Embers Critical Context
by Samuel Beckett

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Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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The situating of Embers in the context of theater history, of twentieth century literature, and of Beckett’s oeuvre is a task made difficult by the apparent slightness of the work. It is, after all, a work of little length and even less mimetic substance, belonging to a form—radio drama—which has not attracted much critical attention, particularly in the United States. Critics—as well as audiences—have found Beckett’s earlier, longer, and slightly more conventional plays for stage, En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954) and Endgame, more appealing. Beckett himself has downplayed the importance of all of his dramatic works, this despite his having been placed in the front rank of absurdist playwrights and his having been awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature for a “body of work that, in new forms of fiction and the theatre, has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exultation.”

Slight (short) and slighted though it may be, Embers is nevertheless both a representative work and an important, innovative one. It shows a typically Beckettian movement away from plot and character toward a divestiture of all that is merely theatrical and seemingly human—toward, that is, the distilled essence of both. This “disintegration of form and content,” as Raymond Federman calls it, was Beckett’s career-long obsession. “The artistic tendency is not expansive but a contraction,” Beckett wrote in 1935. “And art is the apotheosis of solitude.” This contractive movement inevitably leads, as in Embers, to the isolated character whose existence is not even seen but heard, or implied, perhaps merely imagined. This contraction in turn leads the character to whatever consolations memory can provide.

These consolations prove ambiguous, however, for memory is, as Beckett has defined it, “a clinical laboratory stocked with poison and remedy, stimulant and sedative.” Memory relieves the individual of the intolerable burden of existential isolation, but only at the price of making one even more aware of one’s predicament, which may be not merely psychological, as in All That Fall and Krapp’s Last Tape, but ontological and epistemological as well, as in Company (pr. 1983) and Rockaby (pr., pb. 1981). As Beckett’s plays and fictions oscillate between past and present, hope and despair, speech and silence, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish memory from imagination, recollection from solipsistic projection.