Que l’espace est profond! Que le coeur est puissant!
Charles Baudelaire


In her last book, Susan Sontag compared the inner space of the mind with a theatre, in which ‘we picture, and it is these pictures that allow us to remember’ (2003: 88). Indeed, in the theatre, once the curtain is up, a sort of spatial transfer suddenly takes place as the spectator is integrated into a multi-dimensional world of images contrasting with the space of the outside world. It is this space of the spectator that my essay will engage with.

(Re)defining spectatorship and space has been a constant endeavour of all the masters of the theatre in the twentieth century, from Appia and Craig to Brook, Mnouchkine and Strehler. Beyond words, images, ideas, and even beyond the energy of the performance, it is the space of the spectator that assumes importance in the modern age. In the seeming night of the auditorium, where the only light there is comes from the stage, something always remains the same: the spectator occupies a shared space with others but at the same time is alone. This is the paradox of any audience, as theatre is as personal an experience as it is a shared one: the private space of every single viewer, the “public sphere” (to allude to a famous formula) of the audience as a whole, and the space of the actors overlap. This essential dimension of spectatorship completes and transcends any experience of actual theatrical space.

Breaking the pattern – or is it the cliché? – of the modern playwright whose work arises from the endless space of the white page and who therefore can have little concern for the stage space and even less for the space of the audience, authors like Beckett and Ionesco expressly provide for the viewer in their works. Nevertheless, their respective attitudes toward the spectator remain quite different, which may account for a general reluctance to consider them representatives of the same literary “movement”. Distinct in every possible way and yet linked by an evasive concept (“the theatre of the absurd”), Beckett and Ionesco imagined different models of spectatorship and created two distinctive spatial universes for the spectator. What makes possible the attempt to include these two writers in the same essay on spectatorial space is their common belief that the spectator’s is the only space that ultimately matters. In a century of endless dispute over the sovereignty of the actor or the director, Beckett and Ionesco celebrate, in two radically different ways, this Proustian presence of the spectator.

The plays that best illustrate these metaphors of spectatorial space are Beckett’sWaiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days, and Ionesco’s The Chairs, The Lesson, Rhinoceros and Exit the King. In such plays, which challenge the classical position of the audience, the space itself becomes the message. Or, in other words, there are in fact two distinct levels on which spatiality conveys its message: loneliness, in the case of the Beckettian spectator, and implausible security, for Ionesco’s audiences.

Time and Space in Beckett

In his three greatest plays – Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Happy Days – Beckett conveys a feeling of entrapment through the characters’ impossibility of escaping their spatial confines. While time and space are manifestly distinct from one another, they nevertheless run together in a strange compression in Beckett’s works. The setting ofWaiting for Godot, for example, does not really change from the first to the second act: the ‘four or five leaves’ in the tree are more a metaphor for the passing of time than a countable physical symbol. And if Vladimir and Estragon move about and leave the stage, they always come back to the same space. In Endgame, Hamm, the central figure, remains on stage all the time, even as Clov goes in and out. Confined to his chair, Hamm cannot move, but there is a compromise: Clov pushes him around. Correspondingly, Winnie of Happy Days is always present on stage, buried in earth, unable to stir. Therefore, in these three plays Beckett describes a cycle of motion patterns, from the tramps in Waiting for Godot to the immobile Winnie in Happy Days.

These images of three different phases of (im)mobility in space appear as successive stages of a spatial paradigm in which the Cartesian concept of the body as that which occupies space, the phenomenological notion of the body grounded in the world, and the metaphysics of presence are integrated in a ironical way. Beckett incorporates in his plays these philosophical frames and concepts only to subvert their authority and suggest that philosophy and the history of ideas can provide no reliable answers about the human condition.

This distrust of philosophy explains why the body appears on stage and at the same time does not appear, why Winnie is physically grounded in the earth, why there is a metaphysics of being in these works yet only a failed attempt at it. The three plays represent a gradation from motion to stillness, from a possible escape to a definitive no exit. The limitation of the body in space is the reverse of the dilation of time, and they both suggest the feeling of agony, of sheer torture that, through words, the characters try to evade. As Steven Connor indicates about these characters, the more still they are, the more they speak (1988: 160). Beckett’s belief that nothing really happens in human existence is translated into the visual space of his plays – encapsulated in frozen images, dominated by the immovable dimension of space –, more than in the repetitiveness of their movement through time. But isn’t the space of the audience strikingly similar to that of the play in that they both remain unchanged from the beginning of the spectacle to the very end?

