Study Guide

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett Essay - Beckett, Samuel (Drama Criticism)

Beckett, Samuel (Drama Criticism)

Introduction

Samuel Beckett 1906-1989

(Full name Samuel Barclay Beckett) Irish-born French playwright, novelist, poet, short story writer, screenwriter, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism on Beckett's dramatic works from 1957 through 2001.

Beckett is one of the most celebrated and influential dramatists of the twentieth century. His play En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot), with its incongruent plot and seemingly pointless dialogue, helped advance the concept of a “Theater of the Absurd” and is regarded as a masterpiece. Beckett's plays utilize non-standard and minimalist staging techniques and experimental language and character development. Beckett continually strove to remove the physicality of the dramatic experience, e.g. elaborate staging, intricate sets, etc., in an attempt to illustrate the inner turmoil of humanity, and to force the audience to reach a higher level of understanding without relying on the traditional forms of theater. Beckett's innovative style and stark exploration into the human condition were considered ground-breaking and his influence is apparent throughout contemporary theater.

Biographical Information

Beckett was born in Dublin on April 12, 1906 to a middle-class family. As a youth he was more inclined to athletics than academics, not showing interest in literature until his third year at Trinity College, Dublin, as a student of modern languages. Upon receiving his B.A. in 1927, he departed for France and lectured at Ecole Normal Superieure in Paris, where he became acquainted with James Joyce. Beckett worked with Joyce as an assistant and copier during the writing of Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and Joyce's modernist style began to shape Beckett's writing. After two years abroad, Beckett returned to Ireland in 1931 and the following year produced his first play, Le Kid (1931). Beckett was dissatisfied with life in Ireland and suffered from debilitating bouts of depression; in 1932, he relocated to Paris. In 1935, he attended a lecture by Carl Gustav Jung about the illusion of consciousness and the uncontrolled unconscious—themes that are widely developed and analyzed in Beckett's drama. During World War II, Beckett joined the French Resistance and worked within that organization until his cell was infiltrated and he was forced to leave Paris. After the war ended, Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance, and he settled again in Paris as a writer. Waiting for Godot was written in 1948 and 1949, but the playwright thoroughly reworked the play before it was finally produced in 1953. Waiting for Godot is widely considered Beckett's finest play. He continued to write novels and plays, producing his next full-length play, Fin de partie (1957; Endgame) in the same minimalist, existentialist style of Waiting for Godot, furthering his conveyance of ideas through experimental dramatic techniques and unique staging concepts. Although his last full length play was written in 1961 (Happy Days), Beckett wrote many short plays (or dramaticules), screenplays, and television dramas in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1969, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for contributing “a body of work that, in new forms of fiction and the theater, has transformed the destitution of modern man into his exultation.” Beckett died on December 22, 1989.

Major Works

Regarded as one of the most controversial and seminal works of twentieth-century drama, Waiting for Godot is noted for its minimal approach to dramatic form, powerful imagery, and concise, fragmented, and repetitive dialogue. Traditional plays begin with some action or event that results in dramatic conflict, an imperative element to Aristotelian dramatic theory. Waiting for Godot begins with no precipitative movement, only an abstract struggle involving the passage of time. Vladimir and Estragon, two vagabonds, wait on a desolate plain to keep an appointment with someone called M. Godot. Their purgatorial wait has been interpreted by some as religious faith, the hopelessness of the human condition, or as an example of postcolonial discourse. Beckett encouraged unique interpretations of his works and refused to concede that Waiting for Godot had a definitive meaning. Likewise, Endgame is a play that is also open to many interpretations. In Endgame, Beckett again focused on two characters, bedraggled survivors of an apparent holocaust. The two men, Clov and Hamm, are faced with the nothingness of their existence as they attempt to validate their lives, eventually falling back on memories to justify their existence. Beckett further developed his innovative theatrical techniques and metaphysical concerns in Krapp's Last Tape (1958) and Happy Days. In Happy Days, the protagonist, Winnie, continues her daily rituals while being buried up to her waist in earth. She seems uncaring and almost welcomes this entombment, and by the second act of the play, she is buried up to her neck. Winnie believes that the earth stabilizes her and keeps her grounded, lest her insubstantiality should cause her to float into the sky. Beckett's preoccupation with disembodied heads and faces resurfaces in his later short plays That Time (1976), A Piece of Monologue (1979), Ohio Impromptu (1981), and What Where (1983), all of which feature heads with long white hair and an aged appearance. In Not I (1972), the main character is a disembodied mouth floating high above the stage. The Mouth seems to be forced into confessing her faults to a lone Auditor in a Dante-esque purgatory. Beckett used darkness, voice, repetition, and silence to heighten the feeling of damnation, hopelessness, and introspection in much of his drama.

