Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Poet, playwright, novelist, and critic, Beckett has created a corpus of drama and fiction that has established him as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.
Samuel Barclay Beckett was the second of two sons born, in an outlying district of Dublin, to wealthy, Anglo-Irish, Protestant parents, William and Mary Beckett. William Frank Beckett, Jr., was a self-made businessman who amassed a considerable fortune as a quantity surveyor for builders. He was bluff, robust, and coarse, with a streak of stubborn cruelty which insisted that his sons strain their bodies performing demanding athletic feats. Beckett’s mother, Mary Roe (called “May”), came from a moneyed, leisured background that she defied by working as a nurse in the Dublin hospital where she met her husband-to-be. She was even more forceful and demanding than her husband, with a biting wit, imperious manner, and moody, autocratic temperament. While William often laughed and sported with his boys, May grew increasingly stern, formal, and censorious. She may well have been the model for the troubled, embittered mothers in Beckett’s works.
“I had little talent for happiness,” Beckett recalled of his childhood. “I was often lonely.” True, young Beckett excelled in athletics at the Portora Royal School in Northern Ireland, starring on the cricket and rugby teams, while also playing tennis, swimming, and boxing, but he puzzled his classmates with his aloofness, melancholy, reserve, and sullen rebelliousness; his teasing was often vicious. He followed his brother to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1923, spending his first two years there dabbling at his studies. In his third year, he discovered the charm of modern languages, improved his grades impressively, and took a cycling trip through France, in the summer of 1926, which instilled in him a growing fondness for that nation. In December, 1927, he received his B.A. degree from Trinity with first rank in modern languages. His reward was a two-year exchange lectureship at the distinguished École Normale Supérieure. The École’s exchange scholar at Trinity, Alfred Péron, became his lifelong friend and thawed some of Beckett’s social shyness with his congeniality and popularity.
In Paris, Beckett was introduced to the great Irish expatriate author James Joyce. For years, Joyce served as both a surrogate father to Beckett and his standard for artistic integrity and commitment. Joyce welcomed Beckett into the coterie of willing young men who hunted down obscure references and took direction for their master’s Work in Progress, which was to be published as Finnegans Wake (1939). At Joyce’s urging, Beckett contributed an essay, “Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . . Joyce,” to a 1929 volume devoted to criticism of the novel that would consume sixteen years of Joyce’s life. In 1930, Beckett translated, with Péron, the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Work in Progress.
Concurrently, Beckett was seriously studying philosophy, particularly René Descartes. When the Parisian Hours Press offered a prize of one thousand francs for the best poem about time, Beckett wrote, in one night, a ninety-eight-line punning poem, Whoroscope (1930), which described Descartes’ life in an oblique but witty manner that earned for him the prize and his first separate publication.
Whoroscope caused two of Beckett’s friends to suggest him to a London publisher for a short study on Marcel Proust. The resulting monograph, Proust (1931), anticipates several of the themes Beckett would develop in his mature work: love as painful frustration, friendship as largely an illusion, habit as “the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit,” and recognition of “that irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned.” The text is as much a self-diagnosis of Beckett’s state of mind and heart as it is of Proust’s, stressing the painfulness of life, the unlikelihood of joys, the assuredness of suffering—and turning to art as the only viable consolation.
In December, 1931, Beckett took his M.A. degree from Trinity but became seriously depressed at the prospect of an academic career. He resigned from Trinity in 1932 after only a few months in the classroom, fled to the Continent, and wrote a novel that has remained unpublished, “Dream of Fair to Middling Women.” In June, 1933, his father died of a heart attack, leaving him an annuity of two hundred pounds annually. Beckett spent the next three years in London, writing some poetry and more fiction, maintaining an increasingly angry relationship with his taunting mother (who compared him unfavorably to his successful businessman-brother), and undergoing a two-year Jungian psychoanalysis which he abandoned in 1936.
His collection of ten stories, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), focuses on an indolent young Irishman, Belacqua Shuah, who wanders through Ireland though plagued by bad feet. The collection contains one great story, “Dante and the Lobster,” which concludes with an extraordinarily powerful passage, full of anguished compassion for all living creatures—even a lobster about to be boiled alive by Belacqua’s aunt. Beckett here found his voice and style as a significant writer: language that was precisely controlled, swinging from the colloquial to the cosmic; a tone that altered hilarity with somber despair; and a sad affirmation of pain and injustice as life’s leading realities.
In his late twenties and early thirties, Beckett was a frequently depressed and close-to-impoverished, struggling writer, miserably shuttling between London and Dublin, chafing at the slowness of his analysis, drinking heavily, suffering several breakdowns. Published photographs feature what was to become a famous gaunt, aquiline profile, with a furrowed forehead, sparrowhawk eyes, lined cheeks, and a wide-eyed, anguished stare. What probably saved him from self-destruction was his writing, particularly his first novel, Murphy, on which he worked, off and on, between 1934 and the end of 1937; rejected by forty-one publishers, it was first issued by Routledge in 1938 but received almost no critical attention.
