Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin on 13th April 1906. He settled in Paris in 1937, after travels in Germany and periods of residence in London and Dublin, and remained in France during the Second World War where he was active in the French Resistance.
With the production of En attendant Godot in Paris in 1953, Beckett's work began to achieve widespread recognition. During his subsequent career as a playwright and novelist in both French and English he redefined the possibilities of prose fiction and writing for the theatre, winning the Prix Formentor in 1961 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. He died in Paris in December 1989.
Beckett has often been linked to the Theatre of the Absurd. As Martin Esslin, who coined the phrase in his landmark book of the same name, had it, Beckett’s plays, which have no plot and no story, 'are clearly attempts to capture the totality of an emotion in its most concentrated form. For if the self is ever elusive…and also ever changing through time, from moment to moment – then the only authentic experience that can be communicated is the experience of the single moment in the fullness of its emotional intensity, its existential totality.'
However, Katherine Weiss (The Plays of Samuel Beckett) tells us that subsequent Beckett scholars have reassessed Esslin’s assertion, pointing out that Beckett explicitly renounced any association with the Theatre of the Absurd, the term being too judgmental, too self-assuredly pessimistic. The scholar David Pattie describes Beckett’s work as ‘more [of a] poem than philosophical demonstration’.
Below you can trace the production history of Krapp’s Last Tape. You can also learn how Beckett’s writing differs according to the medium and explore the theme of technology in his work. Finally, discover contemporary plays that owe a rich and various debt to Beckett’s most well-known play, Waiting for Godot, as well as performances that have changed the way we experience its meaning.
Ranging from studies of the first English tour of Waiting for Godot in 1955 to Talawa’s 2012 all-black co-production of the same play, Staging Beckett in Great Britain excavates a host of archival resources in order to historicize how Beckett’s drama has interacted with specific theatres, directors and theatre cultures in the UK. It traces production histories of plays including Krapp’s Last Tape, presents Beckett’s working relationships with key theatres, as well as with directors such as Peter Hall, and considers how the plays have been staged in London’s West End.
In the chapter Krapp’s Last Tape in Great Britain: Production History amid Changing Practice, Andrew Head relates Beckett’s fascination with the new medium of magnetic tape following a visit to the BBC in January 1958. Beckett was intrigued by the potential for the human voice to be reordered and played back almost instantaneously, a technology he uses to explore the selection and juxtaposition of human memory in Krapp’s Last Tape.
Katherine Weiss’s critical companion to Beckett’s work discusses his uses of and references to technology in the different media for which he wrote plays: the stage, radio and television. In her Introduction she explains that in stage plays such as Waiting for Godot, Krapp’s Last Tape and Happy Days, technology is apparent in the props. Pocket-watches, tape recorders and musical-boxes, for example, help to develop themes concerning theatre conventions, time, memory, the failing body, the production of waste, and gender. The structure of his late dramatic works continues to reflect his interest in technology, showing how the characters’ repetition and cyclical movements are part of a vast machinery.
Weiss goes on to consider Beckett’s use of radio as a vehicle that carries the voice outward yet, like the other machines, reflects the struggle against failure. Despite this, there is humour in his radio plays which stems from the characters’ anti-technological ravings. Weiss argues that the plays written for television place the viewer in the position of a voyeur struggling to inscribe meaning and to fill in the black holes projected on screen; the audience struggles to gain control over the texts in the same way the characters struggle to gain control over their narratives.
Waiting for Godot is, arguably, the most influential play of the twentieth century. Endlessly quoted, reimagined, redesigned, reproduced, both parodied and revered, Waiting for Godot is a ground-breaking play of modern drama. Many contemporary plays by major playwrights have been so strongly influenced by Waiting for Godot that they might be considered replays, including those by Fugard, Stoppard, Tesich, Sobelle and Lyford, and Shepard – learn more here (see Replays).
The storied San Quentin production in 1957 by the San Francisco Actors’ Workshop, directed by Herbert Blau, is part of the mythos of Waiting for Godot. As Martin Esslin tells it, the prisoners’ reviews of this production in the San Quentin newsletter revealed how profoundly and immediately the inmates understood the play which was, in 1957, so new and so startling a form of theatre that the sophisticated audiences of Paris, London, and New York had been baffled by it. The prisoners saw that Beckett’s play distilled to its essence the prison condition: the literalizing of endless waiting, the impossibility of “going”, the excruciating deferment of hope.
However, the bare stage set becomes less a factor in the play’s meaning when it is shifted from theatre to prison, and the revelations of the sudden literalizing of the meaning of the lines makes the play less absurd and less funny and less intellectual. We are distanced from the play by sympathy for the actors rather than the characters; we realize our privilege rather than the condition we all share with Gogo and Didi.
Homepage image: Barry McGovern performs on stage 'Krapp's Last Tape' at Church Hill Theatre during a photocall for the annual Edinburgh International Festival on August 3, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)
Visit our Previously Featured Content page to view other topics including Explore Hamlet in the Round, Female Playwrights - a brief history and Plays and Playwrights from Around the World.