Samuel Beckett Biography

Samuel Beckett was, in a word, “absurd.” Despite his lengthy and complex career, Beckett will always be closely associated with the absurdist movement, which took a darkly comic look at humankind’s search for the meaning of life. For Beckett, this search was entirely futile—but quite funny. In Beckett’s Happy Days, for example, a woman is slowly engulfed by a mound of dirt yet retains her sunny disposition. And in his most famous work, Waiting for Godot, two vagabonds horse around by the side of a deserted road waiting for the titular character to show up—only he never does. Scholars have debated for decades whether Beckett’s outlook was entirely pessimistic or if it did have—deep down—an odd, distorted kind of optimism. The futility of ever reaching a satisfactory answer would have surely pleased Beckett.

Facts and Trivia

  • Despite his reputation in the world of drama, Beckett wrote novels, short stories, and poetry for nearly two decades before turning his attention to plays.
  • Nearly all of the English-language premieres of Beckett’s plays were directed by Alan Schneider. The two maintained a close working collaboration until Schneider’s death in 1984.
  • Although an Irishman, Beckett was of French descent. Many of his most famous works, including Waiting for Godot, were originally written in French and later translated into English.
  • In the early 1980s, Beckett attempted to shut down a production of Endgame directed by the well-respected Joanne Akalaitis. Beckett’s primary reason was that Akalaitis disregarded his stage directions and changed the setting of the play to a subway station.
  • The American premiere of Waiting for Godot featured Bert Lahr, best known for his performance as the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2995

Article abstract: Poet, playwright, novelist, and critic, Beckett has created a corpus of drama and fiction that has established him as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

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Early Life

Samuel Barclay Beckett was the second of two sons born, in an outlying district of Dublin, to wealthy, Anglo-Irish, Protestant parents, William and Mary Beckett. William Frank Beckett, Jr., was a self-made businessman who amassed a considerable fortune as a quantity surveyor for builders. He was bluff, robust, and coarse, with a streak of stubborn cruelty which insisted that his sons strain their bodies performing demanding athletic feats. Beckett’s mother, Mary Roe (called “May”), came from a moneyed, leisured background that she defied by working as a nurse in the Dublin hospital where she met her husband-to-be. She was even more forceful and demanding than her husband, with a biting wit, imperious manner, and moody, autocratic temperament. While William often laughed and sported with his boys, May grew increasingly stern, formal, and censorious. She may well have been the model for the troubled, embittered mothers in Beckett’s works.

“I had little talent for happiness,” Beckett recalled of his childhood. “I was often lonely.” True, young Beckett excelled in athletics at the Portora Royal School in Northern Ireland, starring on the cricket and rugby teams, while also playing tennis, swimming, and boxing, but he puzzled his classmates with his aloofness, melancholy, reserve, and sullen rebelliousness; his teasing was often vicious. He followed his brother to Trinity College, Dublin, in 1923, spending his first two years there dabbling at his studies. In his third year, he discovered the charm of modern languages, improved his grades impressively, and took a cycling trip through France, in the summer of 1926, which instilled in him a growing fondness for that nation. In December, 1927, he received his B.A. degree from Trinity with first rank in modern languages. His reward was a two-year exchange lectureship at the distinguished École Normale Supérieure. The École’s exchange scholar at Trinity, Alfred Péron, became his lifelong friend and thawed some of Beckett’s social shyness with his congeniality and popularity.

In Paris, Beckett was introduced to the great Irish expatriate author James Joyce. For years, Joyce served as both a surrogate father to Beckett and his standard for artistic integrity and commitment. Joyce welcomed Beckett into the coterie of willing young men who hunted down obscure references and took direction for their master’s Work in Progress, which was to be published as Finnegans Wake (1939). At Joyce’s urging, Beckett contributed an essay, “Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . . Joyce,” to a 1929 volume devoted to criticism of the novel that would consume sixteen years of Joyce’s life. In 1930, Beckett translated, with Péron, the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section of Work in Progress.

Concurrently, Beckett was seriously studying philosophy, particularly René Descartes. When the Parisian Hours Press offered a prize of one thousand francs for the best poem about time, Beckett wrote, in one night, a ninety-eight-line punning poem, Whoroscope (1930), which described Descartes’ life in an oblique but witty manner that earned for him the prize and his first separate publication.

