Modern Culture16 Jun 2010 06:51 pm
Today’s entry about Samuel Beckett’s 1952 play Waiting for Godot in the Modern Culture edition points out that “words and ideas take precedence over events” in the play. Though this is already the case in Beckett’s first major play (Godot was preceded by Eleutheria, which was written in 1947 but wasn’t published until 1995). It is even more true of later works like 1963′s Play (“three characters trapped in urns onstage”) and 1972′s Not I (“a lone actress delivers a lengthy, jumbled monologue in pitch blackness, with only her mouth visible to the audience”). But no play of Beckett’s is more stripped-down than Breath.
In 1969, the British theater critic Kenneth Tynan decided to celebrate the end of theater censorship in the UK with an all-nude review. Well, not quite. A few articles in clothing pop up throughout <>Oh! Calcutta!>, but not many. (The title is a pun on the French “O quel cul t’as!“, which means “Oh! What a great butt!”) The show was conceived as an avant-garde erotic revue, but turned into a gigantic hit: it’s 5th on the list of longest-running Broadway musicals.
Many writers were invited to submit skits for the revue, including Beckett. As a sardonic spoof of the whole enterprise, Beckett submitted Breath. The instructions for performance are extremely detailed, but the entire play lasts well under a minute: amidst a stage covered with rubbish, we hear a woman cry out as she gives birth (or “an instant of recorded vagitus”), inhale and exhale as the lights brighten and dim, and then another birth-cry. That’s it; the whole piece usually takes about 30 seconds to perform.
Recordings of Oh! Calcutta! are hard to come by, but the British artist Damien Hearst did a particularly elaborate version of Breath for the BBC’s 2002 Beckett on Film project:
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