Critical Reception

Beckett's portrayal of a world of insignificance and incomprehensibility has led many critics to identify Waiting for Godot with existentialism, the Theater of the Absurd, postmodernism, and nihilism. Although his works contain slapstick and dark comedy, his characters are often grotesquely exaggerated caricatures—oblivious to predictability and their impending demise. Many critics contend that Beckett's progression from language to silence and light to darkness reflects the author's growing pessimistic vision, yet some feel that by stripping down the characters to the basest levels, Beckett actually proposed rebirth. Some commentators note the numerous biblical allusions, repetitions, and ironic devices in his plays. His works have been interpreted as religious ideologies, chess analogies, atheist texts, and Eastern existentialism, yet Beckett warned against trying to perceive his intended thought, often commenting that his works have no definitive meaning and advocating the individual's right to personal interpretation.

Principal Works

Le Kid [with Georges Pelorson] 1931

En attendant Godot 1953; produced in English as Waiting for Godot 1955

*Acte sans paroles 1957; produced in English as Act without Words 1959

*Fin de partie 1957; produced in English as Endgame 1958

Krapp's Last Tape 1958

Acte san paroles II [Acts without Words II] 1960

Happy Days 1961

Spiel 1963; produced in English as Play 1964

Va et vient 1966; produced in English as Come and Go 1966

Breath 1970

Not I 1972

Footfalls 1976

That Time 1976

A Piece of Monologue 1979

Ohio Impromptu 1981

Rockaby 1981

Catastrophe 1982

What Where 1983

Collected Shorter Plays 1984

The Complete Dramatic Works 1986

Eleuthéria 1995

All That Fall 1957

Embers 1959

Cascando 1961

Words and Music 1962

Rough for Radio I 1975

Rough for Radio II 1975

Whoroscope (poetry) 1930

Proust (essay) 1931

More Pricks than Kicks (short stories) 1934

Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (verse) 1935

Murphy (novel) 1938

Malone meurt [Malone Dies] (novel) 1951

Molloy (novel) 1951

L'Innommable [The Unnamable] (novel) 1953

Watt (novel) 1953

Comment c'est [How It Is] (novel) 1961

Eh Joe (teleplay) 1966

Film (screenplay) 1966

Le depeupleur [The Lost Ones] (novel) 1970

Mercier et Camier [Mercier and Camier] (novel) 1970

All Strange Away (novel) 1976

… but the clouds … (teleplay) 1977

Collected Poems in English and French, (poetry) 1977

Ghost Trio (teleplay) 1977

Companie [Company] (novel) 1979

Nacht und Träume (teleplay) 1982

Quad I and II (teleplay) 1982

Worstword Ho (novel) 1983

Collected Shorter Prose, 1945-1980 (prose) 1984

Dream of Fair to Middling Women (novel) 1993

Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929-1989 (prose) 1995

*These dramas were first performed together.

Criticism: General Commentary

Jean-Jacques Mayoux (essay date October 1957)

SOURCE: Mayoux, Jean-Jacques. “The Theatre of Samuel Beckett.” Perspective 11, no. 3 (autumn 1959): 142-55.

[In the following essay, translated from the French version originally published in the October 1957 issue of Etudes Anglaises, Mayoux highlights Beckett's “laying open” the essence of human existence in Waiting for Godot, Endgame, All That Fall, and The Unnamable.]

I. AN OVERALL VIEW

I shall assume, in order to save time and space, that Samuel Beckett is well-known as a fifty-three year old Irishman who, in the last thirty years or so, has written admirably in two languages: poems, essays, fiction. His turning...

(The entire section is 5903 words.)

Eva Metman (essay date January 1960)

SOURCE: Metman, Eva. “Reflections on Samuel Beckett's Plays.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 5, no. 1 (January 1960): 41-63.

[In the following essay, Metman explores the different embodiments of God, treatment of women, and the depiction of the human condition in Beckett's earlier dramatic works.]

INTRODUCTION

Jung (1951, Coll. Wks. [Collected Works], p. 121) speaks of a class of schizophrenic and neurotic patients whose illness “seems to lie in their having something above the average, an overplus for which there is no adequate outlet.” And he continues: “We may then expect the patient to be consciously or—in most...

(The entire section is 10553 words.)

Jacques Guicharn and June Beckelman (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: Guicharn, Jacques, and June Beckelman. “Existence on Stage: Samuel Beckett.” In Modern French Theatre: From Giraudoux to Beckett, pp. 193-220. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1961.

[In the following essay, Guicharn and Beckelman examine the irony of the characters' acknowledgement and awareness of their own existence in Beckett's plays.]

Despite the success of Genêt, Adamov, and Ionesco, despite the recent interest in Jean Vauthier and Arrabal, Samuel Beckett is still considered the unquestionable originator of a new conception of theatre. Since the 1952-53 season, during which he was in danger of being eclipsed by more established names, critics...

(The entire section is 9362 words.)

Ruby Cohn (essay date spring-summer 1962)

SOURCE: Cohn, Ruby. “Play and Player in the Plays of Samuel Beckett.” Yale French Studies 29 (spring-summer 1962): 43-8.

