Samuel Beckett

Long Dramatic Works

Eleuthéria

(1947)

Foxrock Publishing, 1998, ISBN 1562011103; Paperback $12.95 [Browse/Purchase]

It may have been economy that dictated Roger Blin’s decision to produce Waiting for Godot instead of Eleuthéria, Beckett’s first play, written in French in 1947. With three acts, a relatively complex set and a cast of seventeen, it is very unlike the shadows and bare stages typically associated with the playwright. Victor Krap is in the process of “turning his emaciated back on humanity,” despite the mixed protests of his family, fiancée, unwanted visitors, and ultimately scripted members of the play’s audience. Influences are conspicuous – in short, Ibsen by way of Pirandello – and much of the humour forced, sometimes with a Wildean affectation. That the stink of artifice is strong here shows that Beckett’s discomfort with drama is not exclusive to the cynicism of a mature writer. The painfully self-conscious note of “This farce has gone on long enough,” sounded by more than one character, anticipates later works, particularly Endgame. The glazier who ultimately abandons the pointless repair of Victor’s window remarks in the final act, “Our revels now are ended,” the past solemnization of Prospero and the future quip of Hamm. Beckett “jettisoned” this work and did not publish it in his lifetime. (TC)

Waiting for Godot

(1952)

1. Grove Press, 1997, ISBN 0-08021-3034-8; Paperback $11.00 [Browse/Purchase]

2. Grove Press, A Samuel Beckett Reader, 1992, ISBN 0-8021-3287-1; Paperback $15.95 [Browse/Purchase]

Beckett’s first serious dramatic work, a landmark in modern theater, was published in French as En attendant Godot. According to the publisher, “the story line evolves around two seemingly homeless men waiting for someone – or something – named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon wait near a tree on a barren stretch of road, inhabiting a drama spun from their own consciousness. The result is a comical wordplay of poetry, dreamscapes, and nonsense, which has been interpreted as a somber summation of mankind’s inexaustible search for meaning. Beckett’s language pioneered an expressionistic minimalism that captured the existentialism of post-World War II Europe. His play remains of one the most magical and beautiful allegories of our time.”
Apmonia commentary is forthcoming.

Endgame

(1957)

Grove Press, 1970, ISBN 0-8021-5024-1; Paperback $10.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Beckett’s follow-up to Godot was written in French as Fin de partie in 1957 and translated into English as Endgame in 1958.
Considered by many to be Beckett’s greatest play, Endgame is certainly his bleakest. Confined to a grey room whose two high, small windows look out upon a lifeless world and sea, four characters in search of an ending routinely pass away the time by squabbling, complaining, and telling worn jokes and stories. Clov, who claims to love order, cannot sit and does not know the combination to the food cupboard. He is thus servant to Hamm, the patriarch who can neither stand nor see. Hamm, more ham than Hamlet, purports to command the pathetic universe of the play, and is what Beckett called “a bad player” in the sordid chess game of his existence. Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s elderly parents, are kept in ashbins, condemned for their having procreated and left to their feeble memories. In the barren world of Endgame, love and joy are elusive and perhaps illusory memories, and inept gestures of intimacy are only suggested. Even the act of kissing is an impossible farce, as Nagg and Nell cannot reach each other and Clov refuses to kiss Hamm when asked. The emotional bonds between the characters are suffused with sadism and banality, but they cannot be broken. Clov, both a slave and son to Hamm, regularly threatens to leave but the play is ambiguous about whether he can or will. Like Caliban in The Tempest, he is a resentful servant: “I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent.” Silence, however, would preclude the possibility of drama, and Beckett makes clear the cruelty of the claims that the play is the thing, the show must go on. In his first appearance onstage, Clov draws back the curtains from the windows and removes the sheets covering a sleeping Hamm and the ashbins: in effect, he reluctantly but mechanically activates the play, tonelessly hopeful: “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.” Unfortunately for him, Endgame has only begun, and Hamm confidently foretells of a future where the cycle of abuse, helplessness and misery, passed from father to son, will continue regardless of Clov’s weak will to rebel:

One day you’ll say to yourself, I’m tired, I’ll sit down, and you’ll go and sit down. Then you’ll say, I’m hungry, I’ll get up and get something to eat. But you won’t get up. You’ll say, I shouldn’t have sat down, but since I have I’ll sit on a little longer, and then I’ll get up and get something to eat. But you won’t get up and you won’t get anything to eat. (Pause.) You’ll look at the wall a while, then you’ll say, I’ll close my eyes, perhaps have a little sleep, after that I’ll feel better, and you’ll close them. And when you open them again there’ll be no wall any more. (Pause.) Infinite emptiness will be all around you, all of the resurrected dead of all the ages wouldn’t fill it, and there you’ll be like a little bit of grit in the middle of the steppe.

