The dramatic works of Samuel Beckett (13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989) reflect the evolution of his interests in various means of artistic expression, as he composed plays for stage, radio, cinema, and television. In his stage plays, he parodies traditional dramatic action and borrows the techniques used in other modes of entertainment. His themes are not constant, but they are grimly developed through a steady mood of ironic laughter if not outright sarcasm. Like the character “O” who runs from the camera’s eye (“E”) in Film, Beckett’s art finds its form in a flight from conventional expectations and traditional observations. What seems meaningless and absurd is shown to be the only meaning possible in a universe where the human experience of consciousness (as subject) seems trapped by a nature and body (as object) without consciousness. Laughter is an intellectual triumph over material absurdity, and self-denial is self-affirmation. Beckett’s plays are made of such paradoxes.
Whether it is in the nameless characters in Play, the lone and aging Krapp awaiting imminent death in Krapp’s Last Tape, the pathetic Winnie sinking in her grave in Happy Days, the dying family in the masochistic Endgame, the monotonous life of waiting of Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, or the down-and-outers in other dramatic works, Beckett demonstrates a preference for passive characters who attempt to make sense of an increasingly absurd existence and who struggle to survive in a universe that lacks love and meaningful relationships.
As a critic, a transitional thinker, an innovator, and a postmodernist who probed the human condition and sensed the absurdity of the modern world, Beckett tried to link art and life into unusual theatrical images in order to etch human beings’ inner world and the human experience of consciousness. Even though his vision of life and the human predicament is discouraging, his plays are rich with clownish characters, slapstick humor, word games, irony, and sarcasm, allowing laughter to triumph over material absurdity.
Beckett is best known as the author of four intriguingly powerful stage plays; Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Happy Days. His later work has begun to receive critical attention, particularly those plays that focus on women, such as Play and especially Not I. With his first stunningly successful stage play, however, there is not a woman to be seen. Only two tramps, two strangely united male travelers, and a boy are on the stage of Waiting for Godot.
Waiting for Godot
In this play, Beckett established his major tone of comic despair, with his characters resigned to waiting for something to happen that never happens. He also created his major dramatic style out of vaudevillian and silent-film skits by clownish characters who are determined to endure without understanding why they must. In two acts that mirror each other in language and action, Waiting for Godot mocks audience desire for significant form and visionary comprehension of human experience. The two protagonists are tramps by the name of Estragon (called Gogo) and Vladimir (called Didi). They seem doomed to repeat forever the experiences played out in the two acts, as they wait for the arrival of a mysterious person known to them only as Godot. This Godot never does arrive. Instead, a lordly fellow named Pozzo appears in the first act, leading his servant Lucky by a rope; in the second act, these two reappear, though Pozzo is now blind and Lucky is dumb.
The spareness of plot and scarcity of characters are reinforced by the stark setting. Only a tree (leafless in act 1, bearing a few leaves in act 2) and a lonely country road mark the location of this play’s action through a day of trivial concerns by the two tramps. The interruption by Pozzo and Lucky of their monotonous life of waiting is dramatic, but it is drained of its significance by the incomprehension of the characters who participate in it. The dialogue of the four characters is, in its variety, a counterpoint to the monotony of the slapstick action: The tramps talk in short, quick bursts of verbal response to each other, Pozzo exclaims himself in bombastic rhetoric, and Lucky overflows once in a stream-of-consciousness monologue called “thinking.” When they reappear in act 2, Pozzo’s pomposity has been deflated into whining, and Lucky cannot speak at all. Thus does this play illustrate Beckett’s intense concern for the nature and function of language itself in a world where there is so little worth communicating.
At the end of each act, Vladimir and Estragon threaten to separate, to leave—but in each act, they do not move as the curtain descends on them. The two tramps play word games to pass the time, and they entertain themselves with strategies for suicide, but they cannot kill themselves. Waiting is a part of their fate. Each act ends with the arrival of a boy to announce that Godot will not arrive this evening, but that he will come another time. The boy’s claim that he is not the same boy who appeared in the first act, that he tends sheep and that the other boy is his brother, a goatherd, constitutes allusions hinting at some religious mystery in the identity of Godot, the god who will separate sheep from goats on the day of judgment. If Didi and Gogo are denied their meeting with Godot, they are no less heroic for their waiting.
