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 about the human condition. The perceived pessimism is mitigated both by a great and often wicked sense of humour, and by the sense, for some readers, that Beckett's portrayal of life's obstacles serves to demonstrate that the journey, while difficult, is ultimately worth the effort. Similarly, many posit that Beckett's expressed "pessimism" is not so much for the human condition but for that of an established cultural and societal structure which imposes its stultifying will upon otherwise hopeful individuals; it is the inherent optimism of the human condition, therefore, that is at tension with the oppressive world. His later work explores his themes in an increasingly cryptic and attenuated style. He 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 was elected Saoi of Aosdána in 1984.
Early life and education
The Beckett family (originally Becquet) were rumoured to be of Huguenot stock and to have moved to Ireland from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, though this theory seems unlikely. The Becketts were members of the Church of Ireland. The family home, Cooldrinagh in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock, was a large house and garden complete with tennis court that was built in 1903 by Beckett's father William. The house and garden, together with the surrounding countryside where he often went walking with his father, the nearby Leopardstown Racecourse, Foxrock railway station and Harcourt Street station at the city terminus of the line, all feature in his prose and plays.
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 city centre near Harcourt Street. In 1919, Beckett went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh—which school Oscar Wilde had also attended. A natural athlete, Beckett excelled at cricket as a left-handed batsman and a left-arm medium-pace bowler. Later, he was to play for Dublin University and played two first-class games against Northamptonshire. As a result, he became the only Nobel laureate to have an entry in Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, the bible of cricket.
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 and Berkelian Dr. A.A.Luce. Beckett graduated with a B.A., and—after teaching briefly at Campbell College in Belfast—took up the post of lecteur d'anglais 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 who also worked there. 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. Beckett's close relationship with Joyce and his family, however, cooled when he rejected the advances of Joyce's daughter Lucia. 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.
In 1930, Beckett returned to Trinity College as a lecturer. He soon became disillusioned with his chosen academic vocation, however. 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 pure fiction, 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 and 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 favourably with their Celtic Revival contemporaries and invoking Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and the French symbolists as their precursors. In describing these poets as forming 'the nucleus of a living poetic in Ireland', Beckett was in fact tracing the outlines of an Irish poetic modernist canon.
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 apprentices. Nothing came of this, however, as Beckett's letter was lost due to Eisenstein's quarantine during the smallpox outbreak, as well as his focus on a script re-write of his 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' Sometime around December 1937, Beckett had a brief affair with Peggy Guggenheim.
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 formalities, but also because he found Prudent to be personally likeable and well-mannered.
World War II
Beckett joined the French Resistance after the 1940 occupation by Germany, working as a courier, and on several occasions over the next two years was nearly caught by the Gestapo.
In August 1942, his unit was betrayed and he and Suzanne fled south on foot to the safety of the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in the Provence Alpes Cote d'Azur region. 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'. '[I]n order to keep in touch', he continued work on the novel Watt (begun in 1941 and completed in 1945, but not published until 1953) while in hiding in Roussillon.
Fame: novels and the theatre
In 1945, Beckett returned to Dublin for a brief visit. During his stay, he had a revelation in his mother’s room in which his entire future literary direction appeared to him. This experience was later fictionalized in the 1958 play Krapp's Last Tape. In the play, Krapp’s revelation is set on the East Pier in Dún Laoghaire during a dark and stormy night, and some critics have identified Beckett with Krapp to the point of presuming Beckett's own artistic epiphany was at the same location, in the same weather.
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; Simone de Beauvoir refused to publish the second part. 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, but more importantly, it was Beckett’s first long work to be written directly 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. In the United States, it flopped in Miami, and had a qualified success in New York City. 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, whose translation was collaborative with Patrick Bowles. The success of Waiting for Godot opened up a career in theatre 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.
