Catastrophe (play)

From Academic Kids

Catastrophe is a short play by Samuel Beckett, written in 1982. Unique in the Beckett canon, it is one of the only plays to deal with a political theme and (arguably) holds the title of Beckett's most optimistic work. It was dedicated to then imprisoned Czech reformer and playwright, Václav Havel.



Missing image
"Whiten cranium."

The Director and his aide rehearse for the opening of a new modernistic play, consisting entirely of a man (The Protagonist) standing still on a stage. They discuss his visual features, noting lighting changes (such as the directive "whiten cranium"). They rehearse lighting with the theatre technician (the never seen "Luke"), as well as costume changes (which encompasses stripping the man down to his underwear). The play within the play is quite short, lasting only a few seconds: from darkness, to light falling on the man's head and then darkness again. At the end of the play, the director notes "There's our catastrophe! In the bag." We hear the rising of the expectant applause on the opening day. However, in an act of defiance, the man looks up into the audience (after having been looking down the entire time), which falters and kills its applause. End of play.


The play is (nominally) an allegory on the power of totalitariansim and the struggle to oppose it. The protagonist represents 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"[1] (, they exert their control over the silenced figure. However, at the end of the play, the protagonist rebels by looking up into the audience, killing the canned applause. By defying the director, the protagonist (and by extension "the people") ends his dictatorship.

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Václav Havel, to which the work is dedicated

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 word, I thought that time was mine. I had made a serious mistake. The world, being and history are governed by their own time, on which we can intervene creatively but which no one can ever dominate."

Beckett on Film

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.


  • Elam, Keir, Catastrophic Mistakes: Beckett, Havel, The End

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