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Beckett Through the Eyes of High School

After World War II, as prosperity mixed with disillusionment swept over the world, a small group of existentialist playwrights separately decided to show their bleak outlooks on the present and future states of man by writing plays based not on stories, but on thematic truths and insightful criticisms.  The most significant of these playwrights was an Irish-born Parisian named Samuel Beckett.  His chilling stage images paired with an uncanny knack of combining philosophy with humor marked him as the leader of an undeclared revolution in drama, the Theatre of the Absurd.  Samuel Beckett’s contributions to the Theatre of the Absurd helped to define it as a major literary movement.

The Theatre of the Absurd is considered “one of the major movements in modern drama since the end of World War II” (Navratilova ch. 1).  Absurdity (in the dramatic sense) can be defined as “…the tension generated by the mutual indifference between the human being and the outside world” (Navratilova ch. 3).  Key figures in the Theatre of the Absurd include Alfred Jarry, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet, Vaclav Havel, Edward Albee, and Samuel Beckett.  Though these playwrights’ works dealt with essentially the same topics, none of these playwrights works in conscious concord with any other.  This lack of deliberate collaboration makes Absurd plays difficult to classify, but certain common threads can be found.  “In all of these playwrights’ dramas, the sense of repetition, the circular structure, the static quality, the lack of cause and effect, and the lack of apparent progression all suggest the sterility and lack of values in the modern world” (Roberts 16).  The plays are “…not concerned with the representation of events, the narration of fates, or the adventures of characters.  [They are] instead interested in the presentation of an individual’s basic situation” (Navratilova ch. 6).  Any actions carried out on stage carry no more significance from their opposites (Roberts 15).  One prominent technique of Absurdist playwrights is the concentration on the production of concrete stage images that will remain with the viewer long after the play has finished.  The images portray “the playwright’s emotional perception of an inner reality” (Eiermann).  After seeing an Absurdist’s production, the viewer is left wondering how such a concept as Absurdity can be written about.  “[The Absurdist] begins with the philosophical premise that the universe is absurd, and then creates plays which illustrate conclusively that the universe is indeed absurd and that perhaps this play is another additional absurdity” (Roberts 16).  The unique nature of Absurdity, as well as its philosophical overtones, has generated an incredible following among theater-goers.  Though its concepts are complex and high-minded, Absurd plays continue to delight and amaze theater patrons around the world.

Samuel Beckett was born in Ireland on April 13, 1906, Good Friday (Navratilova ch. 2).  Some Beckett scholars have tried to draw conclusions from this coincidence of dates, saying that Christ’s agony in crucifixion was passed along to Beckett on this day, but such theories are unsupportable.  During his formative years, Beckett read many philosophical treatises by existentialists such as Descartes, Schopenhauer, and Geolmex (Navratilova ch. 4).  When Beckett was still a young man, he traveled to Paris to experience the culture and mystique of French society.  Though his native tongue was English, Beckett “…chose to write his masterpieces in French because he wanted to discipline and economy of expression that an acquired language would force upon on him” (Imagi-nation).  His polyglot also enabled him to be very accurate and hands-on when the time can to translate his works into English, allowing him the freedom to add or subtract from the script as he thought necessary for English and American audiences.  On advice from Thomas McGreevy, Beckett met James Joyce in 1928 and became his “secretary” since Joyce’s eyesight was beginning to fail (Navratilova ch. 3).  In fact, Beckett’s first publication, Finnegan’s Wake, was written at Joyce’s request (Vinson 54-55).  Along with his insights into existence, Beckett developed a writing and dramatic style that was as quintessentially Absurd as his ideas.  The first technique that is noticed by the audience is that Beckett “…trades in plot, characterization and final solution…for a series of concrete stage images” (Imagi-nation).  His sets are always bleak and his characters are usually gray in appearance and attitude.  His two prominent motifs are time and waiting (Navratilova ch. 5). All of Beckett’s characters are deprived of time and space, and left only with Being or Existence (Navratilova ch. 5).  Beckett’s most Absurd skill is his minimalistic approach to drama.  “This stripping of reality to its naked bones is the reason that Beckett’s development as a writer was toward an ever greater concentration, sparseness, and brevity” (Eiermann).  Throughout his career Beckett received many awards for literature, most notable the 1969 Nobel Laureate in Literature “for his writing, which—in new from for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation” (Nobel Archives).  At the very least, the Nobel Committee recognized Beckett’s contributions to this avant-garde movement.

