005 – The Tempest, by William Shakespeare

005 – The Tempest, by William Shakespeare

Show notes

The theatre is filled with crashing sounds and the flashing light of a tumultuous storm. Sailors can be heard shouting to each other to try to prevent their ship from splintering apart. We are aboard the King of Naple’s ship that is about to founder on a unknown island – an “isle full of noises, sounds and sweet airs” – a magical kingdom ruled over by a sorcerer and his apprentice, who are about to stage their own drama of romance and revenge.

This is Shakespeare’s late great masterpiece, The Tempest. It would be the last play the playwright would write by himself. It premiered at the court of James I in December 1611, and it is suggested that hereafter Shakespeare spent most of the remaining five years of his life in semi-retirement in Stratford.

To help us explore our first Shakespeare play we are joined by one of our finest actors, Tm McMullan. Tim knows Shakespeare from the inside, having appeared in many acclaimed productions, including most pertinently for these purposes as Prospero in the 2016 production of The Tempest at the Sam Wanamaker theatre at the Globe in London.

Tim McMullan

Tim McMullan is one of our most acclaimed and recognisable actors. He studied History at St Andrews University before training as an actor at RADA. His stage career comprises a number of iconic performances in Shakespeare, including Oberon at the RSC, Jacques at the Globe, Toby Belch in Twelfth Night and Enobarbus in Antony & Cleopatra at the National Theatre, and most pertinently for our purposes, as Prospero in the 2016 production of the Tempest at the Sam Wanamaker theatre, directed by Dominic Dromgoole in his last show as Artistic Director of the Globe.

Of course, Tim’s work encompasses much more than Shakespeare. He has worked with Cheek by Jowl, Complicite, and Mnemonic; performed at the Almeida, Donmar, Hampstead, and the West End, as well as in more than 20 plays at the National Theatre.

His film and TV work includes Shadowlands, 5th Element, The Queen, The Woman in Black, Foyle’s War, Brexit An Uncivil War, Melrose, The Crown, and of course Shakespeare in Love.

The Texts

If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.

Photo © Marc Brenner

We have footnotes for this episode …

The Footnotes to our episode on The Tempest include information and observations on St Elmo’s Fire, the original shipwreck that may have been Shakespeare’s source, Art vs Nurture, Art vs Nature, and the poetry of the play.​

Suggest a play

We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).

Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion

You might also be interested in …

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

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The Tempest – Footnotes

The Tempest – Footnotes

Photo © Marc Brenner

The Tempest – Footnotes

These footnotes are a follow-up to our live discussion in episode five of the podcast, including a selection of points from my researches that we didn’t happen to include, as well as follow-up on any facts and questions that came up during our conversation with Tim.

St Elmo’s Fire

When Ariel tells Prospero how he manufactured the storm in Act 1 Scene II, he describes how he “flamed amazement”:

sometime I’d divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly,
Then meet and join.

The flares appearing at the tips of the ship’s masts might remind the sailors of the maritime weather phenomenon known as St Elmo’s Fire, where balls of light created naturally during an electrical storm would appear at the exposed points of the spars. St Elmo is an Italian name for St Erasmus, the patron saint of sailors, whose martyrdom included being painted in pitch and set alight, and his intestines being extracted and wound around a windlass. Sailors prayed to him for deliverance from the storm, seeing the electrical discharges as evidence of his presence.

The Sea Venture founders on Bermuda in 1609 – painting by Christopher Grimes

Voyages to the New World

During our conversation Tim and I referred to Shakespeare’s knowledge of the exploration of the New World that was prominent in his lifetime. In particular in 1609, two years before he wrote The Tempest, a fleet of ships was despatched to North America to establish the British colony at Jamestown in Virginia. Famously one of the ships foundered in a storm, was separated from the others, but somehow beached safely on the island of Bermuda. The tale of their miraculous landing on a paradise island was popularised in various pamphlets published in 1609/10, from which the germ of the play may have occurred to Shakespeare.

Nature vs Nurture

The idea that being nobly born predisposed a character to virtue was a common belief of Shakespeare’s time – witness by extreme extension the inherited “divine right of kings” for example. Likewise, beauty was associated with virtue and ugliness with vice or evil. The contrasting figures of Miranda and Caliban can be seen as representations of this dialectic between Nature and Nurture. Miranda is hign-born, schooled from a blank age only by her father, she is chaste and kind. While Caliban as the offspring of a witch, is “a devil, a born devil”, “capable of all ill”, “on whose nature Nurture can never stick”, despite Prospero’s “human care” and Miranda’s teachings. Their education could not restrain or replace Caliban’s inherent vile nature that compelled him to “seek to violate the honour” of Miranda.

