Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett; drawing by David Levine

A member of the Swedish Academy said of Samuel Beckett’s winning the Nobel Prize: “In the realms of annihilation, the writing of Samuel Beckett rises like a Miserere from all mankind, its muffled minor key sounding liberation to the oppressed and comfort to those in need.”

Grove Press has made this benison the signature tune of their Collected Works of Samuel Beckett: sixteen times it sings to the reader from as many blurbs. “Important, if true,” said Kinglake of the Christian religion, and this is rather the sentiment that is stirred up in us as we ponder the Swedish call to faith for the sixteenth time. Certainly, at first glance, it seems preposterous, for surely Beckett has never come even to one conclusion that could excite a spirit of liberation or comfort in anyone at all. Surely, even the wonderfully funny music-hall lines that flash like UFOs across his bogs are only intended to show that there is nothing like a little cheerfulness to enhance the misery of things, and that no suffering can look really poignant if the victim does not take to malarkey for refuge?

Chekhov, who dealt with much the same material as Beckett, felt so strongly in this matter about his own plays that he left emphatic orders as to the need for cheerfulness in the presentation of despair: “Don’t make a mournful face in a single act. People who have borne a grief in their hearts for a long time, and are used to it, only whistle and often sink into thought….”

No director of Chekhov has ever paid any attention to these instructions. They are too difficult to digest and even more difficult to direct; they ask that the characters play in apparent contradiction to their condition, that they show in real lightheartedness the full gravity of their sorrow. And most of us take the same line as Chekhov’s directors; we hate to spoil what seems a perfect agony by dousing it with splashes of fun. We like our sorrows straight: to cry “Lord, why hast Thou given me this cup to drink?” and only find that some joker has dropped a frog in it spoils the whole booze-up for us.

But the poor artist, who has made tragicomedy his precious medium and knows it to be the subtlest of art forms, is bound to deplore such insensitivity. The happiness he obtains from spicing wretchedness with dashes of happy poison is willful, perverse, and even morbid, but it is perfectly genuine and full of wonderful dramatic possibilities. For tragicomedy is not just a temperamental kink, it is the result of many years’ hard work, and if the work is not presented properly, the whole point of it is lost. If the tragedy is stressed too lugubriously (as it always is in productions of Chekhov), the result is commonplace and ponderous. If the comedy is allowed to take over, the pain is forgotten—a lapse that utterly disgraces the author, who never intended his comic stabs in the back to bring “liberation to the oppressed and comfort to those in need.”

To get the balance just right in tragicomedy is extremely difficult. In his youth, the tragicomedian is already pledged to suffering, but all the natural vitality of his young self is there to argue against the glum pact. What has inclined the young author to make such a pact at all is a personal matter and of no aesthetic interest: authors come in all shapes and sizes and receive different visions of reality, none of which is accurate, let alone conclusive, but all of which are interesting and even admirable if they are put to good use.

Beckett’s vision—or illusion, if we like to call it that—was strong and vivid as early as 1931, when he wrote his passionate essay on Proust: all that is to come in later years is present already in such phrases as “the haze of our smug will to live,” “our pernicious and incurable optimism,” “that desert of loneliness and recrimination that men call love.” Here we are told plainly that “tragedy is the statement of an expiation,” and that this expiation is of Original Sin—“of the original and eternal sin…of having been born.” And we are finally assured that the pendulum we call life

…oscillates between these two terms: Suffering—that opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience, and Boredom…that must be considered as the most tolerable because the most durable of human evils.

Here is the sum of things, later to be shaped into Godot and End Game, and all we need to say of them as convictions is that they are universal, not particular, for all time, not for today. We may take it for granted that the author is as distressed by the horrors of this century as other men are, but we must remind ourselves always that such horrors are quite extraneous to the theme of a man who is protesting against the fact of human life itself. The “original and eternal sin…of having been born”—the phrase is too foolish to stand up to inspection, but as a dramatic starting point, a belief on which to build a vivid fiction of endless suffering and boredom, it is not only adequate but splendidly broad-based. It embraces the existence of every man who ever lived and it leaves no room for excuses, modifications, statements of optimism. However absurd it may be intellectually, it is highly congenial theatrically—and congenial too, probably, to most intellectual minds.


