By James Mills
Samuel Beckett claimed to have been born on Good Friday, April13, 1906. Originally known as Becquet, his French Huguenot ancestors moved to Ireland in the seventeenth century for religious and economic reasons. He was of middle class stock, his father, William (Bill) Frank Beckett, Jr., being a contractor, and his mother, Mary (May) Roe, the daughter of a gentleman. Sam was raised in Cooldrinagh, a three-story Tudor house located to the south of Dublin.
He and his mother argued constantly from his early youth until her death. However, the dislike that he felt for his disciplinarian mother was somewhat compensated for by the love that he felt for his easy-going father. While Frank, his older brother, was an obedient child, Sam was not, always doing daring things which earned him frequent beatings from his mother. On one occasion, he dropped a lighted match into a can of gasoline as he peered into it to see what would happen.
The result was a pair of badly singed eyebrows and a severe beating from his mother (Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich: New York, 1978,15). The conflict with May created a great deal of anguish for Sam as he knew that he was supposed to love her.
He was not a religious person, claiming “I have no religious feeling. . . . For me it was only irksome and I let it go. My mother and brother got no value from their religion when they died. At the moment of crisis it has no more depth than an old school tie” (Tom Driver, “Beckett by the Madeleine,” in Columbia University Forum, Vol. 4, No. 3 (summer) 1961, 23-24). His last religious emotion was felt at his first Communion. No more.
Throughout his youth he was withdrawn and moody, yet athletic and a leader when involved in sports. He entered Trinity College at age seventeen and eventually earned the coveted Foundation Scholarship in 1926 in Modern Languages for French, Italian, and Spanish. During his college days he was often sick, a heavy drinker, and a lover of films, particularly those of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and later the Marx Brothers.
His initial interest in France developed from a bike tour on the continent in 1926 and was reinforced by the influence of Alfred Peron, an exchange lecturer in French at Trinity from 1926 to 1928. After another trip to Europe the following year, he returned to wear a French beret and to pepper his speech with Gallicisms.
From 1928 to 1930 he lived in Paris as a lecturer at the Ecole Normale Superieure during which time he visited his Aunt Cissie in Germany where his exposure to a bohemian lifestyle made its mark on his own casual attire. It was also during this period in Paris that he met James Joyce with whom he maintained a rather fragile relationship until the latter’s death in 1941.
Imitating Joyce, Beckett began to wear pointed-toe patent leather pumps which were too small for his feet because he wanted to wear the same size that Joyce wore. The relief he felt upon removing them is echoed later in Waiting for Godot where Estragon pulls off his misshapen boots. It was from Joyce that he also learned to use silence as a weapon against critical attacks. It was a time of translating, publishing poems, and the writing of a prose piece titled Proust which did quite well. He published his first collection of poems, Echo’s Bones, in 1935.
He frequently suffered from boils, insomnia, flu-like illnesses, bursitis, pleuresy, and urinary and bladder pains. Often depressed, he dressed sloppily, wearing the same dirty trousers each week and a dirty raincoat several sizes too large for him. In 1933 his father died. The following year he published a collection of short stories titled More Pricks than Kicks.
In 1935 he wrote the novel, Murphy, which has a mental hospital for its setting and characters for whom “the crises that occur in their emotions alleviate the reader’s natural revulsion to their infirmities so that they become simply, beings who suffer” (Bair 228). Commenting on Beckett’s view of life, Josephine Jacobsen has noted that “Beckett’s vision of man is bifocal, simultaneously tragic and comic, though predominantly the latter” (The Testament of Samuel Beckett, Hill and Wang, New York, 1964, 79).
During the latter part of the decade, Beckett began to write drama, ruptured with Ireland, and moved permanently to Paris. It was on a trip to Germany in 1936 that he came across the name Pozzo (the Italian husband of a Russian lady), which later appears in Waiting for Godot. After being turned down by forty-two publishers, Murphy was finally published in 1938 but enjoyed only a limited success.
After the outbreak of war, Beckett spent the early years in Paris working in a resistance reseau named Gloria. However, in 1942 he fled to Vichy where he hid in Roussillon, worked with the maquis, and wrote Watt, his third and last novel in English. In 1945 Charles de Gaulle awarded him the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance for his efforts in behalf of France. However, the playwright later claimed that “I was fighting against the Germans who were making life hell for my friends, and not for the French nation” (Alan Simpson, Beckett and Behan, Routledge and Kegan Paul: London, 1962,64-65).
The isolated and existential nature of his work has been concisely captured by Frederick Hoffman when he writes that “Beckett’s works are not empty intellectual exercises, but profound explorations of human intellectual dislocation. . . . At the edge of death, the Beckettian self has no visible or tenable means of spiritual or intellectual support” (xli).