[In the following essay, Cohn studies the layers of reality and unreality in Beckett's plays and discusses the characters' awareness of the symbiotic nature of these (un)realities.]

Plato seems to be the first extant writer to view man as a puppet of the gods, and in his wake many authors have dubbed man an actor on the stage of the world. Since the metaphor was particularly dear to those beggar-philosophers, the Cynics, it is scarcely surprising that it also fascinates that contemporary creator of beggar-philosophers, Samuel Beckett. From...

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Robert Wilcher (essay date summer 1976)

SOURCE: Wilcher, Robert. “‘What's It Meant to Mean?’ An Approach to Beckett's Theatre.” Critical Quarterly (summer 1976): 9-37.

[In the following essay, Wilcher maintains that in his works, Beckett strives to defy definition and leave the audience/readers disconcerted, yet searching for their own understanding.]

Just as the ‘quality of language’ in Proust was more important than ‘any system of ethics or aesthetics’ [according to Beckett], so the quality of an experience in Beckett's theatre becomes more important than any system of ‘meaning’ that might be extracted from the words of the text or from the ‘symbolism’ of the sets,...

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Steven Connor (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Connor, Steven. “‘What? Where?’ Presence and Repetition in Beckett's Theatre.” In Rethinking Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Lance St. John Butler and Robin J. Davis, pp. 1-19. New York, N.Y.: St Martin's Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Connor analyzes the voices, sounds, silences, and use of repetition in Beckett's plays. Connor contends that without being able to depend on physicality, the sounds coupled with the repetitions create a “space” for the audience's inspection.]

Beckett's turn to the theatre has often been represented as the expression of a longing for an art of visibility and tangibility as a relief from the...

(The entire section is 7660 words.)

Keir Elam (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Elam, Keir. “Dead Heads: Damnation-Narration in the ‘Dramaticules.’” In The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, edited by John Pilling, pp. 145-66. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Elam illustrates Beckett's repetitive use of aged, disembodied heads and faces in his later short plays to represent death, darkness, the afterlife, and Hell on Earth. Elam makes many comparisons between these short plays and Dante's Inferno and Purgatorio.]

E un ch'avea perduti ambo li orecchi per la freddura, pur col viso in giùe disse ‘Perché cotanto in noi ti specchi?’(1)

Dante, Inferno, Canto...

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Enoch Brater (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Brater, Enoch. “Opening Lines: Reading Beckett Backwards.” Samuel Beckett Today 6 (1997): 19-29.

[In the following essay, Brater studies the uniqueness of many of the opening lines from Beckett's plays, explores their portent, and probes the non-linear aspects of the plays.]

I

Although Beckett has often been discussed as a modernist writer of termination, of “reckoning closed and story ended,” his work as a whole displays a remarkable range of beginnings. Even before he took up writing for the stage seriously, he had calculated on the effect of opening a story with a line an early piece of fiction might have called a real...

(The entire section is 4369 words.)

Andrew Kennedy (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Kennedy, Andrew. “Beckett and the Modern/Postmodern Debate.” Samuel Beckett Today 6 (1997): 255-65.

[In the following essay, Kennedy argues that although Beckett's plays have postmodernist elements, they are fundamentally different from true postmodern works.]

Our general topic (at the Strasbourg colloquium, April 1996) invited paradox. For the title itself invokes a set of binary critical terms that Beckett never used, and might well have abhorred, as he had a clear perception of the superficiality and cramping effect of critical terms.1 Moreover, Beckett critics have also tended to avoid our current terminology of ‘isms’: a quick check...

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Paul Lawley (essay date January 2000)

SOURCE: Lawley, Paul. “‘The Rapture of Vertigo’: Beckett's Turning-Point.” Modern Language Review 95, no. 1 (January 2000): 28-40.

[In the following essay, Lawley probes Beckett's characters' tendency to leave the known—albeit unhappy—stability of their lives and throw themselves, unbalanced, toward death, chaos, and subsequent rebirth.]

In interview, Samuel Beckett always evinced a sharp sense of the shape of his creative life. There had been a large shift and it had been relatively sudden, a recognizable turning-point: ‘Molloy and the others came to me the day I became aware of my own folly’ [‘le jour où j'ai pris conscience de ma...

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William S. Haney II (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Haney, William S, II. “Beckett Out of His Mind: The Theatre of the Absurd.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 34, no. 2 (fall 2001): 39-55.

[In the following essay, Haney uses Eastern philosophies to explain the levels of consciousness in Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Endgame.]

INTRODUCTION

Playwrights such as Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Harold Pinter write in a context in which traditional narratives, or what Lyotard calls grand or metanarrative (31-35), no longer inspire confidence, leaving society with a sense of alienation and loss. These dramatists were impelled by their historical and cultural contexts to...

(The entire section is 6110 words.)