The Kennedy Center

Samuel Beckett


In January of 1938, Samuel Beckett was stabbed in the chest and seriously injured by a neighborhood pimp. When Beckett later asked the man why he had done it, he answered, "I do not know, sir. I'm sorry."

Beckett's plays depict a bleak universe, a world of mesmerizing failure--failure to act, to connect, to remember. Life is a series of necessary gestures, routines involving dropped hats, rocking chairs, or moving to and fro in silence. Over time, his plays became more concentrated, more sparely formal. As he said at 76, "With old age, diminished concentration, loss of memory, obscured intelligence, the more chance there is for saying something closest to what one really is. Even though everything seems inexpressible, there remains the need to express. A child needs to make a sand castle even though it makes no sense. In old age, with only a few grains of sand, one has the greatest possibility." Beckett's work is perhaps best understood not as expressions of cynicism, but as the strategies of artistic, ascetic, and moral anxieties to keep the misery at bay.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) wrote essays, poems, and novels but is best known as a dramatist. Born to an affluent Protestant family in a suburb of Dublin, he had, by his own account, a happy childhood. Graduating from Trinity College in 1927, he taught in Paris, where he met James Joyce and assisted him doing research and taking dictation for Finnegan's Wake. He returned to a lectureship at Trinity, but found himself unsuited to academic life and abandoned it to dedicate himself to writing. In 1937, he returned to France permanently.

Beckett joined the Resistance movement first in Paris and subsequently in Roussillon, an isolated town in southern France, where he continued to fight the Nazi occupation. Beckett minimized his contributions, but there is no doubt that he risked his life repeatedly. His experiences as a war refugee seem to reappear in the struggle, futility, and alienation of his later works.

Beckett's first novel, Murphy, was published to little notice in 1938. To keep immobility and isolation from becoming mental collapse, he wrote Watt while in Roussillon. Beckett entered the period of his most important work beginning in the late '40s. He began writing mainly in French, later translating the works into English, because, he said, he was able to write "without style." He wrote the three interrelated novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. In 1953, Waiting for Godot was produced in Paris, followed by Endgame (1957), Krapp's Last Tape (1958), Happy Days (1960), and Play (1963). After this, he wrote only shorter plays as well as plays for radio and television and a film. In 1969, Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his writing, which in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation."

A courteous and considerate man, Beckett struggled to balance his personal needs and his responsibilities to his friends and admirers, while still prioritizing his writing. He suffered most of his adult life from a variety of illnesses: bad teeth and eyesight, chronic insomnia, boils and cysts, debilitating depressions, and respiratory problems. Beckett guarded his privacy, declining interviews and refusing to talk publicly about his work. He was, by all accounts, a loyal, generous, and companionable friend, contrary to the impression given by his works.

While Beckett is one of the most important and influential writers of the twentieth century, he continues to perplex many theatergoers and critics alike. The directness and simplicity of his plays leave the work open to powerful individual experiences and multiple interpretations. As director Peter Brook wrote, Beckett's plays are "theatre machines. People smile at them, but they hold their ground: they are critic-proof. We get nowhere if we expect to be told what they mean, yet each one has a relation with us we can't deny." The plays resist simple explanation, are hard to talk about, yet remain powerful and evocative in performance.

As of 2008

By Beatrice Bosco
Beatrice Bosco is the Associate Director of Education at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Samuel Beckett