The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle Review
From the issue dated August 4, 2006

Samuel Beckett: Millennium Poet Laureate

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Samuel Beckett would have turned 100 this year, but in a sense he was always 100. One is almost tempted to say he was always 1,000. Although he died 11 years short of the year 2000, no writer better deserves the title Millennium Poet Laureate. From a man obsessed with endings, not beginnings, with the old age of the world rather than its regeneration, his writing reverberates with overtones of fatigue, apocalypse, exhaustion, and decrepitude from the start. Beckett's earliest literary work, Whoroscope, a 98-line poem with 17 footnotes, featured an aging René Descartes, waiting for his breakfast, reflecting on the passage of time and the approach of death. Beckett wrote this when he was 24. Barely into his 40s, he was already depicting himself as the worn-out, destitute Molloy and the even more feeble Malone, confined to his bed in what may very well be a nursing home. In Axel's Castle (C. Scribner's Sons, 1931), Edmund Wilson rebuked T.S. Eliot for prematurely representing himself, at the age of 40, as an "aged eagle" too feeble to spread his wings. Imagine what he would have said about Beckett at the age of 24.

It is obvious why Beckett chose Eliot (along with Joyce and Proust) as one of his earliest literary models. They are the wasteland prophets of the Western world. At the age of 76, Beckett was still sounding like an aged eagle, and — with his tufted white crest, his penetrating gaze, and his prominent beak — even beginning to look like one. In an interview included in George Plimpton's Playwrights at Work (Modern Library, 2000), Beckett mused: "With diminished concentration, loss of memory, obscured intelligence ... the more chance there is for saying something closest to what one really is. Even though everything seems inexpressible, there remains the need to express. A child needs to make a sand castle even though it makes no sense. In old age, with only a few grains of sand, one has the greatest possibility."

All who knew Beckett personally have testified to his gift for raillery, his lively wit, his cordiality, his love of energetic conversation. By all accounts, he was a warmhearted friend and a delightful drinking companion. But the qualities that describe his characters are diminished concentration, loss of memory, obscured intelligence, paralysis, paraplegia, memory loss, apatheia, and aphasia — all symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Certainly, the Beckett dramatis personae no longer seem to have procreative functions, only painful excretory ones. The labors of "Testew and Cunard" are "unfinished": "Man ... in spite of the strides of alimentation and defecation wastes and pines." And like Didi's bladder, even one's excremental organs are not always in decent working order. "Joyce," Beckett told Israel Shenker in an interview, "is tending towards omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I'm working on impotence, ignorance."

In spite of this emphasis on the failure of function, however, what better characterizes Beckett's driving motivation than the need to express the inexpressible? His desire to fashion "something closest to what one really is," with just a few grains of sand, is undoubtedly why this Irish writer preferred French to English as the language of his plays, novels, and poetry. "It is easier," he famously confessed to Nicholas Gessner, "to write without style in French," while English, he told another interviewer, "holds out the temptation to rhetoric and virtuosity." As one who began his literary career helping to translate Joyce's "Anna Livia Plurabelle" into French, Beckett understandably needed to purge his vocabulary of the stylistic excess and verbal pyrotechnics associated with works like Finnegans Wake, not to mention the "quaquaqua" of academic philosophers and critics. It was no doubt Beckett's dislike of semantic bloat that made him chafe over the need to translate Endgame into English for the Royal Court production. In English, he believed, most of its sharpness and rhythm would be lost. (Although the play is actually sublime in English, almost all of the London critics roasted it anyway.)

It was Beckett's passion for pared-down, unobtrusive speech that made him subject his art to such a remorseless process of verbal refinement. And the antistyle he mastered — simple, terse, ironic, repetitive, nonallusive, vaudevillian — soon became one of the most glorious instruments in the literary orchestra. His dislike of excess may also suggest why his works grew increasingly shorter as his career progressed. As early as 1945, he was finding his artistic direction "in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding." Was he trying to distill his vision into that process Stephen Dedalus mentions in Ulysses that would essentialize the entire meaning of our lives into a single word and thereby render writing unnecessary? In two mime plays called Act Without Words, he began to abandon language altogether, and his dramatic vignette, Breath, consists of nothing more than a brief inhalation and expiration.