Relativity of Presence

In his spatial models, Beckett defines a philosophical mode. His texts, which praise ‘impotence’ and ‘ignorance’, cry out for something beyond the lines of spoken text to make his theatre complete. While words programmatically deceive in his works, Beckett creates a living space of the text and the stage – a space where everything is said beyond language and sometimes against it. In his theatre, space transcends words:

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go!
They do not move
(Beckett, 1986: 51 and 87)

While these two lines can be, and have been, construed to mean many different things, the motionless tableau cannot be but what it is: two human beings who ‘do not move’. Conversely, without the dustbins from which they speak, the dialogue between Nell and Nagg in Endgame would sound plausibly domestic. It is the visual context of the plays that accomplishes the message. Most of the monologue in Happy Days would even “make sense” if the woman were not buried and she were living in a realistic setting. Is she echoing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler? However, what separates the two characters is, more than anything, the set. Hedda’s entrapment is metaphorically suggested; Beckett’s Winnie is a Hedda of an apocalyptic space.

Beckett’s theatricality is inextricably linked to imagery in his texts. The sets he envisaged are unalterable. The characters – like us all, the author seems to suggest – are trapped, but not in words, not in an endless time or a timeless ending, but in the absolute stillness of space. In the three dramas Godot, Endgame and Happy Days, the impossible ending is not the trap of time/in time, but the inextricable consequence of being there, in an oppressive space that can be neither transformed nor abandoned. In the same space, the passing of time seems to lead to no change at all. Trapped in one visual mode, Beckett’s plays never really end because the space itself does not change. Not only Schopenhauer or Kant might be evoked here, but also Zeno of Elea, ‘that old Greek’ (Beckett, 1986: 126), whose paradox of the grain that makes the heap is based on exactly the same principle of unchangeability (Ackerley, Gontarski, 2006: 661).

The four leaves in the tree or the huge mound in which Winnie is buried imply, in this sense, just imperceptible changes brought about by time in space. An eternity might have passed between the first and the second part of Waiting for Godot, but because the space is almost the same, we do not notice, we do not know. ‘Grain upon grain’ (Beckett, 1986: 93), life is a slow dripping passage of time in Endgame, but the room-cell stays the same – an evocative image of the inescapable human condition.

The Velasquez Effect

One of the major philosophical concerns evident in the critical literature on Beckett is the dialectic of presence-absence. Since Robbe-Grillet’s famous essay (Robbe-Grillet: 1965), the elusiveness and the ambiguity of “thereness” have become crucial for Beckett studies. The deterioration of presence in Beckett’s theatre is a paradoxical effect, for it goes against the core of the theatrical experience as a meeting between an actor and a spectator, both present in the same place and at the same time. According to Ackerley and Gontarski, ‘to subvert the senses that confirm theatre’s concreteness, the thereness of the character, or to have the audience question what it thinks it sees’, is one of Beckett’s permanent concerns (2006: 67). To seem to be there, to be there and not to be, are three different manifestations of the same principle of absence despite evoked presence. The ambiguity of the presence of objects in space is in this sense like that of words to which Beckett once directly referred: ‘And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it’ (1983: 171).

In the phenomenological strategy of subverting the thereness of presence, Beckett employs a highly personal artistic device: the spatial trap. In his drama, stillness is a passage to the neant. It is this stillness that defines the true space of Beckett’s universe as a gap superimposed on the text, the stage and the audience. If one accepts the thesis that the set of Endgame describes the interior of a human skull, then one question is fundamental: where are we, the audience, to be located in Beckett’s space and how separable can we be from something that extends beyond itself to include us in its spatial openness? Like Velasquez in his Meninas, Beckett underlines the relativity of the spectator’s presence in space. What Velasquez creates using visual frames (windows, doors, mirrors), Beckett does by the means of spatial modes (gaps and curtains): the spectator is ensnared in a specular space. The mysterious effect on the viewers is that they tend to be reflected by, and placed in, the work rather than outside it. This is comparable, in Foucault’s terms, to the unique magic of the Meninas. In bothMeninas and Endgame, the space becomes a medium and a message that redefines the ontology of the witness in relation to the work, in the sense that there is only one space that encompasses the author’s and the viewer’s universe. It is important to stress that the set of Endgame, with its two small curtained windows – suggesting a human skull indeed – perfectly resembles the bare set of the Meninas. This is, certainly, more than an optical illusion or cultural coincidence.