Endgame is one act of waiting also, not for an arrival but rather for a departure. The servant of this play, called Clov, threatens to leave his master, Hamm, when a boy is sighted through one of the two windows in the room, or “shelter,” that makes the setting for this play’s action. The curtain drops without a definite commitment by Clov to move outside, and the boy is never seen by anyone except Clov. The title refers to the last phase of a game of chess, and two of the four characters move as if they were pieces in such a game. Hamm is unable to leave his chair, and Clov is unable to sit; Hamm orders Clov about, and Clov moves Hamm around. A blind ruler of his household, Hamm is a modern King Lear, blind and helpless to tend to his bodily needs. He wants his painkiller, and Clov tells him it is depleted. Hamm wants the ultimate painkiller of death but that seems elusive as well. Both Hamm and Clov wait for the end of the game of life, as all life outside their room seems at an end, except for the mysterious arrival of the boy.
On the stage are two other characters, Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s parents. They have lost their legs in an accident and are as immobile as their son. They are kept by Hamm inside ash bins, pathetically reminiscing about their lives until the mother, Nell, dies and Nagg is sealed in his bin by Clov on orders from Hamm. Family values are far from the traditional ones of conventional domestic plots. Hamm tortures his father, or what remains of him, and Nagg torments his son exactly as he did when Hamm was a child. There is some remnant of affection in this play, though, just as there was in Waiting for Godot. The emotional tie between Gogo and Didi is repeated between Hamm and Clov, whose past binds them together even while they express a wish to separate. There is also a tie of romance holding the two parents together, though they cannot now reach each other for a kiss, and one of their most romantic adventures led to their helplessness—they lost their legs in a bicycle accident.
This play hints, through various allusions, at a meaning that transcends its apparent lack of meaning. Hamm is both an acting ham and a Prince Hamlet, calling attention to his role as a mockery of art in a meaningless universe; Hamm is also a piece of meat spiced by Clov in a world where human dignity no longer exists. The words and postures of both Hamm and Clov sometimes suggest that they are parodies of Christ on the Cross (where flesh is hammered with nails, puns on the names of the four characters), but there is no salvation for anyone in this play’s world, unless it is to be in the boy waiting, perhaps contemplating his navel, beside a rock outside.
Hamm is anxious for all life to end, even including that of a louse, so that the absurdity of human consciousness will cease. That boy outside is a threat, and so Hamm wants his life. Will life go on despite Hamm and evolve again, or will it finally wind down into nothingness? The play does not provide a clear sign of the answer as it concludes: Hamm replaces a bloody handkerchief over his blind eyes, and Clov, dressed as if for traveling, stands immobile watching the last pathetic moves of his master. Pathos is not the essence, however, of Endgame, though it may threaten to become so, as in the relationship of the tramps in Waiting for Godot. At the point of revealing a depth of passion that might pass for pathos, Beckett’s plays pull back and laugh at the pointlessness of the possibility. Everything falls into nothing, everything dies, everything comes to a stop, though not quite, and that is the wild absurdity of it all.
Krapp’s Last Tape
If the drama of entropy cannot quite come to a complete stop, that is not the fault of desire for it. In Krapp’s Last Tape, where an ingenious use of recording tapes creates a dimension of time always present in its absence, the protagonist (and only character onstage) listens to recordings of his own voice from many years past, especially one when he was thirty-nine years old, some thirty years before.
Krapp’s wait for death, for an end to entropy, is supported by his ironic dismissal of all that was meaningful at the time that he recorded the most important events of his life. In the present time of the play, Krapp is about to record the fact that the sound of the word “spool” is important, but he is drawn back to listen again and again to his recording of thirty years ago, when he described a lovemaking scene on a boat. His lust has declined, but his hunger for bananas and his thirst for wine have not, as he records his last tape.
Krapp’s sense of himself, however, is threatened by the fragmented voices from his past; indeed, there is no continuous identity in this character, whose self-recording is a figure for the author’s work itself. There is an irony of similarity here, for Beckett’s own work may be reflected by the “plot” of Krapp’s Last Tape. Voices are separated from the body, memories are mixed by mechanical forms, and the self is a stranger to itself. The drama of this discovery is in the encounter of one self with another, of silence yielding to voice, and voice subsiding into silence. These features increasingly preoccupied Beckett, as he moved his wit more and more into the regions of radio (all sound and voice) and mimes (no sound or voice).
