Turning Away from Humanity
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...
(The entire section is 6,235 words.)