The Absurdity of Samuel Beckett

Ch. 1 - Introduction Ch. 3 - The Theory of Absurdity Ch. 5 - Beckett's Absurd Characters in Time Ch. 7 - Conclusion
Ch. 2 - A Brief Outline of the Life of Samuel Beckett Ch. 4 - Beckett's Absurd Characters Ch. 6 - The Theatre of the Absurd as the World of the Absurd Character Notes & Bibliography

II. A Brief Outline of the Life of Samuel Beckett

Dublin had produced a number of expressive playwrights for over three hundred years (R.S. Sheridan, Oscar Wilde, J. B. Shaw, S. O'Casey, J.M. Synge, and others), and so it is no surprise that Samuel Beckett, often considered to be the greatest dramatist of the 20th century at all2 , had to be born right in this city. It seems that Beckett was destined in terms of his date of birth as well - Good Friday, as a date of Christ's crucifixion, April 13 1906, brought an almost mystical symbolism into his personal life and writings. Christ's death and the attendant theory that one of the two thieves who has to have been crucified with him was saved while the other was damned are the motifs which Beckett used in various forms throughout his writing.
Vladimir: Ah, yes the two thieves. Do you remember the story?
Estragon: No.
Vladimir: Shall I tell it to you?
Estragon: No.
Vladimir: It'll pass the time. (Pause) Two thieves, crucified at the same time as our Saviour. One-
Estragon: Our what?
Vladimir: Our Saviour. Two thieves. One is supposed to have been saved and the other...(he searches for the contrary of saved)...damned.
(Godot 14)
Beckett as the second son of William Frank Beckett and Mary Roe Beckett, followed his brother to various schools, first in Stillorgan and later in Dublin, where at the age of 17 he entered Trinity College. Beckett was a bright student and moreover an excellent athlete. He won numerous medals and excelled at rugby, cricket, boxing, golf, and tennis.
After receiving his B.A. degree from Trinity College, he was awarded the post of lector in Paris where he set off for at the age of 22. The French capital became the strongest factor influencing his style and the spirit of his writings.
On his way to France, Beckett travelled first to Germany to visit his father's sister Frances Beckett Sinclair who lived with her husband William and their three children in Kassel. The Sinclairs were artists living sort of bohemian life among their many friends from the art world. Beckett immediately took a fancy to their easy-going life-style. He was also greatly attracted to one of the Sinclairs' daughter Peggy with whom he fell in love. They probably wanted to merry, as Peggy's sister remembers, but the family did not agree, because they were first cousins 3. Soon after, she went away to music and dancing school to Vienna in Austria and at the age of 18 she contracted tuberculosis and two years later died in Germany. Peggy was Samuel's first love and she is generally believed to be the original for the green-eyed heroines who appear in Beckett's writings.
Krapp's Tape: -upper lake, with the punt, bathed off the bank, then pushed out into the stream and drifted. She lay on at the floorboards with her hands under her head and her eyes closed. Sun blazing down, bit of a breeze, water nice and lively. I notice a scratch on her tight and asked her how she came by it. Picking gooseberries, she said. I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on and she agreed, without opening her eyes. (Pause) I asked her to look at me and after a few moments-(Pause)-after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause. Low.) Let me in. (Pause.) We drifted in among the flags and struck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause.) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. She lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.
(Krapp 221)
26 years before Beckett arrived in Paris, James Joyce made the same journey. Samuel, on recommendation of his Irish school mate, the poet Thomas McGreevy, soon met Joyce. He was immediately impressed by Joyce's literary work, that he wrote an essay on him Dante...Bruno. Vico...Joyce,ii which was his first published work showing his unbounded admiration for his "artistic father". Because Joyce's eyesight was so bad that he could not see to write, Beckett helped him, and soon began to be known as Joyce's secretary. Two years later, Beckett published an essay on Proust Proust, which is probably why he was often labelled Proustian or Joycean. 4 "As for the influence "itself", Beckett has given what is no doubt the best and fairest assessment of what he owes to Joyce, and how their goals are diametrically different: 'Joyce was a superb manipulator of material-perhaps the greatest. He was making words do the absolute maximum of work. There isn't a syllable that is superfluous. The kind of work I do is one in which I am not the master of my own material. The more Joyce knew the more he could. He's tending toward omniscience and omnipotence as an artist. I'm working with impotence, ignorance. ...My little exploration is the whole zone of being that has always been set aside by artists as something unusable - as something by definition incompatible with art'". 5
In Paris Beckett also started to explore philosophy, he read Arthur Schopenhauer, René Descartes who led him to Arnold Geulincx and occasionalism. (See Chapter IV.) Beckett returned to Dublin in 1930, at the age of 24, and was appointed a lector in French at Trinity College. In January after having spent there four terms, Beckett resigned this academic post.
In Dublin he suffered from serious depression. He spent all his time in a dark room and missed Paris where he had possessed more personal freedom. On his doctor's recommendation, Beckett left for Germany and after six months he returned back to Paris. He lived in a Paris hotel and realised that he needed to earn money to be able to stay there. As a consequence, he started to write poems, stories, and the novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which has never been published, but the portions of which he used in the collection of stories More Pricks Than Kicks.iii
In 1933 when Hitler took power, Beckett was in Dublin. This was the beginning of very hard period of Beckett's mental breakdown. His great love Peggy died from tuberculoses that year, and soon Beckett's father had a massive heart attack, which totally overwhelmed him.
After spending several months in Ireland, Beckett headed for London, where he spent two miserable years, depressed and confused about the quality of his writing, having no idea how great his talent really was. Nevertheless, Beckett began to write furiously, the result of which was the collection of poems Echo's Bones and Other Precipitates (1935). In addition, he started to write a novel, for which London became the setting - Murphy (1938).
The character of Murphy is very like Beckett himself, it is one of the novels where the the places and the names of the streets are named exactly. There appears Stadium road where Beckett lived at that time, Lots Road, Cremorne Road, and where Beckett as well as Murphy wandered about London, both usually in a very depressed state.
Soon after the beginning of the war Beckett returned to Paris to be with his friends. During the war the Gestapo discovered Beckett's activities in connection with the French Resistance movement. As a result, he was forced to find a sanctuary in Roussillon in the apartment of his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil's friend. Here, in the south of France he spent a long period of time during the war years. While hiding from the Nazis, he wrote another novel Watt (1942-1944), which is considered "an important bridge from the pre-war to the post-war writings"6 and where the basic Beckettean themes as the alienation from the world, appear. (See chapter Theme.)
After the war he returned back to Ireland again to be with his mother. Mary Roe Beckett was, at that time, dying from Parkinson's disease and throughout her final illness, Beckett cared for her. About his mother's death he later wrote in Krapp's Last Tape:
Krapp's Tape: - bench by the weir from where I could see her window. There I sat, in the biting wind, wishing she were gone. (Pause.) ...I was there when (...) the blind went down, one of those dirty brown roller affairs, throwing a ball for a little white dog as chance would have it. I happened to look up and there it was. All over and done with, at least. I sat on for a few moments with the ball in my hand and the dog yelping and pawing at me. (Pause.) Moments. Her moments, my moments. (Pause.) The dog's moments. (Krapp 219-221)
(Krapp 221)

