The 1950s is often thought of as an era where artistic expression was as ‘‘square’’ and as indicative of the status-quo, as the era itself is sometimes portrayed on television and in contemporary films. The 1950s were, in fact, an era where major innovations in every form of art were noticed by viewers, readers, and listeners alike. With the death of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), the type of ‘‘well-made play’’ perfected by him (one which relied on conventional forms and structures) began to be replaced in some artists’ minds with more experimental forms the most famous example of which remains Beckett’s own Waiting for Godot (1952), which many viewers found exciting, different, and unlike any play they had ever before seen.
The forms frequently employed in other genres of literature experienced similar reexaminations and revisions. In 1950, Ezra Pound’s ‘‘Seventy Cantos’’ were published, which are as unlike traditional verse as Godot is as unlike Shaw’s Pygmalion. In 1953, Archibald MacLeish published his Collected Poems, the experimental nature of which struck many readers; MacLeish was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the volume. Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel
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Krapp’s Last Tape is set in Krapp’s den a room that reflects, to a large degree, Krapp himself. It is bare, save for a small table; this lack of ornament emphasizes Krapp’s emotional sterility and loneliness. As he is without any human interaction, his room is without anything that suggests comfort or humanity.
More telling than the barren stage are the lighting directions given by Beckett. The table and its immediate area are bathed in ‘‘strong white light’’; the rest of the stage is in darkness. The question arises here of why Beckett would want any part of the stage to be dark i.e., why not simply have Krapp’s room (even if it is to remain barren) take up the entire stage? The answer has to do with how Beckett uses lighting to mirror Krapp’s attempt to fend off the figurative ‘‘darkness’’ that surrounds him. The voice of the thirty-nine-year-old Krapp reports (in the tape to which the older Krapp listens):
The new light above my table is a great improvement. With all this darkness round me I feel less alone. (Pause. ) In a way. (Pause.) I love to get up and move about in it, then back here to . . . (hesitates) . . . me. (Pause.) Krapp.
Light and dark symbolism runs throughout the play, with light representing knowledge, life and love and darkness...
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Compare and Contrast
1950: North Korean forces break through the 38th parallel and capture Seoul (the capital of South Korea). General Douglas MacArthur is appointed commander of UN forces in Korea. The Korean War will continue until 1953.
Today: North Korea remains a Communist nation, with Kim Jong Il (son of previous leader Kim Il Sung) as its President.
1953: Joseph Stalin dies; Nikita Khruschchev is appointed First Secretary of the General Committee of the Communist Party. Khruschchev became Chairman of Council of U.S.S.R. Ministers in 1958 and eventually took part in his famous showdown against President Kennedy (the Cuban Missile Crisis) in 1962.
Today: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union into a number of disparate nations, the Cold War (between the Soviets and Americans) has ended, with the United States as the assumed victor in this famous war of words and wills.
1958: Krapp’s Last Tape premieres and is viewed by some as a triumph and others as a failure, in part because of the experimental nature of its form.
Today: Although the theaters of Broadway are almost wholly occupied with commercial fare, experimental theater is thriving in other places:...
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Topics for Further Study
The American author Henry James’s ‘‘The Beast in the Jungle’’ (1903) is a short story that examines the life of Marcher, a man very similar to Krapp. Compare and contrast the two protagonists’ expectations of their futures and what these futures actually bring them.
In what ways is Krapp an ‘‘everyman’’ figure? Despite the experimental nature of the play, in what ways does it offer its audience a man who is like all men and who holds many of mankind’s assumptions about the self, experience and time?
Many now-famous writers have had their diaries, journals, and letters published. Read a selection of these by a writer such as the Scottish biographer James Boswell (1740-1795) or the English poet John Keats (1795-1821) and compare their understanding and examinations of their personalities with Krapp’s.
Waiting for Godot(1956) is Beckett’s most widely-read play. Examine the ways that the play explores issues similar to ones found in Krapp’s Last Tape, such as alienation, isolation, and the search for meaning in a disordered and chaotic world.
Compose an essay in which you imagine what Krapp does after the action of the play concludes. Despite the fact that the audience knows this is his ‘‘last’’ tape, will he live his remaining days any differently? Or will he sink into even...
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What Do I Read Next?
Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s 1952 play, is his most famous and widely-studied work. Its minimalist plot concerns two tramps who wait in an unnamed place for an appointment with Godot a mysterious figure who never appears but who always promises to arrive the following day.
Beckett’s trilogy of novels, Molly, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable (1959) are considered his greatest achievement in prose. The novels explore many of the themes found in Krapp’s Last Tape, such as loneliness, isolation, and the creation of identity.
James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) follows the exploits and artistic awakening of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s autobiographical counterpart. Like Krapp, Stephen is often convinced that he is destined to rise above what he sees as the ignorance of his contemporaries.
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1965 novel Despair follows the sinister exploits of Hermann a Krapplike character who views himself as...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, pp. 491, 514-15.
Beckett, Samuel. Krapp’s Last Tape, in Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces, Grove Press, 1957, pp. 7-28.
Boswell, James. Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, Mc- Graw-Hill, 1950, p. 161.
Brien, Alan. Review of Krapp’s Last Tape in the Spectator, November 4, 1955.
Brustein, Robert. Review of Krapp’s Last Tape in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, edited by Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, pp. 192-93.
Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, HarperCollins, 1997, p. 481.
Dylan, Bob. ‘‘When I Paint My Masterpiece,’’ Big Sky Music, 1971.
Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, Simon and Schuster, 1996, p. 397.
Reid, Alec. All I Can Manage, More Than I Could, Grove Press, 1971, p. 21.
Tynan, Kenneth. Review of Krapp’s Last Tape in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, edited by Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, pp. 189-92.
Graver, Lawrence and Raymond Federman, editors, Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, Routledge...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Gontarski, S. E. The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Covers Beckett’s plays. A chapter on Krapp’s Last Tape connects the revision process to evolving interpretation of the play. Selected bibliography.
Gontarski, S. E., ed. On Beckett: Essays and Criticism. New York: Grove Press, 1986. Essays by various scholars, including Ruby Cohn’s “Beckett Directs: Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape,” which discusses Beckett’s adeptness at staging.
Kenner, Hugh. Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study. New ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Important study of Beckett. Kenner consulted with Beckett in writing it. Does not focus on Krapp’s Last Tape but the preface provides valuable insight into Beckett’s attitude toward his work.
MacMillan, Dougald, and Martha Fehsenfeld. From “Waiting for Godot” to “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Vol. 1 in Beckett in the Theatre. New York: Riverrun Press, 1988. Devotes a chapter to Krapp’s Last Tape. Discusses changes Beckett made from early to later drafts. Extensive interpretation of the play in relation to production.
Reid, Alec. All I Can Manage, More than I Could: An Approach to the Plays of Samuel...
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