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 lecture in English. 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 Deschevaux-Dumesnil, fled to rural France for the remainder of the war, surviving on Beckett's farm work.
Waiting for Godot and Postwar 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, claiming the translation process allowed him to achieve a "bare, stripped down English prose."
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, Happy Days, and Later Works
Beckett's work in the 1950s and 1960s includes the plays All That Fall, Happy Days, Endgame, and Krapp's Last Tape. 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.
Along with Godot, the plays Happy Days, Endgame, and Krapp's Last Tape have been performed in theatres all over the world right up to the present time. A commission from the BBC in 1956 led to "offers to write for radio and cinema through the 1960's." Beckett collaborated with the silent film star Buster Keaton in the making of a movie titled, quite appropriately for the essentialist master, Film. He also directed his own work at times and was quite insistent when others did that the productions stay close to the directions that were part of each script. In fact, in 1984 he sued JoAnne Akalaitis and the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in an attempt to prevent a production of Endgame that did not follow his stage directions to the letter. Finally, he settled for program notes, which listed his objections to the performance.
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" (1969 in French as "Sans," 1971 in English) comprises only 30 sentences, each appearing two times; and the short, one-woman play Rockaby (1980) runs for 15 minutes.
Beckett 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. During his long life Beckett produced novels, criticism, poetry, stage plays, TV scripts, and radio plays. His innovative work continued into the 1980s. His last work, What Where, was produced for television in 1985, and Beckett, frail, aging, and sagaciously resolute, assisted in the production. His work continues to provide inspiration to succeeding generations of writers, musicians, and actors.