Samuel Beckett 1906-1989
(Full name Samuel Barclay Beckett) Irish-born French playwright, novelist, essayist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and poet.
The following entry provides criticism on Beckett's works from 1992 through 2003. For criticism prior to 1992, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, 18, 29, and 59; for discussion of his play En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot), see CLC, Volume 57; and for discussion of his play Fin de Partie (1957; Endgame), see CLC, Volume 83.
One of the most celebrated authors in world literature, Beckett is especially recognized for his significant impact on modern drama. His play En attendant Godot (1953; Waiting for Godot) is a seminal work of the Theater of the Absurd, a post-World War II trend in drama characterized by experimental techniques and philosophical nihilism. In his works, Beckett expounds a philosophy of negation through characters who face a meaningless existence without the comforts of religion, myth, or philosophical absolutes.
Beckett was born on April 13, 1906, and raised in Ireland. He traveled to Paris in the late 1920s and became associated with James Joyce, whom he regarded as a consummate literary artist. Beckett's first volume of fiction, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), won modest critical attention. This book, which can be considered a novel or a collection of interrelated stories, reflects Joyce's influence in its embellished prose and in retrospect is considered atypical of Beckett's work. The novel Murphy (1938) initiated the spare prose style that has since come to be identified with Beckett's fictional works. During World War II, Becket worked with the French Resistance and had to flee Paris in order to avoid capture by the Nazis. In the years immediately following the war, he returned to Paris and created what many consider his finest prose achievements. The novels Molloy (1951), Malone meurte (1951; Malone Dies), and L'innommable (1953; The Unnamable), introduced into Beckett's writing two important developments: he began writing French rather than English, finding that he could write with greater austerity in that language, and the novels are narrated as first-person monologues. Dissatisfied with the progress he was making as a prose writer, Beckett experimented with drama. He wrote Waiting for Godot in the late 1940s, but the text of the play was not published until 1953. First performed in Paris, Waiting for Godot became an immediate success. Beckett produced several more acclaimed dramatic and prose works throughout the 1950s and 1960s, including the plays Fin de partie (1957; Endgame), Krapp's Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1961), and the novel Comment c'est (1961; How It Is). In 1969 Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for creating, as a representative of the prize committee declared, a “body of work that, in new forms of fiction and the theater, has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exultation.” Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Beckett continued to be productive both as a playwright and a prose writer, focusing on short and densely complex works in both genres. Since his death in 1989, two significant early works by Beckett—the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1992) and the play Eleuthéria (1995)—have been published for the first time.
Beckett's major prose works are three novels that are often considered as a trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Each of these novels is narrated by a different character who may be viewed as a variation of a single individual. All three of the novels feature either narrators or characters with names that begin with the letter “M,” and it has been suggested by critics that this is a cipher for “Man.” The narrators suffer rapid physical decay while their minds reassure them of their continued existence. In The Unnamable this decay culminates in a being composed only of a mind and a mouth. This being, like many of Beckett's characters, creates stories and contrives a long, rambling monologue as a means of counteracting the pervasiveness of silence and nothingness. Beckett's prose work since the trilogy is marked by the omission of various elements of conventional sentence structure, including conjunctions and punctuation, the result being what appears to be an accumulation of verbal fragments. The most important instance of this tendency is How It Is, in which Beckett abandons all punctuation. Several of Beckett's later prose works are either collections of short “texts” or “novels” that are the length of a chapbook. In these works, Beckett projects intense, often painful images through rhythmic language that stresses and repeats individual words or phrases. One of the most acclaimed examples of Beckett's later prose is Companie (1979; Company), which concerns a voice telling its life's story to a being lying alone in the dark.
Among his dramatic works, Beckett's first produced play, Waiting for Godot, has received the most critical analysis of his entire output as a writer and is one of the most celebrated works in modern literature. The play concerns two down-and-out characters, Vladimir and Estragon, who await the arrival of a Mr. Godot, with whom they apparently have a meeting planned for some unspecified purpose. While waiting for Godot, these characters for the most part pass the time by engaging in conspicuously trivial conversation and activities and occasionally reflecting on weightier issues of human existence. Their attempts to amuse themselves are played out against a bare stage setting. While the actions, gestures, and words of the characters are usually taken to illuminate the predicament of humanity in general, Waiting for Godot has also been subject to various interpretations that include viewing the work as a parable of Christian aspirations for salvation to a depiction of the absence of meaning in human life. Such interpretations, however, are often considered to limit the full implications of the play. In its deemphasis of plot, scenery, dramatic action, and character psychology, Waiting for Godot defies conventional forms of drama as well as conventional critical readings.
Beckett's next play, Endgame, like Waiting for Godot, focuses on a pair of characters faced with nothingness as they attempt to find meaning in their existence. Critics have noted that the characters of this play resemble chess pieces playing an “endgame” in which the outcome has already been determined. The black humor and pathetic circumstances of these players is grimmer and more intense than the plight of Vladimir and Estragon. In Endgame and subsequent plays, Beckett further develops innovative theatrical techniques and philosophical concerns. Krapp's Last Tape depicts a single character who, with the aid of a tape recorder, relives the past that has led to his present, alienated state. Winnie, the central figure of Happy Days, continues to perform her daily rituals while sinking into the earth. Beckett's later drama becomes even more minimalistic, often displaying great technical virtuosity by forcing the audience to concentrate on a single image, such as the raving, disembodied mouth in Not I (1972). Many critics consider Rockaby (1981) one of the most striking achievements of Beckett's minimalization of drama. Rockaby is structured on the image of an old woman in a rocking chair while listening to a recording of what seems to be her life story. Most critics praise the mixture of poetic language and dramatic image as contributing to the power of this work. While some commentators judge these minimal dramas as a whole to be a waste of Beckett's talent, many others find his work to be continually fresh and innovative, applauding him for realizing forceful dramatic statements with increasingly less material.
Although Beckett's works are darkly comic, his characters often grotesque, and his themes evocative of the absurdity and meaninglessness of human existence, he is not generally considered a nihilistic writer. Instead, he is widely recognized as having a keen sense of the condition of modern life, especially the impotence and ignorance of a world that has purportedly reached an advanced stage of technological and intellectual sophistication.