Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3112
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), an autobiographical novel by Beckett’s fellow Irishman James Joyce the reader follows the artistic awakenings of Stephen Dedalus, who, as the novel progresses, becomes increasingly certain of what he sees as his destiny to become The Great Artist. Stephen...
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In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), an autobiographical novel by Beckett’s fellow Irishman James Joyce the reader follows the artistic awakenings of Stephen Dedalus, who, as the novel progresses, becomes increasingly certain of what he sees as his destiny to become The Great Artist. Stephen is in constant rebellion against what he sees as the ‘‘nets’’ that attempt to ensnare artistic expression: Catholicism, nationalism, and creative conformity. Stephen’s determination to ‘‘forge in the smithy’’ of his soul ‘‘the uncreated conscience’’ of his race, however, is constantly undercut by the very things he wishes to flee: despite his disdain for the church, for example, his first great moment of inspiration owes as much to the image of the Virgin Mary as it does to that of the peasant girl whose beauty strikes his aesthetic sensibilities. Later he admits to a friend that while he does not believe in God, he does not have the courage to disbelieve in Him, either. Eventually, he decides that he must employ ‘‘silence, exile and cunning’’ if he is to escape the nets of tradition and that he must fly above the snares of Ireland. The novel ends as he leaves his homeland for Paris, where he is convinced he will be able to answer his calling.
Like Stephen, the protagonist of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape was, at one time, certain that he had the makings of The Great Artist. Unlike Joyce, however, who ends his Portrait with the hero looking forward to his new career, Beckett begins his play with the would-be artist in his last days and informs the audience, in a number of ways, that Krapp’s previous visions of grandeur were grounded more in his pompous ideas of self-importance than in any discernible vocation. As Stephen saw the need to flee from Ireland, Krapp felt a similar need to flee from his own humanity and reject the ‘‘light’’ of life and love. While Stephen’s success as an artist is questionable (we later learn, in Joyce’s Ulysses , that he has returned to Ireland without any crowns of laurel), Krapp’s failure is unmistakable: we watch him, on his sixtyninth birthday, mechanically remember (through the playing of a tape) his former self and ultimately come to a numbing realization: he has wasted his life in pursuit of a false identity of The Great Artist that he forged in the smithy of his soul thirty years ago. As Stephen could not truly flee his home (and all its religious and political associations), Krapp learns in his last days that he was a fool to think he could have said, as he so proudly did at the age of thirty-nine, ‘‘farewell to love.’’ His name, rather than his recorded aspirations, reveals his ultimate achievement.
While viewing the play, the audience actually meets three different (yet, in certain ways, similar) Krapps. The play begins with the sixty-nine-yearold Krapp on his birthday; when he listens to the tape he made of himself on his thirty-ninth birthday, we meet the ‘‘second’’ Krapp, who, in turn, comments on his recent replaying of the tape he made of himself at twenty-nine (the ‘‘third’’ Krapp). Thus, time in the play moves backwards and forwards at once, and it is through his moving back in time by listening to his past self (commenting on another past self) while simultaneously moving into his increasingly desolate future that Krapp eventually comes to his moment of crisis. By comparing the three Krapps, the viewer (much like Krapp himself) eventually finds that the tapes reveal the life of a man who (by his own choice) became increasingly convinced of his own superiority over the natural desires of humanity. Unlike Joyce, who portrays the growth of his artist-hero’s mind, Beckett invites the viewer to learn how his artist-hero has regressed into an absurd, clownish ghost.
