An Animated Introduction to Samuel Beckett, Absurdist Playwright, Novelist & Poet

Though he’s best known for his spare, absur­dist tragi­com­e­dy, Wait­ing for Godot, play­wright, poet, and nov­el­ist Samuel Beck­ett wrote what might be his most-quot­ed line at the end of The Unnam­able, the third book in a hyp­not­ic tril­o­gy that begins with Mol­loy and con­tin­ues with Mal­one Dies: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

These nov­els, and the orig­i­nal Godot, were all writ­ten in French, then trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Beck­ett him­self. But Beck­ett was an Irish writer, who—like his con­tem­po­rary, hero, coun­try­man, and almost-father-in-law James Joyce—lived most of his life in vol­un­tary exile. Like Joyce, Beck­ett wrote about Irish char­ac­ters, and his “theme,” not­ed a 1958 New York Times review­er of The Unnam­able, “is the very Irish one in this cen­tu­ry: the iden­ti­ty of oppo­sites.”

Noth­ing in Beck­ett encap­su­lates this idea more con­cise­ly than the sev­en-word con­clud­ing line of The Unnam­able. It’s a sen­tence that sums up so much of Beckett—his ellip­ti­cal apho­risms; his dry, acer­bic wit; and his unwa­ver­ing stare into the abyss. As one con­tem­po­rary of his sug­gest­ed, Beck­ett will remain rel­e­vant “as long as peo­ple still die.” His pri­ma­ry sub­ject is indeed one of the few tru­ly uni­ver­sal themes.

But to only think of Beck­ett as mor­bid is not to read Beck­ett or see his work per­formed. While he can be unre­lent­ing­ly grim, he is also nev­er not in con­trol of the dry humor of his voice. In his ani­mat­ed School of Life intro­duc­tion to Beck­ett above, Alain de Bot­ton begins with an anec­dote about Beck­ett at a much-antic­i­pat­ed crick­et match. Observ­ing the per­fect weath­er, a com­pan­ion of his remarked, “This is the sort of day that would make you glad to be alive.” To which Beck­ett replied, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”

The sto­ry, de Bot­ton, says, “nice­ly encom­pass­es two aspects of Samuel Beck­ett: his famous­ly bleak view of life, and his mor­dant sense of humor.” They are qual­i­ties that for Beck­ett have the sta­tus of philo­soph­i­cal principles—though the author him­self had a very fraught, almost aller­gic, rela­tion­ship to phi­los­o­phy. He gave up teach­ing ear­ly in his career, as we learn in the video, because “he felt he could not teach to oth­ers what he did not know him­self.” When a ver­sion of Wait­ing for Godot debuted in 1952, Beck­ett sent a note to be read in his place. He wrote, in part:

All I knew I showed. It’s not much, but it’s enough for me, by a wide mar­gin. I’ll even say that I would have been sat­is­fied with less. As for want­i­ng to find in all that a broad­er, lofti­er mean­ing to car­ry away from the per­for­mance, along with the pro­gram and the Eski­mo pie, I can­not see the point of it. But it must be pos­si­ble …

The neces­si­ty of the point­less exer­cise; the rich­ness in the pover­ty of existence—stripped of its pre­tense and grand, self-impor­tant nar­ra­tives.… These ideas arise from “the themes of fail­ure that so dom­i­nate his work,” says de Bot­ton. Though Beck­ett resist­ed inter­pre­ta­tion in his own writ­ing, he wrote an ear­ly study of Mar­cel Proust that inter­pret­ed the French author’s work as a phi­los­o­phy of life which rests “on the mak­ing and appre­ci­a­tion of art.” Giv­en that this is a School of Life video, this inter­pre­ta­tion becomes the favored way to read Beck­ett. There are many oth­ers. But as the title of a 1994 Samuel Beck­ett read­er—I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On—sug­gests, every approach to Beck­ett must some­how try to account for the stub­born inten­si­ty of his con­tra­dic­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Samuel Beckett’s Avant-Garde Radio Plays: All That Fall, Embers, and More

When Samuel Beck­ett Drove Young André the Giant to School: A True Sto­ry

The Books Samuel Beck­ett Read and Real­ly Liked (1941–1956)

How James Joyce’s Daugh­ter, Lucia, Was Treat­ed for Schiz­o­phre­nia by Carl Jung

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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