Beckett, Samuel (Barclay)


Samuel (Barclay) Beckett 1906–

Irish-born dramatist, novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, poet, essayist, and translator.

One of the most celebrated authors in twentieth-century literature, Beckett is especially recognized for his significant impact on contemporary drama. His play En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot) is a seminal work of Theater of the Absurd, a post-World War II trend in drama characterized by experimental techniques and philosophical nihilism. In his works, Beckett expounds a philosophy of negation through characters who face a meaningless and absurd existence without the comforts of religion, myth, or philosophical absolutes. Through economical, fragmented language and stark images of alienation and absurdity, Beckett creates art out of minimal material. His preoccupation as a writer has been to experiment with language in order to present truths that are pure of rhetorical embellishment. Beckett was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in literature for contributing a "body of work that, in new forms of fiction and the theatre, has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exultation."

Beckett was born and raised in Ireland. He traveled to Paris in the late 1920s and became associated with James Joyce, whom he regarded as a consummate artist. Beckett's first volume of fiction, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), won modest critical attention. This book, which can be considered a novel or a collection of interrelated short stories, reflects Joyce's influence in its embellished prose and is considered atypical of Beckett's work. The novel Murphy (1938) initiated Beckett's use of a spare prose style and presents a greater emphasis on the Cartesian mind-body dualism, which had been touched upon in his earlier work.

During World War II Beckett collaborated with the French Resistance and had to flee Paris in order to avoid capture by the Nazis. In the years immediately following the war, Beckett returned to Paris and created what many consider his finest prose achievements. The novels Molloy (1951), Malone muerte (1951; Malone Dies), and L'innomable (1953; The Unnamable) introduced into Beckett's writing two important developments: he began writing in French rather than English, finding that he could write with greater austerity, and the novels are narrated as first-person monologues. Although these novels generated little interest upon publication, they have become widely recognized as among his most significant works. These novels, which can be considered a trilogy, are narrated by a succession of characters who might all be variations of a single individual. Several of these narrators have names that begin with the letter M, and it has been suggested that M is a cipher for man. The narrators suffer rapid physical decay while their minds reassure them of their existence. In The Unnamable, the physical decay culminates in a being composed only of a mind and a mouth. This being, like many of Beckett's characters, creates stories and contrives long, rambling monologues as a means of counteracting the pervasiveness of silence and nothingness.

Dissatisfied with the progress he was making on his prose works, Beckett experimented with drama. He wrote Waiting for Godot in the late 1940s, but the text of the play was not published until 1952. First performed in Paris, Godot became an immediate success. The play concerns two down-and-out characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who await the arrival of a Mr. Godot with whom they apparently have an appointment. While waiting for Godot, these characters pass the time by engaging in pointless activities and by musing upon existence. Their attempts to stay amused are played out against a bare stage setting. The actions, gestures, and words of the characters are usually taken to represent the human condition. Godot has been interpreted in many ways, from a parable of Christian salvation to a depiction of the meaninglessness of life, but such interpretations are often considered to limit the full implications of the play. In its deemphasis of plot, scenery, dramatic action, and character psychology, Godot defies conventional forms of drama. Such innovations by Beckett, Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco, and others, who have been categorized as dramatists of the Theater of the Absurd, have had a major influence on contemporary drama.

Beckett's next play, Fin de partie (1957; Endgame), like Godot focuses on a pair of characters faced with nothingness as they attempt to find meaning for their existence. Critics have noted that the characters of this play resemble chess pieces playing an "endgame" in which the outcome has already been determined. The black humor and pathetic circumstance of these players is grimmer and more intense than the plight of Vladimir and Estragon. In Endgame and subsequent plays, Beckett further develops his innovative theatrical techniques and metaphysical concerns. Krapp's Last Tape (1958) depicts a single character who, with the aid of a tape recorder, relives the past that has led to his present, alienated state. Winnie, the protagonist of Happy Days (1961), continues to perform her daily rituals while sinking into the earth. Beckett's later drama becomes even more minimalistic, often displaying striking technical virtuosity by forcing the audience to concentrate on a single fully developed image, such as the raving, disembodied mouth in Not I (1972). Many critics consider Rockaby (1980) one of the most striking achievements of his minimalization of drama. Rockaby is built on the image of an old woman in a rocking chair listening to a recording of what seems to be her life story. Most critics praise the mixture of poetic language and dramatic image as powerful and lyrical. Although some critics judge these minimal dramas as a whole to be a waste of Beckett's talent, many others find his work to be continually fresh and innovative and praise him for achieving forceful dramatic statements with increasingly less material.

