Reader's Encyclopedia

Beckett, Samuel (1906 - )

Irish - born French novelist, dramatist, and poet. A close friend of James Joyce, Beckett settled in Paris in 1937. The title figure in Beckett's first novel, Murphy (1938), in his agonized attempts to escape his body to find the life of the mind, is in many ways a prototype for Beckett's later creations. With the notable exceptions of the novel Watt (1944; published 1953) and the plays Krapp's Last Tape and Happy Days (1961), Beckett wrote most of his works after 1939 in French, then translated them into English. Between 1947 and 1957, he wrote the works on which his reputation most securely rests: the novel trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable and the plays Waiting for Godot and End - game. Considered major works in the literature of the absurd, all of these pieces present a comically pessimistic allegory of man's condition. In some, the traditionally farcical gestures of the circus clown and the vaudeville actor are used to portray human weakness, frustration, and helplessness. His characters typically advance through worsening stages of decrepitude and paralysis; such human bonds as they form are the coupling of tyrant and victim or, at best, of two pathetically groping dependencies. In a world where life is both chaotic and meaningless, except in its inevitable degeneration toward death, the only freedom that exists is in the mind. Because they live only in their minds, Beckett's characters are free to invent other characters, whose existence becomes the proof of their own. The freedom to invent is linked to the compulsive need to express; throughout Beckett's work, language is used as the only weapon against chaos, at the same time that he reveals the incapacity of language for any meaningful expression. In much of his later work, Beckett experimented with eliminating the physical world altogether, using disembodied voices or even no voice at all, as in Breath (1971), a thirty - second piece in which the only sound is a faint cry. Similarly, in Company (1980), in pared - down prose, a man incapable of speech hears a voice reminiscing about the events in his past.

Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. The following year, his Collected Work were published in sixteen volumes. Subsequent selections and collections include Collected Poems in English and French (1977; revised 1984), I Can't Go On, I'll Go On (1976), and Ends and Odds (1976), which contains eight new dramatic pieces: ("Ends") Not I, That Time, Footfalls, and Ghost Trio; and ("Odds") Theatre I, Theatre II, Radio I, and Radio II.

Recent works include a collection of five plays, Catastrophes et autres dramaticulus (1982). The title play appeared in The New Yorker and was originally written for the then imprisoned Czechoslovakia playwright Vaclav Havel. Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment appeared in 1983 and Worstward Ho in 1984.