Teaching Beckett: Critical Practice in Television part 1 by Dr Simone Knox

Here in Film, Theatre & Television, over the last couple of years, I have been fortunate to be able to devise an interesting teaching project that draws on the Department’s long-standing expertise in teaching critical practice, the Faculty’s expertise on the work of Samuel Beckett, as well as the University’s unique resources, including the facilities in the Minghella Building and the Beckett Collection.

For those of you who may be less familiar with the term, the teaching of ‘critical practice’ means the teaching of practical work in such a way that practice is a methodology for exploring critical and conceptual issues in concrete terms, whereby “‘creative’ practice and ‘critical’ analysis are conceived as mutually supportive activities”.[1] Having been closely involved in the devising of critical practice for television over the last decade, I decided to set up a project that inflects this with a focus on Beckett, especially his work for television. My pedagogical reasons for this were manifold, and included the following:

Firstly, because the modernist aesthetic of Beckett’s plays for television is unlike anything undergraduate students come across in their own television viewing, approaching Beckett’s work places in-depth research very readily on the students’ learning agenda. To be able to come to grips with the abstract textures and complex sound-image relationships of programmes such as Ghost Trio (1977), a close study of Beckett scholarship is essential.

Here, research visits to the Beckett Collection, very helpfully facilitated by archivist Guy Baxter, have also been extremely useful for the student learning experience. These visits to the beautiful building on Redlands Road have not only made my students more aware of the breadth and depth of what their University has to offer, but more specifically, have vividly demonstrated the precision Beckett used. So, for example, in Quad I + II (1981) the movement of the hooded figures is through Beckett’s own notes revealed to have been timed to the second. With such detailed planning laid out in front of the students, it is clear that their own work will have to be carefully considered.

Secondly, by encountering work that so decidedly move away from the dominant realist aesthetic of television, engaging with Beckett encourages the students to take a step away from what has become naturalized and self-evident, both in terms of the medium itself and their understanding of it. This critical distance encourages them to adopt a mindful use of, the conventions of television, both for the rest of their undergraduate study and beyond.

Thirdly, engaging with Beckett, who worked across different disciplines, also encourages students to draw on their studies in other parts and modules of their degree, such as in theatre and English literature. Of course, studying Beckett also means that students see the published research of a range of their tutors, and making students more aware of staff research (and the fact that staff do research!) can only be a good thing.

Because this is turning into a rather long post already, I have decided to turn my reflections into a two-parter, and will say more about the actual work the students have gone on to produce in the second part. Stay tuned!


[1] Lacey, Stephen and Pye, Douglas. ‘Getting Started: An Approach to Relating Practical and Critical Work’ Studies in Theatre Production 10 (1994): p.21.

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