Samuel Beckett 1906-1989
(Full name Samuel Barclay Beckett) Irish-born French playwright, novelist, poet, short story writer, screenwriter, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Beckett's dramatic works from 1957 through 2001.
Beckett is one of the most celebrated and influential dramatists of the twentieth century. His play En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot), with its incongruent plot and seemingly pointless dialogue, helped advance the concept of a “Theater of the Absurd” and is regarded as a masterpiece. Beckett's plays utilize non-standard and minimalist staging techniques and experimental language and character development. Beckett continually strove to remove the physicality of the dramatic experience, e.g. elaborate staging, intricate sets, etc., in an attempt to illustrate the inner turmoil of humanity, and to force the audience to reach a higher level of understanding without relying on the traditional forms of theater. Beckett's innovative style and stark exploration into the human condition were considered ground-breaking and his influence is apparent throughout contemporary theater.
Beckett was born in Dublin on April 12, 1906 to a middle-class family. As a youth he was more inclined to athletics than academics, not showing interest in literature until his third year at Trinity College, Dublin, as a student of modern languages. Upon receiving his B.A. in 1927, he departed for France and lectured at Ecole Normal Superieure in Paris, where he became acquainted with James Joyce. Beckett worked with Joyce as an assistant and copier during the writing of Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and Joyce's modernist style began to shape Beckett's writing. After two years abroad, Beckett returned to Ireland in 1931 and the following year produced his first play, Le Kid (1931). Beckett was dissatisfied with life in Ireland and suffered from debilitating bouts of depression; in 1932, he relocated to Paris. In 1935, he attended a lecture by Carl Gustav Jung about the illusion of consciousness and the uncontrolled unconscious—themes that are widely developed and analyzed in Beckett's drama. During World War II, Beckett joined the French Resistance and worked within that organization until his cell was infiltrated and he was forced to leave Paris. After the war ended, Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance, and he settled again in Paris as a writer. Waiting for Godot was written in 1948 and 1949, but the playwright thoroughly reworked the play before it was finally produced in 1953. Waiting for Godot is widely considered Beckett's finest play. He continued to write novels and plays, producing his next full-length play, Fin de partie (1957; Endgame) in the same minimalist, existentialist style of Waiting for Godot, furthering his conveyance of ideas through experimental dramatic techniques and unique staging concepts. Although his last full length play was written in 1961 (Happy Days), Beckett wrote many short plays (or dramaticules), screenplays, and television dramas in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1969, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for contributing “a body of work that, in new forms of fiction and the theater, has transformed the destitution of modern man into his exultation.” Beckett died on December 22, 1989.
Regarded as one of the most controversial and seminal works of twentieth-century drama, Waiting for Godot is noted for its minimal approach to dramatic form, powerful imagery, and concise, fragmented, and repetitive dialogue. Traditional plays begin with some action or event that results in dramatic conflict, an imperative element to Aristotelian dramatic theory. Waiting for Godot begins with no precipitative movement, only an abstract struggle involving the passage of time. Vladimir and Estragon, two vagabonds, wait on a desolate plain to keep an appointment with someone called M. Godot. Their purgatorial wait has been interpreted by some as religious faith, the hopelessness of the human condition, or as an example of postcolonial discourse. Beckett encouraged unique interpretations of his works and refused to concede that Waiting for Godot had a definitive meaning. Likewise, Endgame is a play that is also open to many interpretations. In Endgame, Beckett again focused on two characters, bedraggled survivors of an apparent holocaust. The two men, Clov and Hamm, are faced with the nothingness of their existence as they attempt to validate their lives, eventually falling back on memories to justify their existence. Beckett further developed his innovative theatrical techniques and metaphysical concerns in Krapp's Last Tape (1958) and Happy Days. In Happy Days, the protagonist, Winnie, continues her daily rituals while being buried up to her waist in earth. She seems uncaring and almost welcomes this entombment, and by the second act of the play, she is buried up to her neck. Winnie believes that the earth stabilizes her and keeps her grounded, lest her insubstantiality should cause her to float into the sky. Beckett's preoccupation with disembodied heads and faces resurfaces in his later short plays That Time (1976), A Piece of Monologue (1979), Ohio Impromptu (1981), and What Where (1983), all of which feature heads with long white hair and an aged appearance. In Not I (1972), the main character is a disembodied mouth floating high above the stage. The Mouth seems to be forced into confessing her faults to a lone Auditor in a Dante-esque purgatory. Beckett used darkness, voice, repetition, and silence to heighten the feeling of damnation, hopelessness, and introspection in much of his drama.
Beckett's portrayal of a world of insignificance and incomprehensibility has led many critics to identify Waiting for Godot with existentialism, the Theater of the Absurd, postmodernism, and nihilism. Although his works contain slapstick and dark comedy, his characters are often grotesquely exaggerated caricatures—oblivious to predictability and their impending demise. Many critics contend that Beckett's progression from language to silence and light to darkness reflects the author's growing pessimistic vision, yet some feel that by stripping down the characters to the basest levels, Beckett actually proposed rebirth. Some commentators note the numerous biblical allusions, repetitions, and ironic devices in his plays. His works have been interpreted as religious ideologies, chess analogies, atheist texts, and Eastern existentialism, yet Beckett warned against trying to perceive his intended thought, often commenting that his works have no definitive meaning and advocating the individual's right to personal interpretation.