The post-war years represented a period of great energy and creativity during which he emerged as an important writer. He celebrated his fortieth birthday I Ireland in drunken debauchery and worked on a trilogy of novels in French, Molloy, Malone meurt, and L’Innommabte. Discussing his work with associates he confessed, “I’m not interested in stories of success . . . only failure,” and admitted that he “was doomed to spend the rest of [his] days digging up the detritus of [his] life and vomiting it out over and over again” (Bair 349,352). It was also during this period that he wrote his first novel in French, Mercier et Camier, in which he first uses a vaudevillian couple who are the precursors of Didi and Gogo (Vladimir and Estragon) in Waiting for Godot.
Speaking about the play, Beckett told one interviewer, “I began to write Godot as a relaxation to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time” (Cohn Duckworth, “The Making of Godot,” in Caseliookon Waiting for Godot, Ed. Ruby Cohn, Grove Press, Inc.: New York, 1967, 89). He wrote Godot from October 9, 1948, to January 29, 1949, and, although he considered it a bad play, it has received more critical attention than any other play of this century.
It consists of two acts of uneven lengths in which Vladimir and Estragon spend time conversing and alternating between hope and despair while waiting for Godot to keep an appointment with them. Pozzo and his slave, Lucky, appear in each act. Pozzo is blind in the second act. A young boy arrives in each to inform Didi and Gogo that Godot will not arrive today, but will tomorrow. A bare tree in act one sprouts leaves in act two, suggesting perhaps the passage of time. The play suggests that something important is to come to life but never does.
It is universal in meaning perhaps because it avoids definition. It is about loneliness, loss, and encounter in a world where black coats, bowler hats, and boots assume significance. It is the first play by a post-war playwright to use everyday colloquial French in a dramatic form. Rejected by a number of publishers, it was finally published in French on November 17,1952, and produced by Roger Blin in 1953. According to Deirdre Bair, Beckett. “wanted to create a circus-cum-vaudeville) atmosphere in a dramatic experience of total simplicity on which he would superimpose a pastiche of his ordinary, everyday thought and conversation. Above all, he wanted it to. be good commercial theater, traditional yet different and effective” (385).
Meanwhile, his mother died and the publication of his trilogy of novels received a favorable response.
Interestingly, Beckett did not attend the opening performance of Waiting for Godot in 1953 at the Theatre de Babylone for which it received positive reviews and went on to make him famous. Although the American and London productions were not initially well received, they too soon became important successes for him.
By the end of the 1950s, Endgame and Without Words were published, and he was working on Krapp’s Last Tape, his first post-war writing in English which he did for actor, Patrick Magee. In 1959 he was award, an honorary doctorate by Trinity College.
On March 22,1961, he quietly married his long-time friend, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, in England, and in May was named to share the annual Prix Intemational des Editeurs with Jorge Luis Borges.
Throughout the early 1960s he wrote, translated, and directed. One of his most interesting works was a play he did in 1962 titled Play, in which the characters speak in flat voices and remain unaware of each other on stage. In 1965 he did a film titled Film, which starred Buster Keaton and went on to win the Dimploma de Merito in Venice and was named the Outstanding Film of the Year at the London Film Festival.
In an insightful discussion of Beckett’s work, his analyst, Geoffrey Thompson, once observed that he “found he was unable to see Beckett’s plays as anything other than manifestations of severe depression and possible psychosis” (Bair 457). Beckett himself felt that the best play was one in which there were no actors, only the text. All that he wanted on stage, he said, was “a pair of blubbering lips” (Aldan Higins, “Beckett in Berlin,” Atlantis, No.1 (March) 1970, 54).
During the latter part of the decade when he was doing theatre, cinema, and television, he suffered from a blurring of the eye which was diagnosed as glaucoma. In the winter of 1967-1968 he was ill again with a virus, colds, bursitis, and a lung inflammation. He turned down the nomination for the chair of poetry at Oxford and traveled abroad for health reasons to Madeira and Tuimisia where he was vacationing in October of 1969 when word came that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He did not attend the ceremony and refused to permit the Irish ambassador to accept the award for him. Instead, he sent his publisher, Jerome Undoni.
He finally had an eye operation in 1970 but continued to vacation, particularly in North Africa, and to work on new prose, drama, translations, and poetry. In 1978 the prestigious Comedie Francaise included Waiting for Godot in its repertoire. However, when Shelly Winters and Estelle Parsons asked to perform the play, he rejected their offer claiming that he wanted no women in it in order to maintain its masculinity.
In honor of his seventieth birthday in 1976, the Royal Court Company mounted a Beckett festival. He published his last work, a novella titled, Stirrings Still, in 1989, not long before his death in December. A recent performance of Waiting for Godot in New York at the Lincoln Center starring Robin Williams and Steve Martin as the two tramps sold out.
The play has now been translated into twenty languages and is considered a classic in French literature.
Perhaps Beckett has best summarized his life and work in a remark he once made to a friend: “I couldn’t have done it otherwise. Gone on, I mean. I could not have gone through the awful wretched mess of life without having left a stain upon the silence” (Bair 640). Now that he has gone on, he will be best remembered for his masterpiece, Waiting for Godot.