To better understand how the play operates on a viewer, a brief ‘‘biography of Krapp’’ may clarify the reasons the older Krapps comment as they do on their younger counterparts. In his twenties, Krapp lived on Kedar Street with Bianca. He made ‘‘resolutions’’ to drink less and have a ‘‘less engrossing sexual life.’’ His father died, his bowel troubles began and he sensed ‘‘shadows of the opus . . . magnum’’: the masterpiece he imagined he would someday write. At thirty-nine, his mother died (after a ‘‘long viduity,’’ i.e., widowhood) which Krapp learned from watching her window from a bench outside her house. Krapp felt no sorrow (‘‘There I sat . . . wishing she were gone’’) and played with a dog while his mother lay dying. The rest of that year was one of ‘‘profound gloom and indigence’’ until a night in March, when Krapp ‘‘suddenly saw the whole thing’’ and had his great ‘‘vision’’ of his calling and of his destiny as The Great Artist. To facilitate what he saw as his impending greatness, Krapp broke off with his current love after their final sexual encounter in a boat. At sixty-nine, Krapp has seen no artistic success: his ‘‘opus magnum’’ has sold only seventeen copies (netting him ‘‘one pound six and something’’). He is a myopic alcoholic who stumbles about the stage yet remains convinced that his decision to forsake love in the name of his ‘‘artistry’’ was the correct one that is, until the end of the play. As the play’s title indicates, there will be no seventieth birthday for Krapp.
Once the events in Krapp’s life are understood, the viewer can then begin asking questions about why Beckett uses this particular man’s life to explore the issues of disillusionment and isolation. The first question that needs to be answered is why Beckett has Krapp make these tapes in the first place the answer has to do with Beckett’s showing the audience Krapp’s inflated sense of his own importance (which will vanish in the play’s final moments). Through some arithmetic, the viewer can deduce that since there are five spools of tape in each box and nine boxes of tapes in Krapp’s desk, there are forty-five tapes in all. Krapp is sixty-nine, so he began making his annual tapes at the age of twenty-four (69-45=24). Krapp makes a new tape on each of his birthdays at the exact time of his birth, demonstrating his idea that his life is worth recording. But since many people keep diaries and journals, Krapp’s tapes may not strike the viewer as particularly pompous until one begins to examine the way he guards and orders them. The tapes are all neatly arranged with their contents briefly described in a ledger that Krapp keeps, along with the tapes themselves, locked in his desk. Consider the idea that anyone would want (or even care) about Krapp’s tapes or that they need to be catalogued for the benefit of future generations the notion is absurd. Consider also the young James Boswell, author of The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), who began keeping a journal at the age of twenty-two: he records in his London Journal his desire to have his diaries ‘‘carefully laid up among the archives’’ of his family and (in an even more Krappian moment) his conviction that ‘‘there is a blossom about me of something more distinguished than the generality of mankind.’’ Like Boswell, the youthful Krapp was convinced he would ‘‘blossom’’ into a figure whose life would be worth recording. Krapp uses tapes because he loves to hear the sound of his own voice (as Beckett’s stage directions about the thirty-nine year-old voice suggest) and because the use of a machine (rather than pen and paper) suggests the mechanical nature of the elder Krapp. (Also note the irony of Krapp as a writer who does not actually write anything.) His recorder is an electric brain that he must use in lieu of actual memories, since he has become so distant from his own past and the emotional life he once possessed. Although he consults an envelope on which are scribbled his notes for this year’s recording, his present ruminations are hollow and trivial.
The previously mentioned troubles with Krapp’s bowels link the three Krapps together. At twentynine, Krapp was plagued by ‘‘unattainable laxation,’’ at thirty-nine Krapp described himself as ‘‘sound as a bell, apart from my old weakness’’ and at his present sixty-nine, Krapp complains of the ‘‘sour cud and the iron stool.’’ Krapp’s lifelong constipation, however, is partly his own doing, since he constantly eats bananas an old home remedy for ‘‘stopping up’’ the bowels. The thirty-nine-year-old Krapp reports, ‘‘Have just eaten three bananas and only with difficulty refrained from a fourth. Fatal things for a man with my condition’’; the older Krapp eats two bananas before he utters a single word. Besides their association with silent-movie clowns slipping on their peels (which Krapp almost does), Krapp’s eating of so many bananas is symbolic of his desire to become emotionally constipated and ‘‘stop up’’ the natural flow and release of human longings and desires. Krapp sees his intellectual ‘‘visions’’ as much more important than the love (or even company) of other people, and has acted accordingly, rarely leaving his room except for a single visit to ‘‘vespers’’ where he fell asleep. To Krapp, The Great Artist cannot be sidetracked by love and must (like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth), ‘‘stop up / The access and passage’’ of emotion to his heart.
