Samuel Beckett – Witnessing the Century


Dr Mark Nixon, Associate Professor University of Reading; Director of the Samuel Beckett International Foundation

16 November 2015


Earlier this year, I was approached by the Barbican in London to write a short piece for their Summer Beckett Season programme. A short piece - 800 words - on why Samuel Beckett is, 26 years after his death in 1989, still relevant today. I must confess that I struggled to write that piece, more than I have ever struggled to write anything. But it made me ruminate, once again, on Beckett’s persistent popularity - theatre productions are invariably sold out, his books continue to sell, an entire academic industry continues to publish studies of his works, politicians and cultural commentators frequently namedrop him. And this popularity is global - there are Beckett Societies, festivals, performances and conferences happening on every continent every year.

In discussing Beckett’s popularity and relevance, I am reminded of what one of Beckett’s characters, Moran, says in the novel Molloy about the dance of his bees: “Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand.” Beckett’s work, from his first poems in the early 1930s through the theatre plays of the 1950s, Waiting for Godot and Endgame, to the trilogy of novels Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnammable and beyond, upsets our attempts to invest it with any coherent system of meaning. In his very first published essay, on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, in 1929, Beckett wrote a line that with hindsight appears to predict critical responses to his own writing: “The danger is in the neatness of identifications”.

Whilst Beckett stated that the key word in his work was ‘perhaps’, critics have tended to try and label, identify, his texts. As such Beckett’s work has been implicated in most cultural and theoretical trends of the 20th Century - in no particular order we could mention surrealism, humanism, absurdism, existentialism, modernism, postmodernism, and post-structuralism; he is seen as an intensely political writer by some, as an intensely apolitical writer by others, a religious or at least spiritual writer by some, as an essentially atheist writer by others. Some readers are attracted by his humour, others by his sparse bleakness.

To be clear, Beckett himself dismissed such interpretative attempts. In a famous letter to the American producer of his plays, Alan Schneider, Beckett wrote in 1957:

“My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.”

In my talk today I will avoid headaches and therefore the need for aspirin, and take a broad look at Beckett’s writing life.

Born in 1906 and raised in Foxrock, one of the more affluent suburbs of Dublin, Beckett originally seemed destined to pursue a brilliant academic career. He was educated at Portora School in Enniskillen and then at Trinity College Dublin, where he excelled at his studies, and as a sportsman, gaining his Master of Arts Degree in 1931. Prior to this he spent two years in Paris as an exchange lecturer at the École Normale Supérieure, before becoming a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin. But a restless, creative mistrust of settling down, both geographically and mentally, resulted in his departure from teaching with the statement that he could not teach what he himself did not understand. Following this step, made to his parents’ displeasure, Beckett spent the first half of the 1930s wandering around Europe, spending time in Paris, then again in Dublin, then two years 1934-35 in London undergoing psychoanalysis. In 1936-37 he travelled through Nazi Germany, before settling down permanently in Paris in 1937, where he would live for the rest of his life. Beckett’s restlessness in the 1930s has often been explained by the fact that he was born into a Protestant Irish family, and thus into a partially marginalised minority struggling to come to terms with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. We may remember, at this point, that many of Beckett’s characters are dislocated homeless tramps.          

If Beckett’s decision to abandon the academic life and then to leave Ireland is in part rooted in this background, his view of Dublin and the Irish cultural scene as being old-fashioned and restrictive provided a further incentive. Throughout the 1930s Beckett would condemn Irish authors for writing in an outmoded, nationalist, romantic manner, and for ignoring avant-garde, modernist European literature and art. In his essay Recent Irish Poetry for example, published in 1934, Beckett dismissed what he called the ‘antiquarians’ of the Celtic Revival, and around the same time wrote a satirical attack on Ireland’s prohibition of contraceptives. His criticism of the conservative, religious and nationalist element in Irish society finds its most satirical expression in the short story First Love, written in 1946:

What constitutes the charm of our country, apart of course from its scant population, and this without help of the meanest contraceptive, is that all is derelict, with the sole exception of history’s ancient faeces. These are ardently sought after, stuffed and carried in procession. Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.”

