Samuel Beckett’s That Time is a play that delves deep into the human psyche, exposing the audience to the potential effect and consequence of one continually living in the past. Lack of punctuation and fragmented repetition make the play rather challenging to grasp yet effectively mirrors the purpose that Beckett has intended in this work. In That Time Beckett dramatically illustrates several common downfalls to human nature, which ultimately act as plagues against the mind, such as the avoidance of the present in the continual analysis and obsession of the past, and the uncomforting effect of silence. Through the use of stream-of-consciousness and three alternating voices which flow almost entirely without a break, Beckett truly taps into the core of human consciousness and one of man’s most extreme fears, the fear of the void, of nothingness, of never being able to recreate “that time” again.
As is common to Beckett’s work, the stage setting for this play relies very little upon flashy backdrops and a multitude of characters, and more so upon the mood that the scene creates. He presents only the bare necessity, achieving a scene that is able to expose stark honesty.
Curtains. Stage in darkness. Fade up to listener’s face about ten feet above stage level midstage off center. Old white face, long flaring white hair as if seen from above outspread. Voices A B C are his own coming to him from both sides and above. They modulate back and forth without any break in general flow except when silence indicated. (Collected Shorter Plays 228)
The simplicity of the scene places all of the emphasis upon the voices and those rare moments in which there is silence, thus, pulling the audience directly into the mind of the bodiless head. Beckett has utilized this technique in several of his other plays, such as Krapp’s Last Tape in which the setting is merely “a small table, the two drawers of which open towards the audience. Sitting at the table, i.e. across from the drawers, a wearish old man” (55). This effect is also present in Eh Joe, a television play by Beckett in which “Joe’s opening movements followed by cameras at constant remove, Joe full length in frame throughout” (Casando and Other Short Dramatic Pieces 35). In creating these rather unorthodox and simple settings, Beckett strategically creates plays which become an actual experience for the audience member rather than merely a source of entertainment.
The play alternates between three different voices — A, B, and C — which each add a different dimension to the work as they explore and dwell upon different times in the man’s life. Beckett successfully weaves the voices together to produce a unique time line and sequence of events that reflect the cause of the man’s current state. Although each voice carries an individual mood and central focus, each is primarily concerned with finding “that time.” The voices demonstrate throughout the play, however, that the search for this time is merely another means of the self-illusion to keep the silence out and that a time that has passed cannot be relived or recreated.
The play commences with voice A, dwelling upon a time when the man had gone back to his childhood hideaway to find that it was no longer the same place it once had been and that the comfort he once felt there had been lost.
that time you went back that last time to look was the ruin still there where you hid as a child [Eyes close] grey day took the eleven to the end of the line and on form there no no trams then all gone long ago that time you went back was the ruin still there where you hid as a child that last time not a tram left in the place only the old rails when was that
(Collected Shorter Plays 228)
These opening lines quickly expose the condition the man is presently in. He is alone, bodiless on the stage, and all that he has now to bring him comfort is the voices which ramble within his aged mind, “just another of those old tales to keep the void from pouring in on you the shroud” (230). Through the words of voice A, the harsh reality that nothing will remain the same forever is expressed. It is very symbolic that the old rails are all that remain when the man returns in search of some comfort of a past time in his life. The old, rusted rails that remain effectively represent the nature of time in that while some physical thing may remain when one returns, the experience and feelings once had can never be brought back. It is like a dead body in which the bones remain, but all essence of the being is gone and cannot be recreated. In following voice A throughout the play the man’s voyage back to the place of his childhood does not fulfill his desires. He cannot go back to this place and find the same comfort or person he once had and was, for the time has passed, the moment has vanished. In not finding this comfort it causes the man to give up and look elsewhere for the contentment he is so desperate to possess.
gave it up gave up and sat down on the steps in the pale morning sun no those steps got no sun somehow else then gave up and off somewhere else and down on a step in the pale sun a doorstep say someone’s doorstep for it to be time to get on the night ferry and out to hell out of there no need to sleep anywhere not a curse for the old scenes the new names the passers pausing to gape at you quick gape then pass pass on by on the other side
Voice A provides the image of the sad and desperate man who has become isolated and cut off from the world by investing too much time in the past and none into any sort of future. He seems to be wandering around, lost, trying to fathom some feeling of what life and living is like again and trying desperately to recreate a time when he was not merely a prisoner to his thoughts.
