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Why Samuel Beckett's Short Plays Are Perfect for Teenage Performers

Updated on June 3, 2017
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Andrew is a drama teacher and film extra with over ten years of experience. He has a degree from Huddersfield University in the UK.

Samuel Beckett caricature.
Samuel Beckett caricature. | Source

Samuel Beckett's short plays have challenged and delighted my teenage students over the years. They provide some great material and are a worthy alternative to the mainstream.

Beckett is best known as the author of the play Waiting For Godot, which he wrote in 1952, in French. It was first performed in Paris a year later and has since become a kind of alternative classic, being a favourite of theatre companies worldwide. Most regular theatre goers and dramaphiles know the story of Estragon and Vladimir inside out.

What isn't so well-known is the fact that Samuel Beckett wrote lots and lots of short plays for all kinds of media.

As a drama teacher, I've used some of Beckett's short work (with young adults and adults with learning disabilities) and got very positive feedback from my students. You don't have to be anything other than human to enjoy Beckett, but you do have to be prepared for hard work. He takes you into the absurd, the dark, into his special "climate."

Initially, I used some of these short plays as warm up type pieces with my group, taking bits from various scenes and splitting the group into 3 or 4 smaller ones. These were then worked on over several weeks, each group performing for the others. In addition to performances, written work was encouraged to accompany photographs and to help students analyse the productions.

I would recommend looking at some of these shorter plays if you want to have a go at something a little bit different.

Act Without Words I
Act Without Words I | Source

The Short Plays

I have provided a brief summary and taste of dialogue for each play listed here. The times listed are approximate and are symbolized as follows:

  • S: short (10–15 pages)
  • VS: very short (6–10 pages)
  • ES: extremely short (3–6 pages)

#1 'Act Without Words I,' VS

Number of players: 1 lead with several others entering and exiting the stage.

Summary: In this comical mime an unfortunate individual becomes frustrated as various props and objects come and go on stage.

Dialogue: None.

Length: 25 minutes.

Additional Notes: Excellent for off stage participation, improvisation and invention.

#2 'Rough for Theatre I,' VS

Number of players: 2, A+B.

Summary: A blind fiddler on a street corner meets a man in a wheelchair. A conversation ensues.

Dialogue: "If you ask me we were made for each other."

"Are you beginning to like me? Or is it only my imagination."

Length: 35 minutes.

#3 'Play,' S

Number of players: 3, in grey urns, faces only, in spotlights.

Summary: Each of them has a relationship issue.

Dialogue: "Give him up, she screamed, he's mine."

"She came again. Just strolled in. All honey. Licking her lips. Poor thing."

Length: 50 minutes.

#4 'Come And Go,' ES

Number of players: 3.

Summary: Old friends with hidden secrets meet up briefly.

Dialogue: "Does she not realise?"

"Has she not been told?"

Length: 15 minutes.

#5 'Not I,' VS

Number of players: 1, in black djellaba (loose Arab cloak).

Summary: Loose, broken biographical story of a woman told through monologue.

Dialogue: "...out..out into this world...tiny little thing..."

Length: 20 minutes.

#6 'That Time,' S

Number of players: 3, voices.

Summary: A detailed look back at a life.

Dialogue: "not a sound only the old breath and the leaves turning and then suddenly this dust whole place suddenly full of dust. . . "

Length: 25 minutes.

#7 'Quad,' S

Number of players: 4, includes percussion, movement, coloured light, and gowns.

Summary: A series of complex movements by the four, almost a reduced dance, with drums.

Dialogue: None.

Length: 30–50 minutes.

#8 'Catastrophe,' ES

Number of players: 4.

Summary: A director, his assistant, and lighting engineer make last minute adjustments to P, a mystery man, in the final scene rehearsal.

Dialogue: "I can't see the toes. I'm sitting in the front row of the stalls and can't see the toes."

Length: 20–30 minutes.

#9 'Nacht und Traume,' ES

Number of players: 3; a dreamer, the dreamt self, and the hands.

Summary: 30 elements of direction through surreal dreamland.

Dialogue: None.

Length: 20–30 minutes.

Additional Notes: Features Schubert's lied, "Nacht und Traume."

#10 'What Where,' ES

Number of players: 4, plus a voice.

Summary: Lots of questions and answers in this quickfire play. Undertones of torture throughout a cycle of four seasons.

Dialogue: "We are the last five."

Length: 20–30 minutes.

How to Personalize Beckett's Plays for Your Students

Some of the plays above can be developed into longer versions and adapted to suit your students. With the book, The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett, all of his scripts, texts, and dialogue are at your fingertips. You won't need anything else. I have an old battered copy which is always close to hand. It's one of my most treasured books, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Below you'll find my suggestions for tailoring 3 of Beckett's plays to meet your students' needs.

  1. Quad is mostly about movement and drumming. Students reluctant to use their voice can be readily involved in the performance. All kinds of music can be used to enhance the movements.
  2. Act Without Words I is a mime that encourages clowning and comedy. Students who enjoy using different props and combinations of costumes would benefit. Although written for one person, this could be adapted for several.
  3. What Where is a cyclic play that repeats certain elements. Students who are vocally expressive would be challenged by this exploration of the human psyche.

Why Teenagers Are Fascinated by Beckett

For some of my students, Samuel Beckett's short plays are a bit of a mystery. His work definitely creates more questions than answers and starts all sorts of debates. Teenagers find some of his material fascinating and imaginations can run wild! Don't be afraid to explore issues that arise.

At times his plays seem purposely designed to obscure and confuse, despite stage directions that are so detailed someone obsessed must have written them!

Specific scenes and dialogue can make you feel very uncomfortable and shake you out of your cosy existence. This is what you want for your students—to take them into areas they normally do not explore and guide them through safely!

Younger people can relate strongly to the absurd elements of Beckett. They see things happening in the real world we adults have created for them and often find them mirrored in his writings.

You will encounter darker energies in Beckett, not explicit but lurking underneath. He gives you the opportunity to experience the less glamorous side of human nature. He doesn't make you wait long either.

A famous quote from Samuel Beckett
A famous quote from Samuel Beckett | Source

Feedback and Discussion

Beckett's work has been described as "mysterious," "philosophical," and "experimental." For decades his plays challenged all types of critics because they do not fit neatly into any category.

There probably is no point in trying to define work that has no point to make. Theatre goers are intrigued by Beckett because he leaves so much space for the audience to think in. He pares life down to the core whilst making you laugh, cry, and scratch your head in wonderment. Your students will relish discussing the following topics:

  • The nature and importance of comedy.
  • The nature and importance of tragedy.
  • Why life is often absurd and surreal.
  • Whether or not ambition is the best thing about being human.
  • Whether or not friendships must depend on mutual trust.
  • The element of frustration in all relationships.
  • Being human and where it has gotten us.
  • How a stripped-down humanity faces the realities of life.

Here are also several companion activities they might enjoy:

  • Listing the most important things in their lives and writing down why these things are important.
  • Debate the issues listed above using role play whenever possible.

© 2012 Andrew Spacey

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