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L'Allusion et l'Accès

Peter Vernon
Claudine Raynaud

The Aesthetics of Ruptured Visibility: Samuel Beckett’s Rockaby

Derval Tubridy

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1Samuel Beckett’s short play Rockaby – written in English in 1980 and first performed in Buffalo, New York in 1981 – explores the problematic of the relationship between subjectivity and the speaking body in terms of the gaze. The play consists of a “prematurely aged woman” dressed in black and seated in a rocking chair who listens to her pre-recorded voice which intones in time with the rocking of the chair. In Rockaby the otherness of the voice is announced by the physical dislocation between the voice which speaks and the body which is almost silent. W, “the woman in the chair” is both temporally and spatially removed from V, her recorded voice. It is her actual voice, spoken from the body of W, which calls forth her recorded voice. The play begins with the invocation “More” in response to which the dramatic narrative of the play, and the movement of the rocking chair, both start.

2In Rockaby the gaze is a form of address from the self to that self which has been made other in speech, and this address seeks to fulfil that which the voice cannot. The gaze seeks to bridge the gap between self and itself since “the other living soul” whom the eyes of the protagonist seek is her own self. In seeking to see the other the protagonist seeks to see herself and thereby close the gap between the self and itself which has already been introduced by speech. However vision cannot enact such a closure and the play concludes with the drawing of the blind on the window through which the gaze can no longer pass. Taking as a point of departure the inherent alterity that the stage directions of Rockaby place between the figure of the woman that we see on stage and voice that we hear, I respond to an analysis of Rockaby by Lois Oppenheim in which she refers to the dramatic monologue spoken by the recorded voice as’unfolding outside the body’even while it:

Articulates – as ontological deprivation – an anonymous self in isolation from an anonymous Other and, thereby, the impossibility of any unified or integrated identification of the self by the self apart from its relation to, and differentiation from, those surrounding it (Oppenheim 1990, p. 220)

3Here, Oppenheim posits the existence of others in relation to, and in differentiation from, whom W identifies herself. However, the notion of a self is constantly put in question by Beckett. To talk of an “anonymous self” is already to presume a subjectivity which is constantly undermined in Beckett’s work. Indeed, the notion of the “Other” is never a given, I would like to suggest instead that Rockaby is a drama enacted between a speaker and her voice which is other to that speaker, a drama which moves from the problematic of the language which makes the self other to itself to the problematic of the gaze which seeks to see itself in the eyes of the other. It is a play which enacts the aesthetics of ruptured visibility.

  • 1 Jonathan Kalb notes that Billie Whitelaw’s recitation of these lines in the 1981 performance at Bu (...)

4Rockaby is divided into four parts. The first part tells of the woman’s search to see another figure like herself, while it also emphasises her conviction of the futility of such a search. This conviction is exemplified by the repeated and emphasised phrase : time she stopped. The second part tells of her return inside to a position “at her window / facing other windows” from which she continues to search for “another living soul”. The third part tells how the search to see another creature like herself narrows to the desire to see some evidence of the existence of another as indicated by a raised blind on one of the facing windows. The fourth part brings the play to a close as the woman relinquishes her desire to see another and submits to the embrace of her mother’s rocking chair. The voice which intones the narrative of the play refers to its speech in terms of self identity; “when she said / to herself / whom else”. However, I would like to argue that this self identity is impossible since the voice which speaks refers to a self which is distanced both physically and linguistically from itself. The use of the third person pronoun throughout the play underscores the otherness of the voice which attempts to speak for the self which is seated in the rocker on-stage. The phrase “whom else” can be read as referring to the singular isolation of the speaker and the impossibility of speaking to another in the absence of any other.1 But this phrase can also be understood in terms of an impossible reciprocity which rules out the address to another even as it establishes itself as other to the self from which it speaks.

