Act Without Words I is a short play by Samuel Beckett. It is a mime, Beckett's first (followed by Act Without Words II). Like many of Beckett's works, the play was originally written in French (Acte sans paroles I), being translated into English by Beckett himself. It was written in 1956 and first performed on April 3, 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. On that occasion it followed a performance of Endgame. The original music to accompany the performance was written by John Beckett, Samuel's cousin (who would later collaborate with him on the radio play Words and Music).
The action takes place in a desert illuminated by a "dazzling light". The cast consists of just one man, who is thrown on stage at the start of the play and is thrown back at each attempt he tries to make an exit. The main action is of the man trying to reach a small carafe of water, which is always just out of reach, suspended from the flies of the theatre. Cubes are lowered onto the stage, which he climbs upon to reach the water, but the carafe ascends so it remains slightly out of reach. Later, a knotted rope descends, which the man tries to climb up, but it is let out, and he ends up back on the ground. After much harassment, he attempts to slash his throat with a pair of scissors that were lowered to him, only to find that they have just floated away with a cube. Eventually he seems to give up, and sits on one of the cubes. After a while, this is pulled up from beneath him, and he is left on the ground at the end of the play.
Just as Beckett's Act Without Words II has been compared to the myth of Sisyphus, the man in Act Without Words I is often compared to Tantalus, who stood in a pool of water which receded every time he bent to drink it, and stood under a fruit tree which raised its branches every time he reached for food.
Beckett on Film
A filmed version of Act Without Words I was directed by Karel Reisz for the Beckett on Film project, and music was composed by Michael Nyman.