Samuel Barclay Beckett (April 13, 1906 – December 22, 1989) was an Irish playwright, novelist and poet. Beckett's work is stark, fundamentally minimalist, and, according to some interpretations, deeply pessimistic. Others suggest that Beckett was, in truth, a devout optimist who was saddened by the oppressive state of the world in which he lived, but who believed—and expressed through his art—the redeeming power of the human imagination. Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969 "for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation."
Beckett is a unique figure in the history of Western literature. Born in Ireland and culturally Irish, Beckett would write his first works in English in close association with the Modernist movement. Beckett was a close friend of James Joyce, and his early work shows the clear stamp of the incredibly complex style typical of Modernism. At a critical point in his career, however, Beckett experienced what he called an "epiphany"; he distanced himself not only from Joyce and Modernism, but from the English language itself. He would write, for the remainder of his life, in French. Beckett later explained that he found it easier to write in French "without style"—that is, with simplicity and directness free of the extravagances typical of Modernism. During this period Beckett would write many of the works for which he would become most famous, including his watershed play Waiting for Godot. The play centers on the dilemma of modern man when all meaning has been stripped by the breakdown of the cultural certainties in a "post-Christian" era. Without God, the characters wait interminably for God or death or something to bring meaning to their lives.
As he matured, Beckett's style became more and more cryptic and spartan. Beckett explained that while Modernism had sought to add more and more complexity to literature, he chose to reduce his works to their bare essences. His late style would influence a number of playwrights, poets, and novelists of the latter twentieth century's avant-garde, and Beckett is often viewed as perhaps the most influential writer, in English or French, of the postwar period, as well as the first internationally-renowned author of postmodernism.
Beckett was born in Foxrock, a suburb of Dublin. At the age of five, Beckett attended a local playschool, where he first started to learn music, and then moved to Earlsford House School in the center of Dublin. In 1919, Beckett went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.
Beckett studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin from 1923 to 1927. While at Trinity one of his tutors was the eminent Berkeley scholar, Dr. A.A. Luce. Beckett graduated with a B.A., and, after teaching briefly at Campbell College in Belfast, took up the post of lecturer in English in the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. While there, he was introduced to renowned Irish author James Joyce by Thomas MacGreevy, a poet and close confidant of Beckett. This meeting was soon to have a profound effect on the young man, and Beckett assisted Joyce in various ways, most particularly by helping him do research for the book that would eventually become Finnegans Wake. In 1929, Beckett published his first work, a critical essay entitled Dante…Bruno.Vico…Joyce. The essay defends Joyce's work and method, chiefly from allegations of wanton obscurity and dimness, and was Beckett's contribution to Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a book of essays on Joyce which also included contributions by Eugene Jolas, Robert McAlmon, and William Carlos Williams, among others. It was also during this period that Beckett's first short story, "Assumption," was published in Jolas' periodical Transition. The next year he won a small literary prize with his hastily composed poem "Whoroscope," which draws from a biography of René Descartes that Beckett happened to be reading when he was encouraged to submit to the periodical.
In 1930, Beckett returned to Trinity College as a lecturer, but soon became disillusioned with his chosen academic vocation. He expressed his aversion by playing a trick on the Modern Language Society of Dublin, reading a learned paper in French on a Toulouse author named Jean du Chas, founder of a movement called Concentrism; Chas and Concentrism, however, were purely fictitious, having been invented by Beckett to mock pedantry.
Beckett resigned from Trinity at the end of 1931, terminating his brief academic career. He commemorated this turning point in his life by composing the poem "Gnome," inspired by his reading of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. It was eventually published in the Dublin Magazine in 1934:
After leaving Trinity, Beckett began to travel in Europe. He also spent some time in London, where, in 1931, he published Proust, his critical study of French author Marcel Proust. Two years later, in the wake of his father's death, he began two years of Jungian psychotherapy with Dr. Wilfred Bion, who took him to hear Carl Jung's third Tavistock lecture, an event which Beckett would still recall many years later. In 1932, he wrote his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, but after many rejections from publishers, decided to abandon it; the book would eventually be published in 1993. Despite his inability to get it published, however, the novel did serve as a source for many of Beckett's early poems, as well as for his first full-length book, the 1933 short-story collection More Pricks Than Kicks.
Beckett also published a number of essays and reviews around the time, including "Recent Irish Poetry" (in The Bookman, August 1934) and "Humanistic Quietism," a review of his friend Thomas MacGreevy's Poems (in The Dublin Magazine, July–September 1934). These two reviews focused on the work of MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin and Blanaid Salkeld, comparing them favorably with their Celtic Revival contemporaries and invoking Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and the French symbolists as their precursors.