Later life and work
The 1960s were a period of change, both on a personal level and as a writer. 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 theatre 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 under the influence of the work of his friend James Joyce in that they are very erudite, sometimes seeming to display the author's learning merely for the sake of displaying it. As a result, they can, in places, be quite obscure. The opening phrases of the short-story collection More Pricks than Kicks (1934) can serve as an example of this style:
The passage is rife 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), which also to some extent explores the themes of insanity and chess, both of which would be recurrent elements in Beckett's later works. The novel's opening sentence also hints at the somewhat pessimistic undertones and black humour 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 terms of 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, and these poems' spareness—in contrast to the density of his English poems of roughly the same period, collected in Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (1935)—seems to show that Beckett, albeit through the medium of another language, was in process of simplifying his style somewhat, a change also evidenced in Watt.
After World War II, Beckett turned definitively to the French language as a vehicle. It was this, together with the aforementioned "revelation" experienced in his mother's room in Dublin—in which, basically, he realized that his art must be subjective and drawn wholly from his own inner world—that would result in the works for which Beckett is probably best remembered today.
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—which are often considered, rightly or wrongly, to have been instrumental in the so-called "Theatre of the Absurd"—deal in a very blackly humorous way with themes similar to those of the roughly contemporary 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 spite of that despair, 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—can best summarize the themes of the plays of Beckett's middle period:
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). In these novels—sometimes referred to as a "trilogy", though this is against the author's own explicit wishes—the reader can trace the development of Beckett's mature style and themes, as the novels become more and more stripped down, barer and barer. Molloy, for instance, still retains many of the characteristics of a conventional novel—time, place, movement and plot—and is indeed, on one level, a detective novel. 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 what the war had done to the world. Despite the widely-held view that Beckett's work, as exemplified by the novels of this period, is essentially pessimistic, the will to live seems to win out in the end; witness, for instance, 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:
Following this work, it would be almost another decade before Beckett produced a work of non-dramatic prose, and indeed 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—already evident in much of his work of the 1950s—towards compactness that has 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, and 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 in a moment of stillness in the present; it is in this treatment of a species of involuntary memory that Beckett most clearly reveals his debt to the French novelist Marcel Proust, about whom Beckett had written a monograph in 1931. Moreover, as often as not these late plays dealt with the theme of the self confined and observed insofar as a voice either comes from outside into the protagonist's head, as in Eh Joe, or else the protagonist is silently commented upon by another character, as in Not I. Such themes also led to Beckett's most politically charged play, 1982's Catastrophe, dedicated to Václav Havel, which dealt relatively explicitly with the idea of dictatorship.
Though Beckett's writing of prose during the late period was not so prolific as his writing of drama—as hinted at 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 in this regard 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 well as with the positioning of bodies in space, as the opening phrases of Company make clear:
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 Trevor Joyce and Catherine Walsh, who write in the modernist tradition as an alternative to the dominant realist mainstream.
Many major 20th-century-composers, including György Kurtág, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass and Heinz Holliger, have created musical works based on his texts. Beckett's work was also an influence on many visual artists, including Bruce Nauman, Alexander Arotin, and Avigdor Arikha; Arikha, in addition to being inspired by Beckett's literary world, also drew a number of portraits of Beckett and illustrated several of his works.
Beckett has divided critical opinion. Some, such as Sartre and Theodor Adorno, praise him, one for his revelation of absurdity, the other for his works' critical refusal of simplicities; others such as Georg Lukacs condemn for '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 licences to productions that do not strictly adhere to the stage directions.
The best known pictures of Beckett were taken by photographer John Minihan, who photographed him between 1980 and 1985 and developed such a good relationship with the writer that he became, in effect, his official photographer. Some consider one of these to be among the top three photographs of the 20th century.
Actor Cary Elwes explains in his video diary of The Princess Bride that Samuel Beckett was a neighbour of the Roussimoff family while living in France. He used to give one of the Roussimoff sons, André René, a lift to school every day, since the boy was unable to take the school bus owing to his large size. André René Roussimoff would, in later years, go on to become the famed professional wrestler André the Giant.