BORN: 1906, Dublin, Ireland
DIED: 1989, Paris, France
GENRE: Fiction, drama, poetry
Waiting for Godot (1953)
Happy Days (1961)
Breath and Other Shorts (1972)
Not I (1973)
Samuel Beckett. Beckett, Samuel, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.
Samuel Beckett stood apart from the literary circles of his time, even though he shared many of their preoccupations. He wrestled with the problems of ‘‘being’’ and “nothingness,” but he was not an existentialist in the manner of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Although Beckett was suspicious of conventional literature and of conventional theater, his aim was not to write antinovels or anti-plays as some authors did. His work shows affinities to James Joyce’s, especially in the use of language; to Franz Kafka’s in the portrayal of terror; and to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s in the probing of the darker recesses of the human spirit. Beckett was inspired, rather than influenced, by literary figures as different as the Italian poet Dante; the French philosophers Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal; and the French novelist Marcel Proust. Beckett’s own work opened new possibilities for both the novel and the theater that his successors have not been able to ignore.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Stellar Student. Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13,1906, to middle-class Protestant parents. He attended the Portora Royal boarding school in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, where he excelled in both academics and sports. In 1923, he entered Trinity College in Dublin to specialize in French and Italian. His academic record was so distinguished that upon receiving his baccalaureate degree in 1927, he was awarded a two-year post as lecteur (assistant) in English at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris.
James Joyce. In France, Beckett soon joined the informal group surrounding the great Irish writer James Joyce and was invited to contribute the opening essay to the book Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a collection of twelve articles written as a defense and explanation of Joyce’s still-unfinished Finnegans Wake by a group of Joyce’s disciples. Beckett also moved in French literary circles. During this first stay in Paris he won a prize for the best poem on the subject of time in a competition sponsored by the Hours Press. His poem Whoroscope (1930) was his first separately published work and marked the beginning of his lifelong interest in the subject of time.
Beckett returned to Dublin in 1930 to teach French at Trinity College but submitted his resignation after only four terms, saying that he could not teach others what he did not know himself. During the year he had obtained a master of arts degree. His penetrating essay on novelist Marcel Proust, published in 1931, indicates how many of his subsequent themes Beckett was already beginning to consider at this time. After several years of wandering through Europe writing short stories and poems and working odd jobs, he finally settled in Paris in 1937.
First Attempt at Playwriting. At the beginning of his career, Beckett spent his time in Dublin reading, in his own word, ‘‘wildly.’’ From Johann Goethe to Franz Grillparzer to Giovanni Guarini, he finally settled into a single-minded concentration upon the life and work of Samuel Johnson. He began to collect information about Johnson, filling page after page in a large three-ring notebook with miscellaneous facts and quotations. Quite possibly this exercise was a means to keep his mind off Murphy, his first novel, which had recently been refused by the twenty-fifth publisher to see it, but also it represented a means to engage in a form of agreeable activity that counterbalanced his unpleasant circumstances.
Something convinced Beckett that he must turn all the material he had collected about Dr. Johnson into a play, and by early summer 1936, he was calling it his ‘‘Johnson Fantasy.’’ He claimed to have the entire play outlined in his head and that he only needed to commit it to paper. His original idea was to write a long four-act play to be called ‘‘Human Wishes,’’ after Johnson’s poem, ‘‘The Vanity of Human Wishes.’’
Beckett wrote a ten-page scene of the play, but the rest of the material remains unwritten and the notes are unedited. His work was halted by the realization that he could not accurately capture the eighteenth-century English language as Johnson and his contemporaries spoke it.
Despite his early failures at playwriting, Beckett would later return to the art form to create some of his best-received work, including the play Waiting for Godot.
World War II: Writing in French. When World War II broke out in 1939, Beckett was in Ireland. He returned immediately to Paris, where, as a citizen of a neutral country, he was permitted to remain even after Nazi German occupation. He served in the Resistance movement until 1942, when he was obliged to flee from the German Gestapo, the Nazi secret state police, into unoccupied France, where he worked as a farmhand until the liberation of Paris by Allied troops in 1944. During these years he wrote another novel, Watt, published in 1953. By 1957, the works that finally established Beckett’s reputation as one of the most important literary forces on the international scene were published. Surprisingly, all were written in French.
Other Media. Beckett reached a much wider public through his plays than through his difficult, obscure novels. The most famous plays are Waiting for Godot (En Attendant Godot) (1953), Endgame (Fin de partie) (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1961). The same themes found in the novels appear in these plays in more condensed and accessible form. Later, Beckett experimented successfully with other media: the radio play, film, pantomime, and the television play.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Beckett's famous contemporaries include:
James Joyce (1882-1941): By far the most popular of Irish authors. Until Ireland switched over to the euro, Joyce's portrait appeared on the country's currency— evidence of the important role the author played in his home country.
