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Samuel Beckett's play Breath is thirty-five seconds long and consists of two cries. The script is online here.

Why does the script specify that:

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

and

Rubbish. No verticals, all scattered and lying.

What's the point of the rubbish? How does it relate the rest of the play?

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The rubbish is a metaphor for life.

Breath was written to be performed as part of a revue called Oh! Calcutta which was openly sexual. Breath itself opens with the sounds of birth, followed by breathing while the lights go up and down, and ends with another cry. Given the nature of the revue of which it is a part, one may interpret this as a metaphor for birth, life and death - the results of sex, and a comment on the animalistic impulses that drives it.

Beckett himself essentially confirmed this in his description of the work:

"My contribution to the Tynan circus is a forty second piece entitled BREATH … It is simply light coming up and going down on a stage littered with miscellaneous unidentifiable muck, sychronised with sound of breath, once in and out, the whole (ha!) begun and ended by the same tiny vagitus-rattle. I realized when too late to repent that it is not unconnected with

On entre, on crie
Et c’est la vie.
On crie, on sort,
Et c‘est la mort.

If this fails to titillate I hand in my aprob
- Damned to Fame: the Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson

The translation of the French is:

We enter, we shout
And that's life.
We shout, we go out,
And it's death.

(An aside: the meaning of "aprob" is unclear. It seems likely to be a mis-spelled contraction of either approbate or the latin approbante. See this question on English SE for more details.)

And the closing remark on titillation makes it clear that Beckett was making a satirical take on the content of the revue. Further evidence is given by Beckett's negative reaction to the actual staging of the play in which naked actors lay among the rubbish: he called the producer a "liar" and a "cheat".

Some of Beckett's other work revolve around rubbish. In his play Endgame, two of the character emerge from rubbish bins. The characters in Waiting for Godot are tramps. His characters are often attached to possessions which appear to the audience as oddments and scrap. Indeed, Beckett's inclination to showcase discarded objects in his work is a continuing source of academic interest - see Beckett's Art of Salvage by Julie Bates for an example.

Breath is very short, but other works by Beckett use rubbish as an analogy for life or for the world. In Ill Seen, Ill Said the line

So on. Till fit to finish with all at last. All the trash. In unbroken night.

Would seem to indicate the world moving toward a state of "trash". In Molloy, the titular character describes meeting his wife in a rubbish dump, in a passage which then goes on to include strong sexual connotations. All That Fall opens with a journey toward "Boghill" and feature a dung-carrier.

So what's with all the rubbish? Beckett defies obvious interpretations. Given the themes of mortality which he returns to however, it's possible to see rubbish as a metaphor for life itself. In life, we accrue possessions and attach importance to them: we pass favoured ones on to our offspring. They are at once essential and absurd, useless and tender, bulwarks we gather to shield us against death.

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  • 1) This is an interesting analysis of the play as a whole, but what's your evidence that the rubbish is a metaphor for wasted life specifically? 2) Could you add a source for that Beckett quote? (E.g. this one.) 3) What does "aprob" mean?? – Rand al'Thor Nov 7 '17 at 11:13
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    1) I have no expressed myself very well. The more I've looked into this, the more Beckett seems to use rubbish as a complex metaphor for life in a number of ways: I alluded to this in my final paragraph but it's still not very clear. I probably ought to edit, but I'm finding it difficult to express myself without just cribbing sources. 2) I've added the source and I have no idea what "aprob" means: from the context I presumed it was theatrical slang for "commission" but I can find no definition or explanation anywhere! – Matt Thrower Nov 7 '17 at 11:18
  • Beckett's stage directions are very specific and often lengthy. I think the reference to Endgame is quite salient because it demonstrates rubbish as a recurrent theme. Beckett became more "crusty" and more hostile to theatrical convention as his career progressed, with many of his short, late plays getting to the essence of drama through what I can only take as reductio ad absurdum. I might also look to what Grotoski had to say about props in Toward a Poor Theater, in terms of them being few and deeply meaningful. – DukeZhou Nov 8 '17 at 21:35

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