In 1935—the year that Beckett successfully published a book of his poetry, Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates—he was also working on his novel Murphy. In May of that year, he wrote to MacGreevy that he had been reading about film and wished to go to Moscow to study with Sergei Eisenstein at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. In the summer of 1936, he wrote to Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, offering to become their apprentice. Nothing came of this, however, as Beckett's letter was lost due to Eisenstein's quarantine during the smallpox outbreak, and a script re-write ultimately postponed film production. Beckett, meanwhile, finished Murphy, and then in 1936 departed for extensive travel around Germany, during which time he filled several notebooks with lists of noteworthy artwork that he had seen, also noting his distaste for the Nazi savagery which was then overtaking the country. Returning to Ireland briefly in 1937, he oversaw the publishing of Murphy (1938), which he himself translated into French the next year. He also had a falling-out with his mother, which contributed to his decision to settle permanently in Paris (where he would return for good following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, preferring—in his own words—"France at war to Ireland at peace").
In Paris, in January of 1938, while refusing the solicitations of a notorious pimp who ironically went by the name of Prudent, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and nearly killed. James Joyce arranged a private room for the injured Beckett at the hospital. The publicity surrounding the stabbing attracted the attention of Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil, who knew Beckett slightly from his first stay in Paris; this time, however, the two would begin a lifelong companionship. At a preliminary hearing, Beckett asked his attacker for the motive behind the stabbing, and Prudent casually replied, "Je ne sais pas, Monsieur. Je m'excuse" ("I do not know, sir. I'm sorry"). Beckett occasionally recounted the incident in jest, and eventually dropped the charges against his attacker—partially to avoid further legalities, but also because he found Prudent to be personally likable and well-mannered.
Beckett joined the French Resistance after the 1940 occupation by Germany, working as a courier; on several occasions over the next two years he was nearly caught by the Gestapo.
In August 1942, his unit was betrayed and he and Suzanne fled south on foot to safety in the small village of Roussillon. Here he continued to assist the Resistance by storing armaments in the back yard of his home. During the two years that Beckett stayed in Roussillon he indirectly helped the Maquis sabotage the German army in the Vaucluse mountains, though he rarely spoke about his wartime work.
Beckett was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government for his efforts in fighting the German occupation; to the end of his life, however, Beckett would modestly refer to his work with the French Resistance as "boy scout stuff." While in hiding in Roussillon, Beckett continued work on the novel Watt, which he would continue writing throughout the war, though it would not see publication until 1953.
In 1945, Beckett returned to Dublin for a brief visit. During his stay, he had an epiphany in his mother’s room in which his entire future literary direction appeared to him. In 1946, Jean-Paul Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes published the first part of Beckett’s short story "Suite" (later to be called "La fin," or "The End"), not realizing that Beckett had only submitted the first half of the story. Beckett also began to write his fourth novel, Mercier et Camier, which was not to be published until 1970. The novel, in many ways, presaged his most famous work, the play Waiting for Godot, written not long afterwards. More importantly, it was Beckett’s first long work to be written in French, the language of most of his subsequent works, including the "trilogy" of novels he was soon to write: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Despite being a native English speaker, Beckett chose to write in French because—as he himself claimed—French was a language in which it was easier to write "without style."
Beckett is most renowned for the play Waiting for Godot. In a much-quoted article, the critic Vivian Mercier wrote that Beckett "has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What's more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice" (Irish Times, 18 February 1956, p. 6). Like most of his works after 1947, the play was first written in French with the title En attendant Godot. Beckett worked on the play between October 1948 and January 1949. He published it in 1952, and premiered it in 1953. The English translation appeared two years later. The play was a critical, popular, and controversial success in Paris. It opened in London in 1955 to mainly negative reviews, but the tide turned with positive reactions by Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times and, later, Kenneth Tynan. After this, the play became extremely popular, with highly successful performances in the U.S. and Germany. It is still frequently performed today.
As noted, Beckett was now writing mainly in French. He translated all of his works into the English language himself, with the exception of Molloy, which was translated collaboratively with Patrick Bowles. The success of Waiting for Godot opened up a career in theater for its author. Beckett went on to write numerous successful full-length plays, including 1957's Endgame, the aforementioned Krapp's Last Tape (written in English), 1960's Happy Days (also written in English), and 1963's Play.