5By firmly establishing the alterity of speech through the stage direction which distinguishes between the speaker and her voice Beckett then focuses on the movement of the gaze between the self and itself which has been made other in speech. This gaze searches :

  • 2 Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works, London: Faber and Faber, 1986. All subsequent referen (...)

all eyes
all sides
high and low
for another
another like herself
another creature like herself
a little like (C 435)2

6The protagonist of Rockaby searches to see another through which she can see herself. However, this seeing of the self through the other is not to be understood in terms of a reflection. The gaze in Rockaby is not a narcissistic gaze in which the self is seen as other; a petrified, immovable unattainable other. Neither is it a Lacanian gaze in which the self is seen in an idealised impossible form. In Rockaby the gaze is a movement from the self to another which is her own other. It is a reciprocal movement in which seer and seen are implicated in a singularity which is always possible but never realised. This singularity can be understood in terms of what Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in The Visible and the Invisible, calls the “fundamental narcissism of all vision” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p. 139). This vision is a movement between the seer and the seen in which “the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p. 139). The narcissism inherent in vision ensures that “since the seer is caught up in what he sees, it is still himself he sees” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p. 139). He elaborates a concept of the visible in which both seer and seen form part of the same substance. To see the other is to see the self, indeed, it is only through the eyes of the other that the self can be seen. As Merleau-Ponty emphasises, it is “through other eyes we are for ourselves fully visible” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p. 143).

  • 3 Peter Gidal undermines the specificity of gender in Rockaby in his examination of the relationship (...)
  • 4 The problematisation of time is also a feature of Beckett’s Watt according to Eleanor Swanson who (...)

7It is for these “other eyes” that the subject of the narration in Rockaby searches “high and low”. The “other living soul” whom the woman longs to see is described as being “all eyes like herself” and is, like the protagonist, also searching “for another”. In her book Theatre on Trial Anna McMullan suggests that “The desire to perceive the other seems to be the desire for a reflection of the self, or rather, the desire to recognize the desire of the 'self' in the desire of the other” (McMullan 1993, p. 105). This desire I read in terms of a movement from the viewer to the viewed, a visual movement which is emphasised by the physical movement of the rocking chair and the phonetic movement of the recitation. However, to see the self, whether in the eyes of the self or of the other, a body is necessary. Just as Mouth in Beckett’s earlier play Not I could not speak if she did not have at least that fragment of the body capable of enunciation, so the “she” of Rockaby must have a body in order that she may see and be seen. Even the gaze manifests a corporeality as its movement is described as a hunger emanating from “famished eyes” (C 439). The importance of the materiality of W’s body is emphasised by Mary Bryden who notes that “her body / presence summons attention in compelling manner, such that the persisting voice and the steadily rocking body are unerringly linked in their frail yet tenacious materiality” (Bryden 1993, p. 187). Another aspect of this relationship between self and other is raised by the fact that the body of Rockaby is a female body. With this choice of gender, and the conflation between mother and daughter that the text effects, Beckett develops the questions of origination and generation with respect to language and the body.3 Each phrase of Rockaby contains within it traces of previous phrases in a movement of progression within recapitulation. The distinction between mother and daughter is confounded in Rockaby and the temporal progression from mother to daughter is problematised by the conflicting notions of time elaborated in the play in which, on the level of enactment, the daughter becomes temporarily anterior to the mother.4

8It is from the tenacious materiality of the body that the eyes of Rockaby gaze beyond in search of the self which is other. Vision reinforces the alterity of the destination of the gaze for, as Steven Connor argues, “the distinguishing characteristic of sight is its dependence upon distinctness and distance; when we see or look at something, we must be physically detached from it in a way that we are not in the exercise of any of the other senses” (Connor 1992, p. 91). Thus, the body which gazes must be distinct from the body which is the destination of that gaze.

