“There is no escape from the hours and the days[*].”:

The ‘goings-on’ of Samuel Beckett

/An essay by David Parfitt/

Beckett has been interpreted, misinterpreted and mythologised by critics since Waiting for Godot was first performed in 1953[1]. At the time of this production, opinion of it was divided. Some slated [criticized] it; some applauded it. No one understood it. Since then each new production has attracted attention and Godot has become a classic of the stage over which, in the face of a silent author, literary critics never tire of speculating[2].

I wonder why that is. Is it simply because Beckett was the ‘last modernist’ [3], or because Waiting for Godot is the benchmark work in Absurdist theatre? Perhaps this interest is due to the esoteric lure of Beckett’s literature and its apparent lack of meaning? No. I propose that it is much more than this. Beckett’s enduring popularity with all sorts of people lies more in its style than in its literary content. An enigmatic style and a wish on the author’s part to defy classification and simplistic interpretation creates something not easily digested by readers intent on reaching some sort of definite conclusion or arriving at an overall, tangible meaning which they can firmly grasp. We are led by many critics to believe that although much of his work remains somewhat of a mystery, there are certain ‘accepted’ Beckettian theories and suppositions to which the uninitiated lay reader must adhere. This can be very off-putting to students and others approaching Beckett for the first time who, not surprisingly, are under the distinct impression that his output is so abstract, erudite and metaphysical that he must be avoided at all costs. Without wishing to appear iconoclastic, I feel that people’s hesitancy in reading Samuel Beckett is the result of officious critics, more concerned with being perceived as scholarly than actually contributing anything of scholastic value:

[During the second New York production of Waiting for Godot]... the theater was turned into a seminar room after the final curtain. A panel of ‘experts’ — a psychoanalyst, an actor, an English professor, and so on — sat on-stage and conducted a dialogue with those in the auditorium... the most effective contribution was made by a member of the audience who asked the panel the rhetorical question, “Isn’t Waiting for Godot a sort of living Rorschach [ink-blot] test?” He was clapped and cheered by most of those present, who clearly felt as I still do that most interpretations of that play — indeed of Samuel Beckett’s work as a whole — reveal more about the psyches of the people who offer them than about the work itself or the psyche of the author[4].
Despite Vivian Mercier’s observations here, the majority of critics would deny that they are imposing their own philosophy of life and experience and thought onto a more or less blank canvas[5], preferring to see themselves as ‘objective translators’ of his work. This, however, is pure sophistry. No translation can be without personal interpretation, and it is mere self-delusion to believe that you can embark on a disinterested journey into Beckett’s personal world without your own feelings being roused. People would be well advised to ignore idées reçues [generally accepted ideas] and conceive their own ideas and opinions on the texts, making it their journey of self-discovery.
The Kafkaesque hero has a coherence of purpose. He’s lost but he’s not spiritually precarious, he’s not falling to bits... I think anyone nowadays, anybody who pays the slightest attention to his own experience, finds it the experience of a non-knower[6].
Robert Brustein described Krapp’s Last Tape in 1960 as “the perfect realisation of human isolation”, and few would disagree with him. Indeed many, I am sure, would consider this an apposite phrase with which to label the entire Beckett œuvre, and certainly his debilitated and impotent protagonists are individual realisations of isolation. Part of what draws so many to Beckett’s literature, making him [before he died] “one of the world’s most famous living writers, certainly the world’s most famous living playwright[7]”, is the individuality and reality of the situations he presents us. Audiences may feel sympathy, perhaps even profound pity, for ‘tragic’ literary figures: Turgenev’s Insarov, Hamlet, even Emma Bovary, because they have a dream and battle against the odds up until their own death. Ultimately they fail in their quest in the short term, but this failure has its release for them in a noble and ‘heroic’ death:
On Emma’s satin dress, white as a moonbeam,

the watering shimmered. She disappeared beneath it.

It seemed to him (Charles Bovary) as if she were

escaping from herself and melting confusedly into

everything about her, into the silence, the night, the

passing wind...[8]

There is a sense here of sublime tranquillity and the reader forgives Emma’s past transgressions, allowing her a peaceful departure from a cruel and barbarous world. Thus, with tragic heroes/heroines, we hold them in veneration and admire them forever, remembering only the great things they did (conveniently overlooking many flaws). Yet, “anybody who pays the slightest attention to his own experience” knows that these godlike heroes of literature are not very often to be found in real life.