Whoroscope caused two of Beckett’s friends to suggest him to a London publisher for a short study on Marcel Proust. The resulting monograph, Proust (1931), anticipates several of the themes Beckett would develop in his mature work: love as painful frustration, friendship as largely an illusion, habit as “the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit,” and recognition of “that irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned.” The text is as much a self-diagnosis of Beckett’s state of mind and heart as it is of Proust’s, stressing the painfulness of life, the unlikelihood of joys, the assuredness of suffering—and turning to art as the only viable consolation.

In December, 1931, Beckett took his M.A. degree from Trinity but became seriously depressed at the prospect of an academic career. He resigned from Trinity in 1932 after only a few months in the classroom, fled to the Continent, and wrote a novel that has remained unpublished, “Dream of Fair to Middling Women.” In June, 1933, his father died of a heart attack, leaving him an annuity of two hundred pounds annually. Beckett spent the next three years in London, writing some poetry and more fiction, maintaining an increasingly angry relationship with his taunting mother (who compared him unfavorably to his successful businessman-brother), and undergoing a two-year Jungian psychoanalysis which he abandoned in 1936.

His collection of ten stories, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), focuses on an indolent young Irishman, Belacqua Shuah, who wanders through Ireland though plagued by bad feet. The collection contains one great story, “Dante and the Lobster,” which concludes with an extraordinarily powerful passage, full of anguished compassion for all living creatures—even a lobster about to be boiled alive by Belacqua’s aunt. Beckett here found his voice and style as a significant writer: language that was precisely controlled, swinging from the colloquial to the cosmic; a tone that altered hilarity with somber despair; and a sad affirmation of pain and injustice as life’s leading realities.

Life’s Work

In his late twenties and early thirties, Beckett was a frequently depressed and close-to-impoverished, struggling writer, miserably shuttling between London and Dublin, chafing at the slowness of his analysis, drinking heavily, suffering several breakdowns. Published photographs feature what was to become a famous gaunt, aquiline profile, with a furrowed forehead, sparrowhawk eyes, lined cheeks, and a wide-eyed, anguished stare. What probably saved him from self-destruction was his writing, particularly his first novel, Murphy, on which he worked, off and on, between 1934 and the end of 1937; rejected by forty-one publishers, it was first issued by Routledge in 1938 but received almost no critical attention.

The novel is remarkable for its linguistic dexterity, sophisticated humor, and brilliant fusion of philosophical implications with a fluently propelled narrative. Beckett’s solipsistic protagonist is a prototype of Watt, Moran, Molloy, and Malone. Murphy is a lazy theological student who—like Beckett—has come to London from Ireland. He lives with a kindhearted whore, Celia, who threatens to return to streetwalking unless he finds work. He becomes a mental hospital attendant but spends most of his energy examining his own mind, regarding it, in Cartesian fashion, as containing everything in the universe. Beckett expressed at length in this text the leading themes of his mature work: loneliness, isolation, physical disintegration, mental alienation, creative failure, and the tragic split between mind and body, self and society, with man’s reason a ludicrously inadequate instrument for controlling a world of chance and disorder. Murphy’s mind and body are united only when both are killed in a gas explosion; his friends soon go on with their own lives: Pity is in short supply.

In October, 1937, Beckett moved back to Paris, largely to escape his domineering mother. He resumed his friendship with Joyce, which had been disrupted after Beckett, in the early 1930’s, had rejected the persistent advances of Joyce’s schizoid daughter, Lucia. In early 1938, Beckett accepted the advances of the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim; as usual, his part in the brief affair was largely passive; she called him “Oblomov,” after the lethargic hero of Ivan Goncharov’s novel (1859).

In January, 1938, a pimp accosted Beckett for money on a Parisian street, then stabbed him, barely missing his heart. A piano student, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumésnil, happened to witness the assault. She became a frequent bedside visitor during his hospital stay and decided to establish herself as his life’s companion; again, Beckett simply allowed himself to be mastered.

