Experimental Writing Studio:Week 4

Samuel Beckett


Quad I[edit]

Quad is based on a geometrical figure and on permutations of regular movements. First one, then two, then three, then four figures, dancers or mime artistes, dressed in coloured djellabas[11] (white, yellow, blue and red) appear one after another to scurry along the sides and across the diagonals of a square, shuffling in strict rhythm to a rapid percussion beat. Each figure then departs in the order in which he appeared, leaving another to recommence the sequence … Strikingly all of them avoid the centre which is clearly visible in the middle of the square.”[12]

Movements and Stages
Stage Series 1 Series 2 Series 3 Series 4
One white yellow blue red
Two white blue yellow white blue yellow red blue
Three white blue red yellow white red blue yellow white red blue yellow
Four white blue red yellow yellow white red blue blue yellow white red red blue yellow white
Five blue red yellow white red blue yellow white red blue yellow white
Six red yellow red blue white red yellow white

Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett, Faber and Faber, 1984, p 293

The four series of six stages each produce a total of twenty-four stages suggesting, as in Lessness, the measurement of time.

According to the script each character was to be unique in a number of ways. Apart from the colour of the outfit, they were to be “[a]s alike in build as possible. Short and slight for preference … Adolescents a possibility. Sex indifferent.”[13]That said, each player’s footsteps were to be distinctive, each was to be accompanied by their own musical instrument and illuminated by a light, the same colour as their outfit. For technical reasons, in the original broadcast, white light was used. To help the performers cope with the rhythmic chaos “[t]hey wore headphones under their hoods, so they could hear the percussion beats.”[14]

Most unusually there is an element of chance in this piece in that Beckett does not indicate how the footsteps should differ nor which instruments should be used other than they should be percussive (“say drumgongtrianglewood block[13]), he doesn’t even specify a required sequence for the colours. The four percussionists also have some freedom in how they play enabling the footsteps to be able to be heard on their own at intervals. Of course, as you would expect, the four instruments Beckett suggests have quite different timbres.

It is hard not to think of the work of John Cage when considering this piece though the two men’s approach to work could hardly be different: Beckett argues that it is “the shape”[15] that matters in his work whereas Cage evades conventional form in order to reveal “a harmony to which many are unaccustomed.”[16] That said, it is not unimaginable that Beckett might have come up with a version of 4′33″ if Cage hadn’t thought of it first.

There are no cuts, just one fixed long take. Beckett had originally calculated its length at 25 minutes but, in reality, the whole set was completed in nine-an-a-half minutes.

Quad II[edit]

“Near the end of the taping, Beckett created what amounted to an unplanned second act for the play. When he saw the colour production of Quad rebroadcast on a black and white monitor, he decided instantly to create Quad II. [As with Film] Beckett’s printed text (in any language) was, however, never revised to acknowledge this remarkable revision of the work’s fundamental structure. No printed version of the play bears the title of the production, and so no accurate version, one that includes Beckett’s revisions, exists in print. Beckett’s own videotaped German production, then, remains the only ‘final’ text for Quad.”[17]

The story goes that, watching technicians testing the image quality of Quad, the most hectic and raucous piece that Beckett ever wrote, for reception by monochrome receivers, and running the tape through in slow motion and in black and white, Beckett suddenly exclaimed: `My God, it’s a hundred thousand years later!’[18] Seeing the hectic bustle of the performance he had already recorded transformed into the slow, dim shuffle, suggested to Beckett a fast-forward to a time when everything will have nearly gone.[19]

“The fast percussion beats were … removed and the only sounds that were heard were the slower, shuffling steps of the weary figures and, almost inaudibly, the tick of a metronome.”[14] The performers now wore identical robes and moved at half the pace. The new section, called Quad II, lasts four minutes as it only allows for one series of movements, compared to the four in Quad I.

“The second version was a masterstroke, a second act to dramatize the entropy of the motion. And, since the figures always turn left, not only at the centre but at all the corners also, the pattern is that of the damned in the InfernoQuad is indeed a sinister piece.”[20]

The director Alan Schneider wrote to Beckett (13 November 1981) after viewing the television programme several times: “much moved, especially by the slower section. Want to work on that as a stage piece with some of my students here – no audience – would you mind?”[21] Beckett replied (20 November 1981): “Can’t see Quad on stage. But by all means have a go.”[22] Later (6 February 1982) he made a qualifying remark: “Quad can’t work on stage. But no doubt interesting for students, gymnastically.”[23] These are fascinating remarks considering the fact that Beckett takes no real advantage of the many televisual techniques available, no close-upsfreeze frames, pans, cuts, zooms, slow-motion shots or split screens – simply a fixed camera “far South of the circle, overlooking it”[24] that might represent any member of a theatre-going audience.