Beckett’s concern is human failure in both the short-term and the long, with no hope for death as a way out.

His characters are anti-heroes in a big way. Rather like us, they may have grandiose aspirations but never achieve them. Their life is abject failure, and failure is both physically and mentally painful:

ADA: You should see a doctor about your talking, it’s worse... there must be something wrong with your brain[9].
The notion that mental failure is related to, or causes, physical ‘failure’ or atrophy is an interesting one and owes much to Descartes and his axiom of dualism[10]. In his most well known piece of drama, Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for something to happen (for the elusive Godot to appear) which does not happen (he never appears). They are trapped in a painful, void-like existence[11] in which suffering is commonplace[12] and death (comparable to escape perhaps?[13]) an impossibility:
E: Why don’t we hang ourselves?

V: With what?

E: You haven’t got a bit of rope?

V: No.

E: Then we can’t.[14]

Beckett’s earlier dramatic personages come on to the stage, talk at each other for a while and then depart, leaving the audience bewildered and wondering what the point of the production was. It is astonishing that people seek such clear-cut answers and definitions in Beckett (like ‘Who/What is Godot?’) when his aim is more to reflect our own rather desultory and disorganised existence than to present black or white images which we can choose to like or dislike as we please. When Beckett’s close friend and director, Alan Schneider, asked him who Godot was, he met with a chilly response: “If I knew, I would have said so in the play”. Perhaps we look too hard for metaphor and ‘meaning’ where there is none: “No symbols where none intended” Beckett expounds in Watt[15]. He even wrote the same to Schneider:
If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.
How many people view themselves as so easily read that they can be summed up in a few words? For the most part, we are made up of ‘shades of grey’ and cannot be defined as such. If there was a ‘point’ in life, for Beckett it was the thorough examination of it with a view to presenting his findings for the world to see. To clarify, during one of Endgame’s dialogues, Clov poses a very natural human question, while Hamm responds in a typically Beckettian fashion:
C: What is there to keep us here?

H: The dialogue[16].

So in the same way that Beckett’s characters view their ‘life’ as a test to be endured, we too have a tendency to try and ‘pass the time’[17] of our own existence as enjoyably and/or productively as possible. There is, undeniably, a finite time between birth and death which is called ‘life’:
On entre, on crie

Et c’est la vie.

On crie, on sort,

Et c’est la mort[18].

If we, like Beckett’s offspring, had our safety nets and societal comforts taken away from us, if deprived of job, family, reputation, friends and all else we hold dear, what would be our reason for continuing in such unhappiness? Where would our motivation spring from? Medical psychology stipulates that there are three ‘categories’ of instinct: self-preservation, the reproductive instinct and the herd/gregarious tendency[19]. If desired, these inborn urges are, more often than not, fulfilled. Although Beckett’s chief concerns lie in depriving his characters of these ‘pleasures’ and ‘needs’ (the will to live; sexual intercourse leading to reproduction; a society they wish to be a part of), they share these urges, nonetheless. Doubtless, any man or woman, if denied of all pleasures, would feel disillusioned and unfulfilled. Beckett’s protagonists tend not to enjoy their existence: rather, they bear its heavy burden with sardonic humour. They would feel drawn to Edmund Spenser’s remark, no doubt:
Death is the end of woes: die soon, O fairy’s son[20].
Beckett’s characters would, given a choice, opt for death (synonymous with peaceful sleep), and to rest at long last. Physical restraints prevent this:
If I had use of my body, I would throw it out of the window[21].
Malone is powerless to take his own life, for he is not in control of his actions. Again, Cartesian ‘mind’ and ‘body’ interrelation is central to an understanding of a mental wish to die, coupled with a physical inability to carry it through. The author does not allow his characters to give up, however awful their situation:
You must go on.

I can’t go on.

You must go on.

I’ll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any...[22]

For Beckett, being born is the ultimate sin and a heinous mistake:
POZZO: They give birth astride of a grave,the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more[23].
Life is so awful in Beckett’s world that it hardly seems fair to impose it on anyone else. However, this ‘cradle-grave’ scenario is not exclusively Beckett’s. Sean O’Casey similarly alluded to this theory that where you live is also where you die:
BOYLE: I’m looking for a place near the sea;

I’d like the place that you might say was

me cradle, to be me grave as well[24].

