Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623

Krapp’s Last Tape is a play about the mystery, sadness, and comedy of being a self. The significant operations of selfhood—communicating, thinking, believing—are for Krapp ruts and poses that he continues to attempt performing for reasons not wholly clear to him. He attempts each of the three in his yearly ritual of self-scrutiny, which is nothing less than a search for his self in the various encounters that self experienced. For old Krapp, however, the resources of personhood are nearly extinct, buried at the start of the play under the compulsive performance of senile behavior—banana sucking, mental blankness, and infantile savoring of vocal sounds for the sounds’ sake alone.

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The urge to know himself stirs even this slovenly writer-recluse. Alone in his den, surrounded by darkness, sitting at a table holding canned versions of his former voices, Krapp is Samuel Beckett’s image of how far a self is from other selves, even the “I” of which it seems to have sole possession. This “I” is the much-valued self of Krapp to which all the boxes of tapes have been addressed, this “I” which has for some unknown reason been preserving itself in verbal mummification. Yet, for Beckett, estrangement is the fate of pressing outward with one’s “I,” even if the communication is directed to a later self. Attending the voice of his former self, Krapp rejects its wisdom, laughing at the naive visionary of thirty-nine, and this younger Krapp had himself just listened to another earlier self and similarly mocked that man’s pretensions.

Being drawn to other persons while repelled by them is the essence of Krapp’s self. When middle-aged Krapp spoke to a woman whose eyes seemed to beckon, she threatened to call the police. The woman was seated near Krapp as he waited for his mother to die—wishing, he admits, that she would die. The younger lady’s rejection was followed closely by his mother’s death, which is signaled by the silent dropping of a window shade. The self of Krapp is insulated from interaction with persons by the nature of things as well as his own longing for equipoise. The cans of tape Krapp stockpiles signify a further removal from personhood. Just as he is not in the room, at the bedside, as his mother dies, he is detached from himself in his ritual of listening to the nonperson who speaks from the self. Krapp’s solipsism is defunct, since even as the living Krapp launches into a new post mortem on tape he seals himself away, alternately addressing the fiction of a future self and embalming himself with a disembodied voice. Krapp is, Beckett shows, a man who cannot even talk to himself.

This grim impediment is portrayed comically, rather than with the existentialist angst through which other contemporary writers have filtered their creations. The fevers of a starving Raskolnikov have been replaced by the absentminded pauses of Krapp. Krapp is a clown. His pants are too short and he slips on banana peels. He cannot remember the meanings of words he once used and must consult a dictionary. His behavior parodies that of a scholar scrutinizing manuscripts. Perusing the ledger index, he cannot decipher his annotations. The comedy is not so much in how a man has perverted his personhood as in how living a life has despoiled a man, and how the man persists despite the wastage. That this will be Krapp’s last tape connotes no final, fist-shaking surrender to the void. It is Beckett’s simple acknowledgment that anybody’s rituals of persistence and survival face extinction. That Beckett manages to portray such realizations as comedy places him in a distinctive position among modern writers.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014

Alienation and Loneliness
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