Left: Samuel Beckett, 1977. Bibliothèque nationale de France. Right: Samuel Beckett by Edmund S. Valtman.
Widely regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th Century, Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) is perhaps best known for creating a radical new dramatic form. Realism was the dominant theatrical style of Beckett’s day, and perhaps remains so today. Beckett’s work opened up the possibility of a theater that dispenses with the traditional conventions of plot, action, and time in an effort to focus on the essence of the human condition. He wrote characters trapped in frustrated lives devoid of meaning, with an acute sense of longing for love, transcendence, escape, and amusement. His work embodies the brevity and meaninglessness of human existence, the finite and degenerative nature of the body, and the inexplicable striving of the human spirit. Despite its austerity, Beckett’s work has become an essential part of the theatrical canon.
Born in Dublin in 1906, Beckett spent most of his adult life in Paris. He worked for a time under the tutelage of the renowned avant-garde writer James Joyce, who had a huge influence on Beckett’s early work. By the late 1930s, Beckett had become a familiar fixture on the literary and artistic scene in Paris, writing mostly fiction, poetry, and essays. It wasn’t until after WWII that he began writing plays. The war had an undeniably profound effect on his work. After being exiled from Paris, Beckett was desperate to join the Nazi resistance. He volunteered as an ambulance driver for the Irish Red Cross, and worked for a makeshift hospital in Saint-Lô, a city near Omaha beach in Normandy. It had been one of the hardest hit cities during the war, with only a few shells of bombed out buildings left standing. The hospital was the site of immense human suffering, plagued by shortages of food and medicine, and infested with rats. By the end of the war, Beckett was left to come to terms with a world that had been forever changed, with humanity itself in ruins.
The ruins of Saint-Lô, Normandy on the River Vire, destroyed by Allied bombing. Photo by US Army, July 1944 (US National Archives).
Beckett began work on his first play, Waiting for Godot, in 1948. In the play “where nothing happens twice,” two men wait in a desolate landscape for a figure that never arrives. While it was eventually heralded as an existential masterpiece, the play was initially received with a mix of outrage and excitement. Audiences and critics alike didn’t know what to make of the play’s stripped down, elemental nature, and its lack of a traditional plot. And yet the play captured theatrical imaginations around the world—perhaps because audiences were hungry to find something that expressed the degree to which humanity had tumbled. Beckett biographer Deirdre Bair states: “The war was over, yet nothing important was really settled—the element of waiting must have had a strong, albeit unconscious, appeal.” The absurdity of the human condition was reflected in the play’s form and content, and it soon became a classic. In the nearly 70 years since it was written, the play has been performed on the greatest stages by the greatest actors of our time, including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Bill Irwin, Geoffrey Rush, Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, and Steve Martin.
The 2009 Broadway revival of Waiting for Godot directed by Anthony Page with Nathan Lane as Estragon, John Goodman as Pozzo, and Bill Irwin as Vladimir. Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.
Endgame was Beckett’s favorite play and is often heralded by critics as his greatest and most profound. At its center are two men, Hamm and Clov, living in a bare, grey room: Hamm is blind and cannot walk; Clov can see but cannot sit down. In the years before he wrote Endgame in 1955, Beckett witnessed the death of his mother from Parkinson’s disease and of his brother from lung cancer, and spent long periods in Ireland attending at their sick beds. These experiences, along with those of his from WWII, are deeply rooted in the text. Endgame’s initial productions were baffling to audiences and critics alike, who found the play bleak, obtuse, and lacking a plot. Yet over time, critics and audiences have come to revere the piece, finding echoes of Lear, Hamlet, Prospero and Caliban, Noah and the ark, and the dark imaginings of nuclear holocaust. “There are no accidents in Endgame,” Beckett has stated. “Everything is based on analogy and repetition.” Like the chess game alluded to in its title, for every move, there is a counter move. And in spite of his desolate, desperate circumstances, Beckett points out that Hamm says no to nothingness: “The end is in the beginning and yet you go on.”
Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. Simon & Schuster, New York: 1990.
Gontarski, S.E. The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Texts. Indiana University Press, Indiana: 1985.
Harmon, Maurice (ed.) No Author Better Served: The Letters of Alan Schneider and Samuel Beckett. Harvard University Press, Boston: 2000.