Krapp's Last Tape

by Samuel Beckett

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Themes and Meanings

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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.

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...

(This entire section contains 623 words.)

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him in a distinctive position among modern writers.


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Alienation and Loneliness
As Krapp’s Last Tape proceeds, the viewer understands that, during the course of his life, Krapp has systematically distanced himself from the companionship and love offered by other people. At twenty-nine, Krapp lived with a woman, Bianca, whose love he later called a ‘‘hopeless business’’ (despite the fact that she possessed very ‘‘warm eyes.’’) At thirty-nine, Krapp celebrated his birthday alone in a pub, ‘‘separating the grain’’ of what he felt were his great thoughts from the ‘‘husks’’ of his less important ones. That same year, his mother died and he told his new love that ‘‘it was hopeless and no good going on.’’ Since then, Krapp has been completely alone, except for the occasional visit from Fanny, a ‘‘bony old ghost of a whore.’’

Thus, Krapp’s isolation is self-inflicted; while this certainly marks him as pompous (since he felt that he could not bear to have his future career as a writer interfered with by women and love), it also evokes a degree of pity for the deluded old man. Krapp’s only companion is his tape recorder; the cold and mechanical nature of a recorded voice (as opposed to a live one) reflects his essential isolation from human companionship and emotion. To further heighten the viewer’s sense of Krapp’s loneliness, Beckett has him listen eagerly to the tape (in a special ‘‘listening pose’’) that reveals Krapp’s desperation to have anyone (even himself) engage him in conversation. (Of course, Krapp acts as if he has no need for the rest of humanity, but his hunching over the tape recorder belie his affected haughtiness.) What ultimately gives the play its power is that Krapp eventually sees how alien and alone he is and what a terrible mistake he made in forsaking human companionship.

Artists and Society
While some artists have become celebrities and spokespeople for their times (such as Ralph Waldo Emerson Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer), others (such as J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon) shun publicity and prefer to let their work speak for them. Regardless of an individual writer’s feelings about publicity, however, all writers share a common goal: to have their work read by as many people as possible. Seen in this light, writers are social figures whose work brings their thoughts and ideas to the general public.

Krapp, however, is a writer whose work has reached no one and whose artistic ‘‘vision’’ is a total failure. The ‘‘magnum opus’’ that he devoted his life to creating has sold only seventeen copies and Beckett gives absolutely no indication that Krapp is a Melville-like figure whose work is too advanced or revolutionary to be appreciated in his own time. Instead, Beckett accentuates Krapp’s failure as an artist through the play’s setting (the austerity of which reflects Krapp’s poverty), Krapp’s costume (which resembles that of a clown), and his frequent ‘‘popping’’ of corks when he wanders offstage. Krapp’s muse comes in a bottle, and the results of his ‘‘inspiration’’ are negligible. Despite the fact that Krapp remarks that eleven copies of his book are being sold to ‘‘circulating libraries beyond the seas’’ which will help him in ‘‘Getting known,’’ the viewer understands that Beckett holds up Krapp as a man convinced of his artistic greatness but who is ignored by the very readers he needs to proliferate his ideas.

Memory and Reminiscence
Like Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (1944) and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Krapp’s Last Tape is a play that dramatizes the ways in which memories return to a character who finds these glimpses into his or her past more real and meaningful than the events of his or her present life. Krapp’s present life (at the age of sixty-nine) is marked by its austerity and isolation, which he attempts to momentarily dispel through the playing of a tape he recorded thirty years ago. Krapp’s tape recorder is, metaphorically, a mechanical brain; as Krapp toys with its controls, the viewer sees Beckett’s imitation of the ways in which we all attempt to jump from moment to moment in the scenes which constitute our memories:

What I suddenly saw 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 (Krapp curses louder, switches of, winds tape forward, switches on again) my face in her breasts and my hand on her.

In the above passage, Krapp is attempting to stomp down the memory of his ‘‘vision’’ and instead dwell on the memory of his last real relationK ship with another person thus, all of the ‘‘winds tape forwards’’ are analogous to the ways in which all people manipulate the ‘‘tape recorders’’ inside their minds in order to select the ‘‘segments’’ they want to replay. When Krapp reaches the scene of himself and the unnamed woman in the boat, the audience learns that this memory is an important one, since as soon as it is over, Krapp ’’switches off, winds tape back,’’ and listens to it two more times during the course of the play. As the favorite memories of a man about to die become sweeter by their heightened value as remnants of a life that is about to end, so does the part of Krapp’s tape describing his last meaningful encounter with another person become the gem of Krapp’s memory. It is through this ‘‘mechanical memory’’ and his comparing the Krapp described on the thirty-year-old tape with his sixtynine year-old self that Krapp ultimately learns what a terrible mistake he has made in saying ‘‘farewell to love.’’