Beckett, Samuel 1906–
Beckett, an Irish-born French writer, was the Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1969. His plays and novels, fundamental to Absurd literature, are seen as the existential metaphor of the human condition. Alone, impotent, despairing, Beckett's characters inhabit a void wherein speech is impossible; compelled to speak, their inarticulate expressions of anguish approach the edges of the dramatic and novelistic arts. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
First written like Waiting for Godot in French for the French avant-garde stage, Fin de Partie was translated by the author into English under the Joycean title of Endgame. The texture of the work in English was therefore entirely authentic, and it is the texture rather than the transparent structure (of which there is little) that provides the meaning of the work. Hardly anything happens in the play; nearly everything that might have happened has already transpired: the world has been mysteriously destroyed, perhaps by a nuclear explosion and fallout. What concerns Beckett is the end-of-the-party feeling or endgame—not the story nor even the poem, but the poem's musical suggestiveness and imaginative reverberation. The author's feat lay in his ability to make these elusive qualities almost continuously arresting. Endgame may go down in the history of the modern theatre as a masterpiece of dramatic decadence. I intend no slur in this designation, for I prefer well-expressed decadence to ill-expressed health.
John Gassner, "Beckett's Endgame and Symbolism," in his Theatre at the Crossroads: Plays and Playwrights of the Mid-Century American Stage (copyright © 1960 by Mollie Gassner; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1960, pp. 256-61.
Everybody's starting-point for a Samuel Beckett anabasis is Waiting for Godot; many, alas, get no further than that terribly lucid charade, bogged down in it as though it were itself the merde universelle and not a mere restrained whiff. The real full rich rank Beckett, the murmurous mud, is to be found in the novels, and these are still not well enough known. They are difficult, true, but they are short; their message, though hard to take, is easy; their deplorable monstrous heroes resolve into the same figure, once smelt, never forgotten—the quidam of How It Is…. We're all in it really, strapped to a porcupine sofa, waiting for God and water, becalmed in our filth on Beckett's enduring Saturday….
Vladimir and Estragon [in Godot] wait, no more. They pass through the forms of despair and rebellion, but, not being Camus heroes, they do not act; they only wait. If in Camus we catch echoes of the stoicism of Seneca, in Beckett we smell the leavings of Christian hope. This is not to say that Waiting for Godot, with its allusions to the thieves who were crucified with Christ, with its property tree by which the tramps have been told to wait, is to be regarded as a Christian morality: very far from it. But the symbols of Christianity are drenched with suggestive richness, and any Western artist who rejects them is a fool: the rite is the poet's rest. And so Beckett's enduring Saturday is the one that comes between Good Friday and Easter Day, except that time has a stop after Christ's crucifixion. Saturday refuses to become Sunday, and we are stuck with 'a large measure of despair and a small measure of hope'. The thing to do is to wait, even though we can be quite sure that the waiting will not be rewarded. Life is a wretched grey Saturday, but it has to be lived through.
Anthony Burgess, "Enduring Saturday," in his Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1968, pp. 85-7.
Happy Days is another Beckett threnody on the sorry lot of mankind reduced to an absurd stalemate from which man can only decline into a worse one on a planet plainly doomed to devastation. In Happy Days, at the same time, one encounters another tribute to human endurance and the determination to shore up inner defenses of faith or delusion against failure. Never yielding an inch to sentimentality, against which the writing defends itself with sustained irony, so that human heroism also appears to be a ridiculous capacity for self-delusion, Happy Days is compact and self-contained. It is a "whole" as few recent full-length plays have been. In this, however, also lies the limitation of the work, which appears on the stage, as well as in print, as an extended metaphor. And since what it provides is a kind of summa of the "human condition" rather than a story or an unfolding action, Beckett's metaphor is not merely extended but overextended. It is that at least for the stage, on which it seems unduly prolonged, because the playgoer can "get the idea" faster than it is given to him by the play-wright's dialogue, so that as work written for the stage it seems rather redundant.
