Krapp's Last Tape

by Samuel Beckett

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Critical Context

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Krapp’s Last Tape fits into the period of Samuel Beckett’s career during the late 1950’s when he was concerned with the voices of characters in a play more than their visual presence on stage. Though Krapp’s Last Tape was written for performance in the theater, it is more akin to the two radio plays All That Fall (pr., pb. 1957) and Embers (pr., pb. 1959) than to the plays for theater that earned for Beckett world fame. The radio plays dispense with physical trappings of theater, such trappings as had preoccupied Beckett in the writing of Fin de partie (pr., pb. 1957; Endgame, 1958), which among other things, examined the stage as artifice. In Embers and All That Fall, the stage is the listener’s imagination as simulated by voices and sound effects. This approach allowed Beckett to experiment with the illusoriness of language and therefore the illusoriness of the characters themselves. Beckett is at pains to show that the characters, whether in fiction or in drama, are projections of the imagination in the form of words. In All That Fall, the central character is preoccupied with her words as she speaks them. She senses that her words are somehow bizarre. Her husband suggests that she is struggling with a dead language. Language itself takes on unreal shadings, just as the specters of characters who speak from the radio. Embers, generally regarded as one of Beckett’s most difficult works, has only one character, Henry, in whose “existence” the audience can more or less trust. Henry’s fellow characters are very likely voices he orchestrates within his head.

During the 1950’s, Beckett also wrote mimes, such as Act Without Words I (pr., pb. 1957), which dispensed wholly with speech though allowing a whistle for communication to the single actor from an invisible presence evidently concerned with his plight. In the wordless plays, the visual dominates. The character is at the mercy of physical laws and his own physical routines in the gravity-based world.

In Krapp’s Last Tape, both worlds coexist. There is Krapp’s dumbshow before he settles down to hear the tapes, his fumbling with the boxes and reels, and his silent attentiveness to the bodiless taped voice. The two worlds coexist but do not interpenetrate. Throughout his career, whether in his novels or in his plays, Beckett has created characters whose reason for existing is to enact rituals—rituals of behavior in space and time, such as dressing themselves or moving stones about in their pockets or moving from point A to point B, and rituals of attending to words, usually their own, in which they have only tenuous faith. Compelled to move, stand, sit, recline, or embrace a woman, they are as well compelled to speak and to write stories about characters even less real than themselves. Krapp’s Last Tape epitomizes Beckett’s preoccupation with this very shaky ground, the irrevocable terminus for human beings: the passing away of one’s physical and verbal existence.

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Critical Evaluation