What follows is an analysis of the poem Playtime, which can be found in its original form here. Some familiarity with the poem is recommended before engaging with this analysis.
To start, we shall look at some of the standout features of the poem, examining its setup and repetitions. Then, with this outline of the structure in place, we will turn to an analysis of each stanza in order of appearance. A brief conclusion about the ultimate setting of the poem will be drawn at the end.
Verse 1 of stanza 1 introduces a 3rd person plural subject which is the only active subject referenced throughout. On first reading, “they” appears to be a vague reference that opens a distance between the subjectivity of the action described by the poem and the poetic voice commanding the description. The action, in turn, “play”, has a two-instance expression: firstly, and very obviously, the verb “to play” evokes a style of activity that is either unserious or childish, or both; secondly, on further inspection, focusing on the use of this verb in context, as the elements and concepts interpolated, objectified, by it gradually appear and accumulate (fire, air, shape and metal), it seems, rather, that this choice of verb was itself a “playful” move on the part of the poet, signifying not something necessarily careless, but more innocent and improvisational – perhaps suggesting that the poet does not see himself as all that distant from the subject, after all. By extension of the apparent generality of these elements and concepts, it may be arguable that the subject “they” be of a similarly general nature, too: maybe vaguely referencing the people and groups who have brought such elements and concepts into action, “played” with them either accidentally, experimentally or tentatively throughout history.
Verses 1 and 2 of stanza 1 repeat in stanzas 2, 3 and 4, changing only, each time, in the elements or concepts named (fire-water; air-earth; shape-size; metal-gold). After verse 1 of each stanza repeats the same subject and verb again and again (“they play with…”), verse 2 discusses a transformation of the element or concept into an opposite (stanzas 1 and 2), a complement (3) or a higher form of (4). This outcome of the experimentation (“play”) produces, perhaps accidentally, perhaps through improvised control, but never intentionally outright, a result departed from the point of the initial action (“play” with: fire, to water; air, to earth; shape, to size; metal, to gold). The first action (verse 1) always leads to a distant outcome (verse 2).
In stanza 1, fire played with transforms into water, drowning a forest and burning the roots on which the latter had stood. The oxymoron fire-water seems a little difficult to extricate in the immediate sense. There is, in verse 3, an initial insinuation that the water is that which destroys the forest by submersion (“it drowns the forest”), but reading on slightly further, in verse 4, the notion of fire returns as the roots are burnt to ash (“the roots to ash”). A bit of interpretation is required, therefore, and there are two that spring to mind:
On the one hand, water could be standing in as a descriptor for the behaviour of the fire after it has been set, as it flows outwards from its starting point, beyond sure control, slipping through “their” hands, slowly overtaking the whole of a space (“forest”), swallowing it (“it drowns the forest”), and lastly burning through to the core (“the roots to ash”). Under this interpretation, the “play” action with “fire” turns out to be an experimentally reckless exercise, a curiosity that led not only to a destruction of the manifest (“forest”) but altogether to an erasure of its historical presence (“roots”) – the very sense that gave experimentation a meaning, the discovery of the new and the making of history is endangered by the experimentation itself. Overall, interpretatively, this seems to signal towards the folly of human activity, how one action begun in innocence is not by reason of innocence alone liberated from having potentially destructive or even annihilating consequences.
- On the other hand, fire and water could be seen as two halves of a total action, where a fire set must be put out, and with water being the often-chosen element to starve it of its oxygen sources. So, water would have a more physical role to play and “drowns” would have a less literal significance, but signify the requirement of a secondary action (“it turns to water”) in the late(r) attempt to prevent an all-consuming fire from consuming all (“the roots to ash”). In the frame of this second interpretation, “they play with fire/ it turns to water” would point to how one action often begets a second action either to negate or complement it: experimentation, or action more generally, does not end where it begins.
The second stanza “plays” on the same oppositional dimension between elements, this time air opposed to earth. Metaphorically, “playing” with air which then turns to earth, could be interpreted as the reciprocal relation that exists between mythology and government on the ground, religion and moral codes, or even space exploration and the way it affects how humans understand themselves and life more generally (“it sets the kingdom”). It is a relation of vertical distance where belief in an extra-terrestrial otherness (ethereal, heavenly or outer-spatial) is the location whence the setting of the human realm attains heavy coordination. By playing with the Gods/possibilities of another world/realm (“They play with air/ it turns to earth”), “they” create a political reality (“it sets the kingdom”), which always maintains a semi-physical connection with the superior place by ritualising several earthly practices, such as that of the burial of the dead (“and death below”).