Nature vs Art

A similar debate is suggested in the play between the value of the natural world and the civilisation created by man’s art. That same learned art that establishes virtue in individuals, is by extension also responsible for creating a civilised society. Such a view, supported by religious certainty, underpinned the superior attitude of the colonialist missions. By contrast, Shakespeare presents a world unspoilt by the infrastructure of civilisation, and it is not clear that the natural world is not a more attractive place. Gonzalo makes a poetic and persuasive speech in Act II Sc I, where he describes a brave new world that could be created on the blank canvas of the island, a new commonwealth without the accumulated realities of wealth and poverty, contracts of law, land ownership, material goods and weapons, traffic or trade, even sovereign rulers. A potential paradise where “Nature should bring forth…all abundance to feed my innocent people.”
An unspoiled island may of course stand in for the Garden of Eden, where fallen men may arrive at true self-knowledge and be redeemed thanks to the mercy of the overseeing God, in this case Prospero?

The Power of Poetry

During the course of our conversation in episode 5, Tim quoted from John Berger on the power of poetry. We couldn’t fit the whole of our discussion about this subject into the time limit on our podcast, so I wanted to share the quotation here:

“Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory or defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.”

from And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
by John Berger

In Tim’s experience of considering and performing The Tempest, he believed that the poetic power of Shakespeare’s language raised the impact of the play; that poetry transcends the story, affecting the audience by tapping into shared human experience.

The Texts

If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.

Suggest a play

We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).

Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion

You might also be interested in …

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

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The Tempest – Footnotes

The Revlon Girl – Footnotes

Photo © Marc Brenner

The Revlon Girl – Footnotes

These footnotes are a follow-up to our live discussion in episode four of the podcast, including a selection of points from my researches that we didn’t happen to include, as well as follow-up on any facts and questions that came up during our conversation with Neil.

The leaking skylight

A small but potent detail is the simple opening stage direction: it is raining outside, water is dripping from the skylight onto the floor.

The rain echoes the terrible weather leading up to the day of the coal slide, and the slow drip suggests the insidious impact of the stream undermining the tip that eventually gave way. The metaphor is made all the more direct by the reminder that the landlord has previously been told about the leak in the skylight, but no one has done anything about it – warnings are being ignored.

There’s a leak

Getty Images

Getty Images

The Political Aftermath of Aberfan

There was much anger in the aftermath of the disaster because many felt that there had been warnings about the possible threat of the tips and that the tragedy could have been avoided. At the Coroner’s Inquest three days after the disaster one man who had lost his wife and two sons called out when their names were mentioned in a list of accidental deaths: “No, sir – buried alive by the National Coal Board”. In fact the report of the official enquiry that followed stated outright that “blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board” and that it was their “strong and unanimous view…that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented.” Neither the NCB nor any of its employees were ever prosecuted and the organisation was not fined.

Initially the NCB offered bereaved families £50 in compensation, but this was raised to £500 for each bereaved family; the organisation called the amount “a good offer”.

The Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund (ADMF) was set up on the day of the disaster. It received nearly 88,000 contributions, totalling £1.75 million.
In 1967 the Charity Commission advised that any money paid to the parents of bereaved families would be against the terms of the trust deed, and suggested that no more than £500 should be paid. Members of the trust told the commission that £5,000 was to be paid to each family; the commission agreed, but stated that each case should be examined before payment “to ascertain whether the parents had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally”!

Many were concerned that the remaining tips above the village remained unsafe. The residents petitioned the Secretary of State for Wales for the tips to be removed; they entered the Welsh Office and left a small pile of coal slurry on his table. The tips were removed only after a lengthy fight against resistance from the NCB and the government on the grounds of cost. The final clearing was funded by the government and the NCB, but not without an additional forced contribution of £150,000 being taken from the memorial fund. It was not until 1997 that the British government paid back the £150,000 to the fund, and in 2007 the Welsh Assembly donated £1.5 million to the fund and £500,000 to the Aberfan Education Charity as recompense for the money wrongly taken.

The Queen

Those who have seen the Aberfan episode in season three of The Crown, will know the story of the Queen’s visit to Aberfan in the wake of the disaster – or rather her non-visit. The Queen did not visit the village in the days immediately following the disaster, sparking criticism in the press and questions about why she wouldn’t go. Finally, after sending her husband, Prince Philip, in her place, she came to Aberfan eight days after the disaster to survey the damage and speak with survivors. Nearly four decades later, in 2002, the queen said that not visiting Aberfan immediately after the disaster was “her biggest regret.”

