Samuel Beckett: The Writer as Visual Artist

Samuel Beckett: The Writer as Visual Artist

I originally considered Samuel Beckett as the topic of this report after reading excerpts from Gotthold Lessing’s Laocoon, which reminded me of my initial reaction to seeing visual productions of two Samuel Beckett plays, Endgame and Waiting for Godot. I had previously read and thoroughly enjoyed the text versions of the plays, both containing detailed and explicit stage directions; however, I was not prepared for the visual spectacle. What was agreeable to read, I found repulsive to see. The stark and grotesque imagery was dissimilar to what had been evoked in my mind by the text, despite Beckett’s thorough visual expositions in the textual stage directions. My reflexive response was that some things should be read; not seen, and I considered Beckett’s work to be evidence of a disjunction between textual and visual representation. However, on the contrary, research revealed evidence that Beckett’s art involves an in-depth and ongoing junction between artistic text and image. His work includes writing and directing plays, publications of text juxtaposed with visual art, and prose fiction describing visual art. The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett states, “The strongly visual qualities of his later drama, which sometimes seem closer to painting or sculpture than to traditional theatre, were in their turn greatly inspirational to many modern painters and visual artists. His passion for art and music is central to his elevation of form, shape and symmetry in his literary and dramatic practice” (McDonald 28). Beckett’s career and artistic output, at different stages and at varying levels, fuses elements of textual expression and visual representation.

“Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett – Act 1 Lucky’s Scene

“Endgame” by Samuel Beckett – Alan Mandell as Nagg

Beckett was an Irish born writer who relocated to Paris, France, in his early adulthood, and his writing career spanned from the late 1920s through the 1980s. He wrote short stories, poetry, novels, and criticism early in his career. His short story “Assumption” was published in 1929, the poem “Whoroscope” was published in 1930, and a book of criticism titled Proust was published in 1931. Despite the few texts appearing in small publications, he initially had a difficult time finding publishers for the rest of his work. Although his writing career began in obscurity, he became a successful and important writer, and in 1969, he received the Nobel Prize for literature. The accomplishment that “transformed Beckett from an avant-garde, experimental novelist to global stardom was [Waiting for Godot], written between October 1948 and January 1949 as a diversion from the more taxing (as he saw it) business of prose composition” (McDonald 16). Later in his career, he furthered his experimentation with textual expression by writing plays for television and radio, and collaborating with visual artists for special edition illustrated publications of his fiction prose. His work has left a lasting and growing impression on the study of literature and drama, and the extent of his influence on modernist and postmodernist artistic expression is of ongoing significance. Beckett died in 1989, at age 83.


The most obvious connection between Beckett’s written art and his visual art is in his role as director of the plays he had written. This position gives him a great deal of creative freedom and control. Lois Oppenheim suggests that Beckett “directed his own work to ensure the most faithful realization of his vision” (125). Oppenheim goes on to write:

As director himself […], Beckett also played painter on the stage. His actors commonly attest to that: “In evoking the exact angle at which the head is to be lowered, a hand raised […], Beckett, in [the actor] Billie Whitelaw’s words, uses the actor’s body to create a painting.” Whitelaw has written that when doing Footfalls, she sometimes felt “as if he were a sculptor and I a piece of clay. At other times I might be a piece of marble that he needed to chip away at. He would endlessly move my arms and my head in a certain way, to get closer to the precise image in his mind.” And “sometimes I felt as if I were modeling for a painter” or “I felt I was being painted with light.” (125)

Knowing that such care and attention was given to the visual details in the production of his written scripts, I feel compelled to conclude that what I had once interpreted as incongruence between text and imagery is actually an accurate projection of the author’s envisioned intention.

Lois Oppenheim’s book The Painted Word: Samuel Beckett’s Dialogue with Art discusses Beckett’s work in terms relatable to our ongoing class discussion. In chapter five, “The Agony of Perceivedness” Oppenheim examines the occurrence of ekphrasis in Beckett’s fiction and drama. There are two paintings described in his novel Watt, and there is a bleakly ekphrastic description of a painting hanged with its front facing the wall in the play Endgame. Oppenheim writes, “[L]ike paintings that come alive on the stage, Beckett’s theatrical tableaux are certainly ekphrasis-like. But a brief look at the fictive paintings in Beckett’s prose will reveal a more legitimate, if not ironic, application of the term” (139). After reviewing W.J.T. Mitchell’s generalization of ekphrasis in comparison to the paintings in Watt and Endgame, Oppenheim concludes, “The visual work of art is no more reproducible in literature than is any other more worldly domain and what is projected in the interart relation is the animacy of the painting re-viewed. Ekphrasis in Beckett takes a distinctly nonmimetic turn; it dramatizes perception as it points to the unreliability of representation of the (already unreliable) real” (141).

Chapter six “Worded Image / Imaged Word” explores “W.J.T. Mitchell’s study of the ‘logos’ of icons” in comparison to Beckett’s collaborative efforts in the illustrated publications of his later prose fiction, and lists Max “Ernst, Avigdor Arikha, Georg Baselitz, Edward Gorey, Stanley William Hayter, Jasper Johns, Charles Klabunde, Louis le Brocquy, and Robert Ryman [as being] among those artists who have sought to capture for the eye Beckett’s verbally iconic constructs” (Oppenheim 162). Oppenheim states in reference to Beckett’s illustrated publications:

An interplay is thus evoked between word and image that radically undermines their conventional opposition and it is this that interests me here. Without entering the ut pictura poesis polemic (the debate that pits the Renaissance view of an inherent verbal and visual arts association against a belief in their innate division—a controversy if not initiated, at least perpetuated by G. E. Lessing’s Laocoon), I would simply argue this: The repetition that sets Beckett’s most dynamic images before us as icons “unwords” his literature to invite the illustrated editions with which he was, at least in his later years, in complete accord. And the artists’ renderings are “readings” that focalize not only the ensemble of images as icons, but the very metarelation—of figuring to its figuration, of picturing to its depiction—that marks seeing as the prototype of Beckett’s verbal structure. (161)

Oppenheim suggests that Beckett’s writing invites visual representation, and after looking at some of the images that accompany his text (both text and image are richly bleak in content), I am left with a sense of what may be a Beckettian version of ut pictura poesis, and it might read: what painting is not, neither is poetry.
The Samuel Beckett On-Line Resources
and Links Pages:
Photos and images taken from Google Images.
Works Cited:
-McDonald, Ronan. The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
-Oppenheim, Lois. The Painted Word: Samuel Beckett’s Dialogue with Art.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan  Press, 2000.

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