Beckett, Samuel 1906–
Beckett is an Irish-born playwright, novelist, poet, critic, essayist, short story writer, and translator who now resides in Paris and writes predominantly in French. In Beckett's drama, the traditional literary concepts of time, place, dramatic language, and character are suspended, as the playwright explores the meaning of existence and its presentation. The viewer is presented with fragments of sentences in the place of dialogue, and characters whose identities and even names remain in question. The recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1969, Beckett continues to influence contemporary drama and to inspire critical exegesis as perhaps no one else has in contemporary literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 1,2,3,4,6,9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
The human condition, Heidegger says, is to be there. Probably it is the theater, more than any other mode of representing reality, which reproduces this situation most naturally. The dramatic character is on stage, that is his primary quality: he is there.
Samuel Beckett's encounter with this requirement afforded a priori, an exceptional interest: at last we would see Beckett's man, we would see Man. For the novelist, by carrying his explorations ever farther, managed only to reduce more on every page our possibilities of apprehending him. (p. 111)
Thus all these creatures which have paraded past us served only to deceive us; they occupied the sentences of the novel in place of the ineffable being who still refuses to appear there, the man incapable of recuperating his own existence, the one who never manages to be present.
But now we are in the theater. And the curtain goes up….
The set represents nothing, or just about. (p. 112)
This is called Waiting for Godot. The performance lasts nearly three hours.
From this point of view alone, there is something surprising: during these three hours, the play holds together, without a hollow, though it consists of nothing but emptiness, without a break, though it would seem to have no reason to continue or to conclude. From beginning to end, the audience follows; it may lose countenance sometimes, but remains somehow compelled by these two beings, who do nothing, who say virtually nothing, who have no other quality than to be present.
From the very first performance, the virtually unanimous critics have emphasized the public character of the spectacle. As a matter of fact, the words "experimental theater" no longer apply here: what we have is simply theater, which everyone can see, from which everyone immediately derives his enjoyment.
Is this to say that no one misjudges it? Of course not. Godot is misjudged in every way, just as everyone misjudges his own misery. There is no lack of explanations, which are offered from every side, left and right, each more futile than the next.
Godot is God. Don't you see that the word is the diminutive of the root-word God which the author has borrowed from his mother tongue? After all, why not? Godot—why not, just as well?—is the earthly ideal of a better social order. Do we not aspire to a better life, better food, better clothes, as well as to the possibility of no longer being beaten? And this Pozzo, who is precisely not Godot—is he not the man who keeps thought enslaved? Or else Godot is death: tomorrow we will hang ourselves, if it does not come all by itself. Godot is silence; we must speak while waiting for it: in order to have the right, ultimately, to keep still. Godot is that inaccessible self Beckett pursues through his entire oeuvre, with this constant hope: "This time, perhaps, it will be me, at last."
But these images, even the most ridiculous ones, which thus try as best they can to limit the damages, do not obliterate from anyone's mind the reality of the drama itself, that part which is both the most profound and quite superficial, about which there is nothing else to say: Godot is that character for whom two tramps are waiting at the edge of a road, and who does not come.
As for Gogo and Didi, they refuse even more stubbornly any other signification than the most banal, the most immediate one: they are men. And their situation is summed up in this simple observation, beyond which it does not seem possible to advance: they are there, they are on the stage.
Attempts doubtless already existed, for some time, which rejected the stage movement of the bourgeois theater. Godot, however, marks in this realm a kind of finality. Nowhere had the risk been so great, for what is involved this time, without ambiguity, is what is essential; nowhere, moreover, have the means employed been so poor; yet never, ultimately, has the margin of misunderstanding been so negligible. (pp. 114-16)
What does Waiting for Godot offer us? It is hardly enough to say that nothing happens in it. That there should be neither complications nor plot of any kind has already been the case on other stages. Here, it is less than nothing, we should say: as if we were watching a kind of regression beyond nothing. As always in Samuel Beckett, what little had been given to us at the start—and which seemed to be nothing—is soon corrupted before our eyes, degraded further, like Pozzo who returns deprived of sight, dragged on by Lucky deprived of speech—and like, too, that carrot which in the second act is no longer anything but a radish….
