Authors: Samuel Beckett

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Irish playwright, novelist, poet, and prose writer; Nobel laureate

April 13, 1906

Foxrock, near Dublin, Ireland

December 22, 1989

Paris, France

Biography

Samuel Barclay Beckett was the younger of two sons who were very close as children. The parents were loving and dutiful but demanding. Early in life, Beckett was active in sports, emulating his father. The family belonged to the Church of Ireland, but organized religion meant little to the future writer. He was sent to private schools in Dublin and, at age thirteen, to Portora Royal School, a Protestant boarding school in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.

In 1923, Beckett entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he majored in modern languages. He became interested and accomplished in academics for the first time in his life, achieving honors in Italian, French, and English.

Samuel Beckett.

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Roger Pic [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Upon his graduation in 1927, he taught French briefly in Campbell College, Belfast, and in 1928 accepted a fellowship at École Normale Supérieure in Paris. His literary interests brought him into the circle of the renowned Irish expatriate James Joyce, and he assisted the nearly blind writer in the preparation of the work that became Finnegans Wake (1939). While proud of his friendship with Joyce, he chafed at critics’ tendencies to regard him as an imitator of Joyce in his lifestyle and writings, the earliest of which, chiefly poetry and criticism, date from his two years in Paris.

Although Beckett returned to Dublin to teach French at Trinity in 1930, he did not prosper there, and for the next decade he led a bohemian existence in Ireland, England, France, and Germany, much to the dismay of his family. Unable to determine his place in the world, he could neither break with his family nor accede to their pleas that he become settled, preferably in his father’s business. While committed to a literary life, Beckett had considerable difficulty making a living from his early works. He found a publisher for his collection of stories, More Pricks than Kicks, in London in 1934, which enticed him to move there. He wrote the novel Murphy while in London; Murphy was rejected forty-two times before it was finally published. Neither book fared well upon publication.

Later, establishing Paris as his permanent residence, Beckett joined the French Resistance. In 1940, he barely escaped detection by the conquering Nazis and eventually fled to Free France with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, whom he later married. Awarded a medal by the Free French government, Beckett, never much interested in politics, worked on another novel during the latter part of the war. While Watt was not published until 1953, it demonstrates his first mature use of the passive, uncomprehending, afflicted character so frequent in his later work, as well as his penchant for logical, linguistic, and mathematical problems and conundrums.

Back in Paris after the war, Beckett began to write in French. A trilogy of novels—Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable—as well as his first play, Waiting for Godot, resulted. Beckett wrote in French, then translated his work into English. Although Beckett at this point considered himself primarily a novelist, the eventual success of Waiting for Godot prompted him to turn increasingly to the drama and to take on increasing responsibility for the production of his plays. In Waiting for Godot, whose New York production in 1956 made him famous in the United States, two tramps talk paradoxically while waiting for the mysterious Godot, who never appears. Beckett called the play a tragicomedy, but critics, noting its deliberate avoidance of a realistic setting, rationality, and a sequential plot, as well as its air of anguish and impotence, began to refer to the work as an example of “the theater of the absurd.” Beckett was considered the quintessential member of this absurdist movement, which also included Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, and Eugène Ionesco.

Despite the bleakness of Beckett’s vision, this play and the ones that followed were rich in comic effects: slapstick humor, riddles, wordplay of various kinds. His characters do not merely look and sound humorous; they are comical in the manner of the circus clown, sad and frustrated but bravely persevering in the face of affliction. In Endgame, four characters, presumably the survivors of a world calamity, inhabit what appears to be a cellar room. Hamm is blind and unable to rise from his chair, Clov cannot sit down, and Nagg and Nell slowly expire in ash cans. The overriding metaphor is that of “endgame” in chess, when either the players are stalemated or one is checkmated. The deceptively simple dialogue is fertile with symbol and allusion, the play’s ambiguity and irresolution suggesting modern civilization. Beckett seemed to be working toward a silence leading to inaction, as opposed to action leading to something or somewhere.