That suggests how for Beckett existence was a brief, if at the same time endless, purgatorial period stretching between our first mortal breath and our last — the verbal equivalent of Dali's limp watches sliding off a table or hanging on a tree. Endgame's Clov defines yesterday as "that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day." The passage of time in Beckett may be swift or tedious, but it is always "bloody awful." Life goes by in an instant, yet creeps in a petty pace from day to day, an idiot tale of endless tomorrows, with little sound and less fury. (The Macbeth images are intentional — Beckett deeply identified with the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech, as the director Peter Sellars emphasized in a Boston production called Play/Macbeth that combined Beckett and Shakespeare passages.)

Beckett's sense of time was indebted to the writings of his only critical subject, Marcel Proust (who was indebted in turn to Henri-Louis Bergson). But his forebear in the theater was actually Chekhov, who also knew how slowly and quickly life can pass, as he demonstrated through that Beckett prototype, the doddering old Firs in The Cherry Orchard ("My life has slipped by as though I'd never lived").

Fatigue, decrepitude, exhaustion, as embodied in an old man or woman ceaselessly trying to refine the languagethose are the recurrent characters and pervasive characteristics of Beckett's plays. So is a sense of isolation. It is rare that Beckett's stage supports more than one or two characters at the same time, and often they are master and slave. When Pozzo and Lucky join Didi and Gogo for a few moments in Waiting for Godot, or Nagg and Nell pop out of their Endgame dustbins to natter at Hamm and Clov, the space seems positively crowded. Often the plays feature a solitary speaking character, like the remorseful hermit of Krapp's Last Tape, or the chattering housewife of Happy Days, or the offstage female voice of Rockaby, whispering off her aged parent in the rocker, or, supremely, the disembodied mouth in Not I, crooning its lonely prosody in a void of Cimmerian gloom. This is a landscape, possibly postnuclear, without civic population or social infrastructure or transportation system or political engagement, a human vacuum that makes Beckett's lone protest work, Catastrophe (written in homage to Václav Havel), seem like an anomaly.

That this most solitary and unengaged of writers should have chosen the most social of the arts as his favored medium is also anomalous. One remembers with a start that Beckett joined the French Resistance during World War II. Hard to imagine this poet of passivity and isolation joining the partisans and fighting the Nazis. Yet it was in writing plays that Beckett found his clearest way, his most comfortable medium, and while the collective nature of the theater often caused him considerable grief (more about that later), he never chose to abandon it. That may be why he leaned so heavily on dependable theatrical collaborators — Jean-Louis Barrault in France, Donald McWhinnie in England, Walter Asmus in Germany, Alan Schneider in the United States. Until he decided to direct his own plays, he was forced into the arms of those he could trust to transfer his vision faithfully from the page to the stage. ("I've the feeling no author was ever better served," he wrote to Schneider, an expression of rueful gratitude that became the title of their collected letters.)

Beckett depended on directors, but it was through actors that his vision was most fully realized on stage — Hume Cronyn, Alvin Epstein, Michael Gambon, Bert Lahr, Jack MacGowran, Patrick Magee, Barry McGovern, Frederick Neumann, Chris O'Neill, Madeleine Renaud, Jessica Tandy, David Warrilow, Billie Whitelaw, and Irene Worth, a formidable list that is not exhausted here. Most of these actors were either in their older age or carried the sand and grit of old age in their very bones. Beckett's theater is hardly about youth, freshness, or renewed energy. I think that is why the Mike Nichols production of Godot proved unsatisfying to some critics. Those excellent actors Steve Martin and Robin Williams had too much show-biz vitality to capture the lethargic qualities of Didi and Gogo (though F. Murray Abraham and Bill Irwin were superb as Pozzo and Lucky). At the American Repertory Theatre, we did two different productions of Godot, the first with actors in their 20s and 30s (Mark Linn-Baker and John Bottoms), the second with two aging veterans (Alvin Epstein and Jeremy Geidt). The younger men captured the wonderfully engaging music-hall turns of the characters, but it was the older actors who truly heard their melancholy music.

