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From Beckett to Handke: Mulling Over The Last Tape

What seemed like an unlikely scenario will probably become quite commonplace. An elderly man, all alone, replays pieces of the recorded stream of his life. Revisiting moments of triumph and regret. Looking intently at the high points, trying to breathe a bit of that air once more.

(briskly). Ah! (He bends over ledger, turns the pages, finds the entry he wants, reads.) Box . . . thrree . . . spool . . . five. (he raises his head and stares front. With relish.) Spool! (pause.) Spooool! (happy smile. Pause. He bends over table, starts peering and poking at the boxes.) Box . . . thrree . . . three . . . four . . . two . . . (with surprise) nine! good God! . . . seven . . . ah! the little rascal! (He takes up the box, peers at it.) Box thrree. (He lays it on table, opens it and peers at spools inside.) Spool . . . (he peers at the ledger) . . . five . . . (he peers at spools) . . . five . . . five . . . ah! the little scoundrel! (He takes out a spool, peers at it.) Spool five. (He lays it on table, closes box three, puts it back with the others, takes up the spool.) Box three, spool five. (He bends over the machine, looks up. With relish.) Spooool! (happy smile. He bends, loads spool on machine, rubs his hands.) Ah! (He peers at ledger, reads entry at foot of page.) Mother at rest at last . . . Hm . . . The black ball . . . (He raises his head, stares blankly front. Puzzled.) Black ball? . . . (He peers again at ledger, reads.) The dark nurse . . . (He raises his head, broods, peers again at ledger, reads.) Slight improvement in bowel condition . . . Hm . . . Memorable . . . what? (He peers closer.) Equinox, memorable equinox. (He raises his head, stares blankly front. Puzzled.) Memorable equinox? . . . (Pause. He shrugs his head shoulders, peers again at ledger, reads.) Farewell to–(he turns the page)–love.

He raises his head, broods, bends over machine, switches on and assumes listening posture, i.e. leaning foreward, elbows on table, hand cupping ear towards machine, face front.

The character, of course, is Krapp, from the play by Samuel Beckett, called Krapp’s Last Tape. He’s recorded the narrative stream of his life on to spools of tape, categorized them with labels, and now they reside in stacks of boxes. Krapp sits alone at his desk, surrounded by darkness. It’s here that he performs the vaudeville routine of surveying the streams of narrative that made up his life.

The great intellectual triumph of Krapp’s magnum opus seems to pale in comparison with his one chance at happiness— that afternoon, with her, on the upper lake, in the punt, pushing out into the stream and drifting…

Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indulgence until that memorable night in March at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last. This fancy is what I have cheifly to record this evening, againt the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that . . . (hesitates) . . . for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the beleif I had been going on all my life, namely–(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape foreward, switches on again)–great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighhouse and thw wind-gauge spinning like a propellor, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality–(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape foreward, switches on again)–unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire–(Krapp curses loader, switches off, winds tape foreward, switches on again)–my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.

Alone in the dark, we hunch over our devices, replaying pieces of the stream— we may come to think that that’s how it was; that the recording represents all the possibilities that were present in those moments that expired oh so long ago.

Peter Handke, in his play, Till Day You Do Part Or A Question Of Light, gives voice to the object of Krapp’s affection. Handke calls it, not so much an answer, but “an echo, rather. An echo, now distant in both place and time, now quite close to Mr. Krapp, the solitary hero of Samuel B’s play. An echo, now weak and contradictory, distorted, now loud, amplified, enlarged.” In this long monologue, we hear the story of “her.”

And, of course, her perspective gives us a new view of these crossing streams of memory:

My act now. Your act’s over, Herr Krapp, Monsieur Krapp, Mister Krapp. Acted out under a false name in a language that wasn’t yours. Well acted, of course, I give you that, with your affectation of a has-been, disillusioned clown. What was the point of dressing up in those oversized shoes?

Handke gives us a new sense of two streams mingling, and eventually parting.

Only once, back then, now in the flags—at last, no more talk of jokes. And so the two of stayed together, inseparable. Back then, in the boat, you finally let me be, let me have my share of the night, let me have my centre. Till death us do part? No, till day us do part. The day that will part us—never will it come. Never will day break in such a way within me and between us. By leaving me in my dark night, you were a good man for me, the unknown woman, just as a woman once said in a Western, ‘A good man made me his wife, and I’m proud of that.’ A good man? For me, at least. For the dark, gloom-ridden person was, perhaps is me, me, the woman here. My act now? No, in my night I never needed to act. You, you’re the master actor, world champion at broad-daylight acting. No one can compete with you in that, no one, never. But I can be your audience. ‘I can put up with being ignored,’ another woman once said to another man. Accordingly I join you in my signless night, stammer vaguely to myself and at the same time I feel the urge to sing my stammering, the refrain to the song you’re humming of the shadow creeping down our mountains, of the azure sky growing dull, of the noise ebbing from the countryside around us, of our sleep in the coming peace.

Mulling over the Last Tape, looking back from what one knows is the end of the stream— the last entry. As Beckett wrote: the end is in the beginning, and yet you go on. Sometimes we tend to think of these streams as endless, overflowing their banks, flooding us with more than we can ever take in. But there is an end to the game that we play, just as there was a moment where we first stepped into the stream.

Handke does us the service of putting another voice into the frame. And where the technology of the digital stream so often seems to resound with the voice of the masculine engineer, here we have a female voice taking and holding the stage.

‘Echo’, if I remember rightly, is also the name of a person in Greek mythology, a minor goddess or a nymph (of which it says in the dictionary: ‘a lower-ranked goddess inhabiting the underwood’) but definitely a woman, the voice of a woman.

Published in culture digital identity language performance theater


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