author, critic, and thinker; winner of the Nobel Prize for
literature in 1969; wrote in both French and English and is
best known for his plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame.
born at Foxrock, near Dublin, on Good Friday, 13 April; raised
in a middle class, Protestant home. Looking back on his childhood,
he once remarked, "I had little talent for happiness."
entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied modern languages
(French and Italian).
moved to Paris, where he met James Joyce (in 1928) who would
become a close personal friend; wrote an essay on the early
stages of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Rejecting the advances
of Joyce's daughter, he commented that he was dead and had
no feelings that were human.
won his first literary prize for his poem, "Whoroscope,"
which deals with the ideas of the philosopher Descartes on
the subject of time and the transience of life. After writing
a study of Marcel Proust (author of Remembrance of Things
Past, 1922-1931), he concluded that habit and routine
were the "cancer of time."
left his post at Trinity College and traveled; a period of
wanderings in Germany, France, England, and Ireland. Beckett
wrote his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women,
which traces these journeys.
nearly killed when he was stabbed by a "pimp." In
the hospital, he was visited by Suzanne Deschevaux-Dusmesnil
who would become his wife. He published the novel, Murphy.
when Paris was invaded in the Second World War, Beckett and
his wife joined the Resistance against the Germans. They were
forced to flee when their cell was betrayed, leaving their
apartment only hours before the Gestapo arrived. He was later
awarded the medal "Croix de Guerre" for his work
with the Resistance. After the war Beckett began to write
primarily in French.
Waiting for Godot premiered in Paris on 5 January.
Although critics labeled the play "the strange little
play in which 'nothing happens,'" it became an instant
success, enjoying the critical praise of dramatists such as
Tennessee Williams and Jean Anouilh. Commenting on the play,
Anouilh stated, "It will make it easier for me and everyone
else to write freely in the theatre."
secured his position as a dramatist when his second masterpiece,
Endgame, premiered in French at the Royal Court Theatre
awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
began to suffer from emphysema and wrote in bed his final
work, the poem "What is the Word." He remarked that
each word seemed to him "an unnecessary stain on silence
died on 22 December and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery
in Paris. When asked on his deathbed what he found valuable
in life, he responded, "Precious little."
a prose narrative concerned with two storytellers (Molloy and Moran)
in a quest for the word that will make their journeys real (since
their travels exist only in the travelogues they write).
( Malone meurt) (1951), Malone, a narrator, writes a diary and
describes his present state as he awaits his imminent death, moving
from the "almost lifeless" to the "lifeless."
( L'lnnommable) (1953), the Unnamable, as a narrator, expresses
despair over the limitations of language, suggesting the inadequacy
of personal pronouns, tenses, punctuation and, finally, all language.
The obsession with the inability to speak and the inability to be
silent gives rise to the often-quoted last line, "I can't go
on, you must go on, I'll go on."
Godot (En attendant Godot), Samuel Beckett's most famous work,
originally written in French in 1949 (published in 1952) and first
performed in the Left Bank Theater of Babylon in Paris in 1953.
The play deals with two characters, Estragon and Vladimir, who wait,
seemingly endlessly, for Godot, an elusive figure who they expect
can save them from their misery, boredom, and despair. The play
has often been viewed as fundamentally existentialist
in its take on life.
Tape (staged in 1958), a play where an old man listens to taped
recordings of himself from an earlier part of his life; the play
sets up ironic tensions, repetitions, and echoes, questioning the
continuity of identity over time. Beckett renders death palpable
by having Krapp gaze, with fear, into the dark: "Death is waiting
behind him and unconsciously he is seeking it" (Beckett).
(staged in 1961), a play dealing with an old woman who is slowly
sinking into the ground as she chatters about trivial matters; like
some of the earlier works, the play features a struggle to gain
control over time and the instability and decay of identity and
a philosophical movement of the 19th and 20th centuries stressing
individual freedom and human choice; existentialism is primarily
based on the idea that human beings shape their own existence
and give meaning to it through their own choices and actions.
The main figure in existentialism was the French philosopher
Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).
Theatre (or the Theatre of the Absurd), a label applied
to dramatic works of the mid twentieth century -- by authors
like Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Genet --
who seemed to express the idea of the absurdity and meaninglessness
of the human situation. An important source of such ideas were
the writings of the French existentialist philosopher Albert
Camus ("The Myth of Sisyphus," 1942).
War II (1939-1945). War involving Great Britain, France,
the Soviet Union, the United States and their allies against
Germany, Italy, and Japan. During World War II, Beckett joined
the underground movement in Paris, the Resistance, against the
Germans. He remained in the Resistance until 1942 when several
members of his group were arrested. Beckett was forced to flee
with his French-born wife to the unoccupied zone. He only returned
to Paris in 1945 after the city was liberated from the Germans.
The war deepened Beckett's awareness of human suffering and
fearful uncertainty, contributing to the production of his masterpieces,
Waiting for Godot and Endgame.
engagée French: "engaged literature," literature
of social and political commitments, popularized in post-World
War II era by the French existentialists;
belief in the idea of the artist's responsibility to society;
a reaction against "art for art's sake" and against
the "bourgeois" writer devoted only to his craft rather
than his world or his audience. Although Beckett dissociated
himself from the post-World War II French existentialists, his
works covered much of the same ground and he himself participated
in the French resistance against the Nazi occupation.
Berkeley (1685-1753) Anglo-Irish Anglican bishop, philosopher,
and scientist, best known for his empiricist philosophy, which
holds that everything (except the spiritual) exists only insofar
as it is perceived by the senses. Beckett was deeply influenced
by his proposition: esse est percipi ("to be is
to be perceived") which is embodied in the anxious desire
of Beckett's characters to be noticed.
Fajardo-Acosta gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Jung-Joon
Ihm in the creation of this page
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