Krapp’s solipsism is suggested at the start of the play by the stage lighting. Krapp occupies the brightly lit center of the stage, sitting at his desk listening to tapes or making a new one. The rest of the stage is in darkness. His nearsightedness and deafness further emphasize that this is a man trapped inside his skull. His fumbling with the ledger, unlocking drawers, and groping in the boxes for a tape all metaphorically suggest the memories an old person contends with day by day and hour by hour.
Yet the tapes themselves are not simply an analogy for memory. The incongruity of life is seen in the contrast between the technologically perfect record afforded by the tapes and the living Krapp. Krapp’s Last Tape thus contributes something new to the technique of drama—an actor not present who is still able to speak. The immediate dramatic impact of younger Krapp is in the difference of sound, a strong, pompous voice brimming with assurance and wisdom, with which older Krapp, thanks to the tape machine, can play. Beckett can play, too, with Krapp’s attitude of listening. As Krapp begins listening to the tape, he settles himself more comfortably and, in the process, knocks a box full of tapes to the floor. He switches off the tape, loses his temper, and throws the boxes and index ledger to the floor before rewinding the tape and starting over. Thus, the drama of listening is portrayed as never before, as an activity of editing, censoring, and rehearing that true listening never can be. The voice so manipulated is neither memory (since it exists outside Krapp’s present intention) nor ghost (since summoning it is simply replaying it). This encounter between man and his technologized voice is a drama wholly novel to the twentieth century, and its comedy and anguish are also unprecedented.
If the dramatic effect of Krapp on tape is to emphasize his machinelike nature as a speaker rather than his numinous presence as a person, the effect of his behavior at the beginning of the play is to mime physical man as a retrograde machine. The wordless performance of pacing, banana eating, pacing, eating, peeling a new banana, nipping backstage drinks, and pausing motionlessly (like a shut-off machine) is a mechanistic summary of a lifetime’s manipulation of hands, legs, jaws, and esophagus. Krapp’s machine-body has known its glitches from the beginning, as attested by the taped accounts of continuing constipation. Krapp’s awareness as mechanism is demonstrated as well. His volition is constantly at the hazard of lapses of attention or of straying into distractions such as the savoring of the meaning of “viduity” or the repeated mouthing aloud of the word “spool.” Consciousness as mechanism is summed up in the final image of the play: Krapp staring ahead silently as the tape runs on silently. Thus the living Krapp is wed unmercifully to the tape recorder he superintends.
Still, the image of Krapp as machine is a comedy of the human machine, an admission that to be human is to be machinelike. The living Krapp does commune with the taped Krapp. He laughs at the voice, and when it expresses a doubt whether when older it will be a voice that sings songs, the elder Krapp obliges by singing. Krapp listening to himself is Krapp knowing himself, recognizing himself. He finds in himself a consistency of obsessions—bananas, the eyes of women, the utterance of words—and a permanence of belief that all is false, particularly communication with other human beings. The tape recorder is the dramatic image of a self as all that Krapp has managed in the way of company over his lifetime.
The 1950s is often thought of as an era where artistic expression was as ‘‘square’’ and as indicative of the status-quo, as the era itself is sometimes portrayed on television and in contemporary films. The 1950s were, in fact, an era where major innovations in every form of art were noticed by viewers, readers, and listeners alike. With the death...
(The entire section is 3,800 words.)