423–33. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25781940. Accessed 13 March 2023.
Hutchings, William. “Abated Drama: Samuel Beckett’s Unabated ‘Breath.’” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 17, no. 1, 1986, pp. 85-94.
Lozier, Claire. “‘BREATH’ AS ‘VANITAS’: Beckett’s Debt to a Baroque Genre.” Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui, vol. 22, 2010, pp. 241–51. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25781928. Accessed 13 March 2023.