Samuel Beckett’s main contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd is his most significant work, Waiting for Godot.  Godot is considered the benchmark in Absurdist Theatre (Sosnowski).  The play consists of two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, attempting to occupy themselves while they wait for the mysterious Mr. Godot.  Neither can remember why they need to see him.  While they wait, another pair comes along, the boisterous Pozzo and his slave Lucky.  Pozzo spouts loud, meaningless treatises, and Lucky entertains them by first dancing then thinking aloud.  At the end of the first act, the audience realizes that, while they feel enriched, nothing has actually transpired on the stage.  The second act is nearly identical to the first act, though generally darker and more philosophical.  The lack of coherent progress has lent several critics to give it the subtitle “nothing happens, twice.”  Godot’s initial impact involves its unconventionality, especially if one approaches it from a standpoint of traditional theater.  The set involves nothing more than a tree and a rock.  The characters wear old, ratty, black suits, thereby giving everything on stage a gray hue.  Beckett wrote several extended pauses into the dialogue, in places where the tramps are supposedly thinking.  The pauses are accompanied by frozen action, allowing for the snapshot effect so desired in Absurd Theatre.  Finding Absurd elements in Godot seems like child’s play, but its thematic elements were intentionally written enigmatically by Beckett to force the audience to draw its own conclusions.  First, there is no linear storyline; there isn’t even any linear time.  Second, while much is spoken during the play, little is actually communicated, a common theme among all of Beckett’s plays, as well as other Absurdist’s.  Also, the doubt regarding all matters not directly concerning the self paints the play with a heavy existentialist overcoat.  Waiting for Godot was first performed in Paris on January 5, 1953 (Navratilova ch. 2).

“Perhaps the most famous production of Waiting for Godot, however, took place in 1957 when a company of actors from the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop presented it at the San Quentin penitentiary for an audience of over fourteen hundred convicts.  The production was a great success.  The prisoners understood as well as Vladimir and Estragon that life means waiting, killing time, and clinking to the hope that relief may be just around the corner.  If not today, then perhaps tomorrow.” (Imagi-nation)

Audiences the world over have understood and cherished the message of patience and bleakness that Beckett attempts to send in Waiting for Godot.

Endgame, though less famous than Godot, still conveys Beckett’s bleak, Absurd view of humanity.  This time, life and color have apparently fled the earth, save what remains in one seaside house.  Hamm, blind, immobile, sits in an armchair.  Clov, club-footed, but active, hobbles around the stage doing Hamm’s bidding.  Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, having lost their legs some time ago, reside in two ashbins on the stage, rising only to request food and to be abused by Hamm.  At first glance, Endgame seems less dark then Godot, but emptier of meaning.  There exists fewer existentialistic speeches, but at a time when life has fled, there seems no point for them.  The set is a good-sized room with two windows facing backstage, giving the appearance of a large skull, which leaves room for symbolic interpretation of the action.  Endgame is considered Absurd for its lack of time, comments on the complete failure of communication, and each character’s frustration at existence for presenting them with the situation.  The audience feels a pain for these characters’ meaninglessness that was not felt in Godot.  The lack of humor in the script, suggesting that delight died along with color, et al, produces this pain.  Endgame is a good bridge between conventional drama, with several characters and somewhat logical dialogue, and the sharply contrasting world of Godot.  Nevertheless, Endgame remains a staple in Absurdist Theatre.

No other single playwright made as great a contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd as Samuel Beckett.  His eloquently crafted scenes speak to humanity’s transience, communication’s death, and the persistence of the human spirit.  Beckett’s philosophy has carried with it a momentous time in world literature.

WORKS CITED

Eiermann, Katharena.  Existentialism and Samuel Beckett, Theatre of the Absurd.  http://members.aol.com/KatharenaE/private/Philo/Existentialism/absurd.html, February 15, 2000.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1986).  http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc7.htm, February 15, 2000.

Navratilova, Eva.  The Absurdity of Samuel Beckett.  http://compare.upon.cz/irish/Swork/Beckett/BECKETT.HTM, February 12, 2000.

Nobel Prize Internet Archive.  http://www.almaz.com/nobel/literature/1969a.html, February 15, 2000.

Roberts, James L., Ph.D.  Cliff’s Notes on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot & Other Plays.  Lincoln, Nebraska: Cliffs Notes, 1980.

Sosnowski, Henry.  Theatre of the Absurd.  http://nebula.honors.unr.edu/~fenimore/wt202/sosnowski, February 7, 2000.

Vinson, James.  Dramatists.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979.

