Dramatic Devices

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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...

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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.

Historical Context

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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 of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), the type of ‘‘well-made play’’ perfected by him (one which relied on conventional forms and structures) began to be replaced in some artists’ minds with more experimental forms the most famous example of which remains Beckett’s own Waiting for Godot (1952), which many viewers found exciting, different, and unlike any play they had ever before seen.

The forms frequently employed in other genres of literature experienced similar reexaminations and revisions. In 1950, Ezra Pound’s ‘‘Seventy Cantos’’ were published, which are as unlike traditional verse as Godot is as unlike Shaw’s Pygmalion. In 1953, Archibald MacLeish published his Collected Poems, the experimental nature of which struck many readers; MacLeish was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the volume. Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel Lolita was published in 1955 and was certainly one of the most daring novels ever written; its plot concerns a middle-aged professor’s love for a twelve-year-old ‘‘nymphet.’’ Two years later Albert Camus (1913-1960), one of the leading philosophical novelists of the era, was awarded the Nobel Prize; although he sometimes refuted the label, he is often viewed as a proponent of existentialism, a radical philosophy concerning man’s inability to find truth and meaning in himself or his world. That same year marked the premiere of Endgame, Beckett’s second theatrical triumph; like Camus, Beckett was often described as an existentialist but expressed his disdain for any labeling of himself or his art. Other experimental works of literature from this time include Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road (1957), published at the dawn of the ‘‘beatnik’’ movement, and Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1958), which was lauded as one of the playwright’s first major successes. Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959), a novel told from the point-of-view of a three-year-old child who decides to stop growing, was praised as revolutionary in its examination of Germany during the Hitler era. An interesting close to the era can be found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s CriK tique de la dialectique (1960), in which the controversial philosopher, playwright, and novelist expressed his political philosophies that were shaped, in part, by the rise of Soviet communism in the previous decade.

Other forms of art took similar wayward routes. The visual arts were enriched by the continued work of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), whose painting ‘‘Massacre in Korea’’ reflected the turbulence caused when North Korean forces broke through the 38th parallel and recaptured Seoul, sparking the Korean War (1950-1953). Surrealism, which attempted to revamp old forms into more dreamlike ones, blossomed: Alberto Giacometti (1933-1970) unveiled his sculpture ‘‘Seven Figures and a Head’’ in 1950, Marc Chagall (1889-1985) unveiled his painting ‘‘The Red Roofs’’ in 1954, and Salvador Dali (1904-1989) revealed ‘‘The Lord’s Supper’’ in 1955. Many experimental films were also made during this time: works such as Rashomon (1950), La Strada (1954), and The Seventh Seal (1956) forever altered conventional cinema. Architecture, too, saw one of its most daring moments with the completion (in 1958) of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Music also took new turns with bebop and ‘‘cool jazz’’ gaining momentum. While there were many fine works employing conventional structures and forms (such as 1953’s From Here to Eternity and 1959’s The Miracle Worker), the era was one where many artists Beckett among them grew dissatisfied with tradition and sought to break away from it in their own different ways.

The Play

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Krapp’s Last Tape commences with a nearsighted old man, Krapp, wandering aimlessly in his den. In the center of the room is a table bearing a tape recorder and several boxes of reels of tape. Initially, Krapp walks before the table at the front edge of the stage. He absentmindedly peels a banana, holds the banana in his mouth, eats, nearly slips on the banana peel, stares vacantly into space, retreats backstage for a drink (suggested to the audience by the pop of a cork), returns to mouth another banana front stage, puts the banana in his coat pocket, then goes backstage again and returns with a ledger. Reading the ledger, which is an index to the tape collection on the table, Krapp is diverted by the word “spool,” which he pronounces repeatedly, drawing out the oo sounds with pleasure. He puzzles over a ledger note about spool 5, “Memorable equinox?” then reads another note aloud, “Farewell to love.” After brooding some more, he decides to play the tape.