Albert Camus (1913-1960): This French author is credited with examining the ''absurdity'' of life in his novels and plays.
Margaret Thatcher (1925- ): Thatcher was the first female Prime Minister in the United Kingdom. She held the office from 1979 until 1990.
Fidel Castro (1926- ): Castro led Cuba, either as president or prime minister, for the better part of fifty years. He held the office of president from 1976 to 2008.
William Faulkner (1897-1962): American novelist whose dense and complex work, like Beckett's, has been applauded by scholars but has yet to find a popular readership.
Irmgard Keun (1905-1982): German novelist whose works were banned by the Nazis in 1932.
Works in Literary Context
Beckett’s work is best seen as a refinement of the French existentialist thinkers who were his contemporaries. Existentialists primarily concern themselves with the problem of the meaning of life, specifically as it is viewed in terms of its inevitable ending. That is, existentialists are perplexed by the problem of enjoying life while knowing that death is just around the corner. Beckett’s own take on this problem forces him down roads that other existentialists had not traveled—for example, into a discussion of the disconnect between the language one uses and the world one tries to describe with it and how this disconnect reflects the absurdity of life.
French and the Absurd. Beckett’s work often tries to express the pure anguish of existence. In order to do this, he felt he must abandon ‘‘literature’’ or ‘‘style’’ in the conventional sense and attempt to reproduce the voice of this anguish. Indeed, these concepts—that existence is a kind of anguish—was widely expressed in French by authors Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. These philosophers were called ‘‘existentialists,’’ and concerned themselves with the evaluation of the quality of human life, about whether life had meaning at all, and if so what that meaning was. Like Beckett, Camus felt that there was something essentially ‘‘absurd’’ about the lives humans live, in which they hope for so much but ultimately know that they must and will die, a reality that, in a way, diminishes the joy of life itself. Not surprisingly, then, Beckett utilized the French language to express his own feelings about the absurd.
The trilogy of French novels Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953) deals with the subject of death. In a twist on the existentialists’ thoughts of the time, in these novels it is not death that is the horror or the source of absurdity, but life itself. To all the characters, freedom can exist only outside time, and since death occurs only in time, the characters try to transcend or ‘‘kill’’ time, which imprisons them in its fatality. Recognizing the impossibility of the task, they are finally reduced to silence and waiting as the only way to endure the anguish of living. Another novel, How It Is (Comment c’est), first published in French in 1961, emphasizes the solitude of the individual consciousness and at the same time the need of every individual to have others he or she cares for; after all, it is only when one is with another human being that one can know one exists. The last of Beckett’s French novels to be published was Mercier and Camier (Mercier et Camier) in 1970. This work demonstrates Beckett’s interest in wordplay, especially in its use of French colloquialisms.
Language and Meaning. Watt, like each of his novels, carries Beckett’s search for meaning a step further than the preceding one, or, as several critics have said, nearer the center of his thought. In many respects, Watt’s world is everyone’s world, and he resembles everyone. And yet his strange adventure in the house of the mysterious Mr. Knott—whose name may signify: not, knot, naught, or the German Not (need, anxiety), or all of them—is Beckett’s attempt to clarify the relationship between language and meaning. Watt, like most people, feels comfort when he is able to call things by their names; a name gives a thing reality. Gradually, Watt discovers that the words men invent may have no relation to the real meaning of the thing, which would imply that the language one uses cannot help one in communicating truth. Language is separate from the world it tries to describe, an idea that feeds into the concept of the ‘‘absurd.’’ After all, what kind of meaning can one’s life have if one cannot even express one’s experiences accurately?
A Play with No Action? When Beckett worked on his Samuel Johnson play, he tried to conform his talents to the traditional form of the play—including the use of five acts to tell his story. Waiting for Godot, however, broke the tradition. Additionally, in this relatively short play, Beckett throws action out the window. Unlike the plays of Shakespeare in which action is as crucial to the telling of the story as the words of the play, in Waiting for Godot, audiences are asked to watch two characters wait for a third person, Godot, whom they were each supposed to meet. Aside from the dialogue, very little happens. This minimalist approach to playwriting paved the way for so-called one-man acts, in which a single character does little more than talk to the audience.