Meninas, Velasquez

The set of
Meninas, which exactly like the world of Endgame, seems to be the interior of a human skull, where the eyes are suggested by two dark paintings

The Empty Space behind the Curtain

In 1964, Peter Brook staged King Lear as a Shakespearian Endgame, underlying the profound reverberation of Shakespeare in Beckett, but from the opposite direction, as in a backward game of influence: the absurdity of human existence and the tragedy of the war were the major themes that Brook invested in King Lear, reminding everyone ofEndgame. More than these themes, Brook learned from Beckett the perfect economy of space. The 1964 show marked a shift from rich Shakespearean scenery to a total simplicity of the set. It was the starting point of a theory which was to become the textbook of contemporary theatre: The Empty Space.

Beckett’s is always to be an empty space. Perhaps more philosopher than playwright in this sense, he prepares the stage to convey the idea of emptiness in human existence and, eventually, to make the spectators feel that around them, in the end, there is only emptiness. The bareness of Beckett’s stage is an inviting topic for the critics. It has been likened to Yeats’s drama (Roche, 1995: 29), and it can be also seen, to speak with Adorno, as an image of the Post-Auschwitz “wasteland” (Adorno, 1991). Stripping away the superfluous layers of theatricality – props, rich scenery, accessories – Beckett reaches the essence of minimalism: a few objects on stage, the actors, and the spectators. But what he never forgets is the curtain between. When the curtain falls, the effacement of presence is complete and the spectator is alone in emptiness.

In his heroic search for the poor theatre, Grotowski dismissed the curtain as a useless accessory of the bourgeois theatre. In his pure theatre, Beckett celebrates, precisely against this kind of sentiment, the metaphorical significance of the curtain. For this reason, every play ends with the same word – ‘curtain!’ The effect is most clearly reinforced in Not I, where the final directions are: ‘Curtain fully down. House dark. Voice continues behind curtain, unintelligible, 10 seconds, ceases as house lights up ’(Beckett, 1986: 383). The same powerful presence of the curtain is accentuated inBreath, the thirty-five-second miniature that takes place between two curtains. EvenCascando and Words and Music, written for radio, end, surprisingly enough, with the same word: ‘curtain’. The curtain is thus the only real ending in a universe dominated by a permanent eschatology (Clement, 1996:129).

Towards a Theatre of Solitude

The stillness, the silence, and the darkness Beckett sought for his characters typify the space of audience. The sensation of entrapment experienced by the characters on stage implies a pact with the viewer. From this perspective, the ideal spectator forWaiting for Godot is someone who is torn between staying and leaving, someone whose conscience is captured in a dialogue that may be imagined to run like this:

Let’s go!
You can’t go!
Why not?
You’re watching the show?

In his first play, Eleutheria, Beckett introduced a character called the spectator. While this character is missing from later plays, its role defaults back to Beckett’s audience. Never aiming to be entertaining or dynamic, all his plays redefine the position of the viewer: they challenge the spectator to choose between staying and leaving. With Clov, one says: I will leave Yet, just like Clov, like Estragon and Vladimir, like Hamm, one stays. And to stay is to witness. The choice is impossible, but entirely personal: it isolates one from the rest – hence the constant anxiety of any human being who becomes a witness to a Beckett play:

so there’s an audience, it’s a public show, you buy your seat and you wait

that’s the show, you can’t leave, you’re afraid to leave, it might be worse elsewhere, you make the best of it, you try and be reasonable in the anguish of waiting, never noticed you were waiting alone, that’s the show, waiting alone. (Beckett, 1979)

If the show means indeed ‘waiting alone’, the audience mirrors the void of the stage and ‘finds itself both disembodied toward non existent viewing points and uncomfortably embodied within the seats they cannot escape’ (Garner, 1993: 457). The act of perceiving is reflexive and what is viewed determines the condition of the viewer. The curtain’s fall is therefore, in Georges Banu’s words, a ‘fissure’ in both time and space and also a form of reconnecting the spectator with their own world. In the end, when the curtain is down, there is an instant of silence and immobility in the entire theatre that echoes the last, unmoving image on stage. Beckett insisted on the actors’ not returning for curtain calls. Like the interpreters in Japanese theatre, the Beckett actor is expected to vanish in the shadows of the world behind the curtain and to never come back. This is a statement, a resounding one. In the end, there is no one else: the spectator remains alone.