In the 1950's Beckett wrote in French three more novels - the trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone meurt (1949-1951), and L'innommable (1953), which he later translated into English as Molloy, Mallone Dies, and Unnameable. Beckett's novels were of no success among French publishers. Due to Beckett's total resignation, it was Suzanne who took the manuscripts from one publisher to the other, and although she was rejected many times, finally made a contract with Lindon, who published Beckett's works.
From writing the novels Beckett turned to writing drama, which gave him the new possibilities for expressing his ideas. In 1972 Beckett confessed how and why he started to write plays: "I turned to writing plays to relieve myself of the awful depression the prose led me into. Life at that time was too demanding, too terrible, and I thought the theatre would be a diversion." 7 Beckett found in theatre a new way of making public his private world and these dramatic writings were the works which made him successful and famous across the world.
In 1949 he wrote En attendant Godot in French, which soon made its way across the Atlantic establishing Beckett as the most original and influential dramatist of the century. The first English edition translated by Beckett himself, was published in New York by B. Rossett, and due to it Beckett in his 50es started to become well-known amongst the general public.
Waiting for Godot was followed by All That Fall, a radio play broadcast in 1957. That was Beckett's first post-war play written in English, and the beginning of a long and creative relationship with BBC. All That Fall was followed by Krapp's Last Tape (1958), Endgame (1958), Embers (1959), Happy Days (1961), Words and Music (1962), and others.
In December 1965 the Swedish Academy announced Samuel Beckett as the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. Beckett avoided the publicity by travelling to Africa and it was J. Lindon, a French publisher, who accepted the award for "a body of work that, in new forms of fiction and the theatre, has transmuted the destitution of modern man into his exaltation." 8
Towards the close of his life, Beckett gradually started to lose mobility and it started to be difficult and later absolutely impossible for him to walk. In 1989, six months after the death of Suzanne, Samuel Beckett, on December 12, at the age of 83 went off.
Beckett expressed his attitude to his literary writing is in these words: "All this business of a labour to accomplish before I can end the words to say; "a truth to recover in order to say it before I can handle an imposed task, once known, long neglected, finally forgotten; to perform, before I can be done, done with speaking, done with listening, I invented it all in a hope that it will console me, help me to go on, allow me to think of myself as someone on the road moving between a beginning and an end, gaining ground, losing ground, getting lost, but somehow in the long run making headway, all lies, I've nothing to do, say nothing in particular, I have to speak whatever that means." 9

ii First published in 1929
iii First published as More Pricks Than Kicks. London: Chatto & Windus, 1934

Ch. 1 - Introduction Ch. 3 - The Theory of Absurdity Ch. 5 - Beckett's Absurd Characters in Time Ch. 7 - Conclusion
TOP OF THE PAGE Ch. 4 - Beckett's Absurd Characters Ch. 6 - The Theatre of the Absurd as the World of the Absurd Character Notes & Bibliography