If you live in life, then you die in life, too. And, in the same way, the pain of living is equated with the pain of dying (albeit that here life is favourable to death):
MRS TANCRED: Ah what’s the pains I suffered bringin’

him into the world to carry him to his

cradle, to the pains I’m sufferin’ now,

carryin’ him out o’ the world to bring him to his grave[25]!

Birth and death (despite being opposites) are both physically painful experiences. For Beckett, however, death was an easy way out, since it provided rest from the burdens of life. So both life and its cause (birth) are painful in a way that death is not. Birth is the beginning and the end. It is the beginning of pain and the end of peace. In Company, Beckett talks of his mother going into labour whilst his father goes out walking in order to avoid it all:
When he returned at nightfall he learned to his

dismay from the maid at the back door that labour

was in full swing. Despite its having begun before

he left the house full ten hours earlier... he was on

the point of setting out anew across the fields in

the young moonlight when the maid came running to

tell him it was over at last. Over![26]

In Embers, it could be said that Beckett compares birth (painful) with the ensuing need to comply with societal convention (also painful). In this case, the metaphor he chooses is one of playing the piano:
HENRY: It was not enough to drag her into the

world, now she must play the piano[27].

As you improve and get better at playing the instrument, the goals you set yourself become higher and higher and are never reached. What was previously a great achievement (grade one, for example) becomes an embarrassment as little as five years later when grade eight has been attained:
The aspirations of yesterday were valid for

yesterday’s ego, not for today’s[28].

There is always room for improvement. Is that enjoyable? Like Beckettian life, this inadequacy never ends and is interminable pain and suffering. Yet these suffering characters go on enduring the unbearable. They keep going on for two reasons: one is time, which is forever shifting them towards something that they will never achieve; the other is because they must go on, regardless. For Beckett, chess was an important game in terms of structure and strategy. In Murphy[29], the eponymous protagonist and Mr Endon (ironically, the Greek word for ‘within’) play a game of chess to mark the dénouement of the novel and, indeed, Deirdre Bair likens “the stars and the game of chess[30]” to Beckett’s own view of the human condition:
...the stars, whose movement is circular and

repetitious, and which do not decay; and the pieces

on a chess board, which cannot move in cycles

(especially the pawns which can only move forward),

and for which, therefore, all movement is

movement towards loss. It is, of course, clear that

the fate of chessmen is, to Beckett, analogous to the

fate of man[31].

Here, “the stars” represent ‘life’ per se, while “the pawns” are symbolic of humans and the way in which we live our lives (or, rather, have them lived for us). Life is a game in which we move according to the wishes of a greater force. What that force is remains a mystery; perhaps it is Godot?
We are merely the stars’ tennis-balls,

struck and bandied

Which way please them[32].

Since Time is two dimensional, it can only push its recipient on, whether wanted or not (“time devours on[33]”) The further we go in life towards death, argues Beckett, the more we are guilty of the sinful act of living a deathly and deadened existence, artificially sweetened by relative pleasures which are not really pleasures at all. Life is habitual, and “habit is a great deadener[34]”.

With regards to ‘going on’, it is clear in Beckett’s literature that his characters have no alternative but to ‘go on’. They are driven forward in a torturous existence for no other reason than that they have no alternative but to do as the author decrees. It is interesting to see that even in 1949 (before Waiting for Godot was published) Beckett saw this need to go on, no matter how adverse the conditions (here he refers to Bram van Velde):

Beckett.- The situation is that of him who is helpless,

cannot act, in the event cannot paint, since he

is obliged to paint. The act is of him who,

helpless, unable to act, acts, in the event paints,

since he is obliged to paint.

Duthuit.- Why is he obliged to paint?

Beckett.- I don’t know[35].

He does not know what keeps us going on, living in such awful conditions (in the shadow of the ubiquitous Godot), but he does state quite clearly that there is no alternative but to do so:
E: I can’t go on like this.

V: That’s what you think[36].

Scientific/physical death (“No patient was dead till the doctor had seen him.”[37]) as distinct from spiritual or mental death is not something to be feared, says Beckett. What is frightening is the ‘life’ we lead which is a deathly stasis. The mundanity of everyday existence is the real killer:
And I fell to thinking of my silent, backstreet,

basement office, with its obliterated plate, rest-

couch and velvet hangings, and what it means to

be buried there alive, if only from ten to five...[38]

Death in Life, and Life in Death?