Although Beckett’s long fiction climaxed with his trilogy, he continued to write prose which bears resemblances to both fiction and poetry. He also wrote radio plays, television plays, and a screenplay simply called Film. Filmed in Lower Manhattan with Buster Keaton in its principal role, Film achieved no commercial success but won for Beckett several international awards. After Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days, his dramatic works grew slighter—as did his nondramatic prose, with the exception of How It Is. In this series of narrated fragments, the setting has become simply “mud”; the title is commonly thought to suggest “how it is” with modern human life.

Beckett’s literary life was a long one, but by his own admission he did not begin to do his best work until after World War II, when he was already middle-aged, and recognition was even longer in coming. He was fifty-three when Trinity College, which had granted him his bachelor’s degree more than thirty years earlier, awarded him an honorary doctorate. In 1961, he shared the International Publishers’ Prize with Jorge Luis Borges. Further international recognition came with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. Beckett continued to write but largely eschewed the media, scholars, and the curious general public in favor of the company of old friends from the years before his fame. A shy, courteous, and modest man, Beckett nevertheless was intransigent and dictatorial in the staging of his plays. He died in 1989 at the age of eighty-three.

In his plays and his fiction, Beckett favored the character of the down-and-outer: passive, physically (and sometimes mentally) debilitated, striving to make sense of a world without love or rationality. The reiterated line of Happy Days, “another happy day—so far,” captures the poignant irony of his outlook as well as the humor which leavens his pessimism. The figures of Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot, of Malone and Hamm waiting for and enduring until death, have come to be seen as potent symbols of the human predicament in the twentieth century. Once accustomed to his innovations, readers and audiences responded enthusiastically to his stoic humor, the beautiful rhythms of his language, and his tough-minded refusal to accept conventional answers to profound questions.

