“Age and physique unimportant.”
The stage direction is repeated three times, applied to three of the four characters in Beckett’s brief play Catastrophe, written and first performed in 1982. We never see the fourth character, Luke, “in charge of the lighting,” though he speaks two lines offstage. When I heard of Vaclav Havel’s death on Sunday, I thought of the play, dedicated by Beckett to the Czech playwright and dissident, then in prison. After his release in 1983, Havel returned the favor, dedicating his play The Mistake to Beckett.
“Age and physique unimportant”: Under the Czech communists – or Cuban, or North Korean, or any utopians – everything about the individual is unimportant. Reckoned by totalitarian logic, the collective, an abstraction, is the only reality; the individual, the only reality, is a pernicious abstraction. In Catastrophe, a stringent parody of theater and governance, the Director (D) and his assistant (A) manipulate the Protagonist (P) as he stands mutely on a stage. Until the final stage direction, he remains as malleable as clay in the sculptor’s hands, a motor to be tinkered with at the whim of the mechanic, “the engineer of human souls.”
In the play-within-a-play, A asks if P should wear “a little . . . gag?” D replies: “For God's sake! This craze for explicitation! Every i dotted to death! Little gag! For God's sake!”
Throughout the play, P’s head has hung submissively downward, and P and A arrange his hands and clothing as though he were a man-sized doll. In Catastrophe’s most grimly funny line, D says: “Could do with more nudity.” Beckett conceals the play’s muted hint of hope between brackets, in the final stage direction:
“[Pause. Distant storm of applause. P raises his head, fixes the audience. The applause falters, dies.
Fade-out of light on face.]
Beckett died in Paris on Dec. 22, 1989, age eighty-three, as Ceauşescu delivered his final speech in Romania and the Brandenburg Gate reopened in Berlin. Seven days later, Havel was elected the last president of Czechoslovakia by the nation’s Federal Assembly. Shortly after the first of the new year I reminded Guy Davenport, in a letter, of Beckett dedicating Catastrophe to Havel. Davenport, who had met the Irishman and corresponded with him, replied:
“Beckett was not a political man. He was a compassionate man.”