9In Rockaby the position of the viewing body is carefully delineated. Firstly, she gazes from the outside, her gaze unbounded by any restriction. Secondly, she moves indoors from where her gaze is circumscribed by the parameters of the window and filtered by the transparent pane. Her body is also circumscribed by the contours of the chair on which she sits. Thirdly, the movement of her gaze is stilled by the drawn blind on the window. Fourthly, she moves downstairs into the rocking chair of her mother. This chair is described in detail in the stage directions. It is made of “pale wood highly polished to gleam when rocking” (C 433). It has a foot rest, a vertical back, and “rounded inward curving arms to suggest embrace” (C 433). The specificity with which Beckett describes the chair which contains the subject of the narration, and the body of the woman we see onstage, emphasises the importance of physical location and corporeal position. The body of the woman conforms to the shape of the chair, and this chair controls the movement of the body in a way which echoes the position of the tormentor and victim in How It Is. Yet even though the chair moves without physical stimulus from its occupant since it is “controlled mechanically without assistance from W” (C 434), it is the voice of W which instigates the movement. In Rockaby, as in Footfalls, a change in the relationship between language and the body has occurred. The body is no longer the tool or site for the transmission of the voice, a body which is always in a state of dissolution. Now, the body provides the place of production of language, even if the voice which it produces is both temporarily and spatially other to that body. From the moment when the mouth of W calls “More”, announcing the beginning of the recitation, to the moment when the eyes of W close, announcing the end of the recitation, it is the body which circumscribes and delimits the voice.

10Beckett sets up a rhythm of reciprocity both within the narration, between the subject and the object of the gaze who is herself the subject of her own gaze, and in the enactment of the narration through the back and forth movement of the rocking chair and its echo in the recitation of the text. This reciprocity underlines the identity between the woman who gazes and the other who is the desired object of that gaze. However unlike the interminable circle of substitution traced by How It Is in which the protagonist couples with the other by forcing that other to speak, Rockaby describes an ever diminishing circle of distanciation in which the protagonist removes herself progressively from the possibility of the gaze. In the first part of the play she is described as being outdoors, searching “high and low” for an other. The second part situates her inside:

in the end went and sat
went back in and sat
at her window
let up the blind and sat
quiet at her window
only window
facing other windows
other only windows (C 437)

  • 5 In his paper ‘The Core of the Eddy” : Rockaby and Dramatic Genre’ Hersh Zeifman points out the del (...)

11Her gaze is now mediated by the window through which she looks, and the windows through which she hopes to see an other.5 In order to emphasise that the other which the woman hopes to see is not simply a reflection of herself Beckett specifies that the blind of the window is up. Thus the gaze can move freely through the window to the other by which the self can be seen. But this other is not seen and in the third part of the play the woman’s search is no longer “for another / at her window”. It is at this point in Rockaby that the symmetry between self and purported other which has up to now ensured the non-identity of each is dislocated. In the first and second parts of the play the woman who both speaks and is spoken about searches for one who is like herself. Both figures move from the outside to the inside from which they continue to gaze through their window at other windows for another who also gazes. In the third part of Rockaby the passage of the gaze through the windows of the others is denied by the drawing of the blinds. The protagonist continues to sit “facing other windows” but the “other only windows” are now “all blinds down / never one up / hers alone up”. The search for another creature like herself diminishes to the search for “a blind up / like hers / a little like / one blind up no more”. The raised blind is the only hoped for indication of the existence of another whose gaze can close the disjunction between the self and itself introduced by speech. Beckett’s images of the window and the window with the blind drawn can be understood in terms of Merleau-Ponty’s image of the plate glass from which all that can be seen is “that feeble reflection, that phantom of ourselves they [others] evoke by designating a place among themselves whence we see them” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p. 143). The woman no longer searches for the eyes of the other through which she can see herself :

no more
never mind a face
behind the pane
famished eyes
like hers
to see
be seen no (C 439)

12Even the shape of this passage diminishes from the disclaimer “never mind a face” to the intractable negation “no”.