‘‘Stopping up,’’ however, is not the same as ‘‘wiping out,’’ and despite Krapp’s efforts to flee his own humanity, his emotions eventually do emerge, painfully, like his ‘‘iron stool.’’ When listening to his younger self, the thirty-nine-yearold Krapp mocks his previous romance with a girl named Bianca: ‘‘Well out of that Jesus yes! Hopeless business.’’ Similarly, the sixty-nine-year-old Krapp mocks the thirty-nine-year-old’s farewell to the girl in the boat: ‘‘Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to think I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that’s all done with anyway.’’ These two Krapps’ jeers at their former selves are ‘‘emotional bananas’’ means by which the Krapp looking back on his past attempts to ‘‘stop up’’ any regrets he may feel. But emotions, like bodily waste, will eventually come out, and Beckett suggests as much through the two Krapps’ mentioning of the eyes of the women they forsook. After mocking his previous love for Bianca, the thirty-nine-year-old Krapp remarks (after a significant pause), ‘‘Nothing much about her, apart from a tribute to her eyes. Very warm. I saw them again. (Pause.) Incomparable! (Pause.) Ah well.’’ (The regret in Krapp’s ‘‘Ah well’’ (repeated at four different times in the play) gives the lie to his presumed haughtiness.) Similarly, the same Krapp, after telling his love ‘‘it was hopeless and no good’’ going on, ‘‘asked her to look’’ at him. Krapp may fool himself, but he cannot fool the viewer, who realizes that Beckett is offering us a glimpse of a man whose emotional constipation is about to end; the ‘‘iron stool’’ of Krapp’s epiphany will prove painful indeed.
Before advancing to this moment, however, one should also consider how Beckett uses light and dark symbolism to suggest Krapp’s growing isolation and abandoning of his humanity. For example, as a youth, living with Bianca (whose name means ‘‘white’’ in Italian) on Kedar Street (‘‘Kedar’’ is an anagram of ‘‘darke’’), Krapp was able to fend off the ‘‘darkness’’ of isolation inherent in the world (‘‘Kedar Street’’) with his emotional attachment to another person. While his mother was dying, Krapp sat outside gazing at a ‘‘dark young beauty’’ who was ‘‘all white and starch’’ and pushing a ‘‘big black hooded perambulator’’; the chiaroscuro images here and mingling of death and birth in the ‘‘black perambulator,’’ suggests the death of Krapp’s worries over his mother and the possible birth of himself as an artist. The ‘‘little white dog’’ to whom Krapp tossed a ‘‘black, hard, solid rubber ball’’ suggests a similar combination of light (life) and darkness (death); also noteworthy is the fact that this year was one with a ‘‘memorable equinox’’ (the day on which there is an equal amount of day and night) at this point, Krapp was able to ‘‘balance’’ the light and dark forces in his life.