We all fail in life, yet despite the fact that Beckett offers no hope of release from this everlasting torture, perhaps we can look for some kind of salvation:

With Beckett, one searched for hope amid despair

and continued living with a kind of stoicism...[39]

In the same way that Beckett made good use of the life forced upon him, we too can strive “to kick against the pricks[40]”. Ultimately, Beckett’s optimism extends only as far as giving us a frighteningly realistic aphorism, the nub of his work:
Try again. Fail again. Fail better[41].
Raymond Chandler, although not normally associated with Beckett, wrote:
Down these mean streets a man must go who

is not himself mean[42].

Although in all likelihood he was here referring to downtown Los Angeles at the time of prohibition, this could well serve as a portrait of many of Beckett’s protagonists. They too live in a difficult and “mean” world where all is ‘out to get them’. All is pain and suffering and, indeed, Winnie in Happy Days has her own Browning pistol (to defend herself or to kill herself?). The question is, what keeps these seemingly doomed characters going? I have already suggested that the author gives them no choice in the matter, which is somewhat of an intentionalist viewpoint, but there is also a case to be made for the characters’ own preference for life over death.

In How It Is, for instance, man reduced to an animal state crawling through the dirt remarks on the awfulness of existence “alone in the mud yes the dark[43]”. Yet, even in these atrocious conditions, he musters up a paradoxical ability to bear it all:

none the less it’s preferable somehow somewhere

as it stands as it comes my life my moments...[44]

Beckett describes it perfectly. It is painful, it hurts but it is “my life” and these are all “my moments” and I must not capitulate whatever the odds against me. Pride and fear of death keep me going on “still throwing the javelin[45]”. That is the way life goes, c’est la vie; how it is.

Life is preferable to death because they can laugh at their situation, they can eke out some “life”, some “moments” and take it “as it comes”. Again, in Happy Days Winnie cannot be said to be happy about anything as such, but nonetheless it is a very funny play. Tragi-comic. Even when buried up to her neck in sand, Winnie never reaches out for the pistol in front of her...

that unique, insistent, wise, funny, excoriating voice

that never quite despairs and never gives up[46].

Jack MacGowran, who “acted in most of Beckett’s plays collaborating closely with Beckett himself[47]”, emphasises the ultimate hopefulness and an enduring wish to remain a part of human existence:
There is a kind of lust for death and yet a zest

for life — a strange paradox that runs through much

of his work[48].

Even the use there of the word ‘zest’ to describe the protagonists’ regard for the life they lead (or are led on) seems calculated and apposite. Their wish to live and surmount any difficulties in their way is a very bittersweet one, given the humour in the works combined with the pathos. They are pathetic in the word’s original Greek sense, without any clearly defined path to tread (pathic, perhaps?). When questioned on the issue of ‘waiting for something’, MacGowran continued in this quasi-optimistic vein to make even the result of Waiting for Godot seem like a Shakespearean comedy:
Waiting for something — whatever it may be, whatever

personal thing a person’s waiting for — if they have the

patience to survive and wait for it, it may happen. He

writes about human distress, not human despair[49].

MacGowran’s distinction between ‘distress’ in Beckett’s work (“extreme pain or suffering; calamity; misfortune; exhaustion[50]”) and ‘despair’ (“to be without hope[51]”) is a very valid one and one which should be propounded more. Too often Beckett is calumniated for being too ‘despairful’ (a term first coined by Spenser, ironically enough) when in fact there is hope in his work if you choose to see it. You could argue that Beckett’s characters are, in a way, ill (most of them certainly appear old and decrepit and in pain):
Living is an illness to which sleep provides relief

every sixteen hours. Sleep is a palliative, death

is a remedy[52].

