All sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir.
Beckett, Lessness (1970)1
End/Lessness (2017) is a durational-digital performance that enacts every permutation of Beckett’s ‘sentence families’ from his prose text Lessness (1970) through recorded human voice. While no one could live long enough to hear the full sequence, or indeed survive until the final iteration, the performance is endless without being infinite. My own collaboration with the late Rosemary Pountney (1937–2016),2 a major Beckett scholar and performer, led to a trilogy of works that concluded with End/Lessness (produced by Fail Better Productions) and this article will reflect upon these events as interventions within Beckett studies specifically as well as theatre and performance studies more broadly. This intergenerational pairing also raises some enduring questions about methodology and creative process.
Our first collaboration concerned the rehearsal and recording of Lessness as part of Fail Better’s residency at the University of Warwick (2010). This process marked the meeting of two traditions: Pountney drawing upon her extensive and embodied history of performing Beckett internationally, often in consultation with the author himself; whereas I brought an experimental approach to Beckett, combining methods from Laban alongside contemporary devising practices. We met each other through the text, and out of that simple process, we conceived of an endless Lessness online. We therefore also recorded the compete set of sixty sentences (six ‘families’ A-F of ten sentences, numbered 1–10 by the author) and edited them as separate sound files, until we were able to create the online environment. In the meantime, we were able to develop our collaborative practice when I served as Associate Director on her revival of Footfalls and Rockaby at Bergen and Dublin (2012).3
Two versions of Lessness read by Rosemary Pountney, available at https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/capital/performance/failbetter/lessness/
The second project was an artistic commission for the ARHC-funded Modernism, Medicine and the Embodied Mind research programme, performed as Rosemary (2016) at the Wickham Theatre at the University of Bristol (https://rosemary2016blog.wordpress.com). This piece explored the ethics of collaboration through a deep engagement with aging, dying and bereavement. Sixty rosemary plants were especially grown for the performance (initially conceived to correspond with the ‘sentence families’ from Lessness), and used as a mnemonic system within the event. Ultimately, Pountney’s pre-recorded voice combined with my own movement in order to re-member earlier performances, incorporating gestures from Not I and Footfalls, as well as traces of the process itself, re-enacted posthumously.
The third and final project was conceptualised before 2011, when Pountney first obtained permission from Edward Beckett to co-create a prototype of End/Lessness, produced as a durational-digital ‘afterlife’ for Pountney and Beckett intertwined. Pountney herself described the text as ‘unique, since in no other has Beckett provided a mathematical “key” to demonstrate exactly how it was shaped’.4 End/Lessness therefore helps us to think about Lessness temporally as well as textually, as a thought experiment, extending the archival scholarship that Pountney had foreseen in her doctorial thesis (1970s) and the resulting monograph (1988). The new project develops our understanding of the text, through practice-as-research methods, and builds upon earlier interdisciplinary experiments between literature and computing (e.g. Haahr and Drew, ‘Possible Lessnesses’). J.M. Coetzee noted: ‘Lessness displays features not often encountered in connected discourse. The most notable is finiteness: whereas normal discourse draws upon a word-stock which in any theorizing must be treated as infinite, Lessness clearly signals that its word-stock is finite.’5 He goes on to note that, across one and half thousand words in two parts, that ‘words 770–1538 of the text turn out to be nothing but words 1–1769 in a new order’, something he refers to as both ‘a mathematics of indeterminacy’ (i.e. probability), but also ‘combinatorial mathematics’. For Coetzee, the text is a ‘linguistic game rather than linguistic expression.’
In our collaboration with James Ball (creator of the ‘disorder algorithm’ and the website itself) we used the computational model of time to play every permutation of the sentences, without repetition, from 2017 until completion. Ball describes this process as follows: ‘to be able to create an iteration is one thing, but to be able to be sure that it hasn’t already happened is another… so the way of doing it is to make it pseudo-random… a pre-existing sequence that would carry on for a long time and would never repeat… so time.’6 This focus on temporal permutation, rather than textual re-iteration, resonates with Coetzee’s notion of the text as ‘linguistic game’ as well as other Beckettian permutations in performance (e.g. JM Mime or Quad). Unlike the later dramatic works, starting Play and concluding with What Where, the endless permutations here are digitally performed, and therefore not limited by theatrical production. In End/Lessness, the voice goes on and our listening endures (we could play along over several years): ‘as if it was playing forever, it is playing… you have to be able to drop into something mid-way through, so that’s when you have to start calculating the time… and because it’s durational it seemed to make sense to use the time, there are other sequences that exist within the world you could have used, but because it’s inherently tied to time, it seemed to make sense to just use that pre-existing structure.’7 I would therefore suggest that we have a created a temporal game to extend Beckett’s ‘linguistic game’ into the future.
To return to Coetzee’s formal analysis, where the prose finds its ludic function: ‘this endless enterprise of splitting and recombining is language, and it offers not the promise of the charm, the ever-awaited magical combination that will bring wealth or salvation, but the solace of the game, the killing of time’.8 Our digital-durational project opens up the textual to the temporal so that endlessness becomes an event. This extends the experimental legacy of Beckett’s work and reminds scholars that performance practice can intervene continuously in literary and archival research.
Jonathan Heron is a theatre practitioner and performance scholar, based at the University of Warwick as IATL Deputy Director and Principal Teaching Fellow. He was previously Research Associate for the CAPITAL Centre (with the Royal Shakespeare Company) and Youth Arts Leader at Pegasus Theatre in Oxford, during their 50th anniversary. His theatre directing includes Diary of a Madman & Discords (Warwick Arts Centre) and Rough for Theatre II & Ohio Impromptu (Oxford Playhouse). He was also Associate Director on Footfalls & Rockaby (Den Nationale Scene, Bergen) performed by Rosemary Pountney, with whom he collaborated on several Beckett projects. Jonathan co-founded Fail Better Productions in 2001, the Warwick Student Ensemble in 2009 and the Samuel Beckett Laboratory in 2013. He co-edited a special issue of the Journal of Beckett Studies (23:1, 2014) and has published on early modern drama (Cambridge University Press, 2012; 2015) and the medical humanities (BMJ, 2015; Springer, 2016). He was co-convenor for the International Federation of Theatre Research ‘Performance-as-Research’ working group (2013–16) and a core member of the interdisciplinary research project ‘Modernism, Medicine and the Embodied Mind’ (Universities of Bristol, Exeter and Warwick, 2015–16).
Thanks and Acknowledgements:
James Ball and Nomi Everall
The Estates of Samuel Beckett and Rosemary Pountney
- Samuel Beckett, Lessness (London: Calder & Boyars, 1970). ↩
- Elizabeth Barry, Matthew Feldman and Jonathan Heron, ‘Rosemary Pountney (1937–2016)’, Journal of Beckett Studies 26, no. 2 (2017). https://doi.org/10.3366/jobs.2017.0206. ↩
- Rosemary Pountney, ‘Rosemary Pountney on Performing Footfalls’, Journal of Beckett Studies 23, no. 1 (2014). https://doi.org/10.3366/jobs.2014.0090. ↩
- Rosemary Pountney, Theatre of Shadows: Samuel Beckett’s Drama 1956–76 (Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 1988), 15. ↩
- J.M. Coetzee, ‘Samuel Beckett’s Lessness: An Exercise in Decomposition’, Computers and the Humanities 7, no. 4 (1973): 195. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02403929 ↩
- Ball, unpublished interview. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Coetzee, ‘Samuel Beckett’s Lessness’, 198. ↩