More pathetic than all is the situation of Winnie in Happy Days. Entropy is visually represented by the intensifying imprisonment of Winnie, who appears in act 1 buried in a mound up to her waist and then, in act 2, up to her neck; she has become increasingly immobilized, and through it all she maintains her view of life as one of “happy days.” She is happily stupid or courageously optimistic as she recounts her life’s pleasures against the background of an unresponsive husband,Willie. At the end, dressed fit to kill, Willie calls his wife “Win” and seems prepared to shoot her with a pistol that she cannot seize for herself. She may be happy because she expects now to end it all with her death at last.
Winnie’s immobility is unchosen, and her waiting is absurdly imposed by the earth itself. As a ridiculous version of the earth-mother,Winnie is the opposite of her lethargic though “free” husband, and so she reflects the social condition of all women as well as the exploitation of that condition by men. Happy Days, like Krapp’s Last Tape, develops through monologue rather than dialogue, though in both plays the possibility for dialogue is kept alive for the sake of its ironic futility.
The futility of dialogue, of communication, even perhaps of drama itself seems to direct the shape of the play called Play, which appears to have three characters who talk to one another, but in fact has three characters who talk without regard for, or awareness of, one another. The ash bins of Nell and Nagg in Endgame have become three gray urns in Play, and these contain the three characters—rather, they contain the heads of three characters who stare straight ahead, as if at the audience, but in fact only into a fiercely interrogating spotlight. Their predicament, like that of Winnie in Happy Days, is more frustrating for communication and self-dignity than that ofWinnie or Nell and Nagg, whose memories are functional for some modicum of dialogue with another who shares those memories with them. The nameless characters of Play are two women and one man, once involved in a shabby conventional love tryst of a married couple and “another woman.”
The drama of Play is a hell of isolation, regrets, emotional ignorance, and intellectual darkness. The play proceeds from a chorus of three voices in counterpoint, interrupted reminiscences without self-understanding, and a concluding chorus that repeats the opening, as if about to begin again. The urns are funereal wombs for talking heads. The emptiness of meaning from the lives of these characters is the utmost meaning they can express, and their lack of relationship is a judgment by the play on the failure of relationships in modern life generally. As in other Beckett plays of this period, the women of Play have a particularly painful message to deliver: Love and marriage do not exist as real possibilities for meaning for anyone anymore, especially for women, who have depended on them far more than men. The refusal to accept this predicament without a protest is dramatized in Not I, a play in which an apparently female character is divided between a Mouth of denial and an Auditor of silent protest. Here, Beckett has combined mime with radiolike monologue, and he has done it through a sexual pun on “ad-libbing.”
All That Fall
To his achievements in stage plays, Beckett added successful accomplishments in radio and television drama, as well as one interesting script for motion pictures, Film. The radio plays of note are All That Fall and Embers; the teleplay deserving attention is Eh Joe. Communication, its failure or its emptiness, is a common theme running through Beckett’s writing, and his experiments in various modes of artistic expression illustrate his search for success in communication. Radio was a challenging medium, using voice and other sounds to create imaginative shapes for audiences. All That Fall uses the muttering voice of an overweight old woman, Mrs. (Maddy) Rooney, making her way to a train station to meet her blind husband, Mr. (Dan) Rooney; her innermost thoughts and feelings are easily expressed in this medium, as are the concerns of those she meets along her way.
Like Beckett’s other women, Mrs. Rooney has little to report that is fulfilling in her marriage; indeed, she mourns the loss of her one child, a daughter who would have been forty had she lived. Mrs. Rooney’s real character is in her voice, not in her body; she can feel her self through her peculiar choice of words and sentence arrangements. This attention to vocabulary reveals Beckett’s profound interest in the power of language as shaped and shaping sound. Of lesser interest is the terrible deed that lies at the center of this play’s plot, the death of a child beneath the wheels of a train. Whether Mr. Rooney killed the child or not is less important than whether the audience can be moved by the mere articulation of sound to feel the horror of such a life-denying deed. All That Fall takes its title from a biblical verse that praises the power of a deity who protects “all that fall.” The Rooneys hoot at this notion, though the child that fell beneath the train may, for all they can know, be better off than all those who, like the Rooneys, merely endure as they slowly decay with the rest of the universe.
Embers and Eh Joe
Like them, the narrating speaker of Embers, Henry, endures through a failing nature, but he uses language to explain rather than affirm failure and death. Like the waves of the sea beside which he sits while he speaks, Henry returns again and again to the same scenes of his life, trying to make them acceptable, especially his father’s death and his wife’s love. They are not yet coherent for him because they were experiences of futility rather than fulfillment, and so he goes on telling his story, revising as he composes, and composing as he speaks. Henry’s regrets are motives for his narratives, and in Eh Joe, Joe’s refusal to feel regret is a motive for the teleplay. As the television camera moves, like an interrogator or conscience, for an ultimate close-up of Joe’s face, a voice interrupts, or propels, the camera’s movement to tell a tale of suicide by a woman condemning Joe.
