Samuel Beckett Beckett, Samuel (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Beckett, Samuel 1906–

Beckett is an Irish-born playwright, novelist, poet, critic, essayist, short story writer, and translator who now resides in Paris and writes predominantly in French. He is usually grouped with Pinter, Genet, and Ionesco as a member of the Theatre of the Absurd. Beckett, according to Robert Martin Adams, "has kept open the possibilities of humanity by cutting the throat of literature and forcing his readers to confront naked conditions of mere existence—without sham exhilaration or despair, but coldly, very coldly." His existential, absurdist themes are reinforced by a style that experiments with formlessness and fragmented language, reflecting the influence of James Joyce, to whom Beckett was both secretary and literary colleague. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Beckett has had a major influence on contemporary drama. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 14, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Jean-Jacques Mayoux

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[From] his earliest prose Beckett gives himself a persona, a personal representative whom he can know and probe as cosa mentale, yet he presents him at first as engaged in the non-existent external world, and his resource must then be to show the connexion as grotesque, so that the character alternately attempts it and withdraws from it, in burlesque indecision: this is what we may call the Belacqua phase of Beckett.

More Pricks than Kicks (1934) is (as might be guessed from its obscene though unassuming title) marked and annulled by the author's frantic self-consciousness: in these short stories Beckett is never done with torturing the language, which constantly approximates to fine writing and is constantly brought back to the level of jest or parody. The persona here is Belacqua, a character taken straight from Canto IV of the Purgatorio, where Dante sees him as 'more idle than if laziness itself were his sister'. In Dante's poem Belacqua is found among those souls who out of sheer sloth have always postponed repentance in their mortal life, and who are condemned to wait for their admission to Purgatory for a period equivalent to that of their stay on earth. Here we surely have a foretaste of Waiting for Godot. But it is worth noting that while for Dante's Belacqua 'waiting' is a period of expectancy and looking forward, for Beckett's it is a completely negative experience. At any rate in this character Beckett incarnates for the first time his wish for the physical, sentimental and mental immobility that should lead to a near-mystic quiet: such a state is in conflict with the pull of the world, represented by the obstinacy of desire, essentially sexual, and by the insistence of women. (p. 7)

Let us make a proposition: that the subject of each of Beckett's novels is exactly and entirely in its title, and that each represents an avatar of Beckett, who knows that he only exists and signifies to himself. We shall then admit that everything in Watt [1953] deals with aspects of Watt, including Mr Knott. A god-image, yes, of course: Knot, nought, Gott. (p. 13)

As Beckett sets his figures, before us whether Watt or Knott, a certain quite deliberate element of freedom and gratuitousness goes to their ornament and gives them a presence….

[Watt] leans heavily on a philosophical system which it half follows, half mocks and parodies, that of Leibnitz. Mr Knott as keystone of a Leibnitzian world may represent, in opposition to the single actuality effectively retained, the infinite number of possibles held in reserve: this is an idea on which the whole book thrives, since it contains page after page of enumerations arranged with incredible care and precision, of exhaustive and, some readers will say, exhausting series, making … a prose of numbers constructed like silent music. (p. 14)

Beckett's art had become in time more and more of a projection of images generated by his inner pressures; in other words it had become more and more expressionist because more and more oneiric; and because, in its externalizations, it ignored the external world. Intenseness, aggressiveness, violence, as they are the motive force of the artist, will remain part of the art, leading to the distortion of whatever shapes it borrows, and to vehement incoherence in their disposition. Such an art is ever strongly dramatic: the dialectic of conflict and the clash of assertion and denial in The Unnamable are strikingly so. Beckett has already turned to the stage.