The Revlon Girl Sales Copy

During the play the Revlon Girl introduces the women to the beauty products with sales talk lifted verbatim from 1960’s Revlon ad copy. Initially the sales patter seems so ridiculously incongruous as to be very funny; however it also begins to resonate with the themes of the play, suggesting some truths in the cliches. It first draws the contrast between the imagined outside world and the reality of these working class women’s lives, a contrast made all the more obvious and poignant when in her first rehearsed sales pitch the Revlon Girl says “we have some fabulous products…whether you’re a career girl or a busy mum…”!

Later when she is helping Sian, she says: “who knows the secret hopes that warm your heart … the dreams you dream” – Sian of course has hopes and dreams that her husband doesn’t know about. Finally in the romantic sales pitch there is a truth that applies for the women in this play, about their individual self-respect and aspirations: “every woman deserves to be beautiful”.

It’s Not Just Lipstick – A Footnote to our Footnotes

Following the publication of our episode on The Revlon Girl, a listener was kind enough to send us a note that resonated so strongly with the theme of our play that notwithstanding the horror of the images described, I felt compelled to share. The passage comes originally from a book called Five Days that Shocked the World by Nicholas Best:

British Lieutenant Colonel Mervin W. Gonin, commander of the 11th Light Field Ambulance, R.A.M.C. was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945. In his diary, he gave a more graphic description of the effect of the lipstick:

 “It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick.Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering around about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post-mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tatooed on their arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

The Texts

If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.

Suggest a play

We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).

Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion

You might also be interested in …

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

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004 – The Revlon Girl, by Neil Anthony Docking

004 – The Revlon Girl, by Neil Anthony Docking

Show notes

It is June 1967 and a group of women are gathering in a function room of the hotel in a small Welsh mining village for a demonstration of beauty tips by a rep from the Revlon cosmetics company. The women are keeping the Revlon Girl’s visit a secret from others, because they fear that their neighbours may not think it appropriate that they treat themselves to a beauty session. This is because it is only eight months since a coal tip above the village collapsed, engulfing the local school and killing 116 children and 28 adults. Five of these children belonged to the mothers who are meeting in this hotel in Aberfan, to talk, cry and even laugh, without feeling guilty.

Neil Anthony Docking’s heartrending and funny play The Revlon Girl premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017 before a run at the Park Theatre in London, which earned it an Olivier Nomination and the 2018 Off-West End Theatre Award for Best New Play. The play asks us to consider how one can carry on after such tragic personal loss? Who should be blamed: the National Coal Board or God? And how can we ensure that such preventable disasters never occur again – a question unbearably topical as the Grenfell fire demonstrated only weeks before the play premiered. 

I’m delighted to be joined in this episode down the line from his home in London by the author himself.

Neil Anthony Docking

Neil was born in South Wales, and studied music at the University of Westminster before finding work as a writer in press, television, radio and film, where his credits include Casualty, Emmerdale, Nuts & Bolts, The Throne Room, Station Road and many more. He is married to the actor/director Maxine Evans, who also expertly directed the first productions of The Revlon Girl. The Revlon Girl is his first play for the theatre.

The Texts

If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting an independent bookseller. Thank you.

Photo © Marc Brenner

We have footnotes for this episode …

More in our Footnotes to The Revlon Girl episode on the political aftermath of Aberfan, the Queen’s visit – or rather non-visit, and how the Revlon Girl’s sales patter hits a nerve.

Suggest a play

We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).

Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion

You might also be interested in …

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

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The Tempest – Footnotes

Endgame – Footnotes

Photo © Marc Brenner

Endgame – Footnotes

More on Samuel Beckett’s love of chess, his friendship with James Joyce, and what he really thought of the Lord Chamberlain in our Endgame Footnotes. Listen to our podcast Addendum, where we talk more about Beckett’s life and the premiere of Waiting for Godot.

Some additional audio

When we recorded episode three on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Matt and I talked for longer than our allotted hour. On listening back to our conversation, I thought that it was shame that we had to edit out a section of our conversation that talked about Beckett’s early life, as well as where his first plays came from, including of course his breakthrough play Waiting for Godot, which had a controversial reception when it premiered in 1953, but also established Beckett as a dramatist of world renown. So here is that extra bit of our recording.