In 1961, in recognition for his work, Beckett received the International Publishers' Formentor Prize, which he shared that year with Jorge Luis Borges.
The 1960s were a period of change, both personally and professionally. In 1961, in a secret civil ceremony in England, he married Suzanne, mainly for reasons relating to French inheritance law. The success of his plays led to invitations to attend rehearsals and productions around the world, leading eventually to a new career as a theatrical director. In 1956, he had his first commission from the BBC for a radio play, All That Fall. He was to continue writing sporadically for radio, and ultimately for film and television as well. He also started to write in English again, though he continued to do some work in French until the end of his life.
In 1969, Beckett, vacationing in Tunis with Suzanne, learned he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Suzanne, who saw that her intensely private husband would be, from that moment forth, saddled with fame, called the award a "catastrophe." . Still, Beckett often personally met the artists, scholars, and admirers who sought him out in the anonymous lobby of Paris' Hotel PLM, which was near his Montparnasse home.
Suzanne died on July 17, 1989. Beckett, suffering from emphysema and possibly Parkinson's disease and confined to a nursing home, died on December 22, of the same year. The two were interred together in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris, and share a simple marble gravestone which follows Beckett's directive that it be "any colour, so long as it's grey."
Beckett's career as a writer can be roughly divided into three periods: his early works, up until the end of World War II in 1945; his middle period, stretching from 1945 until the early 1960s, during which period he wrote what are probably his most well-known works; and his late period, from the early 1960s until Beckett's death in 1989, during which his works tended to become shorter and shorter and his style more and more minimalist.
Beckett's earliest works are generally considered to have been strongly influenced by the work of his friend, James Joyce. They are very erudite, sometimes seeming to display the author's learning merely for its own sake. As a result, they are sometimes quite obscure. The opening phrases of the short-story collection More Pricks than Kicks (1934) can serve as an example of this style:
It was morning and Belacqua was stuck in the first of the canti in the moon. He was so bogged that he could move neither backward nor forward. Blissful Beatrice was there, Dante also, and she explained the spots on the moon to him. She shewed him in the first place where he was at fault, then she put up her own explanation. She had it from God, therefore he could rely on its being accurate in every particular.
The passage is littered with references to Dante Alighieri's Commedia, which can serve to confuse readers not familiar with that work. At the same time, however, there are many portents of Beckett's later work: the physical inactivity of the character Belacqua; the character's immersion in his own head and thoughts; the somewhat irreverent comedy of the final sentence.
Similar elements are present in Beckett's first published novel, Murphy (1938). The novel's opening sentence also hints at the somewhat pessimistic undertones and black humor that animate many of Beckett's works: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." Watt, written while Beckett was in hiding in Roussillon during World War II, is similar in its themes, but less exuberant in its style. This novel also, at certain points, explores human movement as if it were a mathematical permutation, presaging Beckett's later preoccupation—in both his novels and dramatic works—with precise movement.
It was also during this early period that Beckett first began to write creatively in the French language. In the late 1930s, he wrote a number of short poems in that language. Their spareness, in contrast to the density of his English poems of roughly the same period—published in Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (1935)—seems to show that through the medium of another language, Beckett was in process of simplifying his style, a change also evidenced in Watt.
After World War II, Beckett turned definitively to the French language as a vehicle. During the 15 years subsequent to the war, Beckett produced four major full-length stage plays: En attendant Godot (written 1948–1949; Waiting for Godot), Fin de partie (1955–1957; Endgame), Krapp's Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1960). These plays are often considered, rightly or wrongly, to have been instrumental in the so-called "Theater of the Absurd." They treat, in a very darkly humorous way, themes similar to those of the roughly contemporaneous existentialist thinkers, though Beckett himself cannot be pigeonholed as an existentialist. Broadly speaking, the plays deal with the subject of despair and the will to survive in the face of an uncomprehending and, indeed, incomprehensible world. The words of Nell—one of the two characters in Endgame who are trapped in ashbins, from which they occasionally peek their heads to speak—best summarize the themes of the plays of Beckett's middle period:
Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. … Yes, yes, it's the most comical thing in the world. And we laugh, we laugh, with a will, in the beginning. But it's always the same thing. Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh any more.