Most of us suffer from the curious conviction that wisdom and unhappiness are synonymous—that we can learn more about reality from Dante and Leopardi than from Rabelais and Groucho Marx. We regard the former as the spokesmen of truth, the latter as the palliatives of truth—amiable kibitzers but not wise instructors. When we are in bed with the right woman or devouring an excellent book, we never pause to ask: “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why was I ever born?” We seem to feel no need for such inquiries. But we are unable to equate such delicious contentments with wisdom: this we find only in the man who assures us, as Beckett does in Proust, that “our life is a succession of Paradises successively denied, that the only true Paradise is the Paradise that has been lost….” This being our point of view, it is not surprising that we have little respect for paradise and, no matter how often we find ourselves in it, fly in the name of wisdom to the more intellectual and chichi discontents of hell.

More Pricks Than Kicks, a collection of stories intended for a novel and published three years after Proust, is an amusing early effort to attain the wisdom of perfect suffering. The vein is already tragicomical, but the balance of the mind is badly disturbed. Although the author is by no means afflicted by “incurable optimism,” lightness and genuine gaiety keep upsetting his despondency. Jokes that should properly make the suffering keener only take the edge off it, providing personal amusement instead of general depression, e.g., “His aunt was in the garden, tending whatever flowers die at that time of year.” When the young couple ascend a hill to commit suicide and the girl takes a long, nervous swig from their whisky bottle, her fellow-suicide shouts angrily: “And leave us a drop in the bottle. I’ll need it when you’re gone.”

This burst of jocularity could be contained very nicely in Beckett’s later work, where the fabric of total pessimism is too strong to be ruptured by hilarity. But More Pricks Than Kicks is too early a work: in it, being miserable is still only a matter of principle and cannot afford to slip on banana skins. Moreover, though most of the stories are grossly overwritten, in the genre manner of the Wordy Thirties, an evocative simplicity keeps intruding on them, displaying the hills and fields of Ireland in a positively pleasing light and actually causing the hero to exclaim at one point: “What a splendid thing it is, when all is said and done, to be young and vigorous.” Beckett, one sees, is still at the stage of juvenile delinquency when happiness is acceptable and pricks pernicious enough to act as if there were no sin in being born. The long struggle to achieve a predominance of kicks has hardly begun: what will become second nature to the author eventually is now only Puritanism taking its first practice runs.

The tragicomic method is perfected in Waiting for Godot and End Game. To dwell on their content, to expound their meaning, is only to stuff more raw meat into the mincers of the academies—as witness the books listed below, all of which are devoted more to content than to form, to philosophy rather than artistry. It may seem wrong to ignore them, but in a relatively short study of Beckett it seems sensible simply to hang on to what he himself has given us and try to draw a fairly clean line through what is otherwise a hopelessly involved maze.

The oscillation of the pendulum between suffering and boredom, the expiation of the original sin of being born—this, he has told us, is man’s life and his own raw material; and the plays confirm his words. Posterity’s interest will be in the manner in which he handles this material—the forms he finds for it, the manner in which he represents it dramatically. Like all raw material, it is very old and has been picked over by numerous artists already, but Chekhov has been its finest illustrator on the stage and it is to him we should return in any preliminary study of Beckett.


The boredom of waiting for something that never comes and the suffering that comes with the endurance of boredom—these conditions of life are marked strongly in The Cherry Orchard and may be found even in Chekhov’s early play Platonov. But they are best expressed in Three Sisters, a play that shows us very well how much manipulation reality requires if it is to make an effective appearance on the stage.

In real life, boredom may appear simply as boredom, but it cannot do so on the stage for three whole hours without being so intolerably boring as to put the audience to sleep. For the stage, boredom must be dramatized, it must be presented in artistic, not natural, forms. It must be shown in the act of denying itself, of pretending that it does not exist, of pressing on hopefully, of believing that tomorrow will be different. Life does not demand action, but the theater does: a whole plot, involving twenty-odd people, must be invented and put into constant motion in order to show that all motion is useless, all plots fruitless—Moscow, like Godot, is an unattainable dream; suffering and boredom are real and forever.

The danger of such treatment is that the artistic manipulation may becometoo obvious. It becomes so in Three Sisters, where what we should see as the hand of fate often becomes too plainly the hand of Chekhov. Each time an escape route opens for one of the characters, we watch Chekhov shut if off; what should seem an irrefutable condition of life becomes too much a prearranged game of chess. Unlike The Cherry Orchard, where the decisive element is the weakness of the principal characters, Three Sisters is decided by the strength of the author.