On top of this interpretation of stanza 2, a second interpretation may be added. Instead, if “playing” with air is seen as a sort of building up, not into another realm, but from the same one in which human government takes place, as a growing up both literal and metaphorical (the “air” can be a metaphor for a more earth-bound imagination or aspiration), which can only be realised via the use/manipulation of the material present in the earthly spaces (“They play with air/ it turns to earth”), through a modification of the already manifest, of the already present, such that the substance of the earth becomes reshaped with each new build, each big “play” with the air; if that is the case, then this new “kingdom” might be said to have been built, each time, on top of an old one (“death goes below”), redesigned by the latest “play”. The conclusion of this second reading would be a vision of experimentation or doing separated between a vertical intending (“air”) and a horizontal change (“earth”) with the old forms of the ground, the old aspirations, always buried (“goes below”) in favour of a new form according to new aspirations.
The third stanza, conversely, presents a change from elements to concepts. Here, the difference between shape and size is evoked in a metaphorical context which is perceived not without some difficulties. To get to the bottom of this difference and its meaning, a bit of deep reading will be required. Considering that size “falls too big”, and taking a hint about vertical distance as evoked in the previous stanza, as the difference between the arid and the material: if size is that which is “big” and “falls”, then shape might constitute the formal extent of what falls, which is, the idea. Shape might be metaphor for the outline, form or idea of something, and size the material comport of something as made fully present. The suggestion that this stanza makes seems to be that “playing” with ideas always transforms into the production of something (“it turns to size”) which becomes too much or more than what had been ideally expected (“it falls too big”). This materialisation of the idea can be looked at from two distinct angles, but each appropriate and offering a meaningful force to the contention between shape and size. So, the transformation happens in either one of two ways: through the unexpected extensions of the material which the idea suffers in transition, as a thing gets made it takes on more (size) than planned; or, similarly, the same effect of getting bigger than first expectations/ideas but by its translation through the conversational, the sharing of the idea with different players in the game of shape. Ultimately, the consequence of “it falls too big” is that the Idea falls out of step with the world it had believed to be working from/within/towards, and is forced to think again (“the world anew”); after the expiration of a vision of Idea through its “objectification”, everything starts again.
The third stanza, in the framework of the whole poem, reiterates, for a second time, the sense of duality/distance existent within the (“playful”) action of the subject “they”. According to the first three parts of Playtime, the actions of the subject take on a dualistic character whether for being unpredictable/reckless (fire-water), modifying with or without a trace (air-earth), or unfinished/repetitive (shape-size).
The fourth and final stanza offers another break in texture, but punctuates the theme of the poem to bring it to a close. After “playing” with metal “they” get gold which sits atop all their actions (“it crowns their efforts”) though with the warning that this “crown” has been moulded not from a clear or definite idea, intention or thing, but something less so (“a cast of shadows”). The question is, why would this (presumably) golden crown be cast of shadows and not represent the marking of something in itself more whole, more certain, something which the light hits directly? The effect can probably be seen in the double service that the gold itself has to perform: it is not just the achievement of all achievements (of the totality of experimentation, so far), but the material used to fashion the symbol of this greatest achievement, too. Gold, or the literal equivalents which it represents metaphorically, is only the highest form of the thing which it is (“metal”) for as long as no others higher than that result from further experimentation. In other words, the height of the highest can only be measured according to itself. There is an inextricably relative limit to knowledge.
This interpretation of the final stanza thus concludes two things: first, the end from which the results of experimentation are derived remains unknown, understood only tentatively through the meantime things that appear and accumulate from the “play”; secondly, and finally, it submits that all of “their” relations to the great unknown are indeed experimental, temporary, insufficient, inasmuch reducing every action that pretends to go further than where it starts to a sort of “play”, or experiment, with repetition underlying the need of action either to nullify itself (fire), to distance itself (air), to confirm itself (metal); or, further, with repetition underlining the simple accident of action, via the materialisation, ever-being greater than possible concept (shape).
Playtime ends with this sense of distance or gap present before (fire), during (air) and after (shape; metal) an activity that looks very human. It describes action in the larger sense as an unfinished experimentation perhaps always that much closer to self-annihilation (“the roots to ash”) than formal completion (“a cast of shadows”).