"This is becoming really insignificant," one of the vagabonds says at this point. "Not enough," says the other. And a long silence punctuates his answer.
It will be evident, from these two lines, what distance we have come from the verbal delirium [found in theater before Beckett]. From start to finish, the dialogue of Godot is moribund, extenuated, constantly located at those frontiers of agony where all of Beckett's "heroes" move, concerning whom we often cannot even be certain that they are still on this side of their death. (pp. 116-17)
As for the argument, it is summarized in four words: "We're waiting for Godot"—which continually recur, like a refrain. But like a stupid and tiresome refrain, for such waiting interests no one; it...
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Samuel Beckett's fictional world, especially Watt, contains a quasi-Rabelaisian parody of all the rhetorical and logical devices that have permitted Western man, like Beckett's Ubu-esque creation, the "man-pot" Mahood, to hold a "partially waterproof tarpaulin" over his skull. Describing, reasoning, discussing, examining—Beckett's characters never tire of these activities, though no two of them proceed in exactly the same way. They share our "deplorable mania" not only for "when something happens wanting to know what" but furthermore for wanting, like Watt, to know why. Beckett is thus something of a contemporary Faust who, through the agency of his characters, indiscriminately, and with ferocious humor, undermines all our past and present attempts to give reality an intelligible structure, to "think out" our human situation. (p. 74)
Like Joyce, perhaps still more than Joyce, Beckett seems marked by the scholasticism of his philosophy classes at Trinity College. We can find many traces of it in his imaginary world. Descartes and Geulincx are perhaps given an important role in his early novels because they broke with the great intellectual tradition which from Plato to Thomas Aquinas, via Aristotle, conceived creation as a moving hierarchy of creatures oriented toward a perfect and definitive form, a final cause, God. Descartes thus unintentionally prepared the way for Beckett's "great articulates"—creatures whose special articulation, in body, thought or speech, even though sadly defective, makes them forget that they are really "frightened vagabonds," willy-nilly dragging aimlessly along, dying by degrees, while words and images spin round and round inside their bony white skulls. Skulls, jars, rooms, or other habitations, and the monotonous surrounding "country" form the two inseparable and rhythmically alternating settings for the adventures of Beckett's great articulates: beings who travel, or rather wander, toward some illusory "home" or "refuge," telling each other their adventures, while their dual disarticulation proceeds insidiously, "by direct route."
Beckett's characters seem to parody the pre-Copernican theory that all incomplete and abortive forms move toward that which perfects them by completing them. They are strangely intent on travel if only in spirit, even when bedridden or "in jars," or on relating their travels; they seek one another and form unstable couples when, for a few brief moments, one seems to appear in order to complete the other…. Identified with each in turn, yet each time reemerging, modified by the contact, just as the different characters emerge from one another, there always finally remains he who is known only by his voice, a voice which, as a matter of fact, is not his own, the nameless one who is "alone here, the first and last" and nonetheless is never there, the animator of this verbal cosmos and source of its Logos, like the God of Genesis.
Murphy, tied to his rocking-chair by seven scarfs, attempting to attain perfect repose through an increasingly frenetic rocking can hardly fail to remind us, however vaguely, of certain Thomistic categories: that, for example, of celestial beings halfway between God and terrestrial beings who, since they are endowed with essential forms, know no other kind of movement than that of movement in repose. Murphy's ignominious fall, hindside foremost—which does not in the least discourage Murphy himself—is but the first of a whole series of falls precipitating Beckett's characters, one after the other, into any and every muddy ditch. Beckett thus brings out both the pathos and absurdity of our mental postures by grossly simplifying them and turning them into concrete situations which his characters act out physically: Pim (whose identity merges with that of the narrator of How It Is), his shoulders firmly encircled by an arm whose hand plunges into his bag, crawling in the mud with a can opener, his main educational toool, between his buttocks, is the latest, and strangest, of Beckett's fantastic inventions. (pp. 75-6)
A Beckett character's means of locomotion is a piece of factual evidence, a donnée such as might be discerned by an inhuman eye observing the successive variations each infinitesimal character brings to the continuous, irresistible movement carrying it along into the interior of an unchanging countryside.