To be cured, one must be killed off. Is it any wonder, then, that the characters endure interminable pain and suffering when the alternative is a self-falsifying cure? If Beckett’s personages are ill, then they like the warmth of the hospital too much to quit it. If they left the safety of incubation and isolation, what would be beyond? Is it a Stéphane Mallarmé picture of peace and idyllic tranquillity (“the image of a hospital patient watching through the window panes a sunset he is unable to experience directly... the symbol of the poet’s own plight[53]”)? Or is it rather Pascal’s cauchemar [nightmare] depiction of desolation and painful silence? A cacotopia:
The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me[54].
Like the claustrophobic stage-setting of Endgame, in which the décor reflects perhaps the tormented inner minds of those on stage, the outside is the ‘unknown’ and to venture beyond the “closed space” where “all needed to be known for say is known[55]” is more frightening than the painful safety of mundanity and habit. Is Mallarmé’s powerful description of a hospital-bound man trying to see what is beyond,
Tired of the dreary hospital and of the stale incense

rising in the banal whiteness of the curtains towards

the vast crucifix weary of the empty wall, the dying man

cunningly straightens his old back,

drags himself and, less to warm his decay than to

see sunlight on the stones, goes to flatten his white hairs

and the bones of his thin face at the windows which a

bright lovely sunbeam wishes to bronze[56],

not comparable thematically to Beckett’s final and, for me, perfect conception of poetry, Stirrings Still?
One night as he sat at his table head on hands he

saw himself rise and go. One night or day. For when

his own light went out he was not left in the dark.

Light of a kind came then from the one high window.

Under it stood the stool on which till he could or would

no more he used to mount to see the sky. Why

he did not crane out to see what lay beneath was

perhaps because the window was not made to

open or because he could or would not open it.

Perhaps he knew only too well what lay beneath

and did not wish to see it again. So he would simply

stand there high above the earth and see through the

clouded pane the cloudless sky[57].

It is possible, then, that Beckett’s concern lies in presenting the dichotomy between ‘life’ as it is lived and the ‘beyond’ which is unknown and, like the enigmatic Godot, remains a mystery. What choice do we have, as human beings then, ‘to be’? Since what is beyond is neither assured nor assurable, Life must be lived if we are to be assured of anything at all, no matter how empty it may seem:
Nothing is important but life. And for myself, I can

absolutely see life nowhere but in the living. Life with

a capital L is only man alive. Even a cabbage in the

rain is cabbage alive. All things that are alive are

amazing. And all things that are dead are subsidiary to

the living[58].

There we go then. Lawrence, too, believes that life is preferable to death, no matter how wet it is; “it’s preferable somehow somewhere”.

Krapp’s Last Tape ends with perhaps the most poignant lines in Beckett’s literature:

KRAPP: Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back[59].
Whether or not Krapp would want his past back is another matter, but it is the issue of fire in relation to life and death I wish to tackle now.

Perhaps the most well known image of fire is that of Hell’s damnation, a Biblical and Faustian picture of eternal damnation and total consumption:

that vast perpetual torture house.

There are the furies tossing damned souls

On burning forks. Their bodies broil in lead...

This ever-burning chair

Is for o’er-tortured souls to rest them in[60].

Or, perhaps Dante’s cosmological view of Hell is the furthest point from God where the impenitent are punished in “the woeful city” of “eternal pain... abandon every hope, ye that enter[61]”. The question to be addressed is whether this image of ‘fire’ in Krapp’s Last Tape is pushing this lonely and disconsolate old man forwards, with burning passion, or else consuming him entirely and without mercy.

The image of “the fire in me now”, on one level of interpretation, would seem to suggest a passionate and positive driving force which may change Krapp’s destiny for the better. For example, in the sixteenth-century (Petrarchan) love poem Amoretti, written by Spenser, fire is love’s passion and compels man to live on:

But since that lyfe is more than death desyred,

look euer louely, as becomes you best,

that your bright beams of my weak eies admyred,

may kindle liuing fire within my breast[62].

It appears as a lovely, ‘life-giving’ fire in the same way that Prometheus’s fire gave life to a darkened race of man. It is passionate, beautiful and warm, marking the dawn of a new era, and stands for hope. When all around you is so cold and inhospitable, it is reassuring to know that you are at least warm inside (it shows that something is still alive, internally). However, the other side is less hopeful. The result of Prometheus’s stealing of fire was Zeus’s ensuing rage and his sending the beautiful but deadly Pandora as a calamity to man. Enchanted by her beauty, Epimetheus brought her among men and, unknowingly, allowed her to release terrible afflictions which brought misery to the world. Thus, fire was a mixed blessing and its long-term results were less rewarding than destructive.

The only thing not to fly away from Pandora’s Box was hope — something, too, which never leaves Beckettian characters.