When we compare Beckett’s management of the same boring and suffering raw material, we find the most interesting differences as well as certain similarities. Chekhov’s array of colonels, doctors, schoolteachers, parish philosophers has been swept away, along with the pianos and the sofas and the dresses and the sets. We are down to two fantastic characters struggling in a fantasy world: there is not a trace of “reality” in their parable existence, no matter how hard they may search for fleas or play with their boots. Surely, the beauty of Waiting for Godot lies in the marvelousness of its vision—the wonderful unreality of two fantasy creatures yearning toward one that is never seen? Nor should we forget the small boy who serves as go-between, a visionary messenger of the first order.

These visionary and fantastic elements must be stressed at all costs: the fact that Godot can, and should, be played as if it were “real” is quite beside the point: all good fairy tales must be read as if they were authentic. In its conception, Godot leaves little to be desired: it is the author’s choice of a vision that moves us so deeply, although we may waste hours of intellectual, and even pedantic, thought trying to replace the vision with philosophical reflections. As to the religious nature of the play—that which adds so greatly to its parable quality—one notes that this has often been denied and is even considered to be nonexistent. If such is the case, it shows extreme carelessness on Beckett’s part. When a play is called Waiting for Godot and opens with two bizarre characters discussing the fate of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ, both clergymen and critics are right to suppose that they are witnessing for the first time the haunting of the music hall by the ghost of the New Testament.

So much for the conception; but what of the dramatization? Does the vision awe us so much—does it carry us along so effectively—that we delude ourselves into believing that the dramatization is well done? This would seem to be the case, judging by the critical essays in the books on Beckett. But it is a false conclusion, and should be corrected. Godot is a badly flawed play: it demonstrates the author’s inability to handle the problem of his subject. Unlike Chekhov, he has only two characters; unlike Chekhov, he has only one scene. Yet he must contrive somehow to keep boredom going for two acts without being boring: he must invent enough incidents to prolong a fantasy that is embodied in a mere two men and a boy.

But this turns out to be impossible: before very long all the antidotes to boredom have been used up—the jokes, the boots, the fleas, the whistling, the hat, the aimless pacings, the desperate attempts at a conversation and reminiscence. Either the play must be made shorter, or new characters must be intruded to help carry it through: the former is the aesthetic solution, the latter the makeshift. And the latter is the one that Beckett chooses, wedging into both acts two new characters who have nothing to do with his play and are ruinous to its form.

A vast amount has been written about the significance of these intruders, Pozzo and Lucky, as if it were impossible for a distinguished author to make a clumsy mistake. It would seem clear, however, that these are two characters borrowed from another play, creatures of some other vision as yet unformed by the author. When they go off in act 1, they leave behind the following exchange:

VLADIMIR: That passed the time.

ESTRAGON: It would have passed in any case.

VLADIMIR: Yes, but not so rapidly.

This conclusion is correct.

It is possible that Godot was made to extend itself in this crude way because it was written at a time when a shorter version would not have found a producer. One mentions this possibility because many of those who write treatises on Beckett and others never seem to know that authors are actual people who find themselves in actual situations. This leads to many misunderstandings, of which the worst is that of making all their necessities into virtues.

End Game is just the opposite of Godot in two important particulars—the vision is far less beautiful, the execution is perfectly undeformed. The length—one long act running for an hour and a half—is exactly right; the four characters, all present from the beginning, justify their existence by seeming to be exactly associated, one with another, and inhabiting as of right the cavernous tomb of their fate. In this setup, the reflection of the author’s mind is extremely pretty too, for here, in their trash cans, are the very perpetrators of “the original sin of having been born,” the very source of life’s alternation between suffering and boredom. An excuse is thought necessary for making them small enough to fit into a refuse disposal unit, and this is supplied by taking off their legs in consequence of a bicycle accident. It is a very bad explanation but not one that we need remark upon, except to say that in all absurd cases it is better not to explain at all. Beckett’s more thoughtful admirers could easily have pointed out that parents shrink as they get older.