Alongside his vocabulary of isolation, Beckett created a thesaurus of inertia. Perhaps his most oft-quoted lines are from The Unnamable, "I can't go on. I'll go on." It is a sentiment he paraphrased often, most strikingly at the conclusion of Waiting for Godot: "Well, shall we go? "Yes, let's go." They do not move. One critic remarked that while Shakespeare's Hamlet is ruminating on the question, "To be, or not to be," Beckett's characters are exploring the "or." Actually, Beckett is as interested as Shakespeare in the metaphysical infinity buried in the existential infinitive. Just like Hamlet, Didi and Gogo contemplate nonbeing, first to pass the time, then (in Tennyson's sense) to cross the bar. But when Gogo tries to hang himself, his belt breaks. Hamlet considers suicide as a passport to the undiscovered country. Didi and Gogo remain rooted in the frustrations of the barren mortal landscape. They do not move.

Indeed, inertia and imprisonment may be the unifying themes of Beckett's work. Those qualities are personified in Endgame, with Hamm blinded and frozen in his chair, and his aged parents immobilized in their ashcans; it is the metaphor of Play, whose three characters are imprisoned in urns, a cold finger of light picking cruelly at their heads as they rehearse the adulterous relationship that brought them to this pass; and it is the central theme of Happy Days, in which Winnie is buried in the ground, the earth literally rising over her body, like a grave being covered over by an invisible gravedigger. Representing the way Beckett carried his images from play to play, Happy Days literalizes the central idea of Godot: "They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more. ... The grave-digger puts on the forceps." Winnie's living room is her dying room, her life the inhalation and exhalation of a single breath.

But Beckett's fascination with inertia and old age is not so much a longing for death, a passion for extinction, as it is an expression of nostalgia and regret, a rumination on the entropy of the universe. And nowhere are those rueful feelings more beautifully expressed than in that elegy of old age, Krapp's Last Tape, the only play Beckett originally wrote in his native tongue. Krapp is a genuine formal advance for Beckett after Godot, which, though clearly his masterpiece, is perhaps a bit hamstrung by its length and repetitiveness. In Godot, Beckett dramatized his notion that life was a series of inconsequential and monotonous events, that one day is pretty much like another, by laying his first and second acts side by side like two sets of railroad tracks. It was in Krapp's Last Tape, and the plays that followed, that he began to recognize that his art lent itself more readily to shorter statements, that his own creative purpose lay in "subtracting rather than adding."

In Krapp, Beckett economizes his theme through a simple mechanical device. Today and tomorrow are, through the instrument of a tape recorder, simultaneously revealed. Set in the future (I suspect all of Beckett's plays are), the work revolves around a solitary character, the incredibly ancient Krapp, who putters around his eremitic cell, shortsightedly examining his keys, peering myopically into his books, testing his shrunken vocal organs on words that please him, pouring whiskey noisily down his throat, sucking toothlessly on a banana with the same relish and resignation as Estragon eats his carrot and Nagg his soda biscuit. Reduced to his most elementary appetites, Krapp has no purpose or occupation except to listen to his organs decay and to feel his functions fail. He is, like Eliot's Gerontion, "an old man in a draughty house under a windy knob," but without even Gerontion's dream of rain.

Krapp is surrounded, almost buried, by his past, in the form of boxes upon boxes of magnetic tapes, the aural diary of his entire life. The single action of the play is the replaying of one spool, recording a mundane yesterday when Krapp was middle-aged and already rather juiceless. The droning, slightly pompous voice from the machine evokes a variety of responses from the ancient Krapp: interest, melancholy, contempt, despair. A memory of feeling returns to his withered hand during a description of a black rubber ball; after listening to a tape about a girl in a tattered dress he once glimpsed on a railway platform, he hurriedly plays the section over; he turns the set off in disgust hearing his excited discovery of the meaning of life; he collapses into ruins of longing during the indifferently intoned narrative of a sexual experience in a rocking boat.

