In Bob Dylan’s ‘‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’’ (1971), the speaker expresses his weariness from ages of artistic trials as well as his excitement at the prospect of creating what will be his greatest work of art:
Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum, / Dodging lions and wastin’ time / Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see em. / Yes it sure has been a long, hard climb . . . / Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody / When I paint my masterpiece. / Someday, everything is gonna be different / When I paint my masterpiece.
Like the speaker of Dylan’s song, the protagonist of Krapp’s Last Tape is also certain that he possesses the talent to change the world with his art but the focus of Beckett’s play is how Krapp’s certainty is worn down to a terrible moment of doubt and despair. Krapp ultimately realizes that nothing will ever be different and that his masterpiece has had no effect whatsoever in the world. The fact that Krapp wasted his life in pursuit of such a grandiose ‘‘vision’’ (as he calls it) marks the play as one of Beckett’s most ironic and chilling works.
Like all of Beckett’s work, Krapp’s Last Tape may strike the first-time viewer as odd and unsettling: there is a minimal set, no dramatic lighting cues, nothing that a theatergoer would call a traditional ‘‘plot,’’ and only one character, a character whose only conversations are with a tape recording of himself that he made thirty years ago. However, many of the play’s original reviewers noted the force that Beckett was able to contain in what initially seems like the framework (rather than the final draft) of a play. For example, writing in the New Republic, Robert Brustein praised Beckett’s portrait of ‘‘impotent desire’’ and his ability to capture the futility of Krapp’s dreams of himself as an artist; to him, Krapp is a balance of ‘‘pathos and absurdity’’ that reveals the ‘‘vacuity’’ of our human desire to achieve greatness. While other critics dismissed the play as too artificially constructed and self-conscious, many saw it as indicative of Beckett’s skill as a dramatist. In recent years, a number of biographers of Beckett (by authors such as Deirdre Bair (1978), James Knowlson (1996) and Anthony Cronin (1997)) have praised Krapp’s Last Tape as a play which explores the isolated nature of human existence while, simultaneously, avoiding (according to Deirdre Bair) ‘‘the searing, wrenching pain and exhaustion’’ of Beckett’s previous work. The play remains one of Beckett’s major plays (along with Waiting for Godot and Endgame) and was directed by Beckett himself on several occasions.