Perhaps that is how Beckett ultimately intended Krapp to be seen (and all his characters, perhaps), as ambiguous people. Just because Krapp says something which is conventionally read as ‘positive’ (in love poetry, for example), does not mean that Beckett intends it to be made so easy for his reader. Indeed, none of his personages is rational, fixed or clear-cut enough to be written about easily or succinctly. Nabokov’s masterly presentation of Humbert’s masochistic relationship with the exploitative Lolita (“light of my life, fire of my loins”, utterly destructive in the end) is perhaps the closest we can get to understanding the ambivalence of Beckett’s characters and how the life you need can also be the force which is killing you. It has, maybe, more in common with a purging fire which cleanses the soul. The body may suffer physically, but what is important will grow stronger:

Burning burning burning burning

O Lord Thou pluckest me out

O Lord Thou pluckest


Eliot’s Augustinian evocation of total cleansing is not wholly destructive (in the way Hell is, for instance) but renewing. Beckett’s ‘fire’ in Krapp’s Last Tape is one which never ceases to burn but reduces its recipients to embers (not ashes), thus keeping them trapped in a ‘deathly life’ where they subsist in a ‘dying’ condition. Rather than a lively, passionate fire (albeit destructive), Beckett leaves his characters in limbo;
the last embers of my extinguished passion[64]
The very nature of ‘embers’ is of something not quite dead, but getting there. While they are still embers they are alive. Who knows what will become of them in the future? Does Krapp’s Last Tape mean that he will now turn to ashes, or will the next production be called the same, thus keeping Krapp alive a while longer[65]? Beckett’s play, Embers, must be seen as characteristic of much of his work in this ‘dying’ respect:
looking out, white world, great trouble, not a

sound, only the embers, sound of dying, dying


Still on the subject of never leaving, Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote about Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot:
There they are again in the second act, which adds nothing new; and again, in spite of the announcement of their going, they are still on the stage when the curtain falls. They will be there again the next day, and the next, and the day after that — ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ — standing alone on the stage, superfluous, without future, without past, irremediably there[67].
So Beckett gives us a scenario in which people live because they cannot die. Can we imagine death? What would it be like to have everything end now? Beckett tells us how hard it is to picture ‘the end’ in a poem in which he puts it off until the very end — the last gasp:
just think if all this

one day all this

one fine day

just think

if one day

one fine day all this


just think[68]

Yet, notice how he finishes with a final call to think (a living action) rather than a deathly ending at the word ‘stopped’ which would have killed off the subject of the poem (us?).

There is hope in Beckett’s literature in its relentlessness. If we care enough for someone or about something, we endeavour to achieve it. In the same way, Beckett never despairs of achieving his goal of a perfect literary conception. Whether or not he did is a question for his readers, but at least he, like his chief characters, never gave up. No matter how awful the circumstances and how dreadful the things around them, they bore the burden of a painful existence with as much cheer as possible.

There are lessons to be learnt from them.

“I can’t go on, I’ll go on”.
I have referred to some of Beckett’s numerous ‘ideas’ in this essay, without concentrating on his ‘words’ so much. However, I feel obliged to say that it is only through his words that we receive any meaning of his ideas (however oblique) and, for anyone reading Beckett, whether for the first time or the hundredth, the words must be of the utmost importance. He was extremely careful in the way he used language for perlocution, and likewise, we too must treat it with respect. If it is true that “genuine poetry is conceived and composed in the soul[69]”, then certainly the first half of that — conception — would indeed apply to Beckett. His ‘poetry’ is far too structured for something unfiltered from the soul. Rather, it is soulful in essence, but its form is pre-eminent. How could a man who so admired Joyce and his word play not “hold fast the form of sound words[70]”? Thus, the language in many of Beckett’s pieces, rather than describing the soul, is the soul.

Although he seems at times a very daunting prospect, Beckett, I believe, stands for simplicity and accuracy in his writing. His paradoxical view of a “lust for death and yet a zest for life[71]” is not a contradictory one, and is very human. The danger with a writer of Beckett’s calibre is that critics, and even readers, may search more for esoteric meanings than for textual enjoyment. His poetry is superb and must never ever be overlooked. And as for symbols, remember Beckett’s own adage:

No symbols where none intended.


[*] “There is no escape from the hours and the days. Neither from tomorrow, nor from yesterday...”more..  Samuel Beckett, Proust, written 1931. Calder Books, 1965, p 2.

[1] First performed, Paris, 5 January, 1953. First British performance in London, 3 August, 1955.