An excellent seamstress, Suzanne sewed for a number of years to augment their income, especially in the late 1940’s. She was pleased to devote her life totally to his needs, supplying his routine requirements for food, laundry, and linen, as well as zealously protecting his privacy. Both were intensely shy persons who preferred a reclusive existence with few friendships; Suzanne proved even more averse to social gatherings than he. After many years of cohabitation, they married on March 25, 1961, for the same legal reason that Joyce finally married Nora Barnacle: so that the wife would have no difficulty inheriting the husband’s estate.

From early 1938 until the outbreak of World War II in September, 1939, Beckett succumbed to spells of lethargy, writing very little. With the coming of war he renounced his previous apolitical views, recognized Adolf Hitler as a demoniac leader capable of “making life hell for my friends,” and joined one of the earliest French Resistance units in October, 1940. He served largely as a boîte aux lettres (dropping point), translating information gathered by his group into English for further communication to officials in England. When Alfred Péron, another group member, was arrested by the Gestapo, his wife warned Beckett and Suzanne in time for them to flee Paris and make their way to unoccupied France, where they passed themselves off as peasants until the war’s end. In 1945, Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his intelligence work.

He spent his evening hours from 1942 to 1944 composing the novel Watt, which he could not get published until 1953. It is his most Kafkaesque text, with significant parallels to The Castle (1926). Watt works as a servant for a Mr. Knott, who is unpredictable and unknowable—an inscrutable God mocking the hearts of all who seek Him. Watt’s journey to and from Knott’s mansion is a characteristically Beckettian journey toward ignorance, incommunicability, and chaos. The book was his last to be written first in English; his decision to make French his original writing language is one Beckett has never fully explained.

In 1947, Beckett began the most fertile phase of his career: six years during which he completed a trilogy of novels that are usually regarded as his major fictional texts—Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), L’Innommable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958)—and his most famous play, En attendant Godot (1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954). He decided that he would begin all of his writing from his memories and dreams, no matter how painful, and that in his fiction he would construct first-person monologues, with all speakers variants of the same protagonist/voice. He resigned himself to being “doomed to spend the rest of my days digging up the detritus of my life and vomiting it out over and over again.”

Beckett wrote Molloy between September, 1947, and January, 1948. He found himself writing “with élan, in a sort of enthusiasm.” The novel consists of two parts: In the first, Molloy tells a disconnected tale of his absurd, compulsive voyage toward his mother; in the second, Moran, a middle-aged Catholic father, writes the story of his quest to seek Molloy. In Malone Dies, the paralytic Malone, toothless and dying, writes to relieve his misery and to achieve self-knowledge. In The Unnamable, the fable is narrated by an unnamed man who inhabits a jar in a window, lacks features or protuberances, and finds himself compelled to speak in half-incoherent, ominous, intense undertones from what may be an underworld. The only theme seems to be man’s need to use language, however dire his condition. The concluding words, “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” have become the bywords of Absurdism.

Waiting for Godot was written by Beckett from October 9, 1948, to January 29, 1949, as a diversion from the relentless pessimism of his trilogy, between the conclusion of Malone Dies and inception of The Unnamable. The play is static in plot and spare in setting, fiercely concentrating on a quartet of characters who divide into two couples. The more important pair, Vladimir and Estragon, await the coming of the mysterious Godot; the other two, Pozzo and Lucky, are locked into a sadomasochistic master/slave relationship. The drama’s meaning has puzzled and fascinated an army of critics. At a minimum, the work conveys the boredom and anguish of man’s search for significance in a bleak and cruelly empty world. Beckett’s first biographer, Deirdre Bair, has recorded Beckett’s view that Waiting for Godot is a flawed play, by no means his “outstanding expression of theatrical ability.”

The Beckett text which has tantalized readers and critics even more than Waiting for Godot is Fin de partie (1957; Endgame, 1957), perhaps his most complex and surely his most brilliant play. It is an apocalyptic coda to Waiting for Godot, reversing the myth of Genesis to indicate the disintegration of the world—possibly after a nuclear holocaust. Beckett maintains the metaphor of life as a play, having a blind, paralyzed Hamm verbally abuse his servant and possible son, Clov, and his dying parents, relegated to what may be the dustbin of Western values. Is Hamm an anti-Prospero announcing the death of humanity? He wearily says, “Old endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing.”

