That Time

That Time

"That Time" is a one-act play by Samuel Beckett, written in English between 8 June 1974 and August 1975. It was specially written for actor Patrick Magee, who delivered its first performance, on the occasion of Beckett's seventieth birthday celebration, at London's Royal Court Theatre on 20 May 1976. []



On stage the audience is confronted with the head of man in his dotage about ten feet above the stage and slightly off-centre; everything else is in darkness. The man has flaring white hair and remains silent apart from his slow and regular breathing which is amplified. Beckett identified the old man as being inspired by Laozi [Libera, A., ‘Reading "That Time"’ in Davis, R. J. and Butler, L. St J., (Eds.) "‘Make Sense Who May’: Essays on Samuel Beckett’s Later Works" (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1988), p 97] (“that old Chinaman long before Christ” (B3)). In early drafts Beckett has the head resting on a pillow [MS of "That Time" dated 8 June 1974, MS 1477/1 (Reading)] recalling especially the dying, bedridden Malone. The text only requires that Listener open and closes his eyes (which stay shut for most of the time) and holds a smile – "toothless for preference" – at the very end of the performance.

The actor responds to three sets of reminiscences that come at him from all sides according to a predetermined sequence. These voices describe a life of self-induced isolation and retrospection and each of these three journeys into the past reinforces his sense of solitude. For company over the years he has made up stories and now, after years suffering from that "cancer Time", [After writing a study of Marcel Proust (author of "Remembrance of Things Past ", 1922-1931), Beckett concluded that habit and routine were the "cancer of time." – Esslin, M., "The Theatre of the Absurd" (London: Penguin Books, 1986), p 33] has considerable difficulty differentiating between fact and fiction.

Beckett required that these monologues, although featuring the same actor, were to be pre-recorded and not presented live. He also specified that the voices come from three locations preferably, from the left, the right and from above the actor and that the switch from one to the other be smooth and yet clearly noticeable. He did not stipulate that any effort be made to differentiate between the voices, however, unless it were impractical to have them coming from three distinct locations; in that instance he asked for a change in pitch to be used to distinguish one from another.

"The B story has to do with the young man, the C story is the story of the old man and the A story is that of the man in middle age," he explained. [Asmus, W. D., ‘Rehearsal notes for the German premiere of Beckett’s "That Time" and "Footfalls"’ in "Journal of Beckett Studies", No 2, Summer 1977, p 92]

The significance of the final smile is not clear and a source of much speculation. The fact that the 'natural order' (BAC – see below) is restored and maintained in the third round is an unlikely reason because Beckett changed the pattern only in the last revision, and so it is a doubtful explanation for the smile that had been previously included in earlier drafts. [Reading University Library R.U.L. MS 1477/1 to MS 1477/10, Typescript 5 in MS 1477/6] “Is it a … smile of relief and contentment that at last all the torment is nearly over? A wry reflection on the insignificance of the individual human existence in the context of infinity?” [Knowlson, J. and Pilling, J., "Frescoes of the Skull" (London: John Calder, 1979), p 210)] Does Listener smile because he finally recognizes himself in the different selves of his memory? [Malkin, J. R., "Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama" (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999), p 59 ] Beckett has not explained. All that can be said for certain is that the story – indeed the man’s life – has “come and gone … in no time” (C12) words which echo Vladimir’s at the end of "Waiting for Godot": “Astride of a grave and a difficult birth.” [Beckett, S., "Waiting for Godot" (London:Faber and Faber, [1956] 1988), p 90] In the 1977 German production, directed by Beckett himself, he did make one addition to the final scene: Klaus "Herm’s smile ... merged with his audible panting into a single scornful exhale-laugh – Beckett’s last minute inspiration." [Cohn, R., "Just Play: Beckett's Theatre" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p 269]


Voice A is that of maturity. The man returns for a "last time" (A1) to the town he grew up in and tries unsuccessfully to reach the folly where he hid as a child of between ten and twelve (A4/A10) looking at a “picture book” (A3) and talking to himself for company (A9), making up “imaginary conversations” while his family were out in the dark looking for him (A4). The trams no longer run (A1) and the railway station is “all closed down and boarded up” (A6). Dejected he sits in a doorway making up stories of the past (A11) while he waits for the night ferry, never intending to return (A7).


Voice B is that of youth. It describes sitting with a girl beside a wheat field exchanging vows of affection, (B1) then lying with her in the sand (B7) and subsequently being alone in the same settings (B9). In each instance there is unusually no taction contact suggesting his inability to extrapolate beyond the point of simply being with another. These events appear to be reviewed at a turning point in his life: whilst sitting beside a window in the dark listening to an owl hooting he has been remembering/imagining a first-love scenario but then finds he can’t continue and has to give up trying to (B12).