Beckett's prose work since the trilogy mirrors the increasing fragmentation and the inclination toward brevity apparent in his later drama. Comment c'est (1961; How It Is) was his first "full-length" piece to appear since The Unnamable. In his prose, Beckett has been steadily omitting the use of various grammatical elements; in How It Is he abandons almost all forms of punctuation. In later works, which consist almost entirely of collections of fragments and short stories, Beckett projects intense, often painful images through rhythmic language that stresses and repeats individual words or phrases. Beckett's most recent prose echoes themes and techniques that have been evolving in his work, with special emphasis on the narrative aspect of storytelling. Compagnie (1979; Company), generally regarded as the most successful of these later pieces, concerns a voice telling a life's story to a being lying alone in the dark. The theme of devising tales for the sake of companionship, or company, which Beckett has been developing throughout his career, becomes the main focus of Company.

Although Beckett's works are darkly comic, his characters often grotesque, and his themes usually absurdist, he is not generally considered a nihilist. Beckett is instead widely recognized as having a keen sense of the modern human condition, especially the impotence and ignorance of humankind. According to Robert Martin Adams, Beckett "has kept open the possibilities of humanity by cutting the throat of literature and forcing his readers to confront naked conditions of mere existence—without sham exhilaration or despair, but coldly, very coldly."

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 13, 15.)

Hugh Kenner

There is no literary parallel for [Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable,] the three books in which Samuel Beckett, releasing a certain violence of temperament evident in his earliest works and suppressed in Murphy and Watt, turned his face away from every accessible satisfaction, even from the familiar contours of his own language, and jettisoning the very matrices of fiction—narrator, setting, characters, theme, plot—devoted his scrutiny … to the very heart of novel writing: a man in a room writing things out of his head while every breath he draws brings death nearer.

From that everything flows, including the bedridden Malone's frequent proposal to enumerate his possessions, like a senescent Crusoe. Reminiscence, fantasy, description, reflection, all the paraphernalia of fiction pass through these books with the disarming obviousness of the unexpected. The narrator constantly shifts his focus of attention in order to keep himself interested. That is what the professional fictionist does too, though he would claim if pressed that he did it in order to keep the reader interested. Yet from no one is a reader more remote than from a novelist; the sheer labor of covering pages fills up his working days. (p. 62)

The trilogy is, among other things, a compendious abstract of all the novels that have ever been written, reduced to their most general terms.

And not only novels; for the trilogy also manages a sardonic counterpoint to the epic tradition of the West, which proved to be mortal, and indeed came to an end (unless we are going to take Paradise Lost for a new beginning) at about the time the novel was invented. That tradition started with Homer, who if he had been a twentieth-century Irishman living in Paris, might well have written the first half of Molloy instead of what he did write, if it was he who wrote it at all.

What Molloy is writing, sitting up in bed, is perhaps a faithful narrative, or perhaps he is making it up. At any rate, it purports to deal with his journey to that room. He set out, it seems, on a bicycle, intending to visit his mother (also bed-ridden); and he has executed a huge sweep, more or less circular, through the to him known world, in the course of which he has lost the bicycle, the use of his legs, the toes on one foot, everything indeed but his crutches and the will to proceed. There has been a Calypso, named Lousse, in whose house he stayed some months after an acquaintance founded on running his bicycle over her dog. There has been a Cyclopean police sergeant, who threatened him with a cylindrical ruler, and before whom our wanderer altered his fortunes by proclaiming his own name. ("My name is Molloy, I cried, all of a sudden, now I remember.") There have been ramparts, and seaboard privations. He had just reached the point when it was impractical to drag himself further on his stomach, and was considering rolling, when help mysteriously arrived.

The narrative is now assumed by a certain Moran. He also is writing, and his story follows Molloy's about as faithfully as Virgil's followed Homer's. Like Virgil, he also imparts a notably administrative tone, being (unlike Molloy, or Homer) a citizen of a substantial community. ("I have a huge bunch of keys, it weighs over a pound. Not a door, not a drawer in my house but the key to it goes with me, wherever I go.") He is writing the narrative of a journey, by bicycle and on foot, accompanied by his son, which was meant to be a search for Molloy, but which in fact brought him back to his own house, minus son and bicycle, crippled, stripped, discredited, and barely distinguishable from his quarry.

So much for the Odyssey and Aeneid of this new graph of civilization. We next encounter its Divine Comedy, which revolves about another man in bed. He is called Malone, at least that is what he is called now, though there are signs that he is a new phase of Molloy, or perhaps of Molloy and Moran together (unless a Molloy is simply what a Moran turns into when he goes looking for a Molloy). Malone too is writing, with a stub of a pencil in an...