However, the most significant and complex pairing of light and darkness occurs when Krapp’s thirty-nine-year-old voice tells of his moment of supreme inspiration that he had after his mother’s death:
Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last. This I fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that . . . (hesitates) . . . for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely (Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again) great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most (Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again) unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire
As previously mentioned, the world of Krapp’s Last Tape is one of darkness: Krapp’s vision occurred at night and is likened to a ‘‘fire’’ that sets his mind ‘‘alight,’’ much as the ‘‘light of the lighthouse’’ offers a beacon of guidance to ships at sea. The essence of Krapp’s vision here can be discerned by completing his broken off sentence: he became convinced that the ‘‘dark’’ he ‘‘always struggled to keep under’’ is, in reality, his ‘‘most ’’ precious ally. Ironically, Krapp believed that his full artistic triumph would only be reached by embracing, rather than avoiding, the darkness of the world which explains why he then said ‘‘farewell to love’’ and began pursuing his dreams of being an artist. Only by confronting the essential isolation of his own existence would Krapp produce his ‘‘opus magnum.’’ However, by embracing the darkness of the world, Krapp has produced nothing other than a small circle of intellectual light that surrounds his table; his embracing of darkness is like his constantly eating bananas: a means by which he assumes an unnatural pose in regard to the natural ‘‘light’’ of the world. He cannot even bear to listen to his former self describe the ‘‘vision,’’ since he has begun to realize that his past ‘‘enlightenment’’ was questionable and specious. Krapp now records his tapes at night and uses them to try to fend off the encroaching darkness of total isolation and death, but as his song suggests, ‘‘Now the day is over, / Night is drawing nigh-igh.’’ Dressed in ‘‘dirty white boots,’’ a ‘‘grimy white shirt,’’ black trousers and a black waistcoat, Krapp’s equinox is long past.
Thus, the action of the play begins with its hero about to succumb to the darkness of all that he once thought would bring him success. At sixty-nine, Krapp’s mind possesses no ‘‘light’’ of the intellect: he does not remember the definitions of words he once used (‘‘equinox,’’ ‘‘viduity’’) and instead delights in the sounds of simple words like ‘‘spool.’’ Like the ‘‘vidua-bird,’’ Krapp, too, is alone, living through a long, sickly and alcoholic ‘‘viduity’’ in which he has been widowed from the rest of humanity. However, his final moments on stage are ones where he does become ‘‘enlightened’’ to what he has done with his time on earth. While recording this year’s tape, Krapp’s mind takes him back to a time when he was able to bathe in the light of humanity: he tells himself that, tonight, he will probably:
Lie propped up in the dark and wander. Be again in the dingle on a Christmas Eve, gathering holly, the redberried. (Pause.) Be again on Croghan on a Sunday morning, in the haze, with the bitch, stop and listen to the bells. (Pause.) And so on. (Pause.) Be again, be again. (Pause.) All that old misery. (Pause.) Once wasn’t enough for you. (Pause.) Lie down across her. Krapp is at his moment of crisis: despite his
attempts to mock his former selves and justify his decision to ‘‘embrace the darkness,’’ he wishes he was alive again on a morning (instead of his present dark evening) and part of the human race that he once sought to avoid. Because of this realization, Krapp ‘‘suddenly bends over machine, switches off, wrenches off tape, throws it away, puts on the other, winds it forward to the passage he wants’’ and switches it on so he can hear again his description of his old lover’s eyes. As Krapp listens, he makes no comments because his sarcasm is no match for the power of his epiphany:
I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But, under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.
Pause. Krapp’s lips move. No sound.
Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.
Here I end this reel. Box (Pause. ) three, spool (Pause.) five. (Pause.) Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.
Krapp sits motionless staring before him. The tape runs on in silence.
This, and not the ‘‘vision’’ he had at thirty-nine, is Krapp’s true moment of enlightenment. The words about the earth being uninhabited apply to the present Krapp as well and the ‘‘fire’’ in him has cooled to an ember. His entire life has been an unwitting ‘‘opus magnum,’’ the theme of which is that the intellect may be the superior part of man’s nature, but to forsake other aspects of humanity in order to satisfy it can only result in painful isolation. Readers of Beckett may find such a touching moment odd in his oeuvre, but even a Samuel Beckett was wary of becoming a Krapp.
