Other Literary Forms
Samuel Beckett is far better known for his fiction and plays than for his poetry, even though it was as a poet that he began his writing career. In fact, Beckett explored almost every literary form, writing in English and in French. His early fiction, the collection of stories More Pricks than Kicks (1934) and the novels Murphy (1938) and Watt (1953), was written originally in English, but his best-known fictions, including the trilogy of Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies, 1956), and L’Innomable (1953; The Unnamable, 1958), and Comment c’est (1961; How It Is, 1964) and Le Dèpeupleur (1971; The Lost Ones, 1972) were written and published originally in French. From the beginning, Beckett’s greatest strength was as an innovator, writing prose works which do not seem to fit easily into traditional categories but which extend the possibilities of contemporary fiction and which have had a profound influence on the writers who have followed him.
Beckett was also a writer of plays, and, when his name is mentioned, most people think of En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954). This difficult theatrical work met with astounding success on stages throughout the world, and it is still Beckett’s best-known and most-discussed piece. Other works for the stage, Fin de partie: Suivi de Acte sans paroles (pr., pb. 1957; music by John Beckett; Endgame: A Play in One Act, Followed by Act Without Words: A Mime for One Player, 1958); Krapp’s Last Tape (pr., pb. 1958), Happy Days (pr., pb. 1961), and Rockaby (pr., pb. 1981), to name only a few, have extended the possibilities of live theater. His Collected Shorter Plays was published in 1984.
Never content to restrict himself to a single medium, Beckett demonstrated that radio and television can serve as vehicles for serious drama with radio plays such as All That Fall (1957), Cascando (1963), and Words and Music (1962), and television scripts such as Eh Joe (1966). Beckett also wrote the screenplay for the short movie Film (1965), produced and directed by Alan Schneider and starring Buster Keaton. Like the novels and the plays, these works for the mass media tapped new possibilities and pointed out new directions which other younger writers are only now beginning to explore.
Early in his career, Beckett also showed that he was a brilliant critic of the arts, writing on the fiction of James Joyce and Marcel Proust and on the paintings of his longtime friend Bram van Velde. In addition to translating his own works, he has translated other writers, including Robert Pinget, Paul Eluard, Alain Bosquet, and Sebastien Chamfort from the French and An Anthology of Mexican Poetry (1958) from the Spanish. His English version of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau ivre” (The Drunken Boat), done in the 1930’s but lost for many years and rediscovered and published for the first time only in the 1977 Collected Poems in English and French, is masterful, but his best-known translation is of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone” (1972), a long poem that addresses many of Beckett’s own themes and which opens with a line that could well characterize Beckett’s efforts in all forms: “In the end you are weary of this ancient world.”
When the Swedish Academy selected Samuel Beckett to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, the award only confirmed what critics and readers had known for some time: that he is one of the most important literary figures of the late twentieth century. Few authors in the history of literature have attracted as much critical attention as Beckett, and with good reason; he is both an important figure in his own right and a transitional thinker whose writings mark the end of modernism and the beginning of a new sensibility, postmodernism. The modernists of the early twentieth century—James Joyce, W. H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and others—were stunned by the absurdity of their world. Previous generations had filled that world with philosophical, religious,...
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