If Endgame has a fault, it’s the fact that the play actually ends. The cruelty of stasis, of not being “finished, nearly finished,” is also an absurdity, and the source of the grimmest humour. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” says Nell, and though we may laugh the joke will become tiresome, and the joke will always be told, again and again, like Nagg’s moth-eaten joke about the tailor and trousers, like Hamm’s narcissistic chronicle, and like the mechanical action of Endgame itself. Beckett gives voice to the deep sigh of the twentieth century: when the end comes, it may be less a terror than a relief. (TC)

Krapp’s Last Tape

(1958)

1. Grove Press, 1969, ISBN 0-8021-5134-5; Paperback $11.00 [Browse/Purchase]

2. Grove Press, A Samuel Beckett Reader, 1992, ISBN 0-8021-3287-1; Paperback $15.95 [Browse/Purchase]

3. Grove Press, Collected Short Plays, 1984, ISBN 0-8021-5055-1; Paperback $15.95 [Browse/Purchase]

Beckett’s third major drama, collected with the radio plays All That Fall and Embers, and the mime Act Without Words II. (It also appears in its entirety in the Grove Press Beckett Reader and Collected Short Plays.)
Before Marshall McLuhan there was Krapp: a man whose life is mediated by his own sound recordings. A one-act, one-man dialogue with himself (or his past selves), this play is one of Beckett’s most comic. On his birthday (his last, as the play’s title ominously underlines), the aged Krapp sits with his tape recorder, dictionary, and bananas and listens to his own past as spoken by a younger voice, sometimes with delight, sometimes confusion, irritation, or despair. Krapp is nearing the biblically allotted age of threescore and ten, and though he likes to think he has relinquished illusions and dependencies, or at least could do without them, he retains both. He scoffs at the idea of himself singing, but after he has popped a few corks backstage and tasted inspiration, he bursts into song –

Now the day is over,
Night is drawing night-igh,
Shadows –

–and is cut off by a coughing fit; a second attempt later leaves him gasping. His interest in his former self, as he listens to the “rather pompous” voice of his youth is met with his own sneers of contempt at the little optimism the recorded Krapp still has. They laugh together at the “aspirations” and “resolutions” they both used to have, but the present-day Krapp often becomes impatient, especially when his former self becomes rhapsodic and revelatory, and at one point Krapp is forced to look up a foreboding word, “viduity,” whose definition he has forgotten:

[Reading from dictionary.] State – or condition – of being – or remaining – a widow – or widower. [Looks up. Puzzled.] Being – or remaining?... [Pause. He peers again at dictionary. Reading.] ‘Deep weeds of viduity.’ ... Also of an animal, especially a bird... the vidua or weaver-bird.... Black plumage of male.... [He looks up. With relish.] The vidua-bird!

Krapp, a bird whose nest is made up of memories, regrets, and unkept promises, finds his only joy in words which startle him: the sound of “spool” stays with him (just as his life is now a cyclical routine, and he is his own recording) and the notion of a mourning bird delights him. This pleasure affirms that Krapp is a poet, and he notes the meagre sales figures of his book right after committing “Spooool!” to the reeling archive. Yet it is on a phrase of years ago, “Farewell to love,” that he broods and to which he returns. He may be “getting known,” as he tepidly puts it, but he is running out of things to say and record. By the play’s end Krapp has silenced himself and been supplanted by the old tape, which keeps turning in silence after a younger Krapp makes a show of resolve – “Not with the fire in me now” – that the older Krapp’s “motionless staring” and devoted routine belie. The earth might be uninhabited, indeed, for this lonesome man.
This play offers an actor a remarkable challenge: to act with and against himself. Though his name is drawn from Beckett’s earliest completed writing for the stage, Krapp is a kind of male precursor to the tormented, phantasmal women of Not I and Rockaby. In his Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan re-examines the Greek myth of Narcissus: “now the point of this myth is the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.” Krapp is the “autoamputated” sort of modern Narcissus that McLuhan describes. His “narcosis,” or numbness, stays with us long after the curtain appears. (TC)