Source: Daniel Moran, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Moran is an educator specializing in literature and drama.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2478
Krapp’s Last Tape opens on one man alone with his own memories and desires, punctuating a monotonous present by recall of a moment-lit past. As a writer and as a man lying ‘‘propped up in the dark,’’ Beckett makes Krapp’s associations with Proust even more pointedly prominent. The situation of Krapp stocktaking and listening to old stocktakings is dependent upon the catalysts of Time, Habit, and Memory, the trinity considered by Beckett in his 1931 study of Proust. Considerations that Krapp has made and will continue to make of his life—intellectual, physical, spiritual—are rendered rememberable, if not memorable, with the aid of dictionary and tapes. Krapp now is not Krapp past nor Krapp future. Like Proust, Beckett explores the relation of the self, possessed of Memory and by Habit, within Time. What both writers explore is the mental mechanism by which that which is lost is found.
Krapp, by being able to summon and shut off mechanically his memories of things past, raises for an audience the question of whether Krapp’s Last Tape is a parody of Proust. Certainly parody is involved. It is evident both in the general reduction of Krapp’s memory process to mechanization and in the playing of particular segments of the tapes where life is seen as parodic. Also, by means of counterpointing and of juxtaposition with scenes that blatantly involve parody (‘‘Bony old ghost of a whore’’), moments that for Krapp were once memorable or incomparable are gently drawn into parody.
But if Krapp’s spools of tape are meant to serve as parodies of Proust’s vases, what has been neglected by critics is that Proust himself, as Beckett has pointed out, saw the parodic nature of certain memory processes, as well as of desire. Memory forms, transforms, and deforms. Joining Eliot in considering the pathos of men ‘‘mixing/Memory and desire,’’ Beckett creates in Krapp’s Last Tape a play that is not so much a Proustian exercise parodying Proust as an attempt to dramatize (and, hence, support) what is central in the Proustian vision.
In Beckett’s study of Proust he follows through Proust’s sharp distinction between the workings of voluntary and involuntary memory, associating the latter with those miraculous moments of breakthrough that emerge under the breakdown of space and time. What Beckett stressed was the mystic, religious character of those past moments that involuntary memory happens upon, moments of ‘‘revelation’’ and ‘‘annunciation.’’ Akin to Joycean epiphanies, it is these moments of Proustian revelation that provide the structure of Krapp’s Last Tape. As Krapp plays back past tapes, he passes from high moment to high moment. With Krapp in control of the switch, these moments resemble a cinematic fade-in, fade-out technique. The girl on the platform, the black ball, the jetty and punt scenes blend and form an extended showing forth of charged experience from Krapp’s past. But the mechanization of the mechanism of memory—by making involuntary memory voluntary—commits Krapp to the destruction of moments that refuse reduction to human control:
But involuntary memory is an unruly magician and will not be importuned. It chooses its own time and place for the performance of its miracle. (Proust pp. 20–21) So that no amount of voluntary manipulation can reconstitute in its integrity an impression that the will has—so to speak—buckled into incoherence. But if, by accident, and given favourable circumstances (a relaxation of the subject’s habit of thought and a reduction of the radius of his memory, a generally diminished tension of consciousness following upon a phase of extreme discouragement), if by some miracle of analogy the central impression of a past sensation recurs as an immediate stimulus which can be instinctively identified by the subject with the model of duplication (whose integral purity has been retained because it has been forgotten), then the total past sensation, not its echo nor its copy, but the sensation itself, annihilating every spacial and temporal restriction, comes in a rush to engulf the subject in all the beauty of its infallible proportion. (p. 54).
Beckett’s apocalyptic language used to describe the Proustian miracle ‘‘annihilating,’’ ‘‘rush,’’ ‘‘engulf’’— condemns Krapp in his attempts to mechanize, and thus destroy the very nature of, intense memories of lost things. Krapp’s mistaken and pathetic taped past, instead of parodying Proust, relates to Proust’s awareness of the dialectic of memory, in which voluntary and involuntary memory are seen as separate processes of the same mind.
