Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 February 2010
We have seen that each new Beckett play opens a new direction in response to a persistent urge to innovate. When Play was first produced in England (The National Theatre at the Old Vic, 1964), it had the immediate impact of a radically new work, with its three isolated speakers in their urns responding to the summons of a spotlight, rhythmically speaking at great speed, unintelligibly in the opening minutes. It seemed the ultimate diminishment of dramatic character, action and dialogue; at the same time, the stage image of those talking heads compelled immediate attention, as they were lit up one after the other for a brief interval of time. After the speakers began to spell out their ‘story’ in the first sequence (with rapid variations and overlapping points of view that hardly gave the audience time to unify the fragmented information), the second sequence clearly suggested that all three voices were speaking from some limbo beyond earthly life. The full replay of the sequences then reinforced and eked out the audience's partial understanding of the first round: completing a verbal puzzle as well as a musical pattern.
The passage of time since the play's first production has confirmed that Play is a new kind of play for Beckett: a deliberate reduction of stage figures to talking automata who nevertheless retain human emotions and relevance. Action is now fully abstracted from the arena of the world as we know it, in so far as that is possible in the medium of the theatre.