13The fourth and final part of Rockaby takes another turn inward as the woman draws the blind on her own gaze and descends into the arms of her mother’s old rocking chair. The eyes which for so long searched “to see / be seen” now close on the gaze which sought the other. With this refusal of the gaze comes a convergence between the subject of the narration and the subject of the enactment. The prematurely aged woman we have been watching on-stage is identified with the subject of the narration who now sits:

into the old rocker
mother rocker
where mother rocked (C 440)

14The stage image merges with the narrated description to induce a sense of closure which is reinforced by the synchronicity between the rhythm of the rocking chair and the rhythm of the narrated voice:

  • 6 Similarly Rosemary Pountney draws attention to how the play “thus forms a steady reduction from sc (...)

On the narrative level, V’s monologue is divided into four sections, each section describing a progressive diminution, a cascando, a descent into silence and immobility. And this is precisely what we see and hear dramatized on stage. As the story winds down, so too does the stage picture: narration and theater image coalesce. (Zeifman 1987, p. 146)6

15However the coalescence is not complete. Beckett introduces an ambiguity into the text in the last passage spoken by V in which the subject of narration appears to merge with the subject of enactment. If the narration and the theatre image of Rockaby do coalesce, then the subject of both is the daughter, speaking of herself in the third person, who emulates her dying mother, returning to the “old rocker” in which her own mother rocked until “her end came” (C 440). This reappropriation of the space of the mother by the daughter refigures the mother-daughter relationship of Footfalls and recalls an earlier usurpation of the place of the mother by the child in Molloy: “I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now”, and again: “I have taken her place. I must resemble her more and more” (Beckett 1976, p. 9). However, the temporal organisation of the play precludes a definitive conclusion. There is, in Rockaby, a dislocation between the image and the description, between the subject of the narration and the subject of the enactment. The woman who is described as dressed in her best black, sitting in the rocking chair can also be understood as distinct from the woman about whom the narration speaks. This darkly glittering figure can be seen as the mother of the subject of the narration and, like the pre-recorded voice of the actress, would be temporally anterior to the enactment of the play for, as Anna McMullan points out :

despite the impulse towards synchronicity during the play, seeing and saying do not end simultaneously. [...] On the one hand, the audience are thus made aware of the faculty of perception which persists in order to see the moment of ending, [...]. On the other, it confronts the audience both with the boundary of death, which has apparently been crossed, leaving the audience facing a death mask, and with the masquerade of representation, which can only simulate or rehearse death, the ultimate fading of presence. (McMullan 1993, p. 113)

16In Rockaby Beckett generates temporal directions which oppose and intersect. The body on-stage is the mother of the speaker V. This body is described explicitly by V as deceased; “dead one day / no / night / dead one night” (C 440). It is from the body of the dead mother that the supplication “More” is spoken and, though spoken from the past, it is this utterance which defines the present time of the play. In contrast, the voice of V speaks in the future for this is the voice of the daughter of the woman we see on stage, the woman who is described in the process of death by V. The phrase “More”, which is uttered from the past, brings forth the voice of the future to speak in the time of the present. However the temporal arrangement elaborated within the narrative and the image on-stage is contradicted by the process of enactment in which the recorded voice speaks from the past and the body of the actress speaks from the present. While the voice V is posterior to the woman W in terms of the narrative logic of the dramatic text, in presentation this voice is anterior to the woman in the form of the body of the actress. Thus the sequential notions of progression and development are confounded. Past and future cancel each other out within the impossible present of the enunciated “More”.

17When she descends downward into her mother’s rocking chair the protagonist of Rockaby ceases to send her gaze forth in search of another through which she might see herself, becoming instead “her own other”. This identity between self and other is possible only when she relinquishes the desire to see the other and be seen by the other. It is at this moment of conjunction that she ceases to speak to herself:

saying to herself
done with that
saying to the rocker (C 442)

  • 7 Unlike Merleau-Ponty whose ontology of the visible is predicated upon the assumption of closure be (...)

18Becoming one’s own other precludes the possibility of speaking to oneself, for such a speech implies a distinction between the self who speaks and the self to whom one speaks. Rather than affirming self identity, becoming one’s own other completes the closure between self and other only by displacing the self onto the other. The “she” of Rockaby never becomes the “I” which speaks for the self.7 She is always other, and it is from this position of alterity that she speaks of herself:

saying to the rocker
rock her off
stop her eyes
fuck life (C 442)

  • 8 The absence of a period at the end of the text is characteristic of other of Beckett’ plays, for e (...)

