Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 10)
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;...
(The entire section is 2317 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 2672 words.)
John Rees Moore
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 Fool, presuming on her occupational immunity from reprisal. To be born a sentient, struggling creature merely to suffer a certain amount of frustration and pain and then be no more—what could be funnier than that? Such a life is a triple offense to even the rudimentary philosopher: against logic, against esthetics, against formal design, a denial of human value. Yet Beckett's humor is never merely a technique for deflation. It is, rather, integral to his structure of meaning. It is necessary to the action, and the suspense of his plays depends on it. (pp. 74-5)
[The] "problem" in Beckett's pieces for the theater is intellectual only in a special and limited sense. What is so impressive is the almost intolerable unity of...
(The entire section is 2694 words.)
ALICE and KENNETH HAMILTON
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 the transition is made by the victim of the encounter crawling away to find some one else to torture, while his torturer lies supine awaiting the arrival of some new ex-victim to torture him. Perhaps (so he speculates) the population of mud-dwellers may be in millions. Yet, finally, the narrator confesses that what he has said is all a lie. He never met anyone in the mud. All that he knows for certain is the mud and himself lying in it.
For the most part, How It Is has been taken to be an imaginative presentation of Beckett's view of human existence. As several critics have pointed out, the work indeed contains most of the "basic ingredients" of Beckett's previous fiction. And it is undeniable that portraying the...
(The entire section is 3044 words.)
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 descent inward toward the core of the self…. This descent becomes a quest which, fully defined in the trilogy and developed ever more intensively in the subsequent fiction, undergirds all of Beckett's work as a dominant theme, the quest for whatever constitutes metaphysical reality, for the essence of human experience. That this reality can finally be described only as nothing, as a Plenum-Void that never yields any substance but continually recedes into infinity, does not negate the centrality of this quest in Beckett's oeuvre. The failure of the quest does, however, negate anything that might be called development of character. Neither in these stories nor in the fiction that follows does a protagonist show real gain or make progress...
(The entire section is 2969 words.)