From the late 1950’s on, both Beckett’s fiction and his drama are characterized by increasing experimentation in form while retaining his basic version of sterile, hopeless desolation. His techniques become increasingly minimal as he evokes the diminishing capacity of his characters. They do less and less as he pares down his literary means to the fewest, barest bones, reducing his texts to the condition nearest silence.

To illustrate: In Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), a sixty-nine-year-old shuffler contrasts his present shell to his vigorous self when, at thirty-nine, he recorded a tape over which the old man sadly meditates; Happy Days (1961) has Winnie prattling cheerfully as she sinks further and further into her sandy grave; Play (1963) encases a man, his wife, and his mistress in urns, trapped into repeating the sordid details of their triangle; Come and Go: Dramaticule (in German, 1965; in English, 1967) has three dying women review their lives in three minutes; Breath (1969) has no actors, no words, only a bit of rubbish onstage, a dim light, two faint cries (birth and death?), then silence; Not I (1973) is a twelve-minute monologue for a spotlit female mouth, breathlessly summarizing a wretched life whose import the woman denies.

After having been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature from 1957 onward, Beckett received it in 1969. Characteristically, he was absent from the award ceremonies; also characteristically, he distributed the prize money among a number of needy artists, printers, scholars, and old friends. In his old age, he continued to live quietly and work steadily in either a Parisian apartment he bought in the early 1960’s or a small country house east of Paris. When not writing, he assisted in productions of his plays on the stages of London, Berlin, and Paris.

Summary

An austerely self-contained writer more important for his focus than his range, Samuel Beckett is a metaphysical pointillist who specializes in rendering humanity’s dark-forest moods. The tone of his work is that of a calm and horrible lucidity which regards the storm of man’s violent strivings as over, with all illusions of progress and stability shattered. For him, agonizing chance and disorder dominate the cosmos, with the entire machinery of existence grinding to a halt. He is beyond any revolt or affirmation, insisting on intoning increasingly sparse and stark odes to despair. Just as Franz Kafka has come to be considered by many the most representative writer of the unhappy first half of the twentieth century, so Beckett is in many ways his appropriate successor, as the most influential laureate of the twentieth century’s holocaust-haunted second half.

Bibliography

Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. To date, this is the only book-length (736 pages) biography, hence an indispensable source for Beckett students. Bair was a doctoral candidate in search of a dissertation topic when she spoke to Beckett in November, 1971. He told her that he “would neither help nor hinder” her, leaving her free to conduct three hundred interviews and labor six years over this project.

Coe, Richard N. Beckett. New York: Grove Press, 1964. A concisely written study which concentrates on the fiction and demonstrates the relationship between Beckett’s work and such intellectual traditions as Cartesianism and existentialism.

Cohn, Ruby. Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1962. A lucidly written, incisive study of Beckett as a comic writer, in the tradition of Irish humorists and Henri Bergson’s philosophy of comedy. Cohn has a particularly valuable chapter on Endgame.

Ellman, Richard. James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959. This is one of the greatest literary biographies of the twentieth century. Beckett figures in it incidentally, as one of Joyce’s young helpers, admirers, and later friends.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1961, rev. ed. 1969. This has become a classic text for understanding the contemporary theater. Esslin has a fifty-page chapter on Beckett which puts his work in the context of the tradition of the absurd, in which Esslin also places Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genêt, Harold Pinter, and others.

Esslin, Martin, ed. Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1965. As usual, Esslin’s judgment in selecting essays on Beckett is sound, and his introduction is well organized and scholarly. Some of the articles have been translated from foreign languages.

Federman, Raymond. Journey to Chaos: Samuel Beckett’s Early Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965. A learned, philosophically oriented study which not only analyzes the works Beckett wrote prior to Molloy but also refers helpfully forward to the later fiction.

Fletcher, John, and John Spurling. Beckett the Playwright. Rev. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985. This is currently the most comprehensive interpretation of Beckett’s drama, from the earliest, unpublished play, “Eleutheria,” to What Where (1983). The analyses are clear, thorough, and judicious.

Kenner, Hugh. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973. Although Kenner is a distinguished authority on modern British and Irish literature, this book may disappoint some students. The plot synopses are not always helpful, while much of the writing is arch, oblique, and recondite.

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Critical Essays