Beckett's outstanding achievements in prose during the period were the three novels Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1951; Malone Dies) and L'innommable (1953; The Unnamable). These novels, sometimes referred to as a "trilogy" against the author's own explicit wishes, trace the development of Beckett's mature style and themes, as the novels become more and more linguistically stripped down, barer and barer. Molloy, for instance, still retains many of the characteristics of a conventional novel, such as time, place, movement, and plot. It operates on one level as a detective novel, a standard literary genre. In Malone Dies, however, movement and plot are largely dispensed with, though there is still some indication of place and the passage of time; the "action" of the book takes the form of an interior monologue. Finally, in The Unnamable, all sense of place and time are done away with, and the essential theme seems to be the conflict between the voice's drive to continue speaking so as to continue existing and its almost equally strong urge to find silence and oblivion. It is tempting to see in this a reflection of Beckett's experience and understanding of the war's impact on the world. Despite the widely-held view that Beckett's novels of this period are essentially pessimistic, the will to live seems to win out in the end, as in the famous final phrase of The Unnamable: "I can't go on, I'll go on.".
Subsequent to these three novels, Beckett struggled for many years to produce a sustained work of prose, a struggle evidenced by the brief "stories" later collected as Texts for Nothing. In the late 1950s, however, he managed to create one of his most radical prose works, Comment c'est (1961; How It Is). This work relates the adventures of an unnamed narrator crawling through the mud whilst dragging a sack of canned food, and was written as a sequence of unpunctuated paragraphs in a style approaching telegraphese:
you are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it's over you are there no more alive no more then again you are there again alive again it wasn't over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another as when another image above in the light you come to in hospital in the dark
Following this work, it would be almost another decade before Beckett produced a work of non-dramatic prose, and How It Is is generally considered to mark the end of his middle period as a writer.
Throughout the 1960s and on into the 1970s, Beckett's works exhibited an increasing tendency towards compactness that led to his work sometimes being described as minimalist. The extreme example of this, among his dramatic works, is the 1969 piece Breath, which lasts for only 40 seconds and has no characters (though it was likely intended to offer ironic comment on Oh! Calcutta!, the theatrical revue for which it served as an introductory piece).
In the dramas of the late period, Beckett's characters, already few in number in the earlier plays, are whittled down to essential elements. The ironically titled 1962 Play, for instance, consists of three characters stuck to their necks in large funeral urns, while the 1963 television drama Eh Joe—written for the actor Jack MacGowran—is animated by a camera that steadily closes in to a tight focus upon the face of the title character. The 1972 play, Not I, consists almost solely of, in Beckett's words, "a moving mouth with the rest of the stage in darkness." Many of these late plays, taking a cue from Krapp's Last Tape, were concerned to a great extent with memory, or more particularly, with the often forced recollection of haunting past events.
Though Beckett's prose during the late period was not so prolific as his drama—as suggested by the title of the 1976 collection of short texts entitled Fizzles, which was illustrated by American artist, Jasper Johns—he did experience something of a renaissance beginning with the 1979 novella Company, and continuing on through 1982's Ill Seen Ill Said and 1984's Worstward Ho. In the prose medium of these three so-called '"closed space" stories, Beckett continued his preoccupation with memory and its effect on the confined and observed self, as the opening phrases of Company make clear:
A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.
To one on his back in the dark. This he can tell by the pressure on his hind parts and by how the dark changes when he shuts his eyes and again when he opens them again. Only a small part of what is said can be verified. As for example when he hears, You are on your back in the dark. Then he must acknowledge the truth of what is said.
Beckett's final work, the 1988 poem "What is the Word," was written in bed in the nursing home where he spent the last days of his life.
Of all the English-language modernists, Beckett's work represents the most sustained attack on the realist tradition. He, more than anyone else, opened up the possibility of drama and fiction that dispense with conventional plot and the unities of place and time in order to focus on essential components of the human condition. Writers like Václav Havel, John Banville, Aidan Higgins, and Harold Pinter have publicly stated their indebtedness to Beckett's example, but he has had a much wider influence on experimental writing since the 1950s, from the Beat generation to the happenings of the 1960s and beyond. In an Irish context, he has exerted great influence on writers like John Banville, Derek Mahon, Thomas Kinsella, as well as writers like Trevor Joyce and Catherine Walsh who proclaim their adherence to the modernist tradition as an alternative to the dominant realist mainstream.
Beckett has divided critical opinion. Sartre praised him for his revelation of absurdity, and Theodor Adorno for his critical refusal of simplicities; others, such as Georg Lukacs condemn him for a "decadent" lack of realism.
Since Beckett's death, all rights for performance of his plays are handled by the Beckett estate, currently managed by Edward Beckett, the author's nephew. The estate has a reputation for maintaining firm control over how Beckett's plays are performed and does not grant licenses to productions that do not strictly adhere to the stage directions.
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