In the early 1930s, then, Beckett firmly aligned himself with the more liberal, avant-garde cultural strand of art, which he found in Paris, home of the most famous, experimental and influential writers and painters. However, his first steps as a writer were undertaken under the influence of an Irish writer, James Joyce, whom Beckett first met in 1929 when he was lecturing in Paris. Beckett was quickly introduced into the close-knit group of writers surrounding Joyce, and his early work is clearly influenced by his compatriot’s work. This is for example evident in Beckett highly allusive style of writing, in which intertextual references are everywhere. In many ways one could say that the early work - the novels Dream of Fair to Middling Women and Murphy as well as the poetry - is largely dependent on the books that Beckett was reading at the time. Not only did Beckett read a huge amount of books in the early 1930, he also did not abandon his academic background and took extensive notes on a wide variety of topics - psychology, philosophy, the visual arts, literature of course, but also science, mathematics, geology.      

If these notebooks give us an insight into Beckett’s reading, a more extensive source of information is Beckett’s own library, which is still where it was at the time of his death in 1989: in his apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Jacques in Paris. In 2006, a colleague of mine and I were granted exclusive access to the library. Although Beckett famously gave away most of his books, there are still approximately 800 volumes in the library. The library also attests to Beckett’s wide reading - there are books from just about all fields of knowledge, from the humanities to the sciences, from religion to philosophy.      

Beckett’s wide reading was very evident in his work from the 1930s. However, his highly erudite and allusive literary texts, and their frequently indecent content and experimental structure, were not to the liking of publishers. Although admired by a small group of friends and writers, Beckett found it immensely difficult to publish outside of Parisian literary magazines in the 1930s, and thus generate financial income. And it took two years and dozens of rejections before the novel Murphy was accepted by a publishing house - it was finally published in 1938.

Part of the reason for the many rejections lay in the fact that his writing was often viewed, on a superficial level, as imitating Joyce. Beckett was aware of this, as a letter to the publisher Charles Prentice shows - he has just submitted a short story: “And of course it stinks of Joyce in spite of most earnest endeavours to endow it with my own odours.” Although Beckett continued to admire Joyce’s work throughout his life, he did, to continue this analogy, introduce new odours into his writing. Throughout the 1930s, and in a sense throughout his writing career, Beckett’s texts become sparser, more minimalist. In contrast to Joyce, whose texts became ever more expansive - see Finnegans Wake for example - Beckett in the mid thirties began to strip his writing down to the bare essentials. This move was reflected by Beckett’s turning away from concepts of knowledge, from any kind of system of thought. Although an emphasis on irrationality and the unconscious was always an important part of Beckett’s literary texts and aesthetics, around the time of his trip to Germany he began to foreground ideas of incompetence, of not knowing. We are very lucky to have documents that allow at least a glimpse into Beckett’s development at this time, as during the six months he spent in Nazi Germany from October 1936 to April 1937 he kept a diary.

This private unpublished diary is not only of interest to Beckett scholars, but also to cultural historians as it reports on everyday life in Germany during this troubled time, when restrictions and persecutions were intensified. At the time of his visit, books were being banned, and more obviously, so called degenerate paintings removed from modern art galleries.

It appears as if this trip profoundly influenced Beckett’s thinking and future writing. His dissatisfaction with his writing is for example evident from the fact that he spent much of his time looking in art galleries looking at painting, some of which would later influence his stage settings. Perhaps more importantly is Beckett’s response to the totalising discourse of the Nazis, with its aim of rewriting history. His diaries show how the Wahrheitsanspruch of this discourse, the claim to establish a narrative of truth, met with his vehement scorn.

As Beckett wrote after his return to Dublin from Germany, in an essay on the Irish poet Denis Devlin published in 1938, “… art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear.” Turning this aesthetic belief into a literary piece of work, however, was not easy. Initially, Beckett sought to show the irrationality of rationality in his next novel, Watt, written in France between 1942-45 at a time when he was on the run from the Gestapo and hiding in a place called Rousillon.

