Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright, theatre director, novelist and poet, is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
A modernist, often associated with the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’, his work tends to eschew conventional plotting or structure while exploring the human condition in ways that are both bleakly humorous and profound, where laughter is a weapon against despair.
Early life and Paris
Beckett was born in Dublin in 1906, where as a young man he studied French, Italian and English at Trinity College. He went to Paris for the first time in 1928 – he would spend most of his adult life there – to teach English. During World War Two, his Irish citizenship allowed him to remain in Paris and he worked as a courier for the French resistance. Following the arrest of members of the group by the Gestapo, he fled to the unoccupied zone, where he remained until the end of the war.
After the war Beckett settled in Paris and began a prolific period as a writer. His most famous play, Waiting for Godot – the play in which, as one critic put it, nothing happens, twice – was first performed in 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylone on the Left Bank in Paris. A young Peter Hall directed the English language premiere in 1955 at the Arts Theatre in London, where, with its emphasis on silence and repetition, it confused some critics – Harold Hobson, while positive, found nothing in it ‘to seduce the senses’ – and delighted others – Kenneth Tynan believed that the play had changed the rules of theatre.
After Waiting for Godot, Beckett went on to write Endgame (1957), Krapp's Last Tape (1958) and Happy Days (1961). While most of his work was written in French and later translated into English by Beckett, Krapp and Happy Days were written in English. His work became increasingly experimental and minimalist, stripped down to only the most essential elements. Play, written in 1962, places its characters in funeral urns with only their heads visible. Not I, written in 1972 and performed by regular Beckett collaborator Billie Whitelaw, consists of just a mouth, speaking at speed in the darkness.
Novel writing and later life
In the 1950s Beckett also published three novels, including Molloy (1951). He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. He revisited Waiting for Godot in 1975, directing his own production at the Schiller Theatre in Berlin. This is often regarded as the definitive version of the play.
Beckett died in 1989 and is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
Further information about the life of Samuel Beckett can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Article by:
- Chris Power
- Capturing and creating the modern, 20th-century theatre, European influence
Chris Power explores how Waiting for Godot resists straightforward interpretation, producing audiences as uncertain as its characters.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- 20th-century theatre, Capturing and creating the modern, Theatre practitioners and genres, European influence
Absurdist theatre responded to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century by questioning the nature of reality and illusion. Andrew Dickson introduces some of the most important figures in the Theatre of the Absurd, including Eugène Ionesco, Martin Esslin and Samuel Beckett.
- Article by:
- William McEvoy
- 20th-century theatre, Capturing and creating the modern, European influence
The main character in Happy Days is a middle-aged woman inexplicably buried in a mound, first to her waist and then to her neck. William McEvoy discusses how Beckett uses this character and her predicament to explore a recurring interest in his work: the failings of bodies and language.
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