Samuel Beckett

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At a Glance

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.

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Biography

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 5,495 words.)