Episode 003 - Addendum

by The Play Podcast

The Premiere of Endgame in London

Here are two facts which I think in their small but enjoyable way constitute perfect footnotes:

When Endgame was in rehearsal at the Royal Court in London in April 1957, rehearsals were also taking place in the theatre of John Osborne’s The Entertainer with Laurence Olivier. Two landmark plays happening at the same time in the same theatre.

The English language version of Endgame which Beckett translated was promised to the Royal Court for summer 1957, but as we noted in our podcast the Lord Chamberlain objected to God being called “a bastard”. Beckett hereafter referred to the British Censor as Lord Chamberpot.

The Entertainer script cover,
with Olivier, in 1957.

Samuel Beckett and Chess

Matt’s reference to the game in Endgame being suggestive of a game of chess was especially illuminating. Beckett was a life-long chess player, building a library of books on the game in which he annotated his learnings. In chess the “endgame” refers to the closing moves from which the end is inevitable, but the moves need to be played out. Hamm says “me to play”, indicating the alternate nature of the game. He stands for the figure of the King, who is hierarchically powerful but also the most limited in his movement, as Hamm is. As Hamm’s servant Clov is but a pawn, although pawns also have the potential to turn themselves into a Queen and gain much more freedom, albeit this is usually a very distant hope. The specifics of the analogy may be less important than the philosophical resonances. We are confined to the board and the rules of the game, as well as dependent on the other player’s actions. Most of us are poor players, with little understanding of the almost infinite possible ways that the game will unfold and end.

Samuel Beckett and James Joyce

After Beckett moved to Paris in 1928, he was introduced to James Joyce. Beckett had greatly admired Joyce’s work and the two Irishmen had many shared interests, including languages, a scepticism about religion, and a love of Dante to name a few. Beckett became Joyce’s literary assistant, helping with research and even taking dictation from Joyce as he wrote Finnegan’s Wake. It is a stirring literary image to imagine the two men working together in Joyce’s Paris apartment.

Inevitably Beckett was strongly influenced by Joyce, including in particular his method of assembling extensive research to underpin and fuel his creative writing. However in 1945 Beckett had a revelation in which he says that he realised that he needed to turn away from Joyce’s model of filling the work with his knowledge, in favour of stripping back to the emptiness and darkness inside himself that he had struggled to resist in his own mental life. The unique vision of Waiting for Godot and Endgame would follow with this new approach.

The Theatre of the Absurd

Beckett’s plays have been labelled as part of the so-called “Theatre of the Absurd”, works which deal with themes similar to those of the roughly contemporary existentialist thinkers. The term “Theatre of the Absurd” was coined by Martin Esslin in a book of the same name in which Beckett is included. Esslin argued these plays were the fulfilment of Albert Camus’ concept of the absurd as defined in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus – highlighting man’s repetitive and vain responses to a world without meaning. Esslin did argue that the result was not simply despair:

It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.

Beckett’s endgame

Beckett died in December 1989, age 83. He is buried in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, with a simple granite gravestone that follows Beckett’s directive that it should be “any colour, so long as it’s grey”. A remark that minutely suggests both the bleakness and humour that infuse his work.

The Texts

If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. You will also be supporting a specialist independent publisher and bookseller. Thank you.

Suggest a play

We’re always open to suggestions about plays to talk about, so if you’d like us to discuss a favourite of yours, please email us at plays@theplaypodcast.com. Let us know why you think we should cover it, and if you know anyone who’d be excited and qualified to talk about it with us (even yourself if modesty permits!).

Plays suggested for discussion by our Guests and Listeners - which gets your vote?
  • Add your own suggestion

You might also be interested in …

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

032 – Footnotes Volume 3

Footnotes Volume 3 is a recording of the facts and observations that we’ve published on the website to supplement the plays that we’ve covered in episodes 24-31. A smorgasbord of trivia and analysis ranging from Greek Tragedy to the stock characters of Commedia dell’Arte , through the music of Bob Dylan, the filming of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone during lockdown, and the theatrical installations of Samuel Beckett.

A compendium of dramatic intelligence!

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

031 – Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett’s third great dramatic masterpiece Happy Days is a timeless exploration of existential threat and personal survival. It’s central image of Winnie buried in a mound of scorched earth also speaks to our own time when many have endured enforced confinement in a world struck by collective disaster.

Irish actress and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan, fresh from her triumphant performance as Winnie at the Riverside Studios in London, joins us to share her unique experience of playing Beckett and this majestic play.

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

030 – Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.

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