Rough for Theatre I
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|Rough for Theatre I|
|Written by||Samuel Beckett|
|Place premiered||Schiller Theatre, Hamburg, West Germany|
|Setting||A derelict street corner|
Rough for Theatre I is a one-act theatrical sketch by Samuel Beckett. Also known simply as Theatre I it began life originally in French in the late fifties as Fragment de théâtre and was later translated into English by Beckett himself. The first production was at the Schiller Theatre, Hamburg in 1979, directed by Walter Asmus. It was staged as Fragment for Theater I at the Magic Theater, San Francisco in September 1986 by Stan Gontarski with Robert Wagner (A) and Tom Luce (B).
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The action is confined to a derelict street corner where everything is in ruins. The day is wintry, grey and sunless. A blind beggar (A), sitting on a folding-stool, is scraping away on his fiddle in the hope of getting a few coins from any passers-by. Three times in his opening speech he emphasises that he is “a poor old man.” His bowl is quite empty though; it has been some time since he has had contact with anyone. This day however a wheelchair-using man (B) is drawn to his playing. He is similarly disabled having lost one leg (“It went bad and was removed”).
Now, for whatever reasons, they each find themselves alone in the world.
In the past the fiddler had a woman, “Dora”, who “took [him] by the hand”  but scorned him for “the days [he] hadn't earned enough.” Since then he has been getting by on “things lying around … The other day I tripped over a sack of nuts,” he says.
The man in the wheelchair says he too once had the support of a woman “to get me out of the chair in the evening and back into it again in the morning and to push me as far as the corner when I went out of my mind.” He also had a son, Billy, and begins calling the blind man by that name. He proposes the two of them join forces to unite sight and mobility in the interests of survival. The blind man is tempted by the other’s offer to locate some tinned food. The prospect of chancing across some “baked beans” especially excites him.
Their mutual need is “clear and the advantages of a symbiotic relationship seem obvious, in theory at least … [However there is in this pair] the same juxtaposition of contradictory impulses and striking ambivalence of behaviour that was present in the relationship of Estragon and Vladimir and of Hamm and Clov.”
The blind man wants to know: “What does it all look like now?” He is curious about the condition of the trees and several times brings up the subject of light. In the past he had been able to “feel twilight gather” but something has changed and he’s no longer as sure as he once was. It appears that these two have been abandoned or forgotten when the populous fled the area. Sometimes he thinks he hears people and wonders if they are coming back.
Because the other man can see what things are really like he holds a bleaker vision of what the future has in store. Up until hearing the sound of music he has hardly ventured out and not travelled far at that. Although he has offered to be the fiddler’s eyes he becomes annoyed when continually asked to describe how things are and when he tells him that it’s “day” he feels the need to add an “if you like” casting a shadow of doubt on even this simple answer. Later on when he imagines things they might come across in their travels he only mentions the gutter and a muckheap. He doesn’t believe anyone will ever return so when things start to fall apart between the pair he laments: “I’ll never see anyone again.”
Beckett said of Endgame that Hamm and Clov are Didi and Gogo at a later date, at the end of their lives. If that is the case, then the two characters in Rough for Theatre I could reflect what might have been if they had never found a way to get on in the first place.
The blind man pesters the other for details. He wants to know: “Is it still day? Will it not soon be night? Is there grass anywhere?” He insists on listening for sounds which the other can’t hear. Eventually the wheelchair-using man has had enough and he starts to threaten the fiddler who at the very end wrenches the man’s pole from out of his hands at which point the action freezes in a final tableau.
Is he going to throw it away? Is he going to beat him with it? Or even kill him with it? Beckett’s plays often have a certain open-endedness and this sketch is no different. Perhaps because it has taken so little time to build up to this climax it lacks the resonance of Endgame’s concluding scene where we never know if Clov ever leaves Hamm or the close of Happy Days where the audience is left wondering if Willie is reaching for the gun or for Winnie.