When war broke out in 1939, Beckett in fact found himself in Ireland. His home country was of course neutral, so he could have stayed there, but Beckett stated that he preferred “France at war to Ireland at peace.” and returned to Paris. In 1941 he joined one of the resistance groups and transcribed messages that were to be sent to England. When his group was infiltrated, he and his wife Suzanne went on the run, finally settling down in southern France where Beckett helped on the local farm whilst writing his new novel. With no time pressure, and only the nights during which to work, the compositional progress was slow - the six manuscript notebooks show how Beckett worked hard at finding a new and different mode of writing in his next novel Watt.  

Watt is essentially an attack on rationality and the capacity of language to express any kind of truth. The book is constructed on the basis of a logic that is taken to such a degree that it is rendered ridiculous:

Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr. Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptionable adequacy, all the purposes, and performed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot.”

The passage is of course at once serious and comic - although offering a satire of the process of logical reasoning the passage does thematise many philosophical themes from perception to the notion of essences.

Watt is the last full-length novel Beckett wrote in English. In the spring of 1938 Beckett had decided to change language from English to French for all his creative work, a condition he obeyed for about twenty years, apart from the writing of Watt, before starting to write again in English. Resident in France from 1937 onward, with publishers in England showing little interest in his English work, and refusing to return to Ireland, Beckett was left with little choice but to write in French. The foreignness of the experience - even though he was of course fluent in the French - seems to have prompted him to write in a way ‘foreign’ or different to anything he had attempted before. He also stated that he preferred writing in French as it allowed him to write ‘without style’.

Only in the sixties did Beckett begin to write in both English and French. But he had already previously translated - amazingly - his own work from one language to the other. Indeed, in effect when we look at Beckett’s work we should always, as it were, count nearly double, as Beckett himself believed that he was not really translating but essentially writing his texts anew.    

In any case, it is the texts that Beckett wrote immediately after the war, in French, that established him as one of the most important writers of the 20th Century. In what he described as frenzy of writing, Beckett between 1946 and 1953 wrote the play and novels he is most famous for – the plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame, the prose trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnammable as well as several short stories; all first written in French.

Molloy marked a watershed in Beckett’s writing - the bleak humour, the figure of the tramp, the minimalist but poetic language - the quintessential features of what we think of when think of the Beckettian text are here. The book contains one the most memorable passages in Twentieth Century literature; Molloy trying to devise a sequence whereby he sucks all the stones that he finds in his pockets equally often. What is at stake here, no less, is once again rationality. Although Molloy approaches the problem in a logical manner, he only succeeds in devising an imperfect solution to the problem, in which either the premise or the outcome needs to be revised.

If Molloy and the prose texts that followed completely and radically rewrote the limits of the novel, then Beckett’s plays revolutionised the possibilities of the stage and theatre in general. Having laboured for nearly 20 years - from 1929 to 1947 - to express himself as a writer, with almost nothing to show for it, either at the level of critical esteem, or at the level of financial stability or reward, Waiting for Godot firmly placed Beckett in the public eye. The visual elements of the play, a bare tree, a stone, two tramps have imprinted themselves on the theatrical imagination, just as the concept of waiting for something or someone that never arrives has infiltrated public consciousness. The simplicity of the play, its refusal to be tied down in “… a neatness of identifications”, has resulted in a complexity of interpretation. The largest question asked related to the identity of Godot, whereby it was taken for granted for some time that Godot was basically God. Beckett of course, in a letter to the director Alan Schneider, insisted upon the uncertainty surrounding Godot: “If I knew, I would have said so in the play.”

Most theatre critics responded with hostility to the first production of the play in Paris in 1953: ‘Nothing happens, twice’, as one commentator put it, or ‘nobody comes, nobody goes, its terrible’. The play was thought to signify, in all its bleakness and lack of hope, the human condition in a godless world. The absurdity of the dramatic situation resulted in a new label, a new category, into which Beckett was thrown alongside other contemporary dramatists such as Eugene Ionesco or Jean Genet - the theatre of the absurd. Yet the emphasis on the overall meaning of the play deflected from an appreciation of the comic humour, often of the slapstick variety, and of the language.           