It is this feeling that makes Beckett’s theatre a terrifying experience, more than Ionesco’s or any other playwright’s. Not only did Beckett write literature against literature, but he created theatre against theatre.

The Anxiety of Others

Unlike Beckett’s, Ionesco’s spectator is never alone. Ionesco was painfully aware of this and wrote simply to express his anxiety of others, which is at the same time an anxiety about others (Smith, 1996). To be there and to feel the presence of others, this is the effect Ionesco aims to project on the spectator. Ionesco believes that theatre is for and about people, that it should always be an experience of others. The principle translates to the characters in the most contradictory way: they simultaneously long for company and confront solitude. It is this permanent conflict between one and the others that is at the centre of his drama. This conflict can lead to murder in The Lesson, suicide in The Chairs, self-extinction in Exit the King, or bestial metamorphosis in Rhinoceros. Whilst Beckett’s characters are alone, Ionesco’s creatures cannot escape the desperate desire to interact, to talk, to address other people. The imaginary audience in The Chairspoints to the fact that this desire becomes a compulsion that goes beyond the limits of reality. The Old Man and The Old Woman defy loneliness by the means of playing an imaginary game with the imaginary others. The objects inundate the stage and become – in Todorov’s words – emblematic, because they describe the space. If Vladimir and Estragon, just like Hamm and Clov, ‘abuse each other’ verbally to pass the time (Beckett, 1986: 69), the two old people from The Chairs have another solution. Instead of waiting, the old couple is filling the time by occupying the space with chairs. In the actual experience of the play in a theatre production, the impact of this image amplifies the meaning: to watch empty chairs, occupied by an inexistent audience means to become more aware of one’s own condition as a spectator among other spectators.

Stage Directions and Palimpsests of Absence

In The Chairs, absence is not an undefined, diffuse entity. It becomes presence, an absent presence. As Ionesco himself admitted, it is neither the chairs, nor the couple that represents the most important presence of the play, but the non-existent public that the two characters bring alive on stage. This absence that is treated as presence is not merely a theatrical effect. As suggested above, the absence of the guests in The Chairsis an ontological game of complicity Ionesco invites his real audience to play. Ionesco’s sense of irony reaches its highest point at the end of the play, when the two characters say goodbye to their imaginary public, and also to us, the people watching – the silent addressees of all their words. The disintegration of language in the Orator’s speech and the empty objects convey the same sense of ambiguous absence/presence. One of Ionesco’s stage directions is more relevant than any others. The Orator has to be ‘a real person… If the invisible characters should appear as real as possible, the Orator should look unreal’ (1962: 170). Entertaining themselves to death, the old couple leave the stage at the exact point when the ambiguity is total, in space as well as in their language.

For Ionesco, the play is always more than characters’ parts and, in this sense, the final words become crucially relevant to defining the universe of the play. When the stage seems to be left empty, Ionesco suggests: ‘For the first time human noises seem to be coming from the invisible crowd; snatches of laughter, whisperings, a ‘Ssh!’ or two, little sarcastic coughs; these noises grow louder and louder, only to start fading away again. All this should last just long enough for the real and visible public to go away with this ending firmly fixed in their minds. The curtain falls very slowly’ (1962: 177). Explicitly devoted to us, these last lines of the play situate the spectator at the centre of Ionesco’s philosophy of theatre. In these final directions, Ionesco pushes the boundaries of theatricality, and defines his own conception of spectatorship and space. Like Beckett, Ionesco thinks of emptiness as the space without hope, the gap of sadness and despair. But his is never a completely empty space. ‘The stage is empty, apart from the chairs, the platform, the confetti and paper streams over the floor’ (1962: 177). The final scene of The Lesson is described in a similar manner: ‘They go out. The stage is empty a few moments. A ring at the bell at the door on the left’ (1962: 217). The final scenes are quite different from the frozen tableaux of Beckett. Ionesco’s world is always on the move, like a theatrical rendering of Brownian movement. Beckett’s topography describes a centre: the tree in Godot, the mound in Happy Days, the obsessive ‘centre’ of the room in Endgame. Ionesco creates a decentralized world of objects, as transfiguration of inner space that is irremediably broken into pieces. There is no centre, just margins and marginality.