The voice he attends is his own, thirty years younger. It presents the recapitulation of Krapp’s thirty-ninth year, just as each of the other spools in the boxes holds the record of birthdays Krapp has recorded yearly from his twenties up to the present year, his sixty-ninth. His birthday custom is to play the tapes from past birthdays and then make the latest annual report on a blank tape. The thirty-nine-year-old Krapp speaks from the recorder with a strong and pompous voice, in resonant contrast to the cracked tones of the older. The younger has himself just been listening to an earlier year, a Krapp in his twenties speaking of resignation to the loss of youth and making resolutions to drink less and avoid women. Krapp in his twenties mentioned his chronic constipation, which still troubles the middle-aged Krapp; he blames it on his addiction to bananas. Older Krapp joins in the derision middle-aged Krapp directs at the younger’s resolutions, then older Krapp suddenly shuts off the tape, broods, goes backstage for another drink, sings from the darkness a few lines of “Now the Day Is Over,” interrupted by harsh coughing, and returns to the table to resume listening.

As he listens to his younger self, Krapp frequently turns off the tape to muse or look up a word he does not understand. Checking a dictionary for the word “viduity,” used by younger Krapp in reference to his mother’s widowhood, older Krapp delightedly pronounces one of the word’s alternate meanings: “The vidua-bird!” Thirty-nine-year-old Krapp tells of his mother’s dying, how he waited outside the house where she died and was preoccupied by a woman with beautiful eyes and an attractive bosom; she seemed willing to talk, but when Krapp spoke to her she threatened to call the police. Continuing to wait by the house, he befriended a dog, and he was playing ball with it when the blind went down to signal his mother’s death. The high point of his thirty-ninth year, he asserts, was a vision that he must record on tape against the time when his older self will need it but no longer remember. As he launches into the vision’s description, old Krapp impatiently switches the tape off and on until he is past the vision section and into the end of a section describing Krapp’s afternoon in a boat with a woman. This is more interesting, and Krapp rewinds to the beginning of the story and plays it through. The younger Krapp describes floating on a lake with a lady who agrees with him that their affair is hopeless and should not be continued. Nevertheless, the couple embrace on the bottom of the boat as it drifts among the reeds.

Lulled by the story, Krapp shuts off the recorder, goes backstage for another drink, then takes a blank tape from the desk and begins recording his sixty-ninth year. He opens by venting disgust at the “stupid bastard” he took himself to be thirty years before. Now he has nothing to say, “not a squeak,” yet he proceeds to rehash the year’s meager events. Seventeen copies of his book were sold. He reread with tears his book Effie, about another woman now gone from his life with whom he admits he could have been happy. Also during the year he was visited by Fanny, “bony old ghost of a whore,” whom he managed to impress with his virility at sixty-nine. He attended vespers once; it reminded him of his boyhood, but he fell off the pew after falling asleep. Krapp stops remembering and scolds himself for indulging in “this drivel,” which is only a misery of “being again” illusion.

Yet the lure of thirty-nine-year-old Krapp’s boat encounter is still strong, and Krapp tears off the tape he is recording, throws it away, and puts on the other. He listens to the story again, and to the younger Krapp’s concluding words of farewell to happiness and love. The younger ends by saying that love and happiness are undesirable now that the fire of his vision is burning in his mind. The play ends as this tape ends, and old Krapp stares before him while “the tape runs on in silence.”

Places Discussed

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Krapp’s den

Krapp’s den. The writer’s den suggests the spiritual darkness and utter loneliness in which Krapp lives. The play opens with a series of seemingly unconnected and eccentric actions, as Krapp eats bananas, fingers an old envelope, and retires to a room offstage for a drink. As he listens to one of his tapes, in which a much younger version of himself describes his usual birthday routine, the audience discovers that Krapp is now repeating this ritual on his sixty-ninth birthday.

As the younger Krapp explains on the tape, he is searching for the “grain” of his life, which he defines as “those things worth having when all the dust . . . when all my dust has settled.” Now, thirty years later, the aging and alcoholic Krapp does the same. However, he can only return to a prior tape, on which he recorded what his ledger describes as a “Farewell to love.” The voice on the tape goes on to state with youthful conviction that he would not want the years back, when he was capable of happiness. “Not with the fire in me now.” As the elder Krapp sits in the same room thirty years later, with the fire all but extinguished, he has only the darkness surrounding him. The room embodies the dismal reality of that future which compelled him to bid farewell to love.