Beckett's cosmos retains a few traces of the medieval sky, "a world up there" occasionally glimpsed "in the blue," far from the mud and excrements. Although the episodes in Murphy are located, with Joycean precision, in London and Beckett's early environment near Dublin, where Watt also begins and ends, the scenes of the succeeding novels become progressively vague…. [After] Watt, Beckett's characters evolve in a setting which is, on the whole, more in the tradition of Dante or of Milton; we sense a familiar metaphysical vision beyond the imaginary structure. (pp. 77-8)
All Beckett's characters, including Murphy, are victimized by words, and all, beginning with Watt, must contend with that voice, "qua-qua," presiding over the birth of characters and scenery which accompanies the reader as faithfully as Virgil accompanied Dante. Unlike Virgil, however, it has a wide range of tones, according to whether or not it asks, or answers, all the questions. (p. 79)
Speech is the animating principle of Beckett's comedy which, as such, is very far removed from that of Dante. Unlike Dante's tortured victims, Beckett's characters discuss their miserable and repugnant situation very calmly; they find it not only tolerable but, on the whole, fairly good and, primarily concerned over the possibility of eviction, accept its inevitable deterioration in good spirit. When it comes to describing this situation, enumerating its advantages, discussing its resources, effecting certain improvements hanging on, they could hardly be excelled. (p. 80)
If, however, these characters are commanded to tell a story or relate their own adventures, panic inevitably ensures. Molloy, Moran, Mahood, and others assume voices and forms as best they may, appear and disappear without ever being completely born; they die piecemeal, departing this life feet first as all must do, but without ever ceasing to disappear; meanwhile "the other," the nameless narrator who, after Watt, always begins the story in the first person, speaks on and on…. A sort...
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Beckett's humor seems inseparable from dead seriousness. All his best jokes depend on a double-edged attitude toward the fact of human creation. In order to laugh, the joker partly identifies with a God's-eye point of view, detached and "scientifically" neutral; yet we know and the speaker knows how devastating the consequences of the joke are for the speaker. In Happy Days Winnie says, "How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones …?" The "sniggering with him" has just the right touch of sneaky and obsequious appreciation of His point of view, but the jokes are criticized with an alarming audacity as though Winnie were an all-licensed...
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The title How It Is suggests that an answer is being given to the question, "How is it in the world, in this human life of ours?" That interpretation seems the more certain because of the nature of the narrative. The nameless narrator tells how he moves painfully through a world of warm mud. We hear that he meets another like himself, tortures him, and then finds that his victim has moved away in the mud. The narrator proceeds to speculate at large upon life in the muddy world. He draws up theories about his own experience being only part of a series of similar encounters in the mud, where pairs of beings are continually meeting; where each one plays in turn the part of the torturer and the tortured; and where...
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Stylistically and thematically, [First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative, and The End] mark what is probably the most distinct transition in the entire [Beckett] canon. Shifting from the English third person (of More Pricks Than Kicks, Murphy, and Watt) to the French first person, Beckett creates a fictional hero and environment so uniquely and consistently characteristic that they are recognizable (although often changed in certain particulars) throughout the remainder of his published prose. The hero is no longer undecided, as the earlier heroes Belacqua, Murphy, and Watt are, between life in the macrocosm of the outer world or in the microcosm of the mind—his choice is the microcosm, a...
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