Samuel Beckett's 'Breath'

Beckett's shortest play

In case you were wondering, this isn't a discussion of Samuel Beckett's oral hygiene. Instead, it's a brief look at Beckett's briefest and perhaps most willfully perverse play: Breath. For those who are new to it, the play is almost absurdly straightforward. It begins with a faint light illuminating the stage, 'littered with miscellaneous rubbish'. As the light increases in intensity, a 'faint brief cry' is heard. 'Silence and hold for about five seconds'. Then the light falls gradually to darkness, and the cry is heard one final time. The end.

The Beckett on Film project, celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the writer's birth, set about putting all of Beckett's dramatic work on screen. In the case of Breath, contemporary artist Damien Hirst was selected to direct; a suitable choice, not least for the controversy his career has prompted over some of his conceptual work. Actor and friend of Hirst, Keith Allen, was selected as the breath itself (or faint cry), and the artist got to work on creating a landscape of trash for the play.

I can still remember the first time I caught the play on DVD, having no previous knowledge of Breath's strangeness or its brevity. I laughed, completely bewildered, and watched it again. I could see Hirst's obsession with pharmaceuticals and medical paraphernalia all over the stage, but couldn't quite understand how it had been coupled with a human breathing in and out.

One way of looking at it was straightforward enough. In Beckett's text the cry is described as an 'instant of recorded vagitus', a Latin word describing the cry of a newborn infant. And although this part of the text doesn't carry through to Hirst's adaptation, there is a suggestion that the breath and the few brief moments of light could be seen to represent life itself - its shortness, and its desolation. To take a line from Waiting for Godot, we 'give birth astride of a grave'.

But what's the real story behind this bizarre little play? While the idea might look interesting on paper, less than one page of text(!), why would anyone go through the effort of arranging and directing such a production? James Knowlson and John Pilling have suggested that 'Breath has either been treated too reverentially, surprising though this may seem, or has been considered a rather weak joke.' Both interpretations sound inadequate, and perhaps both miss the point. While one can see Breath as a signal of the kind of direction Samuel Beckett's theatre was to take - short, essential and to-the-point - I think the play has received a little too much critical attention over the years: long, rambling and diffuse.

Breath was a play written on the request of Kenneth Tynan, for a series of dramatic work produced for his long-standing avant-garde revue Oh! Calcutta! Beckett wrote that his 'contribution to the Tynan circus is a forty second piece entitled BREATH... It is simply light coming up and going down on a stage littered with miscellaneous unidentifiable muck, synchronized with sound of breath, once in and out, the whole (ha!) begun and ended by the same tiny vagitus-rattle.' (From Knowlson's Damned to Fame, p.565.)

Oh! Calcutta! - a pun on the French 'O que cul t'as'! (Oh, what an ass you have!) - consisted largely of sexually based productions and erotic sketches. Beckett wrote that if '[Breath] fails to titillate I hand in my aprob.' Knowlson has suggested that Beckett's play was intended as an 'ironic comment on what was to follow in the show [...] funny simply because of its deliberate failure to live up to audience's expectations.' But the text, as written, did fail to live up to expectations, and to great surprise of its writer was modified: 'including naked people' in its first production.

According to C. J. Acklerley and S. E. Gontarski the play ran through 1,314 performances and was seen by 85 million people, 'making it easily SB's most viewed SB play.' I can't help but smile at the idea of so many people watching Breath among a packed audience, not knowing what to expect or whether to take what they see seriously. In one sense, a play implying the waste and desolation of a short human life is both tragic and poignant; but it's the shortness of the play that makes it so absurd, and ridiculous, and most of all funny.

Breath has ultimately proved to be a popular success, and rightly or wrongly has garnered critical attention for its themes and its length. But to me the play's strength is in its sense of humour. It's baffled audience expectations, dumbfounded critics, and offered us a valid portrait of human life: nasty, brutish and short. And absurd, funny, strange and bewildering.