The ‘Paradise’ of Closed Space

The closure of space as a manifestation of an implacable destiny is a constant existentialist theme reminiscent of the Sartrean No Exit: ‘Hell is other people!’ Meanwhile, Ionesco holds a very different belief: there is always tension between action and space in his plays, but instead of being tragic it generates comedy and violence. ‘The greater the gap between the action and the setting, the more comic and violent the effect’ (Schechner, 1963: 187). There seems to be a way out in his plays, but nowhere to go.

In a coda to her monographic study, Marie-Claude Hubert tackles the author of The Bald Soprano about the connections between the language and space in his works. ‘Anxiety of space’, Huber calls it, referring to the labyrinthine construction of physical and symbolic space in Ionesco’s plays – a catastrophic vision of the space without, hence the tendency of some characters to block any links with the world. She also quotes Ionesco’s Romanian essay No, his first major literary work, in which the fear of the outside world predominates. This ‘anxiety of space’ is, in Ionescian theatre, only equalled by the ‘anxiety of others’, and together they complete the pattern of what might be called the anxiety of language. Ionesco (who was always far more disposed than Beckett to talk about his own plays) indicates that there are two contradictory tendencies in a human being: ‘to close up in order to protect themselves, or to open and go out’ (Hubert, 1990: 263). The hesitation between the two is emblematic for his works and has a comic immediacy beyond words. It conveys the relativity of this closure. Moreover, Ionesco declares that ‘[p]aradise opens in a closed world’ (Hubert, 1990: 265). This perplexing statement concludes an entire theory about closure versus openness in his oeuvre that is most revealing for a definition of the spectator’s presence in space.

Ionesco’s spectator does not want to leave the theatre at the end, because out there, there is this huge, chaotic world that the stage mirrors. ‘The world is huge; this is why it is chaotic’, Ionesco avers (Hubert, 1990: 264). Surrounded by others, in the theatre, the spectator is never alone and therefore feels sheltered. Inside, there is comfort and, maybe, security, if there is such a thing as security in a theatre of total derision. The overrun universe on stage is a truthful transfiguration of the real world that we want to forget. This is specifically why when faced with the stage imagery, we do not recognize ourselves, but the chaos we left behind when we entered the theatre. In this sense, the stage symbolizes the evil of the real world, while the audience is placed in the uncharacteristic “paradise” of the space between.


A ghostly witness, the spectator is essential to these two dramatists’ writings, but while Beckett attempts to include them in the world and the space of the play, Ionesco seeks the opposite effect.

Beckett uses minimalism, order and emptiness on a stage that looks like no man’s land. Ionesco, on the other hand, places the action in the middle of the domestic setting of contemporary life, only to subvert its apparent stability and turn it into sheer chaos. The visual universe of the former is all order and stillness, the latter’s is disorder and continual movement. Beckett’s characters are there to invoke a torturing absence – something or somebody that is invariably elsewhere. Ionesco brings absence on stage and gives it the prerogatives of presence. Whereas Beckett’s universe is defined by stillness, Ionesco’s world is all about motion. Faithful, perhaps, to a Cartesian tradition in which the body is seen as an entity in space, Beckett puts nothingness in the world. Ionesco’s world, always occupied by proliferating objects, always flooded with physical matter (boxes, chairs, cups, noses), denies emptiness: a true rich theatre.

Getting away from writing prose, trying to escape the writer’s solitude, Beckett sought shelter in the theatre: ‘Theatre for me is first of all recreation from work on fiction. We are dealing with a given space and with people in that space. That is relaxing’ (Gontarski, 1992: XIII). Through the means of drama, Beckett had the chance to be the spectator of his own world, in the same way that Krapp is the listener of his. This sense of creating a spectacle, in Nietzschean terms, is to ‘bear witness’ in relation to one’s own inner world, and subsequently in relation to oneself (Nietzsche, 1983: 33). This experience of a private universe was, for the reclusive Beckett, the ultimate disillusionment, as he discovered that even there, in the theatre, he was alone.

Always full, too full, Ionesco’s world threatens to fall apart and this entails a paradoxical sensation of comfort on the part of the spectator. Here – in their seats, and not there – in the world of the stage or in the mad world outside the theatre, they are sheltered. Ionesco’s spectator is positioned between the macrocosm outside and the microcosms represented by the plays (Hubert, 1990: 262). From a phenomenological perspective, one is removed from both, but never from the rest of the audience. Though personal, Ionesco’s theatre is at the same time a shared experience of witnessing among, and always together with, others.

Two testamentary spatial paradigms, two definitions of spectatorship in space, and two distinct, yet somewhat related, philosophies of theatre: Beckett and Ionesco.



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