What stage? As we watch Waiting for Godot (1952) we know at once that this avant-garde play is closely related to the popular vision of the old music hall or circus, or the early comic cinema of Mack Sennett. The potent attraction of the piece comes from the association of this comic vision, medium, technique, and the bitterness of the message: persistence, knowing itself hopeless; resistance to disintegration, aware of its absurdity. The art to convey this could be termed philosophical clowning. But is not clowning the philosophical essence of parody? Beckett assumes the whole tradition of such art from Shakespeare on. In it the clown debunks, demolishes his 'betters' and destroys all values because all values, once fixed, are false…. He ridicules action, patiently going about it with minute care, contriving his failures and tumbles until he reaches ultimate success as an anticlimax. Act Without Words I and II [1960] are perfect clowning: in the second, the two clowns come out of their sacks, go through the day's work and back into the sacks, in possibly ten minutes. One is brisk and active and does a lot of things in quick time. The other is sluggish, uninterested, indolent as Belacqua himself, and achieves very little. But when they are back in their sacks, after killing exactly as much time, the way they killed it makes no difference. Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot seem to be outside any definition of clowning; perhaps we should be content with calling them clownish actors, but they do an act rather than play a part. In fact, Beckett has been careful to insert enough farce to discourage pathos in spite of the pathetic elements in the text. Thus the pulling off of a stubborn boot, the horse-play with Lucky, and the kicks and howls and the tumbling of all the characters in a heap, and the juggling interlude (with a probably unconscious Laurel and Hardy origin) involving two heads and three hats, are carefully inserted with a dual purpose: such amusements that pass the time must be felt as representing the inanity of all active 'diversions', truly so called, so felt, ever since Murphy tried to reach mystic unity. Moreover, aesthetically speaking, clownish clothes and clownish acting are part of the rejection of all realism. A realistic setting would spoil everything. We do not mean only scenery but, even if marked in the most sketchy and symbolic manner, a precise and external localization of the setting. In Waiting for Godot, the stage (allegedly 'a country road, a tree') is in fact all the world and a stage, of which the players show their awareness in their mocking dialogue…. (pp. 28-30)

Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot. Each one of us, as long as he has something to expect, can insert Godot as the unknown factor or providential visitor. But Godot is he who never comes, a Kafkaesque vision again. He has sent a 'messenger' …, only to say that he won't come that day but the next; on the second day, the message is to the same effect, but the Messenger destroys all hope of a real connexion by asserting that he has never come before. Vladimir and Estragon are not known, nor ever will be. Esse est percipi, and Beckett's characters will feel more and more inexistent because unperceived.

Godot of the divine undertones does not come, but in a Manichean world, Pozzo does: a mean man-devil, with his slave and carrier, Lucky, whom he drives like an animal, by rope and whip. Lucky and Pozzo, abject slave and cruel bully, seem almost to sum up human relations, as How It Is will again set them forth. Yet Vladimir and Estragon show, with attraction and repulsion significantly alternating, a more equal relation between two desperate solitudes, with a note of elder...

(The entire section is 3016 words.)

June Schlueter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The characters of Beckett's plays, from Waiting for Godot to those in the dramatic pieces comprising Ends and Odds, take their places in a playworld in which the atmosphere is permeated with a sense of the absurd. Invariably, Beckett's characters are metaphors for modern—or universal—man, puzzling over his inability to detect an intelligible pattern and suffering the consequent anguish of a futile search for meaning. The characteristic state of mind of a Beckett character is despair. (p. 53)

By virtue of the self-reflective quality of his theater, virtually every play of Beckett's is populated with metafictional characters. The sole physical presence in Krapp's Last Tape...

(The entire section is 2728 words.)

Thomas Postlewait

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Both Footfalls and That Time] are short, austere dramas, comparable to Not I…. Their actions are located essentially in the minds of characters who are listening to the voice(s) of consciousness reeling out, like Krapp's tapes, "ends and odds" of disjointed memories and stories: the fragmented awareness of being in time, but not in harmony with it. Measuring time and being measured by it are the basic topics. The conflict, as almost always in Beckett's works, is between the disintegrating body and the questioning mind, both caught inexplicably in time while slowly moving toward death. The mind and its words attempt to take the measure of the body's existence, trying to tell how it is and was...

(The entire section is 3888 words.)

Eric P. Levy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Lost Ones demonstrates, as clearly as any of Beckett's longer efforts in prose fiction, how much each successive work depends on what has preceded. This is not simply a matter of treating the familiar themes of fruitless motion, attrition, or the inevitable return to solitary confinement. Beyond these, the text reaches back to earlier works for both the details of the story and its narrative approach….

The text introduces us to a severely geometric world: the interior of a cylinder where a tribe of naked bodies pursues a barren existence. Crowded into a small space, each body has just enough room to stand. Since each is moved by the need to search "for its lost one" and indeed seems...

(The entire section is 1736 words.)

Enoch Brater

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Reduce, reduce, reduce!" wrote Marcel Duchamp, proclaiming a new credo for artistic composition. Beckett has taken the manifesto at its word, for in his short prose pieces to construct means quite literally to reduce. Ideas collapse into words, contemplation backslides into sensation, and stories revert to color, texture, sensibility, and sensuality. Definitively incomplete, Beckett's formal condensation undermines the elusive and sometimes suspicious relations between his minimalist prose and all other things: "Objects give us everything," Duchamp continued, "but their representation no longer gives us anything." Disengaged from representational imagery and therefore not emblematic, Beckett's work makes us discover...

(The entire section is 1921 words.)