Breath (play)

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Written by Samuel Beckett
Characters none
Date premiered June 16, 1969 (1969-06-16)
Place premiered Eden Theatre, New York City

Breath is a notably short stage work by Samuel Beckett. An altered version was first included in Kenneth Tynan's revue Oh! Calcutta!, at the Eden Theatre in New York City on June 16, 1969. The UK premiere was at the Close Theatre Club in Glasgow in October 1969; this was the first performance of the text as written. The second performance, and the English premiere, was at a benefit held at the Oxford Playhouse on March 8, 1970. “The first accurate publication appeared in Gambit 4.16 (1969): 5–9, with a manuscript facsimile.” [1]


Even for Beckett, whose later plays are often extremely short, Breath is an unusually terse work. Its length can be estimated from Beckett's detailed instructions in the script to be about 25 seconds. It consists of the sound of “an instant of recorded vagitus”[2] (a birth-cry), followed by an amplified recording of somebody slowly inhaling and exhaling accompanied by an increase and decrease in the intensity of the light. There is then a second identical cry, and the piece ends. No people are seen on stage, but Beckett states that it should be "littered with miscellaneous rubbish." He did specify however that there were to be “no verticals”, the rubbish was to be “all scattered and lying.”


“Tynan had asked [Beckett] … to write a brief skit for an erotic review, and Beckett agreed when he heard that Edna O'Brien, Jules Feiffer, Leonard Melfi, John Lennon and Tynan himself were planning to contribute. All the contributions were to be listed anonymously on the programme so that none of the contributors would be identified with his writing.”[3]

Beckett sent the text of the play on a postcard to Tynan. At the first production, his staging was altered to make the work fit in with the somewhat risque nature of the revue by adding naked bodies to the rubbish, suggesting that the work was about sexual intercourse. “In one of his few displays of public anger, Beckett called Tynan a ‘liar’ and a ‘cheat’, prompting Tynan to send a formal notice through his lawyers that he was not responsible for the travesty, which he claimed was due to others … Beckett decided the incident wasn’t worth the argument and dropped it.” [4]

John Calder claims that Tynan commissioned it; but Ruby Cohn disputes this, saying that Samuel Beckett had recited it to her years before, and that Calder published a fair copy but not the original, which SB had written on the paper tablecloth of a café.”[5]

Beckett on Film

In the filmed version directed by artist Damien Hirst as part of the Beckett on Film project “the debris features hospital and medical waste” [1] as well as cigarette butts shaped to form swastikas. Hirst says: “When I was asked to direct this film, I read the text and thought it was incredibly precise and strict. While preparing to shoot, I kept reading the text over and over and what focused me was Beckett’s direction ‘hold for about 5 seconds’. That was when I realised that Beckett had this massive sense of humour.”[6]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Ackerley, C. J. and Gontarski, S. E., (Eds.) The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p 74
  2. Beckett, S., Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p 211
  3. Bair, D., Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Vintage, 1990), p 640
  4. Bair, D., Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Vintage, 1990)', p 640
  5. Ackerley, C. J. and Gontarski, S. E., (Eds.) The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p 73
  6. Hirst, D., Beckett on Film souvenir book, p 27

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