Samuel Beckett (Samuel Barclay Beckett) Biography
(1906–89), (Samuel Barclay Beckett), lecteur d'anglais, More Pricks Than Kicks
Irish playwright, born at Foxrock, near Dublin, the son of a quantity surveyor, and brought up as a Protestant. He was educated at Portora Royal School, Co. Fermanagh, and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he took a degree in modern languages. After nine months spent teaching French in Belfast, he became lecteur d'anglais at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, where he formed a strong friendship with James Joyce and where, after several unsettled years, he was to settle. His first published work, an essay on Joyce, and his first story, ‘Assumption’, both appeared in 1929. He went on to write literary journalism, translate, bring out a study of Proust in 1931, and produce his own poetry and fiction, publishing a collection of stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, in 1934. A volume of verse, Echoes Bones and Other Precipitates (1935), was followed in 1938 by Murphy, which made no public impact but launched him as a novelist. Waft was his next work in this genre, written in 1943 while he was a member of the French resistance and in hiding from the Nazis, but not published until 1953. By that time the trilogy of novels Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnameable (1953) had appeared in Paris, all originally written in French, all soliloquies paying a kind of anti-tribute to a grim, confusing, bleakly funny world. In terms of both style and feeling—most neatly summed up in the epigrammatic ‘You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on’—they have much in common with the plays that, with occasional exceptions, preoccupied Beckett for the rest of his writing life. Waiting for Godot, originally performed in French as En Attendant Godot in Paris in 1953, established him as a dramatist of originality and importance. There followed many other contributions to what came to be known as the Theatre of the Absurd. The earlier of these include Endgame (1957); Krapp's Last Tape (1958), in which a cynical and decrepit old man listens to the recorded voice of his younger, more hopeful self; Happy Days (1961), in which a very ordinary middle-aged woman chatters cheerfully, seemingly oblivious of the fact that she is buried in a pile of sand, first up to her waist, then to her neck; and Play (1964), a triangle-drama in which husband, wife, and lover, trapped in funeral urns, endlessly re-enact their drab and sordid encounters. The plays of this period imply that man has been abandoned, for reasons unknown, in a world apparently designed to frustrate, disappoint, and hurt him; they show people pluckily enduring while suggesting that wisdom would be to submit resignedly to ‘the void’; they find strikingly fresh theatrical forms for their author's bleak ruminations on the vanity of human wishes.
Beckett's attitudes changed little in his later plays, but their expression became more concise and concentrated. In Not I (1972) the audience sees only a spotlit mouth, which incoherently babbles out its owner's sorry life-story; in That Time (1976) an aged tramp's face listens to his own voice, free-associating his particular history; in Footfalls (1976) a ghostly woman trudges obsessively to and fro, ‘revolving it all’; in Rockaby (1981) a much older woman sits in a rocking-chair, fatalistically preparing herself for oblivion; in Catastrophe (1982), dedicated to the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel and one of the few Beckett works with any political edge, a shivering prisoner is readied for public humiliation by an arrogant apparatchik. The plays of this period can be difficult, but their verbal beauty and visual daring are remarkable. Beckett also wrote for television (Eh Joe, Ghost Trio, … but the clouds …, Quad) and for radio (All That Fall, Embers, Rough for Radio I, Rough for Radio II, Words and Music, Cascando), and a silent movie which featured Buster Keaton, Film. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969. Deirdre Bair's Samuel Beckett: An Autobiography, written without the author's permission, was published in 1978. Among the many critical studies of his work are Enoch Brater's Beyond Minimalism (1987) and Why Beckett (1989), and Beryl and John Fletcher's A Student's Guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett (1985).