Happy Days

(1961)

1. Grove Press, 1983, ISBN 0-8021-3076-3; Paperback $11.00 [Browse/Purchase]

Happy Days (1961: translated as Oh les beaux jours, 1963)
Awoken by an insistent, piercing bell in the “blazing light,” “imbedded up to above her waist” in a great mound of earth, Winnie salutes “another heavenly day.” Doubts about the grounds for her optimism increase when Winnie reports feeling “no pain” but then modifies that to “hardly any,” but Winnie’s spirit is fierce. Even when in the second act the dirt is up to her neck, she keeps talking, singing, giggling, and hoping. Far from being banal, her cheerfulness is her defence against decay and indifference. It is at times almost neoclassical, Johnsonian:

That’s what I find so wonderful, that not a day goes by – (smile) – to speak in the old style – (smile off) – hardly a day, without some addition to one’s knowledge however trifling, the addition I mean, provided one takes the pains. (WILLIE’s hand reappears with a postcard which he examines close to eyes.) And if for some strange reason no further pains are possible, why then just close the eyes – (she does so) – and wait for the day to come – (opens eyes) – the happy day to come when flesh melts at so many degrees and the night of the moon has so many hundred hours. (Pause.) That is what I find so comforting when I lose heart and envy the brute beast. (Turning towards WILLIE.) I hope you are taking in –

Speaking of beasts, there is Willie, her husband, who now hands her a dirty postcard, cutting short the noble echoes of Hamlet’s wish that “this too, too solid flesh would melt” and the ironic play upon the word “pain.” Willie, whose name is as much Shakespeare’s as it is slang for the male member, has what Winnie calls the curse of mobility (he is the embodiment, if you like, of “will” and the play is in a sense the dramatic rendering of the “will to win” with all its fallacies). Crawling about, reading his paper and only occasionally speaking, he is a grotesque amalgam of comic types of husband: silent, long-suffering, henpecked, not averse to some private pornography but possibly harbouring a hidden romantic side. He is also helpful at times, and can ably define “hog” (to Winnie’s delight) as “castrated male swine...reared for slaughter.” Apart from such interjections as these and the harsh sound of the bell, Happy Days is Winnie’s monologue, and like Nell in Endgame she talks fondly about the past. And like Mercier and Camier, Winnie has her few material objects of comfort and (while she still has the use of her arms) she fiddles with them, ritually taking them out of her “capacious black bag” to use them, examine them for inspiring diversions (like the almost illegible writing on her toothbrush’s handle), and put them back again. Among the “treasures” are a comb, lipstick, a mirror, a nailfile, and “Brownie,” the revolver, “ever uppermost” in the bag despite its weight. Happy Days blithely violates the old playwright’s rule about how a gun being introduced in the first act has to go off in the last. Winnie does not commit suicide in the first act, and cannot in the second, though perhaps Willie has some idea for the weapon when he makes his final ambiguous approach. Ruby Cohn has remarked how “the colloquial phrase for decrepitude – one foot in the grave – is extrapolated by Beckett to become one of the indelible images of modern drama.” It is easy to find existential allegory in the play, but this reading is limited and takes depressingly little account of the compassion with which Beckett presents his characters. Winnie herself expresses her author’s frustration at “why people have to complicate so simple a thing” and ask what his works “mean”:

What’s she doing? he says – What’s the idea? he says – stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground – coarse fellow – What does it mean? he says – What’s it meant to mean? – and so on – lot more stuff like that – usual drivel – Do you hear me? he says – I do, she says, God help me – What do you mean, he says, God help you?

A reader or audience may have as much (or as little) “meaning” as the characters’ lives. There is more than just metaphor in the marriage of Winnie and Willie, just as pain and love and the fading of the world’s atmosphere are not reducible to trite messages, morals, meanings. “I suppose some people might think us a trifle irreverent,” says Winnie, “but I doubt it.” (TC)

Go To:

Works Main Page – The main Works page with the Quick Reference Card.

Fiction – Novels and novellas.

Short Prose – Short stories & fragments.

Shorter Plays – Smaller one-act works for the stage.

Plays for Various Media – Pieces for radio, TV & film.

Miscellaneous – Essays, poetry, translations and nonfiction.

Bibliography – A complete bibliography of Beckett’s work.


–Tim Conley
& Allen B. Ruch
4 February 2004




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