An autocratic Director and his female Assistant put the “‘[f]inal touches to the last scene’ of some kind of dramatic presentation”, which consists entirely of a man (The Protagonist) standing still onstage.
The Assistant has arranged the man as she has seen fit to, atop a “black block 18” high”, draped in a “black dressing gown [down] to [his] ankles” and – peculiarly – sporting a “black wide-brimmed hat.” The bulk of the drama consists of the Director wresting control from her and moulding the man on stage to suit his personal vision. “The Director call for light, both for his cigar which is constantly going out and for the spectacle of the Protagonist on stage.”
The Director is an irritable and impatient man, his annoyance likely exacerbated by the fact that he has another appointment, “a caucus”, to attend and his time there is limited. He expresses concern with the overall appearance and demands that the coat and hat be removed leaving the man “shivering” in his “old grey pyjamas.” He has the man’s fists unclenched and then joined, the only suggestion of his Assistant’s that he pays any heed to; once arranged at breast-height he is satisfied. (Beckett explained to James Knowlson that when he was composing Catastrophe, “In my mind was Dupuytren’s contracture (from which I suffer) which reduces hands to claws.”) The Director dismisses his Assistant’s proposal to have the man gagged (“This craze for explicitation!”) or to “show his face … just for an instant.” He also has her make notes to whiten all the exposed flesh.
In a moment of respite, when the Director leaves the stage, his Assistant collapses into his chair then springs out and wipes it vigorously, as if to avoid contamination, before reseating herself. This helps the audience appreciate better her relationship to each of the parities. She is after all the one who dressed the Protagonist warmly and who – twice – highlights the fact that he is shivering. In some ways she is just “another victim rather than a collaborator.”
Finally they rehearse lighting with the theatre technician (the never-seen "Luke"). The play-within-a-play lasts only a few seconds: from darkness, to light falling on the man's head and then darkness again. Finally the Director exclaims: "There's our catastrophe! In the bag and asks for one last run through before he has to leave. He imagines the rising of the expectant applause on the opening day (“Terrific! He’ll have them on their feet. I can hear it from here). The man has become, as John Calder puts it, “a living statue portraying, from the director’s point of view, the quiescent, unprotesting victim, a symbol of the ideal citizen of a totalitarian regime.”
However, in an act of defiance, the man looks up into the audience (after having been looking down the entire time); the “applause falters and dies.” A Pyrrhic victory perhaps. However “the figure’s unexpected movement seems to happen not in the director’s imagined timespace but in the timespace of [actual] performance. The moment is unsettling … We do not know why the figure has reacted like this; we do not know when the reaction happens; we do not know where the reaction takes place.” Beckett told Mel Gussow that “it was not his intention to have the character make an appeal … He is a triumphant martyr rather than a sacrificial victim … and it is meant to cow onlookers into submission through the intensity of his gaze and stoicism,”
The title requires some clarification. “In the words of Aristotle: ‘catastrophe is an action bringing ruin and pain on stage, where corpses are seen and wounds and other similar sufferings are performed,’”. Malone refers to “Catastrophe … in the old sense … [t]o be buried alive in lava and not turn a hair, it is then a man shows what stuff he is made of.” The more obvious definition applies of course to the act of defiance itself; the effect is nothing less than catastrophic.
The play is often singled out amongst the Beckett canon as being overtly political even though similar claims could be made for What Where and Rough for Radio II. The play is still a Beckett play and as such it is unwise to limit ones reading of it. "When ... asked about the political significance of Catastrophe, he raised his arms in a gesture of impatience and made just one remark: 'It is not more political than Pochade Radiophonique’”, Rough for Radio II, as the latter is known in English.
The play can be viewed as an allegory on the power of totalitarianism and the struggle to oppose it, the protagonist representing people ruled by dictators (the director and his aide). By "tweak[ing] him until his clothing and posture project the required image of pitiful dejectedness" , they exert their control over the silenced figure. “The Director’s reifying of the Protagonist can be seen as an attempt to reduce a living human being to the status of an icon of impotent suffering. But, at the end of the play, he reasserts his humanity and his individuality in a single, vestigial, yet compelling movement.” In answer to a reviewer who claimed that the ending was ambiguous Beckett replied angrily: “There’s no ambiguity there at all. He’s saying, you bastards, you haven’t finished me yet.”