19This speaking of the self in the third person reinforces the impossibility of fusion between self and other, speaker and spoken, mother and daughter. Steven Connor underlines this estrangement with an emphasis on the cycle of diminution and deferral which characterises the play. He argues that “despite the emphatic and shocking non-repetitions at the end... the tape seems to be caught in a series of self-recalling loops, each tending towards an end, but also simulating an apparently infinite series of delays for recapitulation” (Connor 1988, p. 134). The absence of a period to mark the end of the play suggests the continuation of the recitation beyond the time of the enactment, but this suggestion is contradicted by the movements of W and by the content of the text.8 Rockaby opens as if it were on the point of closure : “till in the end / the day came / in the end came / close of a long day” (C 435). The day which marks the end no sooner arrives than its end is announced. The “long day” which inaugurates the end contains within it all the other days through which time is counted. Rockaby takes place in the last vestiges of time. It occupies the space between lullaby and threnody which is marked by the opening and the closing of the eye.

  • 9 In comparison, Beckett’s use of the expletive in Mercier and Camier is distinctly negative. The ra (...)

20The protagonist of Rockaby becomes “her own other” as the eyes of the subject of the narration and the subject of the enactment both close. The stage directions specify that W’s eyes, which have previously alternated “[n]ow closed, now open in unblinking gaze”, are “closed for good halfway through 4” (C 433). It is at this midway point in the fourth section that the subject of the narration is described rocking “with closed eyes / closing eyes”. The closing of the eyes marks the convergence between the subject of the enactment and the subject of the narration, between mother and daughter, which has previously only occurred with the joint enunciations of “time she stopped”. It also coincides with the slowing down of the rocking chair. The time of the play, which has been marked by the rhythmic repetition and recapitulation of the text in tandem with the movement of the chair, is stopped by the injunction “stop her eyes” (C 442). This phrase alternates with another injunction; “rock her off” which finds itself contradicted by the action of the chair which comes to rest even as the phrase is repeated. The eyes must achieve stasis even as the body is in movement. The repeated phrases which mark the end of the play are interrupted by the single phrase “fuck lif” which is inserted between the repeated phrase “stop her eyes” (C 442). This phrase maintains the rhythm of the narration but startles by its distinction from the other phrases which all recapitulate previous phrases, and by its casually violent denigration of life. It has been read as the last act of defiance of an old dying woman. However when read in the context of the reflexivity between movement and stasis, self and other, from which Rockaby is written, the expletive “fuck life” contains within it the paradox of movement within stasis which characterises the play. Read colloquially this phrase denigrates life, but read literally the phrase ensures the continuation of life. Like the eye which sees best when it is closed, W’s execration of life is at the same time an affirmation of life.9 Rockaby seeks to mark the moment between movements. It is the moment of impossible stasis at which the rocking chair reaches the extremity of its momentum. It is the pause between inhalation and exhalation. It is the blinking of the eye which marks the rupture of visibility.



Beckett, Samuel, The Beckett Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, London, Picador, 1976.

—, The Complete Dramatic Works, London, Faber and Faber, 1986.

—, Mercier and Camier, London, Picador, 1988.

Bryden, Mary, Women in Samuel Beckett’s Prose and Drama: Her Own Other, London, Macmillan, 1993.

Connor, Steven, ‘Between Theatre and Theory: Long Observation of the Ray’ in The Ideal Core of the Onion, eds. John Pilling and Mary Bryden, Bristol, The Beckett International Foundation, 1992, pp. 79-98.

Gidal, Peter, Understanding Beckett: a Study of Monologue and Gesture in the Works of Samuel Beckett, London, Macmillan, 1986.

Kalb, Johathan, Beckett in Performance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, The Visible and the Invisible, Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1968.

