THE ASSIGNMENT: Consider the play’s script.
B R E A T H
Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold about
Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration and slow increase of light
together reaching maximum together in about ten seconds. Silence and
hold for about five seconds.
Expiration and slow decrease of light together reaching minimum
together (light as in 1) in about ten seconds and immediately cry as
before. Silence and hold about five seconds.
No verticals, all scattered and lying.
Instant of recorded vagitus. Important that two cries be identical,
switching on and off strictly synchronized light and breath.
Not bright. If 0 = dark and 10 = bright, light should move from about
3 to 6 and back.
Compare it with the film adaptation by Damien Hirst.
Damien Hirst’s interpretation of Samuel Beckett’s script “Breath,” inserts his own additional meaning within Beckett’s vague framework. While he remains true to Beckett’s visual direction, Hirst departs from the original sound direction in order to support the visual choices he has made. In the end, the themes of life and death are explored in both, yet Hirst has chosen to use smoking and imagery of medical?equipment to suggest a specific story.
While Beckett’s script calls for a stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish, Hirst chooses to use detritus from the medical profession. An overturned gurney draped in sheets to soften the vertical lines, scattered keyboards, a monitor, syringes, medication bottles, wrinkled sheets and bed pans cover the stage. The stage itself is not stationary. It’s motion is as disorienting as the scattered remains of items. Amid the chaos are bags of medical waste neatly tied up in bright yellow plastic bags. No bodily waste contaminates the otherwise sterile scene. The only evidence of human contact are the knots at the top of the bag, a small semblance of order within this chaos, the only and limited sense of control. Hirst plays on this idea through the use of carefully placed and repeated patterns. Pale blue bedpans are clustered together, three triangulated keyboards point to a central monitor. Colors of bright yellow, pale blue and orange dot an otherwise fluorescent white background lit in the fashion of hospitals. While none of these elements are described in the original script, Hirst has not strayed from the call for rubbish nor from the instruction for timing and the shift in lighting (with the exception of brightness).
Where Hirst does stray from Beckett’s direction is with his use of sound. Beckett calls for a “faint brief cry and immediately inspiration.” Instead, Hirst foregoes the cry and uses the specific sound of someone inhaling with great difficulty. The sound is organic, human, painful and strained but ends on an up note like at the end of a question, perhaps demonstrating hope as oxygen enters the lungs. The second sound is again devoid of the cry. The expiration is not normal? but the sound of one’s last breath as the muscles of a torso relinquish their ability to expand once more. This sound is of air trailing out to the still silence of finality. By eliminating the vagitus, or newborn cry, this film becomes a strict dealing with with the end of life and eventual death, ignoring the beginning altogether.
Hirst’s insertion of the ashtray and cigarette butts?add significance separate from the script. Like the yellow bags of waste, the butts have been manipulated by human hand and positioned in the shape of a swastika .This contrasts with those randomly scattered outside the ashtray to the left. The swastika is, since World War II, symbolic of mass murder and gas chambers. Carcinogens have polluted the otherwise sterile environment and, coupled with the sound of what could be interpreted as a last human breath, the sterile environment of the human body as well.
In this adaptation of Beckett’s “Breath,” Hirst makes visible the evils of smoking and the inevitable death resulting from it. This exploration of the cultural phenomenon and flaws of humanity is not unlike the majority of Hirst’s work. According to Tate Britain:
The impulses driving Damien Hirst’s work stem from dilemmas inherent in human life: ‘I am aware of mental contradictions in everything, like: I am going to die and I want to live for ever. I can’t escape the fact and I can’t let go of the desire’. The materials he uses often shock, but he says he ‘uses shock almost as a formal element not so much to thrust his work in the public eye but rather to make aspects of life and death visible’.
In this film, Hirst focuses on what could be called cigarette companies’ organized mass murder, the addictive properties that control that level of that complicity in aiding death for thsoe who choose to smoke, and the medical profession’s limited power to overcome the ill effects. By doing so, he effectively forces the viewer to question all aspects of smoking and the role they play in snuffing out a life. As with Beckett’s play, there are no answers here. The film simply provides the vehicle for complex thought and the resulting meaning resides with the individual viewer.