On the last tape, Krapp intends to record his present day's activities, but there is now nothing left in him, "not a squeak," nothing but memory, loss, and impotent desire, nothing to do but replay the tape about that boat drifting and sticking among the flags and eavesdrop on his past, when he still had the capacity to press his flesh against that of another living being. The last scene shows us Krapp stiffening in his rented room, his head lying miserably on the machine, his arms around it like a grotesque and wizened lover.

Of all Beckett's characters, Krapp seems the closest to his creator, which suggests a touch of self-contempt in his choice of name. Beckett's elegiac regret over an unfulfilled life is not unlike that of Jamie Tyrone in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night where, quoting from Rossetti, he says: "My name is Might-Have-Been. I am also called No More, Too Late, Farewell." But Krapp's Last Tape is a glimpse into the abyss without solace or hope or rescue. Beckett is perhaps the quintessential playwright of existential rebellion, that futilitarian protest against a God-forsaken naturalist universe that Shakespeare was perhaps the first to theatricalize in King Lear. No wonder the Roman Catholic Church regarded Beckett as a blasphemer.

Considering how self-effacing he usually was about his plays and his personality (he once thanked Alan Schneider for his "great warmth of attachment for my dismal person and devotion to my grisly work"), Beckett's extreme vigilance regarding any deviations from the written word seems odd. He was agitated enough to threaten suit when Schneider reported an Andre Gregory production of Endgame that departed from his stage directions ("My work is not holy writ but this production sounds truly revolting & damaging to the play"). He vetoed an all-female Endgame and steamed over "a scandalous parody of Godot at the Young Vic." He even refused Ingmar Bergman permission to film Godot because he didn't want the play "Bergmanized," thus leaving us with a gigantic hole in theater history.

My own company also got in hot water with Beckett when the director JoAnne Akalaitis, literalizing a postnuclear metaphor, set the ART production of Endgame in an abandoned subway station (a fallout shelter) and commissioned a brief overture for it from Philip Glass. Although he never saw the production, Beckett protested that his play had been "musicalized," objected to the casting of two black actors as Hamm and Nagg, and, citing his set descriptions, wrote a program note that said, "Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me." The furor unleashed by this controversial event, and the unsuccessful efforts of Beckett and his agents to shut it down, eventually encouraged him to put a codicil in his will controlling future productions beyond the grave by proscribing any deviation from his text or stage directions. In fact, a theater in Washington, D.C., was threatened with court action by the Beckett estate after reports that a company that included black cast members had introduced hip-hop interpolations into a production of Godot.

In this case, after Beckett's nephew Edward interceded, the production was permitted to open. And in the more-recent instance of a partly female Godot that the estate tried to halt, the courts interceded on behalf of the defendants. It may be that after his death the law is beginning to allow something that the playwright vigorously resisted during his lifetime — namely, the right of theatrical collaborators, within reason, to make some contribution to the theatrical occasion.

Beckett's territorial attitude toward his work is hardly unusual among modern playwrights. Arthur Miller fought a Wooster Group production involving The Crucible. Edward Albee fought all-male productions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Sam Shepard banned an all-female version of True West. But this tight control of literary property rights is unexpected in a writer of such becoming modesty and self-effacement, especially one who foresaw a ravaged future largely devoid of any objects worth saving.

Nonetheless, it suggests that however apocalyptic Beckett may have been about the old age of the world and the impotence of human beings, however dejected he was about the looming apocalyptic millennium, he continued to believe in the power of the written word and the immortality of works of art. For Beckett, life was damnation, but language was redemption. The human race can't go on. It will go on.

Robert Brustein is a playwright, director, critic, founding director of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory Theatres, and a professor emeritus of English at Harvard University. His books include Letters to a Young Actor: A Universal Guide to Performance (Basic Books, 2005) and the forthcoming Millennial Stages (Yale University Press, 2006). His most recent plays are Spring Forward, Fall Back and The English Channel.


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