Mcmullan, Anna, Theatre on Trial, London, Routledge, 1993.

Oppenheim, Lois, ‘Female Subjectivity in Not I and Rockaby’, Women in Beckett: Performance and Critical Perspectives, ed. Linda Ben-Zvi, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1990, pp. 217-227.

Pountney, Rosemary, Theatre of Shadows: Samuel Beckett’s Drama 1956-79, Gerard’s Cross, Colin Smythe, 1988.

Swanson, Eleanor, ‘Samuel Beckett’s Watt: a Coming and A Going’, Modern Fiction Studies 17 (1971), pp. 264-68.

Zeifman, Hersh, ‘The Core of the Eddy”: Rockaby and Dramatic Genre’, Beckett Translating: Translating Beckett, eds., Alan W. Friedman, Charles Rossman and Dina Sherzer, University Park, PA, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987, pp. 140-48.


1 Jonathan Kalb notes that Billie Whitelaw’s recitation of these lines in the 1981 performance at Buffalo, New York, emphasises the impossibility of there being any other to whom the voice could speak: “... the first several times [Whitelaw] says ‘whom else’ she pauses before the phrase and then emphasises it as an irritable question - i.e. ‘whom else could I possibly be talking to?’” Kalb 1989, p. 12.

2 Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works, London: Faber and Faber, 1986. All subsequent references to this book will be marked by ‘C’ followed by the page number.

3 Peter Gidal undermines the specificity of gender in Rockaby in his examination of the relationship between the male authorial voice and the female performative voice: “The woman becomes more and more of a skeleton, less sexed, as the light dims. A bisexual image not held to a biological sexual category has the effect of man and woman both one woman, written by one man; a split constantly operative both in the character-image becoming no longer vehemently either sex, i. e. becoming asexual, and in the author’s paradoxical presence as name”. Gidal 1986, p. 140. However Beckett’s examination of the translation and production of the voice in and through the body concerns itself with gender and genre. The author’s decision to explore this problematic through the genre of drama which allows for the literal embodiment or disembodiment of the voice, and through the gender of the female body through which the notions of corporeal and linguistic translation become literal, is not accidental.

4 The problematisation of time is also a feature of Beckett’s Watt according to Eleanor Swanson who argues that Beckett attempts to lead the reader forward and backward in time by means of the new arrangement of chapters in part four of the novel : “The time-sequence of the narrative has been reordered and the reader, like Watt, has been walking backwards and forwards through time. Past, present, and future are confused and the logical relationships between them are negated.” Swanson 1971, p. 268.

5 In his paper ‘The Core of the Eddy” : Rockaby and Dramatic Genre’ Hersh Zeifman points out the deliberate ambiguity of the word “pane” when spoken : “somewhere there/behind the pane” (C 439). He underlines how “we understand “pane” to mean window glass, but we also simultaneously hear its homonym (“behind the pain”), Zeifman 1987, p. 144.

6 Similarly Rosemary Pountney draws attention to how the play “thus forms a steady reduction from scene to scene, so that it follows, in miniature, the passage of a life a gradual narrowing of horizon and hope until a final acceptance – even a welcoming – of the inevitable is reached”, Pountney 1988, p. 220.

7 Unlike Merleau-Ponty whose ontology of the visible is predicated upon the assumption of closure between seer and seen whereby the seen returns the gaze to the seer, allowing the seer to see itself through the eyes of the other, Beckett’s ontology is predicated upon the impossibility of bridging the gap between the self and itself. If the gaze is a form of address in Rockaby it is an address the purpose of which lies in the movement of that address, not in the stasis of its destination.

8 The absence of a period at the end of the text is characteristic of other of Beckett’ plays, for example, Not I, Play, and That Time.

9 In comparison, Beckett’s use of the expletive in Mercier and Camier is distinctly negative. The rain-drenched Mercier curses “our little onmiomni” with the phrase “Fuck thee”, and later banishes two children with the succinct “Fuck off out of here !”, Beckett 1988, pp. 26,31.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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