The novel is remarkable for its linguistic dexterity, sophisticated humor, and brilliant fusion of philosophical implications with a fluently propelled narrative. Beckett’s solipsistic protagonist is a prototype of Watt, Moran, Molloy, and Malone. Murphy is a lazy theological student who—like Beckett—has come to London from Ireland. He lives with a kindhearted whore, Celia, who threatens to return to streetwalking unless he finds work. He becomes a mental hospital attendant but spends most of his energy examining his own mind, regarding it, in Cartesian fashion, as containing everything in the universe. Beckett expressed at length in this text the leading themes of his mature work: loneliness, isolation, physical disintegration, mental alienation, creative failure, and the tragic split between mind and body, self and society, with man’s reason a ludicrously inadequate instrument for controlling a world of chance and disorder. Murphy’s mind and body are united only when both are killed in a gas...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Samuel Barclay Beckett grew up in a suburb of Dublin, Ireland, a Protestant in a Catholic country and therefore something of an exile in his own land. He attended Trinity College in Dublin, where he discovered his talent for languages and studied English, French, and Italian. He taught for two terms at Campbell College in Belfast and then, in 1928, traveled to Paris, where he lectured in English at the ècole Normale Supèrieure. It was during this tenure that he met his countryman James Joyce. Beckett returned to Ireland to teach four terms at Trinity College, but, in 1932, after much consideration and anguish, he left the teaching profession for good, convinced that he could not survive as a writer in academe. For the next five years, he wandered through Europe, and, in 1937, he settled in Paris permanently. It was in Paris that Beckett died in 1989, at the age of eighty-three.
There were probably many reasons for Beckett’s self-imposed exile and for his decision to write in a language not his by birth, but surely one reason was the influence of Joyce, who recommended exile for artists. It would be difficult to overestimate the effect that Joyce had on Beckett’s life and work. In the late 1930’s, the younger Irishman was an intimate member of Joyce’s inner circle. He worked on a translation of Joyce’s “Anna Livia Plurabelle” into French, took dictation for his friend, wrote a critical study of Joyce’s writings, ran errands for the Irish...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Samuel Beckett was born on April 13, 1906, in Foxrock, Ireland. His family was financially and socially comfortable, and his parents sent him to a good private school and then to a university, hoping that he would join the family firm of surveyors upon graduation. Beckett belonged to the “Anglo-Irish” wing of Irish society. He was not a Celt or a Roman Catholic; his family had come to Ireland in the seventeenth century, and the original family name was “Becquet,” his ancestors being French Huguenots, who fled religious persecution.
The Anglo-Irish contribution to Irish letters is considerable, the works of Jonathan Swift, for example, being a rich addition to Irish literature. Swift’s family came from England...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Samuel Barclay Beckett was born at Foxrock, near Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1906, the second son of Mary and William Beckett. In 1920, he was sent to Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, and in 1923, he proceeded to Trinity College, Dublin, to study Italian and French. After receiving his B.A. degree in 1927, he went to Belfast as a French tutor, then to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris as a lecturer for two years, a period during which he became acquainted with James Joyce. Beckett then became lecturer in French at Trinity College and studied for his M.A. After two years, he left for Germany and returned to Paris in 1932. Doing odd jobs and writing when he could, he traveled to London, through France and Germany. This trip...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock, a modestly affluent suburb of Dublin, Ireland. He gave Good Friday, April 13, 1906, as his birth date, but some convincing contrary evidence suggests that this particular day may have been chosen more for its significance than for its accuracy. His parents, William and Mary (May) Jones Roe, belonged to the Protestant middle class known as Anglo-Irish in Ireland. Beckett’s childhood, in contrast to the unpleasant imagery of many of his novels, was a relatively cheery one of genteel entertainment at the family home, Cooldrinagh, private education at Portora Royal School in county Fermanagh, and greater success on the cricket green than in the classroom.
Beckett matriculated to...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In 1906, Good Friday happened to fall on the thirteenth day of April, bringing religion and superstition into rare conjunction. Samuel Beckett, whose writings contain more than their share of both, favored that date when citing his birth, although several of his biographers and commentators suggest a more likely birthdate later in the spring, citing a midsummer baptismal certificate as evidence. In any event, Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in the “comfortable” Foxrock district of Dublin sometime during the first half of 1906, the second son of William Beckett, who had prospered as an estimator of construction costs, and the former Mary Roe. William Beckett, born in Ireland of French Huguenot stock, thus bequeathed to his sons...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Although first expressed in the experimental fiction that he continued to write until his death, Samuel Beckett’s lyrical pessimism found its strongest and most memorable expression in his plays, which represent both a landmark and a turning point in the history of world drama. Notable for their accessibility despite an apparent complexity, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Krapp’s Last Tape remain in the worldwide dramatic repertory decades after they were first performed, challenging actors and audiences alike with their haunted, haunting humanity.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Samuel Barclay Beckett was the younger of two sons who were very close as children. The parents were loving and dutiful but demanding. Early in life, Beckett was active in sports, emulating his father. The family belonged to the Church of Ireland, but organized religion meant little to the future writer. He was sent to private schools in Dublin and, at age thirteen, to Portora Royal School, a Protestant boarding school in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.