“Modern works of art often call for prolonged continuous close attention if one is to appreciate them. The same is true of a gator basking in the sun on a mud bank in a swamp. Anything viewed makes demands.”[25]

The building blocks of Quad can be found in a number of Beckett’s other works:

“In Play, there is a correlation between light and voice, and a da capo structure that forms an image of hell, but the voices of W1, W2 and M (an eternal triangle) do not follow a predictable sequence. In this respect, action and dialogue differs from that of Come and Go, where it is shaped by the mathematical sequence, a series of ritual movements: as one character leaves, another moves up into the vacant centre.”[26] Both Come and Go and Quad trace shapes through highly patterned movements and interaction that mimic life through extreme abstraction. These works are the inner rhythms laid bare.”[27] “Geometrical structures of light and darkness shape the stage settings of Ghost Trio, and …but the clouds…; while in Breath and Not I the light is arithmetical, changing in time. Quad integrates both forms: the quad is set out geometrically, but the movements of the players defined arithmetically, with absolute precision. Behind the dramaticule is a metaphor of coincidence, or meeting in time and space, and hence the ‘danger zone’[13] where this might happen.”[26] Even “the “perpetual separation and reunion of Vladimir and Estragon[28] which has been described as “a choreography of the void, a search for stepping-stones to best approach or avoid the other”,[29] can be seen to anticipate Quad, as can the fact that Act II covers the same ground as Act I in the same way that Quad II literally covers the same ground as Quad I.

Why are these four pacing so? Martin Esslin believes they “are clearly engaged in a quest for an Other.”[30] He reads “the centre that the hooded wanderers have so fearfully to avoid is obviously the point at which real communication, a real ‘encounter,’ would be potentially possible but inevitably proves – by the very nature of existence itself – impossible.[31]

Sidney Homan describes Quad’s world as a “faceless, emotionless one of the far future, a world where people are born, go through prescribed movements, fear non-being (E) even though their lives are meaningless, and then they disappear or die.”[32] This raises a philosophical question, one the writer Albert Camus tried to answer in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus: Face to face with the meaninglessness of existence, what keeps us from suicide? What stops any of the four players from simply hurling themselves into the “danger zone”? To a large extent, Camus suggests that our instinct for life is much stronger than our reasons for suicide: “We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.”[33] We instinctively avoid facing the full consequences of the meaningless nature of life, through what Camus calls an “act of eluding.”[34]

The following section from Camus’s essay could almost sum up both Quad I and Quad II:

[Quad I] “It happens that the stage-sets collapse. Rising, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm-this path is easily followed most of the time.
[Quad II] But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. …Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness … What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening.”[35]

The ‘danger zone’ may not, of course, signify death but it would take an act of faith – or “an act of lucidity”[36] – to find out for sure. When Sidney Homan was rehearsing his version of Quad, to learn more about the piece the players improvised, what one of the actors called “a real ending, something more than the final character’s just disappearing”[37] where the last character about the leave the stage, halts, turns, removes her hood and then, as if being beckoned by the centre, hesitantly makes her way there where the lights fade down on her.

If recourse to Beckett’s own attitude is necessary, it is well documented that Beckett favoured the mere physicality of his work over interpretative readings. With Not I he stated explicitly that he was not “unduly concerned with intelligibility. [He wanted] “the piece to work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect.”[38] With Quad, there are no longer any ‘nasty words’ for that to be an issue. During filming Beckett “spoke to the SDR cameraman, Jim Lewis about the difficulty that he now had in writing down any words without having the intense feeling that they would inevitably be lies.”[39]

Rather than trying to make ‘sense’ of Quad, it is perhaps better to consider the ‘sensation’ caused by Quad. It presents us with the ‘meaning’ behind the words. The problem with meanings is that we’re used to having them wrapped up IN words. They are like masks behind expressionless masks. Quad exposes the mechanism underneath the actors’ actions; the clock’s face and hands have been removed and all we are left with are the exposed workings, which can be a thing of beauty in its own right, and, of course, makes perfect sense in itself.

“As Susan D. Brienza indicates, in … Quad the four characters rhythmically draw mandala pictures that reveal concentric circles and include four quadrants. The dancers’ counter-clockwise pacing evokes Jung’s patient’s leftward movement, which is equivalent to a progress towards the unconscious. They desperately attempt to achieve ‘centering’ and reinstate order and peace, to abolish the separation between the unconscious and the conscious mind.”[40]

“The avoidance of the centre is clearly a metaphor capable of wide interpretation, as with Winnie’s mound in Happy Days. The small empty square … could suggest the flight from self, the ‘I’ Beckett’s characters so carefully avoid … The deliberate avoidance of contact with each other, though present in the same square of light, is also a familiar theme in Beckett, whose characters frequently choose isolation as with Krapp or the Listener in That Time.”[41]

Eckart Voigts-Virchow presents an interesting – and amusing – comparison between Beckett’s play and the 1990s BBC children’s TV show Teletubbies:

“Whereas the Teletubbies have presumably only just started to acquire the apparatus of human articulation (“Eh-oh!”) and are trapped in their progress for hundreds of episodes by the requirements of serialization, Beckett’s hooded figures totally relinquish expressiveness beyond their coloured gowns, leitmotiv percussion, and racecourse. They are defined by mere physical exertion. The Quad figures are probably an image of how the Teletubbies will behave when they are close to death and their belly monitors have long gone blank and become sightless windows.”[42]

“That there is a pun in ‘quad’ and ‘quod’ (slang for gaol) can hardly have escaped Beckett. Since one of his Paris apartments overlooked the Santé Prison, he must have been conscious of the rhythm of life as lived in a prison over a long period. With this in mind the players following their prescribed course of movements around a square could be seen as ‘doing time’ in the most literal sense of the term and exercising within the precise limits of the prison yard.”[43]