It is interesting to note that, after the fall of the communist government in Czechoslovakia, crowds famously chanted, "Godot has arrived!" as a rallying cry, in reference to Beckett's most famous play. Havel himself would later make allusions to the importance of Beckett's work in terms of his struggle, and his work. In a speech addressed to the Institut de France on 27 October 1992, for example, the President cites Beckett and Godot repeatedly with direct reference to the Czechoslovakian experience: “I should make it clear that citizens of the communist world could not be divided into dissidents and those who merely waited for Godot. To a certain extent, all of us waited for Godot at times, and at other times were dissidents. It's just that some of us might have been more the former, and others more the latter. Nevertheless, this experience can be simplified to the recognition that there are different kinds of waiting.” Following his release from prison, Havel wrote a play in response, which he dedicated in his turn to Beckett. It was called The Mistake.
A filmed version of Catastrophe was directed by David Mamet for the Beckett on Film project. It starred playwright and Beckett enthusiast Harold Pinter as the Director, and featured the last on-camera appearance of famed British actor, John Gielgud as the Protagonist (he would die only a few weeks later).
This version has been somewhat controversial, as Mamet chose to film it as a realist piece: the scene takes place in an actual theatre, and the principals are dressed as a director and his assistant might look. “When the director (D) made his peremptory demands for light from his female assistant (A) he received it not for his cigar, as in the original, but in the form of torchlight for his script. This weakened the sense of gratuitous offensiveness hanging about the character. D., played by Pinter, received rather too much camera attention and a patient John Gielgud rather too little, above all at the final moment” when he raises his head in defiance. Some critics have argued that this interpretation takes away from the tyrannical theme of the play.
This is not the only version that has taken liberties with the staging. “When Catastrophe was performed in the Beckett Festival on 15 September 1999, the director Robert O’Mahoney, interpreted the climax very differently [from the way Beckett had]. After Johnny Murphy raised his head and glared with great dignity at the audience, his lips parted and stretched into an imitation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. This nullified the impact of the ending, as Protagonist was reduced to nothing more than an abject silently screaming victim.”
Catastrophe is not only about a political situation and the place of the artist in it. The victim or “protagonist” is also representative of all actors, having to portray what writers write for them in the way directors tell them to do it (Beckett is not unaware of his own relationship with actors, particularly those who in the past have resisted his stage directions). The director in the play catches two prototypes, that of the political commissar and of the all-powerful personality director like Peter Brook, Vitez, [Mamet or O’Mahoney], who bend a performance to their own interpretation, where often the victim is the author himself; there are many “in” theatrical jokes. The director’s assistant coolly carries out her instructions, and it matters little if we are in a concentration camp or a film studio: all humane considerations are ruled out to achieve the ultimate work of art. The two-pronged metaphor is incredibly effective for all its surface simplicity. In time, as with all of Beckett’s work, more strands and allusions will be discovered.
The first command in the Bible is "And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness”
“The cigar-smoking Director's first command is also for " Light"; further such demands and repetitions of the phase "For God's sake help to build a conception of the Director as God, while sustaining his theatrical gestus of a bourgeois and chauvinistic impresario. His identity with the Creator is further effected by his command over language and light, determining the structure of the play so as to conform to the order of Creation, and by the inclusion of a lighting technician named Luke … The presence of Luke, like an inspired evangelist, receiving the will of Director-Creator, translated into intelligible terms by Assistant-angel, completes the absurd metaphysical motif. His lighting operations correspond to the technical application of a divine morality.
At one point Protagonist’s hands are adjusted to convey the attitude of prayer. From the Director’s perspective he has simply chosen the most aesthetically pleasing pose of course.
Conversely the play has also been interpreted “as an attempt by the devil to strip man of his own soul.”
“The play has also been related to Beckett’s own horror at self-exposure, and linked to the essentially exhibitionist nature of theatre. It has been seen as demonstrating the impossibility for an artist to shape his work in such a way that it reveals what he intends it to reveal; art in the end escapes him.” Interestingly, his wife Suzanne’s words after the telephone call confirming that Beckett had received the Nobel Prize for Literature were: “Quelle catastrophe.” She fully realised the effect such attention would have on this most private of men.