John Gassner, in his Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled From 30 Years of Drama Criticism, introduction and posthumous editing by Glenn Loney (© 1968 by Mollie Gassner; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1968, p. 504.
To move through Beckett's trilogy [Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable] is to move through a mind obsessed with stories, story-telling, the tolling of stories rather than the telling; for the procession is a final cortege of that ubiquitous Irish voice, nudging, lapel-tugging, master of the confessional appetite abroad, now absurd in decease since his audience has been reduced to one: himself. The anonymity of the Unnamable is at the furthest remove from that of the folk story-teller who achieved his anonymity through the exuberance, the multiplicity of the experience to hand. The Unnamable is a product of elimination, and in the elimination of anecdote he would seek his freedom from the ultimate incarceration of fiction, the crowding of characters, the clamour of other voices. The predicament—and it is a profound one—is that in the very act of articulating this achievement the Unnamable has named himself, has made a residual fiction, which even in the fragmented syntax of the final pages of the novel re-echoes the tyranny of anecdote.
Thomas Kilroy, "Tellers of Tales," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), March 17, 1972, pp. 301-02.
When bright-eyed undergraduates come to write their theses on "Ladder Symbolism in Samuel Beckett", The Lost Ones will probably be their key book. Murphy, of course, pulled up the ladder after him when retreating into his attic, and the narrator's voice rang out after him: "Do not go down the ladder, they have taken it away"—an instruction repeated in Watt and with as much serio-comic intent. One probable difficulty for the literary analyst will be in deciding whether the idiom "pull up the ladder, Jack. I'm all right" passed into common usage before or after Beckett's literary rendition of it.
The theme of The Lost Ones (Le Dépeupleur) physically reverses these earlier notions: roughly expressed perhaps, it might be "do not come up the ladder, there is nothing at the top"—an idea which also has its antecedents in Beckett's writing….
The link between the ladders of Beckett and Wittgenstein has been made before,… but here the analogy seems much more exact; the point would seem to be that the assumption of knowledge is a farcical occupation; and Beckett looks down (the notion of an observer's eye above and beyond the activity in the cylinder is inescapable) with the cool detachment of a chemist observing the machinations of organisms under the microscope and writing up his notes in that idiosyncratic, dislocated style—almost one of controlled logorrhoea—which characterizes the later prose pieces. In his role of observer, Beckett writes like a celestial clerk, annotating the insanities of life in the cylinder in a cypher appropriate to that life. The fluctuating temperature which figured in Imagination Dead Imagine, the strict if apparently meaningless rituals, the very environment itself—"floor and wall are of solid rubber or such like"—which precludes any trace of anguish or love, fury or achievement: these breed that terrifying, unmistakable situation which characterizes Beckett's severe statements about our existence: an existence in which all effort is meaningless and prematurely defeated, although the desire for effort remains unquenchable.
"Can't Stop Climbing," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), August 11, 1972, p. 935.
The Beckett hero is crushed by the burden of consciousness, out of which comes that self-responsibility he would like to escape but cannot. He has neither a god to assume it for him, nor the courage to escape through self-destruction—which he yearns for perpetually. His life is one long ambivalence between the desire for and fear of its termination, one long attempt to reverse the process of birth and speed his return to the state of pre-conscious nonbeing from which he came; that is his lost Eden. The Beckett hero does not seek his identity, he flees from it; his quest is for anonymity, for self-annihilation. And it is always the same hero, always the same story. "I have my faults," says the Unnamable, "but changing my tune is not one of them."… [The] Beckett character consumes "pain-killers" to deaden awareness and lessen the agony of consciousness; or, like Krapp, turns to booze, sex, and sleep, dreaming of a past time when he could lose himself in the arms of a woman.
