Take a “Breath” and Watch Samuel Beckett’s One-Minute Play

As Samuel Beckett’s writ­ing pro­gressed through the ’60s, it became even more min­i­mal, despair­ing, and bleak. It was as if he was par­ing away as much as he could to see if the­ater was left stand­ing. If a paint­ing could be one col­or like Ad Rein­hardt, what would be the Rein­hardt of the­ater? Jonathan Crow men­tioned yes­ter­day how Beck­et­t’s 1969 play Breath, for instance, “runs just a minute long and fea­tures just the sound of breath­ing.” There is a bit more to it than that. Not a lot more, but yes, more. Here’s the play’s script in full:


1. Faint light on stage lit­tered with mis­cel­la­neous rub­bish.  Hold for about five sec­onds.

2.  Faint brief cry and imme­di­ate­ly inspi­ra­tion and slow increase of light togeth­er reach­ing max­i­mum togeth­er in about ten sec­onds.  Silence and hold about five sec­onds.

3.  Expi­ra­tion and slow decrease of light togeth­er reach­ing min­i­mum togeth­er (light as in I) in about ten sec­onds and imme­di­ate­ly cry as before.  Silence and hold for about five sec­onds.

Beck­ett adds some notes:

Rub­bish.  No ver­ti­cals, all scat­tered and lying.

Cry.  Instant of record­ed vagi­tus.  Impor­tant that two cries be iden­ti­cal, switch­ing on and off strict­ly syn­chro­nized light and breath.

Breath.  Ampli­fied record­ing.

Max­i­mum light.  Not bright.  If 0 = dark and 10 = bright, light should move from about 3 to 6 and back.

The play came about when one of the most impor­tant Eng­lish the­ater crit­ics of his time Ken­neth Tynan asked for short skits for an erot­ic revue he was putting on in 1969, called Oh! Cal­cut­ta. Oth­ers invi­tees includ­ed Jules Feif­fer, John Lennon, Edna O’Brien, Jacques Levy, Sam Shep­ard, and Leonard Melfi. The plan was to per­form each skit but keep each writer’s name a secret. Beck­ett report­ed­ly wrote the play on a post­card and sent it to Tynan, then became enraged when he heard that instead of rub­bish on stage, Tynan had used naked bod­ies *and* in fact had explic­it­ly cred­it­ed Beck­ett in the pro­gram. Breath wouldn’t get a prop­er stag­ing until 1999 in London’s West End, as part of an evening with Beckett’s more sub­stan­tial Krapp’s Last Tape. You can read reports of how the audi­ence react­ed.

Sev­er­al direc­tors have brought Breath to life. Artist Damien Hirst had a go for the 2002 Beck­ett on Film project. As seen above, his ver­sion has very spec­tac­u­lar rub­bish gath­ered from a hos­pi­tal and, glimpsed in the final sec­onds, a cig­a­rette butt swasti­ka.

Below, check out a more “tra­di­tion­al” inter­pre­ta­tion of the play from the Nation­al The­atre School of Canada’s Tech Pro­duc­tion class. After that comes a repeat of Hirst’s ver­sion, and then one more alter­na­tive, Dar­ren Smyth’s 2009 TV sta­t­ic-filled attempt. (The rest of the video is a mixed bag of the Alan Par­sons Project and a Tim Bur­ton short, don’t ask why.)

Despite Beckett’s morose rep­u­ta­tion, there’s always a black humor under­neath it all. And if you’re going to ask the man to write an “erot­ic skit,” this is what you get, the futil­i­ty of life from womb to tomb in a minute.

Final­ly, you can watch an infor­ma­tive mini lec­ture on the play, pre­sent­ed by Dr. Cather­ine Brown for the New Col­lege of the Human­i­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Open­ing Cred­its of an Imag­i­nary 70s Cop Show Star­ring Samuel Beck­ett

Samuel Beck­ett Directs His Absur­dist Play Wait­ing for Godot (1985)

Mon­ster­piece The­ater Presents Wait­ing for Elmo, Calls BS on Samuel Beck­ett

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills and/or watch his films here.

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