Beckett does not condemn voluntary memory, but rather indicates that voluntary and involuntary memory belong to different orders of experience. When, as in Krapp’s Last Tape, voluntary memory is used, not for simple mnemonic recall, but to savor moments that refuse automatic summoning, Beckett parodies the misuse of the memory processes. Krapp’s moments of visionary fire cannot be mechanically recalled without seeming perverse; for only through loss can that which was blinding, or beautiful, be found. Beckett’s understanding of the Proustian voluntary and involuntary memory allows him in Krapp’s Last Tape to present a dramatic study of the changing and changeless self: addicted to Habit, imprisoned by Time, frightened and attracted to the possibility of release through involuntary Memory. If Krapp’s spools mistakenly seek by an act of will to render the presence of the Proustian moment, Beckett is concerned with more than the parody of involuntary memory. Above all, he is concerned with the pathos of an old man, torn by memory and desire. And, in the presentation of this old man, Beckett again looks back to Proust, joining Proust in an exploration of the nature of epiphany-like moments and of desire.
Constipated in sexual and artistic performance, creative activities which Beckett significantly correlates, Krapp can find a way out of a confined, repetitious past only by reference to those miraculous moments which his tapes conclude by ossifying instead of preserving. Putting aside for a moment the wrongness of Krapp’s attempt to hold what cannot be held, we may consider the nature of those moments that Krapp alternately would repeat and ‘‘keep . . . under.’’ Associated with what only involuntary memory ought to find, the meshed moments on the jetty and in the punt provide the point toward which all of the earlier flashes of memory (the girl on the platform, the black ball) proceed and from which the rest of the play gently, and then cuttingly, falls. The confusion of the jetty-punt scenes expresses Krapp’s ambivalence toward such experience; he would both replay it and switch it off just short of its consummation.
The pain that Krapp feels in a remembrance of things past cannot be separated from the pleasure it yields. Like Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, Krapp finds unpleasantness and pain in the act of remembering happy days. The pain is due as much to elegiac nostalgia as it is to the intensity of experiences which both annihilate and create. Momentarily, that ‘‘suffering of being’’ which Beckett observed in Proust overwhelms Krapp:
Lie propped up in the dark—and wander. Be again in the dingle on a Christmas Eve, gathering holly, the red-berried. (Pause.) Be again on Croghan on a Sunday morning, in the haze, with the bitch, stop and listen to the bells. (Pause.) And so on. (Pause.) Be again, be again. (Pause.) All that old misery. (Speech italics mine)
The meshed jetty-punt scene establishes itself alongside other Beckett epiphany-like moments of clarity in his plays which were made possible under the regenerative workings of nature (water) and human nature (love)—the Lake Como reminiscence of Nell, Maddy’s rehearsal of a honeymoon resort, Ada’s recollection of a moment with Henry by the sea, Winnie’s recall of ‘‘the sunshade you gave me . . . that day . . . (pause) . . . that day . . . the lake . . . the reeds.’’ Winnie’s moment is remarkably close to Krapp’s playing of the punt scene, except that Winnie’s is sanctified by drifting or floating up out of the blue. Although the result of involuntary memory, Winnie’s moment shares with Krapp’s moment a breakdown of syntax that signals a breakthrough of distinctions of subject and object, lover and beloved. Beckett records in both instances that rare Proustian moment of possession in which opposites are reconciled; moving and motionless, brilliant and blinding, the Proustian miracle is rendered in images of motion (rhythm) and light (fire). Harmony and enlightenment thus are suggested as epitomizing such moments.
If Beckett considered in his monograph on Proust the impossibility of complete possession, his plays at times approach ‘‘those rare miracles of coincidence, when the calendar of facts runs parallel to the calendar of feelings.’’ Where Krapp’s Last Tape departs from Beckett’s other dramatic works is in seeking to compress, into an edited whole, those moments or fragments which formed only an infinitesimally small part of Krapp’s lifetime. As a result, there is the impression of grotesque distortion of the best (or worst) moments of Krapp’s life. Although dependent upon expectation, life finally is not lived from intense moment to intense moment. And the disparity between the rhythm of life lived and life remembered becomes apparent in Krapp’s desperate effort to isolate those moments of ‘‘congruence’’ and ‘‘realisation’’ which punctuated eternities of loneness and loneliness and tedium.