That Beckett considers the problem a universal one is indicated again and again. Flung from his father's home and condemned to exile for no reason he can understand, the hero of "The Expelled" says, "I don't know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are."…
With The Unnamable, the issues which emerged in Malone Dies now become an obsession, and the humor of Beckett's earlier works is lost in desperation, for Beckett's hero has backed himself into a corner from which there is no escape.
In his attempt to escape being, he has fled from the body to the mind, only to be closeted with the very self (the "I," the "voice") he is so frantic to escape. Instead of lessening his self-consciousness, he has increased it, and the flight from self now becomes an obsession with self: Who, what am I? What is I? And relentlessly the voice answers: Nothing, until you create it.
Beginning with Malone, the narrator becomes increasingly aware that his chief task in life (and perhaps his only one) is self-creation. But self-creation involves the increase, not the diminution, of self-awareness; hence his dilemma, for the burden of selfhood is more than he can bear. So he yearns for the womb, clings to the bed, ducks into boxes and jars (any womb-tomb symbol at hand), or conceals himself behind fictional characters, feeling guilty all the while, and fearful that, since he has failed to create himself, to give birth to his self, he will not be allowed to die….
Unable to accept the responsibility or the isolation of human consciousness, Beckett's narrator retreats to an inner corner which can be escaped only through insanity or death; the Beckett hero toys with both possibilities without adopting either, and remains torn by ambivalence, waiting for the end, telling himself stories, playing games, inventing characters to pass the time until that longed-for release from his unbearable, "unmakeable" self.
Ethel F. Cornwell, "Samuel Beckett: The Flight from Self," in PMLA, 88 (copyright © 1973 by the Modern Language Association of America; reprinted by permission of the Modern Language Association of America), January, 1973, pp. 41-51.
As a student of Beckett's plays rather than as a "true believer" I am struck by the satisfaction many of Beckett's readers take in his apparent triviality of content and his obsessive attention to a formless form or flawed flawlessness. His laudatory readers all suggest that there is more rather than less than meets the eye, but the awesome bulk of Beckettian criticism has not so much solved Beckett's mysteries as it has buried them. First, one might say that the continuing published attention to Beckett's artistic form by Cohn called "comitragedy," Murray "tragicomedy," and Dennis "tragifarcical" results from the predisposition that there is so little content, the dramas, even more than the poetry or novels, steeped in a nihilistic vacuum of suffering and boredom. The implication seems always that since Beckett believes in so little, there is not much extrapolative—only some derivative, allusionary, and compendious—content. Secondly, the intrinsic religious significance of the plays is further mollified in an extrinsic comparison Beckett's biographers always make: like Joyce, he had as a boy lost even the vestiges of a practicing Christian faith. But, it seems to me, Beckett's dramatic triviality is a ritual playfulness, about as irreligious as medieval allegory, or as absurd as simple, finite, objective description of modern life. Managing to avoid catechismal finality of several varieties, it has both a Christian and psychological validity. It may not all be beautiful, but it is good….
In virtually all of Beckett's plays and novels, everyone knows, pairs of contrasting but inseparable characters are the basic structural device. The Christian orthodoxy of these … extends in English literature from Everyman in his dialogues with his conscience, a precursor which G. S. Fraser was among the first to point out, to Murder in the Cathedral, with Thomas and his Four Tempters, and then, in the second part of the play, the Four Knights. Few would question that, in Godot, similarly, the voices heard on stage, Vladimir and Estragon, Pozzo and Lucky, represent two sides of a character. The interior conscience of Endgame, that is, the voices of Hamm and Clov, Nell and Nagg, in the French production was depicted as a monodrama within the interior of a skull, Clov's two high, small windows representing its eye sockets. This may seem modern staging, but even as a structural device in lyric poetry this isn't particularly unusual, in a tradition extending through three centuries, from George Herbert's "The Collar," say, to Eliot's Prufrock poem and Wallace Steven's Three Blackbirds. If Beckett's personae represent types rather than individuals, this has been a psychological and artistic conventionality too, in all Menippean satire, Archimoldo's sixteenth-century paintings of the Four Seasons, Theophrastan characters, and Jonson's comedy of humors. They have their analogues in the prehistoric Four Ages myth, the medieval exegeses of Origen and Aquinas, and Bacon's four Idols.