Literary Style

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Setting
Krapp’s Last Tape is set in Krapp’s den a room that reflects, to a large degree, Krapp himself. It is bare, save for a small table; this lack of ornament emphasizes Krapp’s emotional sterility and loneliness. As he is without any human interaction, his room is without anything that suggests comfort or humanity.

More telling than the barren stage are the lighting directions given by Beckett. The table and its immediate area are bathed in ‘‘strong white light’’; the rest of the stage is in darkness. The question arises here of why Beckett would want any part of the stage to be dark i.e., why not simply have Krapp’s room (even if it is to remain barren) take up the entire stage? The answer has to do with how Beckett uses lighting to mirror Krapp’s attempt to fend off the figurative ‘‘darkness’’ that surrounds him. The voice of the thirty-nine-year-old Krapp reports (in the tape to which the older Krapp listens):

The new light above my table is a great improvement. With all this darkness round me I feel less alone. (Pause. ) In a way. (Pause.) I love to get up and move about in it, then back here to . . . (hesitates) . . . me. (Pause.) Krapp.

Light and dark symbolism runs throughout the play, with light representing knowledge, life and love and darkness representing ignorance, death and isolation. Thus, Krapp attempts to remain in the ‘‘light’’ of what he sees as his own superiority and intellect but the darkness is always around him, almost mocking his desire to combat it. The thirtynine- year-old Krapp reports that there was a ‘‘memorable equinox’’ during the past year; since the equinox is the date on which there is an equal amount of day and night, that year was one where Krapp’s ‘‘light’’ and ‘‘dark’’ forces were balanced: his mother died, but he was still alive; he had a vision of his future career as an artist yet failed to sell any books; he had a lover but left her to pursue his career. Now, however, Krapp is thirty years older and is about to succumb to the ‘‘darkness’’ that surrounds him. This is accentuated in a number of ways (least of them being the play’s title), such as his singing, ‘‘Now the day is over, / Night is drawing nigh-igh.’’ By having Krapp’s table where he will record his last attempt to ‘‘enlighten’’ himself about the meaning of his life surrounded by darkness, Beckett subtly hints at his hero’s inevitable failure to combat the different forms of ‘‘darkness’’ that will eventually overtake him.

Costume
In the opening pages of the play, the reader learns that Krapp is dressed in ‘‘Rusty black narrow trousers too short for him,’’ a ‘‘Rusty black sleeveless waistcoat,’’ a ‘‘Grimy white shirt open at neck, no collar’’ and a ‘‘Surprising pair of dirty white boots, size ten at least, very narrow and pointed.’’ This outfit, combined with Krapp’s ‘‘White face,’’ ‘‘Purple nose’’ and ‘‘Disordered gray hair’’ makes him appear very much like a clown. This image of Krapp accords with what the audience eventually understands to be Krapp’s earnest but foolish desire to make his mark as a writer and intellectual. Some clowns provoke laughter from their smiles and buffoonery, but others work by attempting to earnestly perform some serious task with absurd results. Krapp resembles this second type of clown, as he is thoroughly convinced of his own importance and seriousness but is always undercut by his absurd appearance. The fact that Krapp eats bananas and almost trips on one of their peels adds to the audience’s perception of him as a man who, despite his attempts to prove otherwise, remains clownish.

Compare and Contrast

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1950: North Korean forces break through the 38th parallel and capture Seoul (the capital of South Korea). General Douglas MacArthur is appointed commander of UN forces in Korea. The Korean War will continue until 1953.

Today: North Korea remains a Communist nation, with Kim Jong Il (son of previous leader Kim Il Sung) as its President.

1953: Joseph Stalin dies; Nikita Khruschchev is appointed First Secretary of the General Committee of the Communist Party. Khruschchev became Chairman of Council of U.S.S.R. Ministers in 1958 and eventually took part in his famous showdown against President Kennedy (the Cuban Missile Crisis) in 1962.