That charged moments are transient or absolute, and cannot be kept or rendered communicable in words, is presented in Krapp’s Last Tape in conjunction with an exploration of the nature of desire, a concern particularly central to an old man considering his younger years. In the jetty-punt scenes the Proustian miracle is specifically conceived in terms of the possibility of gratified desire leading to fulfillment (or extinction) of self. What began as a parody of the workings of involuntary memory expands into a philosophical-psychological statement that shows Beckett to be in a tradition more modern and ancient than that indicated by Proust or Bergson.
Beckett’s involvement in Krapp’s Last Tape in probing the nature of desire is very much at the human center of the play. As Beckett pursues the chances for a man’s escape from sameness by means of transcendent moments, here closely connected with the momentary possession of desired object or person, he dramatizes both a particular Krapp and a generalized Everyman. What, Beckett asks, is the nature of desire? Through Krapp’s playing back of old tapes, we discover not only that the Proustian moment cannot and will not be mechanized, but that the sheer nature of desire is parodic. Not only do memorable moments slip, words lose their meanings, and occasions shift context. More seriously, gaps are exposed in the fabric of desire that lend the kind of pathos to Krapp as desiring animal that Shakespeare drew from considering the human condition in his plays:
This is the monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite, and the execution confined; that the desire is boundless, and the act a slave to limit (Troilus and Cressida III.ii.85–88).
Krapp’s derisive laughter joins laughter on tapes that reveal Krapp, younger, when he was equally caught up in the disparities of desire and execution, ideal and real object.
Krapp, by being born, is committed to the mockeries of desire. He is like the Act Without Word I figure for whom the carafe is always beyond reach, except that Krapp’s frustration is related less to the impossibility of attainment than to the nature of desire and to that metaphysical post coitum triste attendant upon awareness of the incongruities of ideal and real object. By having renounced the girl in the punt, Krapp is not spared her later transformation into ‘‘bony old ghost of a whore.’’ Significantly, Krapp’s very renunciation had suggested his fear of ever having to reconcile her with the idea or the ideal of the girl in his mind.
Krapp, then, dramatizes a situation which is inescapable as long as man desires. But his situation is complicated and intensified by his desiring in the face of depleted powers and by his attempting to keep what is not allowed. Love song and swan song, Krapp’s Last Tape is Krapp’s farewell to love and to life. But in waiting for the day to be over, which his song has soured and secularized, Krapp edits his life against the coming of night and compounds parody with pathos. Part voyeur, self-therapist, and old man, Krapp attends upon a world of diminished capacities and lost connections. Erections now are difficult for him, and keys and envelopes have been reduced to the function of locking up bananas and serving as space for jottings. There is no appointment for Krapp to keep except to wait for the night of which he so brokenly sings.
Frustrated and mocked by desire, Krapp’s birthday becomes a celebration of his approaching death. Associating sex, sickness, and death, Beckett merges a remembered child nurse with Krapp’s mother’s sick nurse, relates the punt scene to both sexual intercourse and death, and has Krapp pun on ‘‘crutch’’ as crutch and crotch. And the philological affinity of ‘‘viduity’’ and ‘‘vidua-bird’’ is used to point up an association of sex with death. Pathetic and parodic, life would not be equal to desire even if sickness and death could be eliminated.
If Beckett’s consideration in Krapp’s Last Tape of the nature of desire is both Proustian and more general than Proust, so does his dramatization of Krapp as desiring, old man remove him from indebtedness to specific antecedents. A large part of the power behind Krapp’s Last Tape derives from its giving the impression of what it is like to grow old and yet to keep on desiring, to seek to break time’s tedium by resort to an occasionally illuminated past. Krapp’s situation joins him to Yeats’s aging man poems, to Eliot’s ‘‘Gerontion,’’ and to Frost’s protagonist in ‘‘An Old Man’s Winter Night.’’
