What happened in “Artist Descending a Staircase”?

Ken writes: Tom Stoppard’s “Artist Descending a Staircase” is full of wit and wisdom, and I like it particularly. I think it is a poignant and beautiful play. And peppered with moments where I just think, ‘Yes; that’s right. He’s got it. That’s just TRUE‘.

But … I’m not entirely sure I know what happens in the play.

The play begins with a tape recording the proper interpretation of which is subject to some dispute, both within the play, and without. I will say what I think it means.

We hear, on a continuous loop of tape, a sequence of sounds which is to be interpreted by MARTELLO and BEAUCHAMP thus:
Donner dozing: an irregular droning noise.
(b) Careful footsteps approach. The effect is stealthy. A board creaks.
(c) This wakes
DONNER, i.e. the droning stops in mid-beat.
(d) The footsteps freeze.
DONNER‘s voice, unalarmed: ‘Ah! There you are…’
(f) Two more quick steps, and then Thump!
DONNER cries out.
(h) Wood cracks as he falls through a balustrade.
(i) He falls heavily down the stairs, with a sickening thump when he hits the bottom. Silence.

After a pause, this entire sequence begins again … Droning …. Footsteps … (as before).

The tape belongs to Beauchamp, who is a conceptual artist who works with sound. He’s working on a new piece, recording the sounds of ordinary life. Within the play, Martello and Beauchamp both think the tape has recorded the sounds of the other creeping up on and clubbing Donner and pushing him to his death off a high balcony. That’s not what happened.

Version 1 (most likely given the text)
In the penultimate scene, just before he leaves to seek Martello in the pub, Beauchamp asks Donner to press ‘record’ on his tape recorder, which Donner does. That explains the existence of the tape.
Donner tries to kill a fly and over balances and crashes through the balustrade and falls to his death in a tragic accident. This version of events is post-figured in the final scene where Beauchamp finally catches the fly.

That fly has been driving me mad. Where is he?
MARTELLO: Somewhere over there…
The original TAPE is hereby reproduced:
(a) Fly droning.
(b) Careful footsteps approach. A board creaks.
(c) The fly settles.
BEAUCHAMP ‘Ah! There you are.’
(f) Two more quick steps and then Thump!


This last is not the original tape, but it ‘reproduces’ i.e. sounds just like the original tape. Therefore, a similar set of events was recorded on the original tape, those events being: Donner hunting the fly. Donner finding the fly and thumping it. (These events being followed on the tape by Donner over balancing, breaking through the balustrade and falling). This version is supported by Beauchamp’s ironic, if this is right, quip:

BEAUCHAMP: ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods: they kill us for their sport.’

Version 2 (my preferred interpretation)
In the antepenultimate scene, Martello helps Donner realise that Sophie, the girl he bore an unrequited love for, and who many years earlier threw herself to her death when she realised Beauchamp was leaving her, was actually in love with him.

DONNER: What occurred to you, Martello?
MARTELLO: Well, your painting of the white fence––
DONNER: White fence?
MARTELLO: Thick white posts, top to bottom across the whole canvas, an inch or two apart, black in the gaps––
DONNER: Yes, I remember it. Oh God.
MARTELLO: Like looking at the dark through the gaps in a white fence.
DONNER: Oh my God.
MARTELLO: Well, one might be wrong, but her sight was not good even then.
DONNER: Oh my God.
MARTELLO: When one thinks of the brief happiness she enjoyed,… well, we thought she was enjoying it with Beauchamp but she was really enjoying it with you. As it were.
DONNER: Oh my God.
MARTELLO: Of course, it was impossible to say so, after she got off on the right foot with Beauchamp–I mean, one couldn’t––
DONNER: Oh my God!
MARTELLO: Now, steady on, Donner, or I’ll be sorry I mentioned it––
DONNER: Oh my God…

Donner sounds absolutely stricken with grief. He has loved Sophie all this time thinking she killed herself for love of Beauchamp. Now he learns that she had fallen in love with him, and must have thought he was leaving her. He has a reason to suicide. He was not interested in the fly. And the fly was alive in the last scene (available to be killed by Beauchamp). He does not hunt the fly. He finishes his commemorative sculpture of Sophie ‘Now there you [i.e. Sophie] are’ and takes a running jump off the balcony…two quick steps, thump against the balustrade, cries out in pain, the balustrade comes away and he falls…

I prefer this interpretation because it is more romantic. It seems beneath Donner’s dignity to die trying to kill a fly. I don’t think he’d do it.

(I don’t quite see how the initial part of the tape fits my preferred interpretation, but it could just be the coincidental sounds of his moving around and the fly buzzing around. This part of the tape is strange anyway, because it has footsteps approaching (the tape recorder), but if Donner had just switched the tape recorder on, the steps should be receding from it –once you’re close enough to switch a tape recorder on, you don’t take one or two footsteps towards it. There’s nothing else on the tape, which is a loop.)

UPDATE: I’ve just googled the play and judging by reviews option 1 is the clear winner!


One thought on “What happened in “Artist Descending a Staircase”?

  1. Dot

    I’m afraid I always went for option 1. I also think the point of Sophie’s suicide was that she had decided to devote herself to the man who painted the ‘snow-scene’, but the three friends directed her to the wrong person. She didn’t know that it was Donner she had initially been attracted to; she really thought it was Beauchamp, and when he effectively left her she killed herself. What Donner realises is a terrible might-have-been: if only Sophie had been with him, as she so easily could have been if the painting had been correctly identified, then she could have been happy, for he (unlike Beauchamp) truly loved her.

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