Today: Since the collapse of the Soviet Union into a number of disparate nations, the Cold War (between the Soviets and Americans) has ended, with the United States as the assumed victor in this famous war of words and wills.

1958: Krapp’s Last Tape premieres and is viewed by some as a triumph and others as a failure, in part because of the experimental nature of its form.

Today: Although the theaters of Broadway are almost wholly occupied with commercial fare, experimental theater is thriving in other places: plays such as Aviva Jane Carlin’s Jodie’s Body (1999), in which a nude model discourses on politics, and Dare Clubb’s Oedipus (1999), a four-hour retelling of the myth largely from the point of view of Merope (his adopted mother), challenge contemporary audiences’ ideas of theater as Krapp’s Last Tape did over forty years ago.

Media Adaptations

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Krapp’s Last Tape was adapted as a film and directed by Samuel Beckett. It is available from VideoFlicks at VideoFlicks.com.

Further Reading

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Sources
Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, pp. 491, 514-15.

Beckett, Samuel. Krapp’s Last Tape, in Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Dramatic Pieces, Grove Press, 1957, pp. 7-28.

Boswell, James. Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, Mc- Graw-Hill, 1950, p. 161.

Brien, Alan. Review of Krapp’s Last Tape in the Spectator, November 4, 1955.

Brustein, Robert. Review of Krapp’s Last Tape in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, edited by Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, pp. 192-93.

Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, HarperCollins, 1997, p. 481.

Dylan, Bob. ‘‘When I Paint My Masterpiece,’’ Big Sky Music, 1971.

Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, Simon and Schuster, 1996, p. 397.

Reid, Alec. All I Can Manage, More Than I Could, Grove Press, 1971, p. 21.

Tynan, Kenneth. Review of Krapp’s Last Tape in Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, edited by Lawrence Graver and Raymond Federman, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, pp. 189-92.

Further Reading
Graver, Lawrence and Raymond Federman, editors, Samuel Beckett: The Critical Heritage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979. The entire volume is a collection of original reviews of Beckett’s work; the section on Krapp’s Last Tape features both a positive and negative review.

Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, Simon and Schuster, 1996. Knowlson’s exhaustive biography explores the ways in which Beckett’s life in Ireland and France affected his work. Knowlson also treats Beckett’s service to the French Resistance in great detail.

Knowlson, James, editor. The Theatrical Notebooks of Samuel Beckett Volume III: Krapp’s Last Tape, Grove Press, 1992. This volume features the entire text of Krapp’s Last Tape as well as a facsimile of Beckett’s notebook in which he kept his ideas (written in French) about how he wanted the play to be directed and performed.

O’Brien, Eoin. The Beckett Country, The Black Cat Press, 1986. This is a large collection of photographs of the Irish locales that influenced Beckett’s work; there are several images in the collection that surface in Krapp’s Last Tape.

Bibliography

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Gontarski, S. E. The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Covers Beckett’s plays. A chapter on Krapp’s Last Tape connects the revision process to evolving interpretation of the play. Selected bibliography.

Gontarski, S. E., ed. On Beckett: Essays and Criticism. New York: Grove Press, 1986. Essays by various scholars, including Ruby Cohn’s “Beckett Directs: Endgame and Krapp’s Last Tape,” which discusses Beckett’s adeptness at staging.

Kenner, Hugh. Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study. New ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Important study of Beckett. Kenner consulted with Beckett in writing it. Does not focus on Krapp’s Last Tape but the preface provides valuable insight into Beckett’s attitude toward his work.

MacMillan, Dougald, and Martha Fehsenfeld. From “Waiting for Godot” to “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Vol. 1 in Beckett in the Theatre. New York: Riverrun Press, 1988. Devotes a chapter to Krapp’s Last Tape. Discusses changes Beckett made from early to later drafts. Extensive interpretation of the play in relation to production.

Reid, Alec. All I Can Manage, More than I Could: An Approach to the Plays of Samuel Beckett. Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1968. Accessible and valuable source on plays with publication, first production information, and synopses. Introductory essays on Beckett and his innovative work in broadening the scope of modern drama.

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