[Ruby] Cohn suggests in her concluding chapter [of Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut] that the old wedding jingle—Something old, something new, / Something borrowed, something blue—can "symbolize and summarize" all of Beckett's work. I like the suggestion for the emphasis this epigraph-as-paradigm puts on Beckett's traditional orthodoxies, and aesthetic simplicity, none of which violates the newness—which is not to say originality—of Beckett's dramatic perspective. Science, that is, has not been for a long time the simple manipulation of exact measurements; the arithmetic of nature has been replaced by its geometry. The humanities suffering a kind of cultural lag in this respect, observable in much Beckettian criticism, are caught up in the Naming of Parts—who is Godot? and so on—which may be not only a pointless pastime, but an absurd one. I am saying that Beckett's little voices have their analogy too in the discovery of form in mathematics. His personae are like Goldbach's eighteenth-century prime numbers, definable by the simple fact that none of them can be made up multiplying any two smaller numbers together, though, mysteriously, every even number is the simple sum of two prime numbers. And Möbius over a hundred years ago posed the famous Four Color theorem, or puzzle, in which one finds that neighboring territories on a flat map, whatever their shape, simply cannot be individually identified without at least one of the four colors touching….
At his best or his worst, then, Beckett creates dramas which are like Tom & Jerry cartoons, or Laurel and Hardy shorts, or Three Stooges's, or Marx Brothers featured films. It's probably inaccurate to argue that they are only simple-minded, on the one hand, or that they are especially sophisticated. But then, I admit I am skeptical of the aesthetic claims made for Charlie Chaplin, or Buster Keaton, and even W. C. Fields, whose great implications of meaning virtually thrive on their verbal simplicity reduced to silence. Those two troubadours of popular philosophy, Simon and Garfunkel, call it the Sound of Silence. Or, in all of Jules Feiffer's cartoons, when two personae meet, their faces curiously resembling the countenances of "real" persons, they talk at one another, with animosity and misunderstanding, in a dialogue during which no thoughts or feelings actually are shared….
Body language or language-as-gesture aside, the "real" significance is the "apparent" demise of verbal articulateness. It's not a complicated point; but it is an important one….
The most accurate statements in the vast library of sometimes contradictory claims for Beckett are ones which 1) point to his traditional forms, which are both generically and popularly "simple," and 2) suggest a religious orthodoxy, which is not particularly complicated, though of course devoid of sectarian definition….
So, to ponder the unquestionable artistry of Beckett's Godot is ultimately to consider the absolute appeal of trivia, not only the silly but secure profession of various kinds of stand-up comics (academic, journalistic, priestly), or the varieties of borscht circuit, but also the melancholy (and sometimes intentionally humorous in other ways) attempts at the "real" Human Interest in what used to be called Current Events: the cosmo-techno-theology of space exploration; the repetitious stories of temporary salvation by kidney machine or heart-transplant; the conspicuous philanthropy of money donors too; of high school sweethearts in automotive massacres after graduation proms and just before marriage; the many Vietnam GI's killed just before their rotation date, or, willy nilly, their slower deaths by drugs after safe return to the States; candid moments of joy preserved "forever" by Agfa, Kodak, or Polaroid; the everlasting and therefore apparently immemorial sequence of baseball scores and championship contests; the whole panoply of serio-comic human acts which used to be called "funnies." The days of Passing Parade, Movietone News, and March of Time are not past; in the Big News of TV, in First Tuesday and Sixty Minutes, or the Wide, Wide World of Sports, we have the ritualized if not particularly artistic depiction of what one network choragos, in a litany I suspect every schoolboy knows, calls "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
Robert A. Kantra, "Beckett's Little Voices of Conscience," in Journal of Popular Culture, Spring, 1973, pp. 731-39.
