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The key to understanding Samuel Beckett’s only television play, Eh Joe, is in the line, ‘Thou fool thy soul’, which comes from St Luke’s gospel, chapter 12, verse 20: ‘But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee.’
The play begins with Joe (‘late fifties, grey hair, old dressing-gown, carpet slippers’) seen from behind, sitting on the edge of his bed in an ‘intent pose’. There follows a sequence of shots showing him, always from behind, going from place to place in his room, closing doors, drawing curtains, looking under the bed. Each shot ends with him ‘standing intent’. Only when he has made sure that he is safe does he sit down again on the edge of his bed, ‘beginning to relax’.
From this point onwards, we watch Joe’s face in close-up as he listens to a woman’s voice recounting, accusingly, in short and often unfinished phrases, moments from his past which he would rather forget.
Eyes open, resumption of intentness.
Thought of everything?…Forgotten nothing?…”
Woman’s Voice continues in this fashion through ten short passages, after each of which the camera moves a little closer to Joe’s face, which remains ‘practically motionless throughout’ except for ‘brief zones of relaxation’ until his intentness is ‘restored by voice resuming’. The voice itself is ‘low, distinct, remote, little colour, absolutely steady rhythm, slightly slower than normal’. In the final passage it ‘drops to whisper, almost inaudible’. The image of Joe’s face starts to fade but the voice goes on talking until the very end, when the last words to be clearly heard are ‘Eh Joe?’
Beckett’s play, which takes about as long to perform as Luke 12 does to read, is about a man who might be able to forget, or at least live with his, past if it were not for the voice in his head that keeps reminding him of it. Luke 12 is about an occasion when Jesus, addressing ‘an innumerable multitude of people’, tells them to ‘Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.’
To carry on with the play where we left off:
You’re all right now, eh?…No one can see you now…No one can get at you now…Why don’t you put out that light?…There might be a louse watching you…Why don’t you go to bed?…What’s wrong with that bed, Joe?…You changed it, didn’t you?…Made no difference?…Or is the heart already?…Crumbles when you lie down in the dark…Dry rotten at last…Eh Joe?’
Beckett is at pains in Eh Joe, as in each of his late, short plays, to eliminate all traces of naturalism. The woman’s words could be spoken with great intensity and immediacy, with anger, with tears. Forget Beckett’s stage direction, change the punctuation and hear the woman’s fourth speech as if Stanislavski were the director.
Anyone living love you now, Joe? Anyone living sorry for you now? That slut that comes on Saturday, you pay her, don’t you? Penny a hoist and tuppence as long as you like! Watch yourself you don’t run short, Joe. Ever think of that? Eh Joe?
Beckett’s actors need to exercise restraint. What a waste, it must sometimes seem, of a good speech, not to speak it as it wants to be spoken, but to slow it down, to keep to a steady rhythm, to avoid the pauses that are an actor’s stock-in-trade, to count the beats (‘Between phrases a beat of one second at least. Between paragraphs about seven’). Instead of specifying ‘low, distinct, remote, little colour, absolutely steady rhythm, slightly slower than normal’, Beckett could have saved time by instructing the actor to say the lines as though reading the lesson in church.
And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him. (Luke 12, 4-5)
Or, as the woman puts it in her sixth speech:
How’s your Lord these days?…Still worth having?…Still lapping it up?…The passion of our Joe…Wait till He starts talking to you…When you’re done with yourself…All your dead dead…
Hell-fire preaching is for Methodists. For Catholics or Anglicans, the words of the bible, spoken low, distinct, remote, with little colour, at an absolutely steady rhythm, slightly slower than normal, are enough on their own to put the fear of God into you.
One way of understanding Beckett is to see him as a writer of Morality Plays, representations of moral certainties and uncertainties through dialogue spoken non-naturalistically in symbolic settings. Or think of the last scene of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Death is always close in Beckett’s plays, whether it’s Waiting for Godot or Krapp’s Last Tape or Not I or Eh Joe. So close that you wonder sometimes whether what you’re watching happens before death, at the moment of death or sometime later.
To continue the woman’s sixth speech where we left it:
Sitting there in your foul old wrapper…Very fair health for a man of your years…Just that lump in your bubo…Silence of the grave without the maggots…To crown your labours…Till one night…’Thou fool thy soul’…Put your thugs on that…Eh Joe?…Ever think of that?…When He starts in on you…When you’re done with yourself…If you ever are.
Luke 12 also includes the verse about the lilies of the field who toil not neither do they spin, but it ends on as bleak and unforgiving a note as the bleak and unforgiving Samuel Beckett could wish. ‘When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate,’ Jesus says, using a familiar situation to get his message across, ‘as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison. I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence, till thou has paid the very last mite.’
Which is more or less what the woman says to Joe.