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Tom F. Driver

The roots of modern tragicomedy lie in Chekhov, who was the first important modern playwright to make art out of the representation of the qualities of life rather than its actions…. His innovation made possible, though he did not know this, a purely theatrical theater, of which the modern epitome has been reached in the plays of Samuel Beckett. (p. 386)

All of Beckett's plays are "games" for actors. In these games the audience also has a role to play, one that allows a certain freedom for improvisation of response, just as the technique required of the actors also includes a good bit of improvisatory invention. Long before he called one of his pieces Play, Beckett was writing playful...

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Ronald Binns

[In] contrast to the progression of Joyce's oeuvre, where each new work appeared more exhaustive and revolutionary than its predecessors, Beckett came to offer a modern regression. His career, as it developed, actually seemed to reverse the traditional picture of artistic development. Each new work of Beckett's shrank in length; minimal plot, social setting and characterization became yet more minimal. The logical point of termination began to look like silence, the pure blank page. This was the meaning of Beckett for many in the 1960s. But from the viewpoint of 1970s the perspective is quite different. The myth of regression has collapsed. In retrospect we can see how the apparent dead-ends of Beckett's career...

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Jeremy Treglown

As you would expect, the situation [in Company] is as you would expect. A narrator narrates about someone almost terminally deprived, who may or may not be the narrator himself and of whom what can be said is debatable but in any case exiguous. The fiction exists on the brink of non-existence, and through proposition and counter-proposition constantly threatens to cancel itself out. Yet this minimalism and self-contradiction make it both a touching metaphor for human life and a vehicle through which the largest and strongest emotions about birth, childhood, love, old age and impending death unequivocally make themselves felt.

Why, since we know from the first sentence that what Company...

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J. D. O'Hara

"Company" reports on a life from the inside; it is striking evidence of the primacy of mind over matter in the heavily documented world of modern literature.

Early in his career Beckett announced that a writer's task is excavatory, his goal "the ideal core of the onion" (without tears). Many of his fictional characters, turning their attention inward, hear voices in their heads. One character even tells us: "I began to think, that is to say to listen harder." "Company" continues this excavation. We listen as a speechless man is told the story of his life by a voice. Though speechless, the man is able to imagine his situation, alone in the dark and hearing a voice that tells him stories and insists...

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Michael Wood

The setting of almost all of Samuel Beckett's work is that of Krapp's Last Tape, written in 1958: "A late evening in the future." The future is not a place, and not much of a time; it is a guess, a possibility, a threat. We may say it is in the head, and that is where Beckett's characters often think they are: in an "imaginary head," an "abandoned head"; "we are needless to say in a skull"; "perhaps we're in a head, it's as dark as in a head before the worms get at it, ivory dungeon." But the head in this meaning is not a place either. It is a metaphor, a spatialization of the unseeable mind, and it is important not to be taken in by the familiarity of the figure….

Another name, another...

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Peter Fenves

A special continuity runs through Beckett's works. On almost any page of his numerous novels, stories, plays, and even poems, the words conspire to create a sense of déjà vu: "I've seen this before," every reader responds. Within each work itself, certain lines return to haunt the narration, inspiring an overwhelming sense of remembrance.

The same words that inhabit his earlier writings return in Beckett's newest novel, Company, but something other than the familiar textual pattern that we recognize is woven into the novel: memories that have a suddenness and a clarity almost unknown in his previous books stand away from the page—the memories seem to stand against the page....

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Jascha Kessler

Samuel Beckett was born around Easter time, April 13, 1906. His newest book, Ill Seen Ill Said is a sort of birthday present for himself, one might say, mentally grinning with the silent laughter that he has characterized as being most his own kind of laughter, a present for his 75th birthday. And what a fine present it is! Sixty-one short paragraphs of limpid, lucid, uncannily dense, yet light and powerful sentences; sentences neither prose nor poetry, or it would be much better to say, neither prose-poetry nor poetic prose. Essential Beckett, the Beckett of another mysterious little book like this, entitled The Lost Ones, written in the early 1970s….

The Lost Ones was a...

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Parrish Dice Henry

Company's fifty-seven pages make it rather an extended utterance from the master of compression whose appearances of the recent past have carried titles like Lessness, Ends and Odds, and Fizzles. What's more, it is a strikingly intimate book, arriving as something almost in the nature of a backstage pass, an invitation to the studio, and thus offering unique pleasures for admirers of Beckett's work. But this is a tale for careful telling, of necessity oblique. (p. 429)

[Beckett] has come to his readers as an unclamorous Ahab, a bowed affirmer, master of those who don't know, chronicler of the "little murmur of unconsenting man" (this from The Unnamable). Reading his...