Beckett's greatness, as has often been noted, lies in his ability to get down to the essentials of unaccommodated man, the bare, forked animal…. Beckett … approximates Lear [in Endgame] in that he manages to invest his gallows humor and reductio ad absurdum with such a passion and verbal felicity that his sarcastic, fanatically prosaic, quintessential prose becomes a kind of poetry against the grain. When Krapp reflects on his literary achievement, "Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known," the sneer is, first of all, autobiographical. It mocks Beckett's transatlantic success, the academic snob appeal of his work which, ironically, led to those twin peaks: inclusion of a wordless scene in Oh! Calcutta! and the Nobel Prize for Literature—two accolades Beckett did not so much accept as endure. But there is also something wildly poetic about those absurd figures, 17 and 11, and that marvelously wry, ludicrous conclusion, "getting known."
Yet Beckett will go too far—which, in his case, amounts to not going far enough. In Act Without Words I he returns to pantomime, which, for someone who can turn the rags of near-monosyllabic verbiage into a glittering panoply, is a lamentable abdication. In the new play, Not I, words are, to be sure, preserved, but everything else is—equally disastrously—jettisoned. The play begins with mutterings in pitch darkness, whereupon the lights go up on a mouth surrounded by blackness: a disembodied female mouth that splashes us with an uninterrupted fifteen-minute stream of words. At some distance from the Mouth stands a tall, faintly lit, shrouded figure, designated as the Auditor "on invisible podium about four feet high," intently listening to the Mouth….
[The] Auditor remains mute and merely shrugs four times, four decreasing shrugs; the first clear and audible as the arms hit the thighs, the last barely perceptible. These shrugs occur at times when the Mouth becomes flustered in its recitation….
Such minimalism is not, I believe, to be countenanced from anyone, not even from Beckett. Up to a point, Less may indeed be More; but beyond that point, Less is nothing. It is all very well for Beckett to return the drama to the Aeschylean essentials, but farther back than Aeschylus no one can go: the terrain there is not merely uncharted, it is no longer terrain…. The only act that can follow painting oneself into a corner is disappearance into the woodwork. Come back, Sam Beckett! It is not easy crawling backwards, but it is rewarding in the end.
John Simon, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 185-87.
Poor Samuel Beckett. I can't help it—presumptuous though it may be, pity is the principal emotion I am left with after contact with the wayward brilliance of this author's writing. And [First Love] is no exception. On the evidence of his work, Beckett's capacity for joy is so pitifully limited—confined indeed to the admittedly rare satisfactions of artistic creation. I'm not knocking these: no delights are more precious, or more likely—in an artist of genius—to be of enduring human value. But the simpler joys, occasioned by beauty, by love, by football matches, by companionship, by a good hot bath, by in fact everything that makes most people's life rather more than just a sick and over-protracted journey from the cradle to the grave, these seem denied Samuel Beckett….
In ordinary human terms, then a joyless, blinkered man, and therefore pitiable. In artistic terms, however—in that he is talented enough to be able to devote his life to the painstaking externalisation of an intensely internal world—profoundly blessed….
First Love is a fairly straightforward short story, 62 pages of children's-book-size print, concerning a joyless derelict's joyless affair with a joyless prostitute. For all its darkness, though, it has the fascinations that are peculiarly Beckett's: the idiosyncratic prose that yet is so right as to tingle the spine; the black, black, black humour; the painful evocations of mood and place; the complete life style, the complete person defined with haunting exactitude.
I have a nasty suspicion that this story has been suppressed for twenty-five years because it says more about its author than a youngish man was prepared to admit to. Its final lines are very telling: 'I could have done with other loves perhaps. But there it is, either you love or you don't.'
D. G. Compton, in Books and Bookmen, September, 1973, pp. 80-1.