Voice C which follows typically without break from voice A, is attempting to bring back a different place and time, focusing upon the loneliness and homelessness in which the man lived at some point in his life.
when you went in out of the rain always winter then always raining that time in the Portrait Gallery in off the street out of the cold and rain slipped in when no one was looking and through the rooms shivering and dripping till you found a seat marble slab and sat down to rest and dry off and on to hell out of there when was that
Again the voice is occupying itself with the concern of when a particular event occurred in avoidance of the present. Clearly, this dwelling will only result in the man drowning in the rain of his past memories that the voices continually pour down on him if he refuses to silence them and just be.
Through its course of the play, this voice explores many of the downfalls to the life of seclusion and hyperconsciousness. Voice C appears to be lost within a time that perhaps follows the experience of which voice A is dwelling. Through this voice an image of the man after he seems to have given up is illuminated and the effects of not knowing ones self are explored: “for God’s sake did you ever say I to yourself in your life come on now [Eyes close.] could you ever say I to yourself in you life” (230). Another reference to lack of self identification is presented when voice C speaks of looking at a painting in a Portrait Gallery: “behind the glass where gradually as you peered trying to make it out gradually of all things a face appeared had you swivel on the slab to see who it was there at your elbow” (229). The man does not even seem to recognize his own reflection anymore. As a result of dwelling in the past he has not realized the subtle changes of time moving forward, such as, the age that is inevitably beginning to show in his appearance.
The man has fallen victim to the demons of his mind, plaguing him with worry, regret, and discontentedness.
turning-point that was a great word with you before they dried up altogether always having turning-points and never but the one the first and last that time curled up worm in slime when they lugged you out and wiped you off and straightened you up never another after that never looked back after that was that the time or was that another time
Having seemingly nothing to live for, the man is seeking the comforts of dissecting the past to convince himself that at some point he was actually alive and that in tearing the past apart he just might find himself again. In the conclusion of the play this voice is able to find a mild source of comfort that successfully brings resolve to this tortured voice.
Voice B, begins and quickly exhibits a feel that differs significantly from that of the other voices. In this voice; although, it is also solely concerned with the past there is a poetic quality to it that is lacking in the other two.
on the stone together in the sun on the stone at the edge of the little wood and as far as the eye could see the wheat turning yellow vowing every now and then you loved each other just a murmur not touching or anything of that nature you one end of the stone she the other long low stone like millstone no one looks just there on the stone in the sun with the little wood behind gazing at the wheat or eyes closed all still no sign of life not a soul abroad no sound
This voice appears to be reminiscing about a past love of sorts, a time in his life when he didn’t necessarily need the voices to bring him comfort. During this point in his life there was someone or something else to fill the void, thus preventing it from swallowing him up.
In attempting to create a time line from the fragmented past created by the voices, it appears that voice B may be representing the man before he gave up on life, life before that of which voice A and C are dwelling. In the beginning of voice B’s story the man seems to be quite young, almost naïve, perhaps engulfed in what he feels is love for the first time. In following the voice through the play; however it appears that somewhere this love is lost, striking in the man the fear that the void will sink in and swallow him up. To escape this he is drawn back to his childhood where he hopes to find some sense of self remaining and when he is not able to find it there he is lost, wandering.
not a thought in your head till hard to believe harder and harder to believe you ever told anyone you loved them or anyone you till just one of those things you kept making up to keep the void out just another of those old tales to keep the void from pouring in on top of you the shroud
In the end Beckett strategically weaves the voices together, leading up to his concluding point and purpose which he allows voice C to express. The man is finally able to open his eyes again, to be alive again. It is not until the man stops obsessing about the past that he is able to realize that he has lived the last years of his life without really living in the present. This is what was creating his discontentedness, letting his present and future gather dust and be forgotten rather than the past, as it should be.
not a sound only the old breath and the leaves turning and then suddenly this dust whole place suddenly full of dust when you opened your eyes from floor to ceiling nothing only dust and not a sound only what was it it said come and gone and gone no one come and gone in no time gone in no time
Finally the man is able to stop living in the past and open his eyes to what is right before him. Although, mildly confusing in structure That Time is able to successfully capture several subtle demons of man’s mind which can, if given full rein, completely hinder the ability to truly live life.
Beckett, Samuel. Casando and Other Short Dramatic Pieces. NY: Grove Press, Inc., n.d.
—. Collected Shorter Plays. NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1984.