Voice C is that of old age. By this time he is content to seek shelter (and a degree of privacy) in public places like the Post Office (C9), the Public Library (C11) and the Portrait Gallery (C1). In the gallery he sees a face reflected in the glass and doesn’t quite recognise himself (C3). All his life he has lived in the past – all the voices are reflective – but now he is confronted with a reflection which is current, his own. The text with which the play closes, a ‘vision’ in the library where all the books have dissolved into dust (C12) evokes God’s admonition to Adam, “dust thou art; unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19)


Beckett initially wrote continuous prose for each of the three voice-aspects, then intercalated them into 36 verse paragraphs which are presented in a manner similar to "Play" according to the following order: [Libera, A., ‘Reading "That Time"’ in Davis, R. J. and Butler, L. St J., (Eds.) "‘Make Sense Who May’: Essays on Samuel Beckett’s Later Works" (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1988), p 91,2] :

Beckett is known to have had a long-standing preoccupation with musical structure. Time duration dictated where the breaks would come as he planned 3 x 5 minutes of speech with silences after 5 minutes and 10 minutes. The pauses “follow moments in which each of the voices confronts a moment of doubt, spatial, temporal or psychological confusion”. [Lyons, C. R., "Samuel Beckett", MacMillan Modern Dramatists (London: MacMillan Education, 1983), p 162]

Early drafts include many biographical reminiscence, some of which still makes their way into the final version. Barrington’s Tower became Foley’s Folly [O’Brien, E., "The Beckett Country" (Dublin: The Black Cat Press, 1986), p 27] to capitalise on the alliteration, “the number 11 bus, [which] would only take him to the suburb of Clonskeagh leaving him with a five mile walk to” the folly [O’Brien, E., "The Beckett Country" (Dublin: The Black Cat Press, 1986), p 220] and the “Doric terminus” is the boarded up Harcourt Street railway terminus in Dublin [O’Brien, E., "The Beckett Country" (Dublin: The Black Cat Press, 1986), p 37] . The Portrait Gallery, Library and Post Office suggest London where Beckett lived for two years in the Thirties.

The title has a double meaning, referring to a specific period of time and also to time in general. This is clear from the French translation Beckett made where there is no one word which conveys this duplicity of meaning and although he opted for "Cette Fois " as the title in French, he translated ‘time’ as ‘fois’, ‘temps’ and ‘heure’ depending on the context. [Connor, S., ‘Voice and Mechanical Reproduction: "Krapp’s Last Tape", "Ohio Impromptu", "Rockaby", "That Time"’ in Birkett, J. and Ince, K., (Eds.) "Samuel Beckett" (Harlow: Longman, 1999), p 131]

Common Threads

Each voice in "That Time " has a subject area independent of the others at first, but as the play progresses, connections are made through common images and recurring themes. C’s story takes place in winter (“always winter” (C1)); B’s events take place in summer so it is logical to assume that A’s tale happens in autumn (“grey day” (A1), “pale sun” (A8)). A sits on a stone step but remembers sitting on a stone in the folly, B sits on a stone by the wheat field and C on a marble slab in the portrait gallery linking the memories. The facts that the man's parents are both are dead and the green greatcoat (“the distinguishing outer garb of many of Beckett’s characters” [Ackerley, C. J. and Gontarski, S. E., (Eds.) "The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett", (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p 235] ) left for him by his father are mentioned in A12 and C2.

Each of the three scenes created by Voices A, B, and C lays claim to being a “turning-point,” “that time” marking the “never the same but the same” when a self might possibly be able to “say I to yourself” (all quotes, C5).

The voices are trying throughout the play to place all the events in the right time order and also remember when in particular certain events occurred: “Was that the time or was that another time” (C6). Vivian Mercier in "Beckett/Beckett" asks: “Are they memories or fictions…? Is all memory a fictional process…?” (p 236) In each voice, the idea that the person is inventing people or events is stated or suggested, as when voice B says, “just one of those things you kept making up to keep out the void” (B4). These voices from Listener’s past are not entities in their own right, they are how he now remembers/imagines the voices from that time. Listener is an omniscient narrator albeit a flawed one, which is why each of the voices has some insight into the others’ times and repeats phrases from at least one of the other time frames.

Related Texts


The so-called " “Kilcool manuscript” " is a monologue that Beckett worked on – and abandoned – in 1963. In early drafts a female voice describes a move to Kilcool (Beckett’s father had once rented a house in Kilcoole). She has lost both parents and the death of her mother troubles her in particular. In later drafts Beckett eliminated almost all naturalistic detail. The visual is of a “woman’s face alone in constant light. Nothing but fixed lit face and speech.” [Knowlson, J., "Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett" (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p 814]

"Not I"

In July 1974 Beckett called "That Time" a “brother to ‘"Not I"’” [SB to Morris Sinclair, 2 July 1974. Quoted in Knowlson, J., "Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett" (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p 600] and later wrote to George Reavey (1 September 1974) saying: “Have written a short piece (theatre): "That Time. Not I" family”. Additionally, because the later play was “cut out of the same texture” as "Not I", he didn’t want them on the same bill. [Brater, E., "Beyond Minimalism: Beckett’s Late Style in the Theater" (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p 37)]

"Krapp’s Last Tape"

In "Krapp's Last Tape" Beckett clearly instructs that the voice on the tapes be audibly different (“Strong voice, rather pompous, clearly Krapp’s at a much earlier time” [Beckett, S., "Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett" (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p 57] ) whereas in "That Time" the notes say simply “Voices A B C are his own coming to him from both sides and above” [Beckett, S., "Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett" (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p 228] suggestive of the fact that these voices belong to the present time frame.


The scene in the portrait gallery, where C experiences a terrifying moment of self-recognition, is similar to the one at the end of "Film" where O is confronted with E, himself. [Beckett, S., "Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett" (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p 163]


The opening paragraph of "Company", a late prose work, could almost summarise "That Time ": “A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.” (p 7) Listener becomes “hearer” (p 42) who “speaks of himself as another” (p 34) Voices assail him “from one quarter and [then] from another” (p 19) making up stories (“fabling” (p 89)) that “are coming to an end” (p 88) leaving him as he always was, alone (p 89). [All refs to Beckett, S., "Company", (London: John Calder, [1980] 1996)]


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