This is one of the few pieces from high school that I was actually proud of, although in retrospect it sucks on ice like everything else I wrote then.  An odd child, I fell in love with the writing of Samuel Beckett at a young age, and when we had to choose an author on which to base our senior English term paper, I chose him.  This was in spring 2000.

After World War II, as prosperity mixed with disillusionment swept over the world, a small group of existentialist playwrights separately decided to show their bleak outlooks on the present and future states of man by writing plays based not on stories, but on thematic truths and insightful criticisms.  The most significant of these playwrights was an Irish-born Parisian named Samuel Beckett.  His chilling stage images paired with an uncanny knack of combining philosophy with humor marked him as the leader of an undeclared revolution in drama, the Theatre of the Absurd.  Samuel Beckett’s contributions to the Theatre of the Absurd helped to define it as a major literary movement.

The Theatre of the Absurd is considered “one of the major movements in modern drama since the end of World War II” (Navratilova ch. 1).  Absurdity (in the dramatic sense) can be defined as “…the tension generated by the mutual indifference between the human being and the outside world” (Navratilova ch. 3).  Key figures in the Theatre of the Absurd include Alfred Jarry, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet, Vaclav Havel, Edward Albee, and Samuel Beckett.  Though these playwrights’ works dealt with essentially the same topics, none of these playwrights works in conscious concord with any other.  This lack of deliberate collaboration makes Absurd plays difficult to classify, but certain common threads can be found.  “In all of these playwrights’ dramas, the sense of repetition, the circular structure, the static quality, the lack of cause and effect, and the lack of apparent progression all suggest the sterility and lack of values in the modern world” (Roberts 16).  The plays are “…not concerned with the representation of events, the narration of fates, or the adventures of characters.  [They are] instead interested in the presentation of an individual’s basic situation” (Navratilova ch. 6).  Any actions carried out on stage carry no more significance from their opposites (Roberts 15).  One prominent technique of Absurdist playwrights is the concentration on the production of concrete stage images that will remain with the viewer long after the play has finished.  The images portray “the playwright’s emotional perception of an inner reality” (Eiermann).  After seeing an Absurdist’s production, the viewer is left wondering how such a concept as Absurdity can be written about.  “[The Absurdist] begins with the philosophical premise that the universe is absurd, and then creates plays which illustrate conclusively that the universe is indeed absurd and that perhaps this play is another additional absurdity” (Roberts 16).  The unique nature of Absurdity, as well as its philosophical overtones, has generated an incredible following among theater-goers.  Though its concepts are complex and high-minded, Absurd plays continue to delight and amaze theater patrons around the world.

Samuel Beckett was born in Ireland on April 13, 1906, Good Friday (Navratilova ch. 2).  Some Beckett scholars have tried to draw conclusions from this coincidence of dates, saying that Christ’s agony in crucifixion was passed along to Beckett on this day, but such theories are unsupportable.  During his formative years, Beckett read many philosophical treatises by existentialists such as Descartes, Schopenhauer, and Geolmex (Navratilova ch. 4).  When Beckett was still a young man, he traveled to Paris to experience the culture and mystique of French society.  Though his native tongue was English, Beckett “…chose to write his masterpieces in French because he wanted to discipline and economy of expression that an acquired language would force upon on him” (Imagi-nation).  His polyglot also enabled him to be very accurate and hands-on when the time can to translate his works into English, allowing him the freedom to add or subtract from the script as he thought necessary for English and American audiences.  On advice from Thomas McGreevy, Beckett met James Joyce in 1928 and became his “secretary” since Joyce’s eyesight was beginning to fail (Navratilova ch. 3).  In fact, Beckett’s first publication, Finnegan’s Wake, was written at Joyce’s request (Vinson 54-55).  Along with his insights into existence, Beckett developed a writing and dramatic style that was as quintessentially Absurd as his ideas.  The first technique that is noticed by the audience is that Beckett “…trades in plot, characterization and final solution…for a series of concrete stage images” (Imagi-nation).  His sets are always bleak and his characters are usually gray in appearance and attitude.  His two prominent motifs are time and waiting (Navratilova ch. 5). All of Beckett’s characters are deprived of time and space, and left only with Being or Existence (Navratilova ch. 5).  Beckett’s most Absurd skill is his minimalistic approach to drama.  “This stripping of reality to its naked bones is the reason that Beckett’s development as a writer was toward an ever greater concentration, sparseness, and brevity” (Eiermann).  Throughout his career Beckett received many awards for literature, most notable the 1969 Nobel Laureate in Literature “for his writing, which—in new from for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation” (Nobel Archives).  At the very least, the Nobel Committee recognized Beckett’s contributions to this avant-garde movement.