This play is like a perfect capsule: it looks like one, it is shaped like one, and it contains all the author’s thoughts. (Is it a coincidence, one wonders, that the best works of Ionesco [The Chairs], Genet [The Maids], Tennessee Williams [Suddenly Last Summer] are also one-acters, or should we conclude that the contemporary vision is intensified by compression but falls apart with expansion?) If it lacks entirely the magic of Godot, it gains hugely in both austerity and humor. The tragicomic balance is admirably held: it speaks volumes for the author’s skill that Original Sin and dog biscuits, blindness and badinage, can be pushed into the region of the tragifarcical and still appear to be all of a piece. Though it plays excellently, the craftsman should study it on the printed page, where he will see displayed the economy of the lines, the shortness of the words, the neat disposal of the bare bones. Finally, the central character, sitting dead center in his chair, may be admired as the perfect keystone of the whole structure—a monster made almost noble by mordancy, pessimism, and unyielding selfishness.

End Game marks the completion of Beckett’s work. The plays which follow it are comparative trifles—merely the dying chords of the old notes. There is nothing more to be said, and—which is more serious—the saying of it becomes more and more boring. The struggle to attain to a final inescapable tightness—to slow burial in sand, to reduction into an urn—becomes only a Puritanical mania, an irresistible insistence on immobility. The very stage is sucked into this vortex and dies of boredom and strangulation. As the sand rises in Happy Days, it is not Winnie’s protruding head that moves us but the last glimpse of Beckett’s.

An apology must be made for not discussing Beckett’s novels in this article. There are two reasons for this: one is too little space, the other is too much boredom. “To find a form for the mess—that is the artist’s task now,” Beckett has said, and the form is found only in the theater, the mess remains in the novels. As rubbish heaps for the academician they are, of course, of priceless value, yielding tome-bearing lodes of disquisition and analysis and having much to tell us of Descartes and bicycles, Malebranche and crutches. But those whom we are now fornicating to propagate—posterity, that is to say—will have other fish to fry, other chairs to fill, other boredoms to be boring about. In proportion as the novels sink from sight, the two plays will stand alone.

There remains the matter of “liberation to the oppressed and comfort to those in need.” Chekhov certainly supplied these, because he believed that later generations might well succeed in getting somewhere: the problem was to dispose of the present poor trash. But Beckett, himself a product of such great white hopes, has no such consolation to offer: a man whose quarrel is with the Book of Genesis can hardly offer humanity a retreat in Moscow. Chekhov is the temporal writer, for whom times change; so, even, is Celine, whose fantasy is far more powerful than Beckett’s and whose characters are far more grandiose and compelling. But Beckett is contemporary only in his insistence that the times never can change.

The liberation and comfort that he can be said to offer are purely aesthetic—as indeed they should be. How well is it done? That is the only question we ask in the end; and if the answer is that it is well done, we obtain comfort and liberation from sharing this quality. It is usually our mistake, however, to confuse the author’s point of view with the form he has discovered for it: when the second is admirable, we give him the Nobel Prize for the first.

1) Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic by Lawrence E. Harvey. Princeton, 464 pp., $12.50.

A long and learned study of the poems, the early fiction, and critical writings, with particular attention to literary and philosophical influences. Carries weight in more than one respect.

2) Samuel Beckett Now edited by Melvin J. Friedman. University of Chicago, 276 pp., $7.95.

Thirteen essays by sundry hands on Beckett’s themes, meanings, aims, and methods. Includes such headings as “Beckett’s Metaphysics of Choiceless Awareness,” “Molloy or the Quest for Meaninglessness.” Good for lovers of intricate carburetors.

3) Samuel Beckett: His Works and His Critics by Raymond Federman and John Fletcher. University of California, 400 pp., $15.00.

A very useful book. Lists everything that anyone has ever written about Beckett (including Beckett) with dates, where published, etc. The grand total is about 2,000 pieces.

4) Samuel Beckett: A Study of His Novels by Eugene Webb. University of Washington, 192 pp., $6.95.

Resumés of all Beckett’s novels, including comparisons between French and English texts. The prose is as plain as the subject permits.

5) Twentieth Century Interpretations of Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable edited by J. D. O’Hara. Prentice-Hall, 128 pp., $4.95; $1.45 (paper).

Nine essays, chiefly about the novels, by eight writers. Much stress both on technical construction and Beckett’s personal involvement. One essay asks the most difficult question of all: “Who is Beckett?”

6) Samuel Beckett: A New Approach by G. C. Barnard. Dodd, Mead, 144 pp.,$4.50.

Declares that “Beckett’s interest in schizophrenia…seems unaccountably to have been unnoticed by previous commentators” and proceeds to make good the lack. Concludes that all Beckett’s characters are schizoids in search of a “central self.” This may or may not answer the question raised by book No. 5.

This Issue

April 8, 1971