[2] A Student’s Guide to the Plays of Samuel Beckett, B Fletcher et al., 1978 Faber & Faber London, p 39.

[3] Cf. Cronin’s biography of Samuel Beckett, The Last Modernist, Harper Collins, 1996 London.

Whether Beckett was indeed ‘the last modernist’ or rather the first post-modernist following the hiatus of WWII is an issue of some contention amongst his readers. Certainly, his earlier works owe a great deal to the likes of Joyce and other modernists, and much of his early life was spent in Paris with people including Pablo Picasso, André Breton and the Surrealists, Cubists etc. Nevertheless, his later and most well known works seem to have much more in common with Ingmar Bergman and post-modernist thought and format.

[4] Vivian Mercier, Beckett/Beckett, OUP New York 1977, p vii.

[5] I believe that Beckett presents the reader with existence as he saw it and held a view of ‘take it or leave it’. Any criticism of Beckett’s work would, I think, change the work as Beckett conceived it, which perhaps explains why he had nothing to do with various ‘opinions’ on his works. He neither confirmed nor refuted critics’ assertions.

[6] SB quoted in Lois Gordon, The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946, Yale University Press, New Haven 1996, p 1.

[7] Beckett, A. Alvarez, Modern Masters Series, Fontana/Harper Collins, 1973 ed.

[8] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Penguin books, 1950, p 344.

[9] SB, Embers, 1959 (found in Collected Shorter Plays, op. cit., Faber and Faber, 1984, p 100).

[10] He maintained that mind and body are two distinct substances, which exempted mind from the mechanistic laws of nature and provided for freedom of the will. This dualism raised the unanswered question as to how mind and body can affect each other. For a good introduction to Descartes, see Bernard Williams, Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Pelican Books, 1978.

[11] The stage is bare, save one tree adorned with a few leaves.

[12] Estragon is set upon by tormentors every night after Vladimir has left him; Estragon’s shoes do not fit and irritate him; Vladimir has prostate trouble; Pozzo becomes blind and Lucky, dumb.

[13] Vladimir and Estragon describe their own position (both physically trapped in the theatre itself, and mentally in their own plight) in Act II:

E: I’m in hell!

V: Where were you?

E: They’re coming there too!

V: We’re surrounded! (Estragon makes a rush towards back). Imbecile! There’s no way out there.

[14] SB, Waiting for Godot, op. cit., Faber and Faber London, 1956, p 93.

[15] SB, Watt, John Calder, 1998, p 255.

[16] SB, Endgame, Faber and Faber, London 1958, p 39.

[17] Cf., Waiting for Godot, p 48:

V: That passed the time.

E: It would have passed in any case.

V: Yes, but not so rapidly.

[18] SB. Loosely translated:

We come in, we cry

And it’s life

We cry, we leave

And it’s death.

Birth, life and death; and ‘coming’ and ‘going’ became important leitmotifs for Beckett as he examined what brought people into the world and what compelled them to stay in it. Pieces like Come and Go (Editions de Minuit, Paris 1966) and Breath (first published in Gambit vol. 4 no. 16 [1970]) are very important in this respect, since entrances and exits (inhalation and exhalation) provide the core of the drama.

[19] Psychiatry: Theory and practice for Students and Nurses, HC Beccle, Faber and Faber, London, 1946, pp89-91.

[20] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen, 1596, bk I, xlvii.

[21] SB, Malone Dies, John Calder, 1956, p 44.

[22] SB, The Unnamable, published in “The Beckett Trilogy”, Calder books, 1959, p 418.

[23] Pozzo in Waiting for Godot. Continuing this theme of giving birth to death, Vladimir goes on to expound his own opinion on the subject:

V: Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps.
[24] Sean O’Casey, Juno and the Paycock, published in Collected Plays vol. 1, Act II, p 50.

[25] Ibid., p 54.

[26] SB, Company, John Calder 1990, pp17-18.

[27] SB, Embers, originally published 1959; later in Collected Shorter Plays, p 99.

[28] SB, Proust, Calder books, 1965, p 13.

[29] SB, Murphy, Pan Books, 1973.

[30] Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1978, p 191.

[31] Ibid.

[32] John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, (1623), ed. CB Wheeler (1915), iv, 53.

[33] SB, Texts for Nothing 11, (1950-52), published in The Complete Short Prose, 1929-89, op. cit., Grove Press, ed. SE Gontarski, 1995, p 145.