Samuel Beckett’s main contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd is his most significant work, Waiting for Godot.  Godot is considered the benchmark in Absurdist Theatre (Sosnowski).  The play consists of two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, attempting to occupy themselves while they wait for the mysterious Mr. Godot.  Neither can remember why they need to see him.  While they wait, another pair comes along, the boisterous Pozzo and his slave Lucky.  Pozzo spouts loud, meaningless treatises, and Lucky entertains them by first dancing then thinking aloud.  At the end of the first act, the audience realizes that, while they feel enriched, nothing has actually transpired on the stage.  The second act is nearly identical to the first act, though generally darker and more philosophical.  The lack of coherent progress has lent several critics to give it the subtitle “nothing happens, twice.”  Godot’s initial impact involves its unconventionality, especially if one approaches it from a standpoint of traditional theater.  The set involves nothing more than a tree and a rock.  The characters wear old, ratty, black suits, thereby giving everything on stage a gray hue.  Beckett wrote several extended pauses into the dialogue, in places where the tramps are supposedly thinking.  The pauses are accompanied by frozen action, allowing for the snapshot effect so desired in Absurd Theatre.  Finding Absurd elements in Godot seems like child’s play, but its thematic elements were intentionally written enigmatically by Beckett to force the audience to draw its own conclusions.  First, there is no linear storyline; there isn’t even any linear time.  Second, while much is spoken during the play, little is actually communicated, a common theme among all of Beckett’s plays, as well as other Absurdist’s.  Also, the doubt regarding all matters not directly concerning the self paints the play with a heavy existentialist overcoat.  Waiting for Godot was first performed in Paris on January 5, 1953 (Navratilova ch. 2).

Perhaps the most famous production of Waiting for Godot, however, took place in 1957 when a company of actors from the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop presented it at the San Quentin penitentiary for an audience of over fourteen hundred convicts.  The production was a great success.  The prisoners understood as well as Vladimir and Estragon that life means waiting, killing time, and clinging to the hope that relief may be just around the corner.  If not today, then perhaps tomorrow.” (Imagi-nation)

Audiences the world over have understood and cherished the message of patience and bleakness that Beckett attempts to send in Waiting for Godot.

Endgame, though less famous than Godot, still conveys Beckett’s bleak, Absurd view of humanity.  This time, life and color have apparently fled the earth, save what remains in one seaside house.  Hamm, blind, immobile, sits in an armchair.  Clov, club-footed, but active, hobbles around the stage doing Hamm’s bidding.  Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, having lost their legs some time ago, reside in two ashbins on the stage, rising only to request food and to be abused by Hamm.  At first glance, Endgame seems less dark then Godot, but emptier of meaning.  There exists fewer existentialistic speeches, but at a time when life has fled, there seems no point for them.  The set is a good-sized room with two windows facing backstage, giving the appearance of a large skull, which leaves room for symbolic interpretation of the action.  Endgame is considered Absurd for its lack of time, comments on the complete failure of communication, and each character’s frustration at existence for presenting them with the situation.  The audience feels a pain for these characters’ meaninglessness that was not felt in Godot.  The lack of humor in the script, suggesting that delight died along with color, et al, produces this pain.  Endgame is a good bridge between conventional drama, with several characters and somewhat logical dialogue, and the sharply contrasting world of Godot.  Nevertheless, Endgame remains a staple in Absurdist Theatre.

No other single playwright made as great a contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd as Samuel Beckett.  His eloquently crafted scenes speak to humanity’s transience, communication’s death, and the persistence of the human spirit.  Beckett’s philosophy has carried with it a momentous time in world literature.

WORKS CITED

Eiermann, Katharena.  Existentialism and Samuel Beckett, Theatre of the Absurd.  http://members.aol.com/KatharenaE/private/Philo/Existentialism/absurd.html, February 15, 2000.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1986).  http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/clsc7.htm, February 15, 2000.

Navratilova, Eva.  The Absurdity of Samuel Beckett.  http://compare.upon.cz/irish/Swork/Beckett/BECKETT.HTM, February 12, 2000.

Nobel Prize Internet Archive.  http://www.almaz.com/nobel/literature/1969a.html, February 15, 2000.

Roberts, James L., Ph.D.  Cliff’s Notes on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot & Other Plays.  Lincoln, Nebraska: Cliffs Notes, 1980.

Sosnowski, Henry.  Theatre of the Absurd.  http://nebula.honors.unr.edu/~fenimore/wt202/sosnowski, February 7, 2000.

Vinson, James.  Dramatists.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979.

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