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George Craig

With every new thing that Samuel Beckett has written there has been the temptation to say "Here at last is the real Beckett: this is where it was all leading." That has allowed one again and again the retrospect needed in order to set out the true configuration of his work, to get his measure—in short, to have done with him. Until, unforgivably (can the man not take a hint?), more words of his arrive and we have to go through the process again. And now there is the awkward, obtrusive presence of Mal vu mal dit, which he has translated as Ill Seen Ill Said. Is there to be no end to it?

The design of Ill Seen Ill Said faces us once again with a mixture of the familiar and...

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Enoch Brater

[Rockaby] continues Beckett's recent preoccupation with a small-scale play written specifically for a prerecorded voice in conflict with live stage action. A strange mixture of the carefully controlled and the spontaneous, the drama, whose sole protagonist is a woman dressed in black and whose only scenery is a rocking chair, restricts its subject matter and directs our attention instead to the formal elements of the play as performance. Light, sound, movement, and action therefore must be understood within the context established by this deliberately circumscribed stage space, an acting area in which a single image is expressed, explored, and advanced. Clear, articulate, definite, and precise, the visual...

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Bryan Appley Ard

Samuel Beckett is the greatest living master of the English language. When it comes down to the elemental craft involved in placing one word next to another he has no equal, indeed he has no close rival. Few would seriously attempt to deny this. But many would go on to add that the purposes to which he puts his artistry somehow constitute a sad waste, as if in selecting his austere subject matter he has deprived us of some beautifully written tales of family life or of a series of panoramic novels about society, history or culture.

In one sense such a reservation is understandable. Ever since his first poems Beckett has had no truck with the narrowing banalities of conventional artistic expression....

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Mel Gussow

From first to last, Samuel Beckett celebrates life while waiting fearfully for the arrival of death cloaked in the "old terror of night." His three new short plays … are epilogues to a "Catastrophe," to borrow the title of the evening's centerpiece. Each of the plays is an end game. Together, including two intermissions, they last only 70 minutes. In that brief time, they tantalize the mind as well as the eye.

In Beckett's lifetime of art, his themes have remained constant and timeless—man facing the unknowable and the unnameable with the courage of his pessimism. Though questions of power and domination are important in "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame," Beckett would not be regarded as...

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John Simon

Samuel Beckett is unquestionably the greatest playwright of the second half of our century. But he was always a minimalist, exulting in making do with less even as he strikingly evoked the daily depredations of existence on our decreasing potencies. He allowed his characters to do less and less, as his dramatic means became more and more stripped down. No further paring down is possible, yet Beckett continues to whittle away. In the corner into which he has deliberately painted himself, he can only bang his head against the wall; but the stunning éclat of this metaphysical head-banging has dwindled, with repetition, to a dullish thud….

[Ohio Impromptu, Catastrophe, and What Where...

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Richard Gilman

Beckett is the great master of less is more, of the fertile silence and the echoing nuance; no other living dramatist is so free of cant, sentimentality and verbal fuss.

If he now sometimes gives the impression of parodying himself or, less harshly, of working and reworking familiar materials, it doesn't much diminish my pleasure in his work. (p. 123)

Ohio Impromptu, which was written for and first performed at Beckett's seventy-fifth birthday celebration at Ohio State University a couple of years ago, is a two-character piece in which a reader, R …, reads to a listener, L …, a tale of love fading and finally dead. The first line is "Little left to tell"; the last is...

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Bob Halliday

With the publication of Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett seems once again to have escorted us to one of the limits of what can be done with fictional narrative. Readers who have been following the development of his late work are in for a surprise similar to the one which greeted the first readers of How It Is 20 years ago.

The content of this new work is a further reduction of the basic situation Beckett has been exploring with increasing compression and economy since his early trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, first written in French during the 1940s. A mind, trapped in a deteriorating or immobilized body, sustains its existence by various forms of...

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Valentine Cunningham

Who reads Beckett? As opposed, that is, to watching his stuff on stage or on television. One doubts if they are all that many…. But publishers appear to believe in the persistence of readerly interest, and in its variety; so that Beckett is made available, and to an extent surely unique among living authors, for communion—oecumenically, as it were—in a most interesting variety of kinds….

[Worstward Ho] is for the steady customers, whoever they are, the people waiting, one imagines not unkeenly, to pick up where the last published text of the master, Ill Seen, Ill Said, left them. For its part, [Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, edited by Ruby...

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