In 1923, Beckett entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he majored in modern languages. He became interested and accomplished in academics for the first time in his...
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Samuel Barclay Beckett was born at Cooldrinagh (his family’s home) in Foxrock, a town in County Dublin, Ireland; although there is some confusion over the true date of his birth, Beckett always held that he was born on Good Friday, 13 April 1906. A talented athlete, Beckett’s body developed as steadily as his mind: after completing secondary school, Beckett entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he excelled in French and Italian. In 1928, he moved to Paris to study and teach at the Ecole Normal Superieure this move to Paris was a key event in Beckett’s life, for he lived the rest of it almost exclusively in France.
While in Paris, Beckett met and befriended James Joyce the Irish poet, short-story writer, and novelist, who was then composing Finnegans Wake, a difficult novel that Beckett helped its author translate into French. While working with Joyce, Beckett composed ‘‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . . Joyce’’ (1929), his first foray into criticism. His own work soon followed: ‘‘Whoroscope’’ (1930), a poem about the nature of time, Proust (1931) an examina- tion of the great French novelist, and Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932, published 1993), his first novel, parts of which were revised into a collection of short stories titled More Pricks than Kicks and published, to almost no audience, in 1934.
Trouble with publishers and sales did not dissuade Beckett, however, from further projects. In 1938 his novel Murphy was published to mixed reviews (it had been previously rejected by fortytwo publishers). Once World War II began, Beckett found little time to write and worked with a cell of the French Resistance; he narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo on more than one occasion. He composed much of the novel Watt (published 1953) during this time.
After the war, Beckett began a period of fruitful composition, writing in French and then translating his work into English. Although his first play, Eleutheria, was composed in 1947 but not published until after Beckett’s death, his second play, Waiting for Godot, (published 1952, first produced 1953) proved to be Beckett’s most discussed, analyzed, and talked-about work; the play concerning a pair of tramps who wait in an unspecified place for a man named Godot who may or may not exist and does not ever arrive caused great controversy when brought to the United States in 1956. His famous trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, were also composed during this period; all three were published in English by 1958.
For the rest of his life, Beckett continued to write in French and experiment with both prose and dramatic forms. His next major play, Endgame (published 1957), concerns a blind autocrat, trapped in a room with his parents who reside in dustbins; Krapp’s Last Tape depicts an old man listening to a thirty-year-old recording of himself; Happy Days (1961) features a woman who delivers a long monologue while simultaneously being buried up to her neck in a mound of earth. Other experimental work followed, such as the television play Eh, Joe? (1966), the thirty-five-seconds-long Breath (1970) and the novel Mercier and Camier (1970). In 1969, Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; the following year marked the publication of his Collected Works in sixteen volumes. During the last phase of his career, Beckett continued to intrigue (and occasionally frustrate) audiences and readers with the prose works Worstward Ho (1983), Stirrings Still (1991), and Nohow On (1993) and the plays Footfalls (1976), Rockabye (1981), and Ohio Impromptu (1981). Beckett died at home in France on December 22, 1989. He has come to be regarded as one of the giants of twentieth-century literature and, as the title of Anthony Cronin’s 1996 book suggests, ‘‘The Last Modernist.’’
IntroductionSamuel Beckett was, in a word, “absurd.” Despite his lengthy and complex career, Beckett will always be closely associated with the absurdist movement, which took a darkly comic look at humankind’s search for the meaning of life. For Beckett, this search was entirely futile...but quite funny. In Beckett’s Happy Days, for example, a woman is slowly engulfed by a mound of dirt yet retains her sunny disposition. And in his most famous work, Waiting for Godot, two vagabonds horse around by the side of a deserted road waiting for the titular character to show up...who never does. Scholars have debated for decades whether Beckett’s outlook was entirely pessimistic or if it did have—deep down—an odd, distorted kind of optimism. The futility of ever reaching a satisfactory answer surely would have pleased Beckett.
- Despite his reputation in the world of drama, Beckett wrote novels, short stories, and poetry for nearly two decades before turning his attention to plays.
- Nearly all of the English-language premieres of Beckett’s plays were directed by Alan Schneider. The two maintained a close working collaboration until Schneider’s death in 1984.
- Although an Irishman, Beckett was of French descent. Many of his most famous works, including Waiting for Godot, were originally written in French and later translated into English.
- In the early 1980s, Beckett attempted to shut down a production of Endgame directed by the well-respected Joanne Akalaitis. Beckett’s primary reason was that Akalaitis disregarded his stage directions and changed the setting of the play to a subway station.
- The American premiere of Waiting for Godot featured Bert Lahr, best known for his performance as the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.