Author Works Drama: En attendant Godot, pb. 1952 (Waiting for Godot, 1954) “Fin de partie,” suivi de “Acte sans paroles,”pr., pb. 1957 (music by John Beckett; “Endgame: A Play in One Act,” Followed by “Act Without Words: A Mime for One Player,”1958) Krapp’s Last Tape, pr., pb. 1958 (one act), revised pb. 1992 Act Without Words II, pr., pb. 1960 (one-act mime); Happy Days, pr., pb. 1961 Play, pr., pb. 1963 (English translation, 1964) Come and Go: Dramaticule, pr., pb. 1965 (one scene; English translation, 1967) Breath and Other Shorts, 1971 Not I, pr. 1972 That Time, pr., pb. 1976 Footfalls, pr., pb. 1976 Ends and Odds, pb. 1976 A Piece of Monologue, pr., pb. 1979 Rockaby, pr., pb. 1981 Ohio Impromptu, pr., pb. 1981 Catastrophe, pr. 1982 Company, pr. 1983 Collected Shorter Plays, pb. 1984 The Complete Dramatic Works, 1986 Eleuthéria : A Play in Three Acts, 1995 (Michael Brodsky, translator) Long Fiction: Murphy, 1938 Molloy, 1951 (English translation, 1955) Malone meurt, 1951 (Malone Dies, 1956) L’Innommable, 1953 (The Unnamable, 1958) Watt, 1953 Comment c’est, 1961 (How It Is, 1964) Mercier et Camier, 1970 (Mercier and Camier, 1974) Le Dépeupleur, 1971 (The Lost Ones, 1972) Company, 1980 Mal vu mal dit, 1981 (Ill Seen Ill Said, 1981) Worstward Ho, 1983 Short Fiction: More Pricks than Kicks, 1934 Nouvelles et textes pour rien, 1955 (Stories and Texts for Nothing, 1967) No’s Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1947–1966, 1967 First Love, and Other Shorts, 1974 Pour finir encore et autres foirades, 1976 (Fizzles, 1976) As the Story was Told: Uncollected and Late Prose, 1990 Dream of Fair to Middling Women, 1993 (Eoin O’Brien and Edith Fournier, editors) Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose, 1929–1989, 1995 (S. E. Gontarski, editor) Screenplay: Film, 1965 Teleplays: Eh Joe, 1966 (Dis Joe, 1967) Tryst, 1976 Shades, 1977; Quad, 1981 Radio Plays: All That Fall, 1957, revised, 1968 Embers, 1959 Words and Music, 1962 (music by John Beckett); Cascando, 1963 (music by Marcel Mihalovici) Poetry: Whoroscope, 1930 Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates, 1935 Poems in English, 1961 Collected Poems in English and French, 1977 Nonfiction: Proust, 1931 No Author Better Served: The Correspondence of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider, 1998 (Maurice Harmon, editor) The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 2009 (M. D. Fehsenfeld, L. M. Overbeck, et al., editors) Translation: An Anthology of Mexican Poetry, 1958 (Octavio Paz, editor) Secret Transfusions: The 1930 Literary Translations from Italian, 2010 (Marco Sonzogni, editor) Miscellaneous: I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On: A Selection from Samuel Beckett’s Work, 1976 (Richard Seaver, editor) Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, 1983 (Ruby Cohn, editor) Bibliography Acheson, James. Samuel Beckett’s Artistic Theory and Practice: Criticism, Drama, and Early Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. An examination of Beckett’s literary viewpoint as it expressed itself in his drama and early fiction. Chapter 6 focuses on the trilogy—the novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Includes bibliography and index. Alvarez, Alfred. Beckett. 2d ed. London: Fontana, 1992. A short, lively, and sometimes opinionated discussion of Beckett by a critic who does not altogether trust the author and who knows how to argue not only for his strengths but also against his limitations. Contains a good short discussion of the intellectual climate that precipitated absurd literature. Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. 1978. Reprint. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Although Beckett was often reluctant to talk about himself, he cooperated with Bair. This work is among the fullest versions of a life of Beckett in print, and to know his life is to understand his art. The criticism of the specific texts is often limited, but Bair is very good at putting the work in the context of Beckett’s very odd life. Contains good illustrations. Beckett, Samuel. Comment C’est, How It Is and/et L’image: A Critical-Genetic Edition. Edited by Edouard Magessa O’Reilly. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001. The English and French language versions of the works, side-by-side, plus Beckett’s own appendices and O’Reilly’s editorial assistance to the reader of these difficult texts. Birkett, Jennifer, and Kate Ince, eds. Samuel Beckett. New York: Longman, 2000. A collection of criticism of Beckett’s works. Bibliography and index. Bryden, Mary. Samuel Beckett and the Idea of God. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. The strength of Bryden’s book is the very limitation of its method: to show that though Beckett may have despised God, at least he did not ignore His scriptures, acolytes, ministers, priests, theologians, or mystics. What she has labored to produce is an indispensable compendium, virtually a concordance, of religious reference in Beckett. Carey, Phyllis, and Ed Jewinski, eds. Re: Joyce’n Beckett. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992. This collection of essays on the relationship between Joyce and Beckett includes two essays that discuss their influence on the short story. One compares Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” with Beckett’s “Fingal,” and another compares the hero of Beckett’s More Pricks than Kicks with Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus. Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Fully documented and detailed biography describes Beckett’s involvement in the Paris literary scene, his response to winning the Nobel Prize, and his overall literary career. Davis, Robin J., and Lance S. Butler, eds. Make Sense Who May: Essays on Samuel Beckett’s Later Works. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1988. Contains fifteen essays culled from “Samuel Beckett at Eighty,” a conference held in August, 1986, at Stirling University. The essays look at Beckett’s work in the 1970’s and 1980’s in terms of poststructuralism and deconstruction. For advanced students. Ellman, Richard. Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett. New York: George Braziller, 1988. Examines the Irish roots in Beckett’s novels and plays and their subsequent influence on Irish writing. A lively and interesting study of four Irish writers, suitable for all students. Essif, Les. Empty Figure on an Empty Stage: The Theatre of Samuel Beckett and His Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. A look at the criticism of Beckett’s theatrical works over time. Bibliography and index. Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1961. This volume is specifically about Beckett’s work in the theater, but Esslin’s discussion of the absurd in general is perhaps the clearest, most succinct and helpful definition of the movement. Esslin, Martin, ed. Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1965. Collection of major essays by some of the most widely respected Beckett critics. Includes essays on all phases of his work, not only by English-speaking critics but also by European writers, who see Beckett not as a writer in English but as a part of the European tradition. Hill, Leslie. Beckett’s Fiction: In Different Worlds. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Focuses on Beckett’s novels from Murphy to Worstward Ho. Includes a preface that briefly characterizes previous criticism as reductive. Includes notes and bibliography. Kenner, Hugh. A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973. This essential companion for anyone determined to make some kind of sense of the works of Beckett comments clearly and simply on the individual texts. Kenner, Hugh. Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Work by probably the best commentator on Beckett is lively, imaginative, and extremely good at placing Beckett in the Irish tradition as well as assessing his part in the movement of experimental literature. Kim, Hwa Soon. The Counterpoint of Hope, Obsession, and Desire for Death in Five Plays by Samuel Beckett. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. An analysis of several psychological aspects present in Beckett’s plays, including death and obsession. Bibliography and index. Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Comprehensive biography presents a great deal of material on Beckett’s life that was not previously available. Includes detailed notes and bibliography. McCarthy, Patrick A., ed. Critical Essays on Samuel Beckett. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. Includes essays on how the collection More Pricks than Kicks suggests the majority of Beckett’s later thematic and aesthetic preoccupations and how the most familiar story from that collection, “Dante and the Lobster,” was revised by Beckett to sharpen its comic incongruity. McDonald, Rónán. The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Chapter 4 of this succinct overview of Beckett’s life and works focuses on his prose fiction, including the novels Murphy, Watt, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and How It Is. McMullan, Anna. Theatre on Trial: Samuel Beckett’s Later Drama. New York: Routledge, 1993. An examination of the later plays created by Beckett. Bibliography and index. Pattie, David. The Complete Critical Guide to Samuel Beckett. New York: Routledge, 2000. Reference volume combines biographical information with critical analysis of Beckett’s literary works, including the novels Murphy, Watt, Mercier and Camier, and How It Is. Pilling, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Beckett. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Comprehensive reference work provides considerable information about the life and works of Beckett, including analysis of his novels. Includes bibliography and indexes. Pireddu, Nicoletta. “Sublime Supplements: Beckett and the ‘Fizzing Out’ of Meaning.” Studies in Short Fiction 29 (Summer, 1992): 303-314. Argues that the constitutive element of the stories in Fizzles is the fiasco of narration itself, the idea of an aborted endeavor. Provides a detailed Derridean analysis of the stories, suggesting that they embody the ritual of deterioration and that they replace the paternal figure of the Romantic sublime with a sense of exhaustion and belatedness typical of postmodernism. Rabinovitz, Rubin. The Development of Samuel Beckett’s Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. An interesting discussion of the radical techniques that Beckett brought into his early work as a fictionist, and how they marked his art throughout his career. Ricks, Christopher B. Beckett’s Dying Words the Clarendon Lectures, 1990. New York: Clarendon Press, 1993. Rick’s lectures illuminate the theme of dying in Beckett’s writings, then extends his treatment of that theme to philosophy and literature. Worth, Katharine. Samuel Beckett’s Theatre: Life Journeys. New York: Clarendon Press, 1999. A look at the production history and psychological aspects of Beckett’s plays. Bibliography and index.

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