Early Life and World War II
Samuel Beckett was born on April 13, 1906, in Foxrock, County Dublin, Ireland. As a youth Beckett experienced severe bouts of depression that kept him bedridden. He reflected, "I had little talent for happiness," an observation that would later provide an undercurrent in much of his writing. From 1923 to 1927 he studied Romance languages at Trinity College in Dublin, and in 1928 he moved to Paris to teach this subject. In Paris he became friends for a time with famed Irish author, James Joyce. Beckett briefly returned to Ireland to teach in 1930. After traveling in Europe, he settled in Paris, France, in 1937. When World War II broke out, Ireland remained neutral, so Beckett was able to stay in Paris even after the Germans invaded. He became active in the French Resistance and, after members of his resistance group were arrested, he and his then-companion (later wife) Suzanne Déschevaux-Dumesnil fled to rural France for the remainder of the war, surviving on Beckett's farm work.
Waiting for Godot and Post-War Success
Returning to Paris after World War II, Beckett produced many of his best-known works including novels, plays, and poems, and began to write exclusively in French. He often translated his work into English himself. Beckett believed his mastery of English concealed rather than illuminated his message, and the French tongue offered a better medium for his ideas.
Beckett achieved international fame in 1953 with his play, Waiting for Godot. It is still his most well-known work. In two acts that mirror each other, Beckett addresses a nagging existential question—Why do humans exist? The main characters Vladimir and Estragon, because they are logical beings, assume there is a point to their lives. However, there is no confirmation they have made an appointment with Godot, who may or may not be real. The audience is presented with two sets of characters: one pair—Vladimir and Estragon—waits passively, and another master and slave pair—Pozzo and Lucky—fills the time with purposeless journeying.
The original French version of the play, En attendant Godot, was performed in full for the first time in Paris at the Théâtre de Babylone. Early audiences were bored, confused, and even angered by the play. Some critics disliked its rejection of purpose and meaning. Others, however, immediately recognized the play's revolutionary importance. Reviewer Sylvain Zegel observed that Vladimir and Estragon represent all of humanity in their attempts to create the illusion of living through their relationship to each other.
Endgame and Later Works
Beckett's second theatrical success came in 1957 with Endgame (originally in French, Fin de partie). With its spare set and small cast, Endgame in some ways echoes Waiting for Godot but presents an even harsher, bleaker reality. Beckett again explores questions of existence, power, and the very nature of drama through his characters Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell. Like Godot, Endgame garnered mixed reactions upon its debut but went on to become an undisputed classic of modern theater.
Beckett, a master of form, strove throughout his life to produce plays, poetry, and prose pared down as much as possible to address existential questions: the play Come and Go (1967) contains only 121 words; the short story "Lessness" (1970) comprises only 30 sentences, each appearing two times; and the short, one-woman play Rockaby (1980) runs for 15 minutes.
Beckett claimed his works begin where the implied happy endings of other literary works leave off. He strips away the false rewards of power, wealth, or marriage to present concentrated sparseness as a means of exploring existential questions. The absurdity and humor in his works are meant to liberate his viewers from the anxiety generated by these questions. He intends to free his viewers from the experience of trying to make sense of the senseless.
Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969 "for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation." He died on December 22, 1989, in Paris.