Lasting Legacy. A vast range of contemporary authors have expressed their admiration of the work of Beckett, including seminal Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs and Nobel Prize-winner J. M. Coetzee, whose Waiting on the Barbarians is an homage in form to Waiting for Godot. Coetzee has also spent a good part of his career writing essays about the work of Beckett.
Influences. A close examination of Beckett’s work reveals several literary influences. There is a likeness to James Joyce, especially in Beckett’s use of language; with Franz Kafka in Beckett’s portrayal of terror; and with Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the author’s tendency to probe the darker side of the human spirit. The author was also obviously inspired by a range of literary figures as different as Dante; the French philosophers Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal; and the French novelist Marcel Proust. Regarding Beckett’s influence on literary tradition, his work opened new possibilities for both the novel and the theater.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Much of Beckett's work is directly or indirectly concerned with time and its representation on the stage and in novels. Many of Beckett's plays, in fact, have a sense of timelessness, a feeling that the actions in the plays do not occur in any particular time at all but stand outside of time itself. Other works that attempt to capture a feeling of being outside of time include:
Invisible Cities (1972), a work of fiction by Italo Calvino. Calvino's book is set up as Marco Polo's dreamlike recollection of his travels to Kublai Khan, but there is no linear path through the story or the travels.
Hopscotch (1963), a novel by Julio Cortazar. Cortazar offers multiple paths through his novel about self-discovery, as well as multiple endings, including one that would set readers on an infinite loop.
''The Library of Babel'' (1941), a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. One of Borges's most famous stories, ''The Library of Babel'' speculates about the existence of an infinite library in which all books ever written and all books that could possibly be written exist.
Groundhog Day (1993), a film directed by Harold Ramis. This comedy tackles the interesting question of what would happen if a person was forced to relive the same day over and over again.
Works in Critical Context
Critical and popular response to Beckett has always been divided. Some find Beckett’s unique plays and complicated novels fascinating and brilliant, while others find them simply frustrating. Although Beckett’s plays will probably never qualify as long-running Broadway hits, his reputation remains strong while his works have become staples of literature classes.
The critical response to Beckett’s most famous play, Waiting for Godot, perhaps best exemplifies the way the author has been reviewed through the years.
Waiting for Godot. Waiting for Godot contains two acts in which two men, Vladimir and Estragon, both down-and-out, wait for someone named Godot, who is supposed to keep an appointment with them. Critical attitudes toward the play were positive from the premiere, when Sylvain Zegel wrote in the very first review that ‘‘The audience understood this much: Paris had just recognized in Samuel Beckett one of today’s best playwrights.’’ Armand Salacrou wrote, ‘‘An author has appeared who has taken us by the hand to lead us into his universe.’’ More than a decade later, however, author Martin Esslin described the ‘‘succes de scandale’’ the play had become: ‘‘Was it not an outrage that people could be asked to come and see a play that could not be anything but a hoax, a play in which nothing whatever happened! People went to see the play just to be able to see that scandalous impertinence with their own eyes and to be in a position to say at the next party that they had actually been the victims of that outrage.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Read or watch a production of Waiting for Godot. How does Beckett use time elements in this play? What effect does the passing of time have on you as the reader (or audience)? How does this effect differ from the effect achieved in The Persistence of Memory?
2. Beckett’s work is marked by peculiar and, at times, playful uses of language. Often, though, readers find this wordplay difficult to follow. As you read Beckett, pick out a few instances of wordplay and analyze what Beckett achieves with them.
3. Beckett once wrote a play in which the only character was a pair of disembodied lips. How do you think such a play would be received today?
4. Beckett’s interest in time and its passage in his plays is tremendous. Compare Beckett’s representation of time with the representation of time in a contemporary movie like Memento, which also plays with time. Which representation of time is more engaging and why?
Abbott, H. Porter. The Fiction of Samuel Beckett: Form and Effect. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1973.
Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York: Summit, 1990.
Baker, Phil. Beckett and the Mythology of Psychoanalysis. London: Nick Hern, 1996.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Samuel Beckett: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea, 1985.
Cochran, Robert. Samuel Beckett: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1991.
Connor, Steven. Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory, and Text. London: Blackwell, 1988.
Fletcher, John. Samuel Beckett’s Art. London: Chatto & Windus, 1967.
Gussow, Mel. Conversations with and about Beckett. London: Nick Hern, 1996.
McMullan, Anna. Theatre on Trial: Samuel Beckett’s Later Drama. New York: Routledge, 1993.
O’Hara, J. D. Twentieth Century Views of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980.
Robinson, Jeremy. Samuel Beckett Goes into the Silence. Kidderminster, U.K.: Crescent Moon, 1992.