This technique is similar to that of Film, in which a male figure (played by Buster Keaton) fails to avoid self-perception, self-condemnation. In the movement of the film’s narrative, the male figure is an Object (“O”) for the subject of the camera’s Eye (“E”); the whole action is a movement by the object of avoidance of becoming a subject. The drama of the story ends with the failure of avoidance. Art exists because of the duality narrated by the action of the film, and when the duality approaches unity, as self recognizes itself, the art ends and the object fades into a rocking subject. All that man the object, or the male figure, seems to be is an attempt to escape his consciousness of himself, including his destruction of photographs (apparently of himself) from his past. Ironically, however, in that final desperate attempt to remove images of himself, he is most fully brought to recognize himself as a subject.
The destructive deed turns out to be a constructive act, as if Beckett’s film were commenting on the nature of his own art as a successful communication about failures of communication, an integration of disintegrating forms, and a discovery of meaning in meaninglessness.
En attendant Godot, pb. 1952, pr. 1953 (Waiting for Godot, 1954); “Fin de partie,” Suivi de “Acte sans paroles,” pr., pb. 1957 (music by John Beckett; “Endgame: A Play in One Act,” Followed by “Act Without Words: A Mime for One Player,” 1958); Krapp’s Last Tape, pr., pb. 1958 (one act), revised pb. 1992; Act Without Words II, pr., pb. 1960 (one-act mime); Happy Days, pr., pb. 1961; Play, pr., pb. 1963 (English translation, 1964); Come and Go: Dramaticule, pr., pb. 1965 (one scene; English translation, 1967); Not I, pr. 1972, pb. 1973; That Time, pr., pb. 1976; Footfalls, pr., pb. 1976; Ends and Odds, pb. 1976; A Piece of Monologue, pr., pb. 1979; Rockaby, pr., pb. 1981; Ohio Impromptu, pr., pb. 1981; Catastrophe, pr. 1982, pb. 1983; Company, pr. 1983; Collected Shorter Plays, pb. 1984.
Other major works
Long fiction: Murphy, 1938; Molloy, 1951 (English translation, 1955); Malone meurt, 1951 (Malone Dies, 1956); L’Innommable, 1953 (The Unnamable, 1958); Watt, 1953; Comment c’est, 1961 (How It Is, 1964); Mercier et Camier, 1970 (Mercier and Camier, 1974); Le Dépeupleur, 1971 (The Lost Ones, 1972); Company, 1980; Mal vu mal dit, 1981 (Ill Seen Ill Said, 1981); Worstward Ho, 1983.
Short fiction: More Pricks than Kicks, 1934; Nouvelles et textes pour rien, 1955 (Stories and Texts for Nothing, 1967); No’s Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1947-1966, 1967; First Love and Other Shorts, 1974; Pour finir encore et autres foirades, 1976 (Fizzles, 1976).
Poetry: Whoroscope, 1930; Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates, 1935; Poems in English, 1961; Collected Poems in English and French, 1977.
Screenplay: Film, 1965. teleplays: Eh Joe, 1966 (Dis Joe, 1967); Tryst, 1976; Shades, 1977; Quad, 1981.
Radio plays: All That Fall, 1957, revised 1968; Embers, 1959; Words and Music, 1962 (music by John Beckett); Cascando, 1963 (music by Marcel Mihalovici). nonfiction: Proust, 1931.
Translation: An Anthology of Mexican Poetry, 1958 (Octavio Paz, editor).
Miscellaneous: I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On: A Selection from Samuel Beckett’sWork, 1976 (Richard Seaver, editor).
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Essif, Les. Empty Figure on an Empty Stage: The Theatre of Samuel Beckett and His Generation. Drama and Performance Studies 13. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Kim, Hwa Soon. The Counterpoint of Hope, Obsession, and Desire for Death in Five Plays by Samuel Beckett. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
McMullan, Anna. Theatre on Trial: Samuel Beckett’s Later Drama. New York: Routledge, 1993.
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Pattie, David. The Complete Critical Guide to Samuel Beckett. New York: Routledge, 2000.
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Worth, Katharine. Samuel Beckett’s Theatre: Life Journeys. New York: Clarendon Press, 1999.