Last reviewed: June 2017
Irish playwright, novelist, poet, and prose writer; Nobel laureate
April 13, 1906
Foxrock, near Dublin, Ireland
December 22, 1989
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.
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.