The similarity with Endgame may be one reason why Beckett did not attempt to develop the play further and why he published it at a much later date among the ‘odds’. “Several passages make one suspect … that Beckett may have sensed that the dangers of repetition or self-parody were too great to allow him to complete or release the play [any] earlier.” Many scholars suggest that the room in which Endgame is staged is a post-war fallout shelter and that the nothingness observed outside is a result of a nuclear winter; a similar view can be just as easily taken of Rough for Theatre I.
Comparisons have also been drawn between Rough for Theatre I and a number of other plays: “John Millington Synge’s The Well of the Saints (1905) (with the [elderly] blind Martin Doul feeling the light of the day) … W. B. Yeats’s The Death of Cuchulain (1939) (Yeats’s blind man feeling Cuchulain’s body as A does B’s … starting with the feet)”  and also “Yeats’s The Cat and the Moon (1924), where a blind man and a cripple form a symbiotic relationship.”
A longer and somewhat different draft of this play was begun in English, and is dated December 1956. This being the case it was conceived whilst Beckett was putting the final touches to Fin de partie (which took him from 1954 till 1957 to complete) but before he began its translation into English. The original title, The Beggar and the Cripple has been scored out and replaced with The Gloaming.
The characters are named B (Blind) and C (Cripple) in this version.
The work contains two biographical references of note. When Beckett returned to Ussy (where he wrote the first draft) he “was anxious to see how the young trees he had planted over the past three years were standing up to the cold weather.” This gets grafted into the play. “One of the two players enquires of the other: ‘How are the trees doing?’ The second replies: ‘It is difficult to say. We are in winter you know. They are all black and bare, the evergreens included. One would have to cut into them with a knife…” This gets truncated to: “How are the trees doing? / Hard to say. It’s winter you know.”
The second reference was excised from the final version but is of interest in that it is a rare reference to his father; Beckett’s writing is generally matricentric. The writing breaks down following this sentimental passage where C recalls a fishing trip with his father: “Bring me back to the hot summer evening out in the Bay with my father in the little rowboat, fishing for mackerel with a spinner. To the time when it was all still time. ‘Do you remember what they look like?’ ‘Yes, father, all blue and silver.’” When Beckett discussed this with James Knowlson in 1989 he used the exact turn of phrase, “‘fishing for mackerel with a spinner’ … that he had used over thirty years before in his rejected play fragment.” Even accounting for Beckett’s astounding memory this was an exceptionally clear and vivid recollection. In more typical Beckett fashion the image resurfaced in Texts for Nothing: “Yes, I’m here forever, with the spinners and the dead flies, dancing to the tremor of their meshed wings…”
“Two later versions of The Gloaming in French and English were written in the 1970s. The English version was only published at a much later date in Ends and Odds under the title Theatre I.”
Beckett on Film
The director, Kieron Walsh, said in interview: “I was quite daunted at the prospect of filming one of the plays, but when I read Rough for Theatre I, I immediately saw the cinematic possibilities. It reminded me a little of Laurel and Hardy, so I shot it on location – ‘Street corner: day’ – in black and white.”
- Beckett, S., Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p 67
- Beckett, S., Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p 71
- Beckett, S., Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p 72
- Beckett, S., Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p 68
- Beckett, S., Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p 69
- Beckett, S., Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p 70
- Knowlson, J. and Pilling, J., Frescoes of the Skull (London: John Calder, 1979), p 229
- Bair, D., Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Vintage, 1990), p 495
- Beckett, S., Ends and Odds (New York: Grove Press, 1976)
- Knowlson, J. and Pilling, J., Frescoes of the Skull (London: John Calder, 1979), p 230
- Ackerley, C. J. and Gontarski, S. E., (Eds.) The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p 490
- Reading University Library RUL 1396/4/6
- Knowlson, J., Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p 431
- Beckett, S., The Gloaming, Reading University Library RUL 1396/4/6
- Knowlson, J., Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p 432
- Beckett, S., ‘Texts for Nothing, No 6’ in Beckett Short No 1 (London: Calder Publications,  1999), p 32
- Knowlson, J., Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p 787 n 67
- Beckett on Film souvenir book, p 7