Beginning as a Proustian work, Krapp’s Last Tape evolves into a dramatization of an aging, desire-ridden man, into a play that leaves the job of positing antecedents or placing it in a contemporary context (the significance of pause, the undercutting of vision come to mind) farther and farther behind. Like any major literary piece, Krapp’s Last Tape both has origins and is originless. Krapp’s ‘‘P.M.s’’ come out of the oldest and most recent questionings of the nature of desire and of those intense moments which man is neither fated nor allowed to keep. Post meridiem. Post-mortem. Krapp’s Last Tape exK presses the parody and pathos of desire in an aging man for whom a decrease in erections is not accompanied by a decrease in desire.
Source: Arthur K. Oberg, ‘‘Krapp’s Last Tape and the Proustian Vision,’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 9, no. 3, December, 1996, pp. 333–38.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645
As a man who found ‘‘Waiting for Godot’’ exasperating and ‘‘Endgame’’ stifling, it is a joy to report that Samuel Beckett’s newest effort lets loose a passion for life and a robust poetry that were deplorably manacled in the aforementioned plays. Titled ‘‘Krapp’s Last Tape,’’ this short character study begins unpromisingly as we watch a filthy old man rummaging about his disordered, dimly lit room. Too much time is taken for us to see the suggestion that man is an animal torn between primitive satisfactions (represented by a drawer in which Krapp keeps a supply of bananas) and intellectual ones (represented by a second drawer in which Krapp keeps his last spool of unrecorded tape). But from the moment Krapp puts away a banana he has started to eat and decides to listen to a particular tape in his vast collection of reminiscences recorded over a forty-year period (here we willingly allow Mr. Beckett the poetic license of pretending that tape recorders were in use many years before 1946, when they actually were put on the market), the play acquires energy and dramatic tension.
It is not a man revisiting his real past as Emily did in ‘‘Our Town,’’ but a man revisiting his past as he recalled it in shorter retrospect. Moreover this man is not the depressed, half-alive specimen that squirmed on the microscope slide in Mr. Beckett’s other plays. He is a man of extraordinary acuity, sensitivity, and vigor. And finally Krapp has an honesty that permits him to share his human weaknesses with the audience. At one point in the tape he is playing he hears his younger self launch into some romantic overstatement of life’s meaning which makes him furious with himself, and he rushes to push the button that will allow him to skip that painful portion. On another occasion, as he is listening with more ease to the old tape, he belatedly hears himself use the word viduity. In disbelief he replays the sentence again, angrily stops the machine, rushes to get a dictionary and looks the word up. In this sequence, Mr. Beckett has not only been eminently theatrical, but he has also demonstrated for us the wonder and greatness of language, which most of us must use too pedestrianly.
A little later he skips too far along the tape and comes in at the end of what appears to be a juicy description of a love affair. As the tape moves on into a calmer philosophical postmortem, Krapp jumps with comic, understandable fervor to the rewind button. The description, when we do hear it, is richly poetic, and puts us all to shame for the relative poverty of our own experiences. We feel this poverty both in our depth of feeling and in our unwillingness to treat it with the importance and beauty it has to offer.
At the end of the play Krapp is left with his arms about the tape recorder, an old man clutching the heat of life with an appreciation that has grown proportionately with his diminished power to live it.
The performers are excellent. This applies to both the faithful tape recorder and to Donald Davis, who give us the old Krapp in character, and the young Krapp in a pre-recorded voice that sounds a little like Orson Welles. Director Alan Schneider and designer William Ritman have used the stage imaginatively. Behind the lighted foreground they have created a darkness into which Krapp can take mysterious excursions whose purpose is suggested only by the sound of a cork being pulled out of a bottle. The end result is a rich half-hour in which Mr. Beckett happily emerges as closer to Dylan Thomas than to the intellectual stunt man he has previously appeared.
Source: Henry Hewes, ‘‘It’s Not All Bananas’’ in the Saturday Review, Vol. 43, no. 5, January 30, 1960, p. 28.