[34] SB, Waiting for Godot, p 91.

[35] Dialogue between Georges Duthuit and SB, published in Proust, p 119.

[36] SB, Waiting for Godot, p 94.

[37] SB, Murphy, p 159.

[38] SB, All That Fall, radio play (1957), pp33-4.

[39] Beckett’s obituary, Mel Gussow (1989), published in Conversations with (and about) Beckett, Nick Hern books, 1996, p 68.

[40] Acts xxvi 14 (Saul on the road to Damascus). Cf., the title of Beckett’s 1934 novel (short story collection), More Pricks than Kicks.

[41] SB, Worstward Ho, John Calder 1983, p 7.

[42] Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder, (1950).

[43] SB, How It Is, Calder Books, 1972, p 160.

[44] Ibid., p 7.

[45] SB, Fizzle 2, The Complete Short Prose 1929-89, p 231.

[46] John Walsh, Book and Bookmen.

[47] Perspectives on Plays, op. cit., ed. Jane Lyman, 1976 Routledge and Kegan Paul, p 260.

[48] MacGowran on Beckett, Interview with Richard Toscan, Theatre Quarterly, 3 (11), 1973, pp16-17.

[49] Ibid.

[50] “Chambers 20th Century Dictionary”, 1983.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Sébastien Roch Nicolas Chamfort, Maximes et Pensées (1796), ch2.

[53] Mallarmé, edited and translated by Anthony Hartley, Penguin 1965, p xviii.

[54] Ibid, quoted by Anthony Hartley, p xix.

[55] SB, Fizzle 5, in The Complete Short Prose 1929-89.

[56] Mallarmé, op.cit. pp17-19.

Trans. from French:

Les fenêtres

Las du triste hôpital, et de l’encens fétide
Qui monte en la blancheur banale des rideaux
Vers le grand crucifix ennuyé du mur vide,
Le moribond sournois y redresse un vieux dos,

Se traîne et va, moins pour chauffer sa pourriture
Que pour voir du soleil sur les pierres, coller
Les poils blancs et les os de la maigre figure
Aux fenêtres qu’un beau rayon clair veut hâler.

[57] SB, Stirrings Still, in Collected Shorter Prose 1929-89, p 259.

[58] D H Lawrence, Why the Novel Matters, first published posthumously in Phoenix (1936).

[59] SB, Krapp’s Last Tape, in Collected Shorter Plays, p 63.

[60] Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, in Penguin Complete Plays, 1969, p 335.

[61] Dante, The Divine Comedy, 1: Inferno, OUP 1939, Canto III.

[62] Edmund Spenser, Poetical Works, ed., JC Smith and E de Selincourt, OUP 1970, Amoretti Sonnet VII (p 563).

[63] TS Eliot, The Wasteland (1922), III, The Fire Sermon in Selected Poems, Faber and Faber 1982, p 62.

[64] Moliére, Dom Juan, (IV, ii) tr., John Wood, Penguin 1953, p 240. N.B.

[65] For perspective on Beckett-audience relationship (particularly Endgame), see Hugh Kenner, A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett, Syracuse University Press 1996.

[66] Embers, 1959, in Collected Shorter Plays, p 95.

[67] Alain Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, or ‘Presence’ in the Theatre, tr. B Bray, Twentieth Century Views: Samuel Beckett, ed. M Esslin, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1965, p 113.

[68] SB, (from the French) Collected Poems 1930-78, 1984, 73, tr. K Perryman Babel, 6 (1990) 31.

[69] Matthew Arnold, Thomas Gray.

[70] New Testament, 2 Timothy 1:13.

[71] Jack MacGowran, in Perspectives on Plays, p 257.  

[more..] There is no escape from the hours and the days, neither from tomorrow nor from yesterday, because yesterday has deformed us or has been deformed by us...Yesterday is not a milestone that has passed but a daystone on the beaten track of the years and irremediably part of us, within us, heavy and dangerous. We are not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday.

The flow of time confronts us with the basic problem of being — the problem of the nature of the self which, being subject to constant change in time, is in constant flux and therefore ever outside our grasp, a personality whose permanent reality can only be comprehended as a retrospective hypothesis. The individual is the seat of a constant process of decantation, sluggish, pale and monochrome into the vessel containing the fluid of past time, agitated and multi-coloured by the phenomena of its hours. [back]

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