Beckett’s visceral and unforgettable stage images have already become firmly embedded in our cultural consciousness - two tramps waiting in a barren landscape, the image of parents being kept in bins in Endgame, a man hunched over a tape recorder in Krapp’s Last Tape, a woman buried in sand in All That Fall, three characters trapped in urns pouring forth words in Play, or the pacing woman in Footfalls. And then there is of course the most striking image of a mouth on stage, dealing with a traumatic event that necessitates a refusal of self-acknowledgment, in Not I, a play written for Beckett’s muse Billie Whitelaw who sadly passed away last year.

Beckett’s theatrical work is characterised by a meticulous attention to both form and content. The plays are strikingly visual, finely attuned to sound and rhythm, and use language in innovative ways. And if he wanted to tackle the impossible task of giving ‘shape to the chaos’, as he said, then Beckett’s dramatic work is also choreographed with mathematical precision. This is particularly evident when we look at those productions that Beckett directed himself. From the mid-1960s onward, Beckett accepted invitations, in particular by the Schiller Theatre in Berlin, to direct his own plays. These productions are often seen as the definite interpretations of the plays. Our archive in Reading contains most of the so-called theatrical notebooks, in which Beckett prepared his performances.

In all forms of writing, Beckett’s work progressively, or rather regressively moved toward silence, lessness and minimalism. From the early 1960s onward, with the publication of Comment C’est / How It Is, Beckett’s prose removes all superfluous aspects of linguistic expression, removes grammatical structures as well as punctuation. A good example of this is the opening of Worstward Ho.  

If Beckett was a witness to the twentieth century - with a writing career that lasted from his first published text in 1929 to the last he published in 1989 - then he was also often criticised for being an apolitical writer. The political left tended to see Beckett’s work as a wallowing in gloom in which an absurd universe replaced the more tangible, and more changeable, real world. In 1955, for example, the grand old man of political theatre, Sean O’Casey, stated had nothing to do with Beckett: “… his philosophy isn't my philosophy, for within him there is no hazard of hope; no desire for it; nothing in it but a lust for despair, and a crying of woe.”

Yet Beckett’s political engagement was clear in other ways - he did not allow his plays to be performed in apartheid South Africa, and he frequently supported fellow writers who were being censored or persecuted. Beckett only wrote one overtly political piece, the play Catastrophe, written in 1982 as a direct response to the persecution of Czech activist Václav Havel, to whom it is dedicated. In that play, the protagonist's appearance - whitened face and grey pyjamas - deliberately recalls images of concentration camp inmates, while the direct reference to Havel's plight implicates the entire spirit of Stalinism.

Yet perhaps Beckett’s work is precisely political because it eschews overt political overtures. Perhaps it resonates within that struggle to articulate what it is to be human, in that threshold between Beckett’s belief, as expressed in his Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit, that there is ‘nothing to express’ and yet that there is an ‘obligation to express’. Beckett’s work circles around impotence, failure and liminality with an unswerving commitment to capturing a truthful expression of the human condition. For this reason, Beckett’s theatrical pieces continue to resonate in times of social, economic and political uncertainty; they speak to us at times of austerity and bleakness precisely because they refuse to offer facile solutions. It is remarkable how often Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is staged during times of crisis and adversity.

To conclude, it is perhaps worth recalling Harold Pinter’s (well-known) response to Beckett’s work:

“I don’t want philosophies, tracts, dogmas, creeds, ways out, truths, answers, nothing from the bargain basement. He is the most courageous, remorseless writer going and the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him. He’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy or a path or a revelation or a basinful of breadcrumbs, he’s not selling me anything I don’t want to buy - he doesn’t give a bollock whether I buy or not - he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Well, I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty. His work is beautiful.”

If Beckett’s work is often bleak, it is also infused with humour, poetry, companionship and aesthetic beauty, all of which reveal glimmers of hope in our thinking of ourselves as individuals and societies. Beckett’s theatre is moving and unsettling, funny and sad, poetic and austere - all the very parameters that shape our human experience.


©  Mark Nixon 2016