This article examines English drama from the middle of the 20th century to the present. It shows how the Second World War and its consequences changed the face of the English drama and, in fact, the conception of what the theatre has been deemed to be.
Samuel Beckett is among the most influential writers of the 20th century. His plays which offer a dark and tragicomic perspective on human existence revolutionalised the world of the theatre, opening up new vistas and possibilities in playwriting, unprecedented in the history of the theatre. This unit takes a cursory look on the man and his drama, focusing attention on his most popular play, Waiting for Godot.
Biography of Samuel Beckett
The Sui generis, Samuel Barclay Beckett, an Irishman who lived mostly in Paris, was a poet, novelist, translator, linguist, essayist, playwright, philosopher, and theatre director. He was born on Good Friday April 13, 1906 into middle-class family of William Frank Beckett, a civil engineer (quantity surveyor) and May Barclay – a nurse.
In 1911, Beckett was sent to a nursery school from where he was moved to Earls fort House School where he had his primary education. In 1919, Beckett gained admission into Portora Royal School, a boarding school in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Between 1923 and 1927, he earned a bachelor’s degree in French, Italian, and English language at the Trinity College in Dublin. He later earned a master’s degree.
Following an outstanding performance in the university, Beckett was “nominated by his university as its representative in a traditional exchange of lecturers with the famous Ecole Normale Superiecure in Paris”. Thus, “after a brief stint of teaching” at Campbell College in Belfast, he went to Paris for two years, as a lectur d’ anglais at the Ecole Normale in autumn of 1928 (The Theatre of the Absurd, p.30).
Apart from outstanding academic performance, Beckett excelled in sports especially in cricket as a left-handed batsman and a left-arm medium pace bowler. His name appears in the ‘bible’ of cricket – Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
In Paris, Beckett’s friend, Thomas MacGrevy, introduced him to a fellow Irish novelist James Joyce. This meeting has a long lasting effect on the young Beckett. In fact, in 1929, Beckett published his first critical essay “Dante… Bruno… Vico… Joyce”, in which he defended the works of Joyce against the accusation of their being wantonly obscure and dim in meaning. Also, during this first stay in Paris, Beckett made a mark as an excellent poet by winning the first prize in poetry competition with his poem, “whorescope” which subject is time.
In 1930, Beckett returned to the Trinity College, Dublin to take up appointment as an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages, but he gave up the job after four years, considering routine job or “habit as a great deadner”. According to Esslin (1987: p.33):
To one who felt that habit and routine was the cancer of time, social intercourse a mere illusion, and the artistic life of necessity a life of solitude, the daily grind of a University lecturer’s work must have appeared unbearable. After only four terms at Trinity College, he had enough. He threw up his career and cut himself loose from all routine and social duties. Like Belacqua, the hero of his volume of stories More Pricks Than Kicks, though indolent by nature, “enlivened the last phase of his solipsism…with the belief that the best thing he had to do was to move constantly from place to place”, Beckett embarked on a period of Wanderjahre.
When he abandoned routine job, he moved from Dublin to London, Paris, and Germany etc., writing poems, novels, stories, and then plays, sometimes engaging in odd jobs. “It is surely no coincidence that so many of Beckett’s later characters are tramps and wanderers, and that all are lonely”.
Early in 1938, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and got his lung perforated by an underworld element who had accosted him for money in vain. When he recovered, he went to the prison to see the miscreant to know why he had to stab him. On the question of why he stabbed him, the fellow responded – “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur”. Esslin argues that it might be the voice of the young man that we hear in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
When the Second World War broke out in September, 1939, Beckett who was visiting his widowed mother in Dublin returned to Paris to join a resistance group against the Germans. In 1942, his group was betrayed and he escaped to Vaucluse for safety. There too, he assisted the resistant group in storing their armaments. At the end of the war, the French government gave him many awards for his role during the war.
In 1945, he paid a short visit to Dublin, and during the visit he had a revelation that would change the course of his literary endeavours. This revelation caused him eventually to part ways with Joycean principle that knowing was a creative way of understanding and controlling the world. In Beckett’s own words:
I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more (being) in control of one’s materials. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at this proof to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding (wikipedia).
From this time forward, Beckett’s work would concentrate on poverty, failure, exile, and loss. They portray man as Beckett himself puts it, a “non – knower’ and as a “non – can – er”.
In 1961, he got married to Suzanne and in 1969, while husband and wife were away in Tunis on holiday, Samuel Beckett was announced the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. On 17 July 1989, Suzanne died, while Beckett himself died on 22nd December of the same year. They were buried together, sharing a simple granite gravestone in Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris, as directed by Beckett.