(April 13th, 1906 – December 22nd, 1989)
“We are all born mad, some remain so.”– Waiting for Godot
Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland on April 13, 1906. His father, William, was a prosperous businessman, and his mother, Mary, was the daughter of a gentleman. Beckett was said to have inherited the temperament of his mother, whom Deirdre Bair describes as “intensely moody” (8). Beckett had just one sibling, a brother named Frank, who was four years his elder. However, his three cousins moved in with his family while he was still young, and Beckett considered them to be his siblings
|Beckett as a schoolboy|
as well. From a young age, Beckett exhibited reckless behavior. His favorite childhood game involved throwing himself off the top of a pine tree and waiting until the last possible moment of his free-fall to grab onto a branch (Bair 15).
He attended various schools in Dublin until he matriculated at Portora Royal School, the same boarding school that Oscar Wilde attended, in 1920. At Portora, Beckett excelled at sports, like cricket, but was mediocre in the classroom. His attitude towards academics is often described as indifferent; however, when provoked he became quite insolent. During these phases, he would often make fun of his teachers so severely, that his fellow classmates were astonished by his cruelty (Bair 33). Overall, Beckett’s time at Portora was not significant, as he made few friends and even fewer achievements.
Beckett entered Trinity College in October 1923. He was expected to earn his degree and then enter the family business. Continuing his legacy from Portora, Beckett was an incompetent student for his first two years. He didn’t enjoy attending lectures, as he found them to be a waste of his time (Bair 37). Eventually, he found an interest in the field of modern languages, particularly in French and Italian. By the end of his third year, he showed great improvement. Beckett was fourth in his class and received a Foundation Scholarship in Modern Language. Bair notes that it was during this phase of Beckett’s life that he first “gained a reputation for brilliance, albeit unorthodox” (40). In his fourth year, Beckett became noticeably introverted. He withdrew from both his family and large social gatherings and gravitated towards the artistic society of Dublin instead. As a result, drinking at pubs and going to the theatre quickly replaced his former interest in athletics. What further cements this supposed change in personality is that he preferred to do both of these activities alone.
It was during Beckett’s time at Trinity that he first developed an intense interest in France. On one of his school breaks, he took a bicycle trip through the chateau country with an American he had met, named Charles C. Clarke. His plan upon graduating was to do graduate study in French so that he could become a professor at Trinity. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree on December 8th, 1927 and was by this time, first in his class. With the help of Thomas Rudmose-Brown, the professor of French, Beckett secured the prestigious lectureship at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris. He would hold the post from 1928 to 1930. Before moving to Paris, Beckett taught briefly at Campbell College in Belfast. His behavior here was typical of the attitude he would soon adopt towards academics. He disliked teaching and is said to have “marked his students’ papers with such caustic and acerbic comments that any creative or critical instinct they might have developed was nipped in a very early bud” (Bair 56). He also visited his aunt in Germany before heading to Paris. She became the first of many surrogate mother types that Beckett would entertain throughout his life.
Relationship with James Joyce
When Beckett arrived in Paris, he immediately became good friends with his predecessor to the lectureship, Thomas McGreevy. McGreevy was intimate with both James and Nora Joyce and introduced Beckett to them at a dinner party in the fall of 1928. Bair claims that McGreevy’s social skills were very important for Beckett, who otherwise, would have been “a severely alienated young man, uninterested in and disengaged from the society in which he found himself” (Bair 65). Beckett was fascinated with Joyce and had already read his major nov
|Beckett at work|
els before their initial encounter. Joyce allowed Beckett to act as his research assistant and Beckett willingly performed many odd jobs for him, as Joyce’s eyesight was diminishing. Their initial relationship was one of mutual respect, rather than friendship. However, they did have a great deal in common which deepened their relationship as it progressed. Not only were they both Irishmen who majored in modern languages, but they also shared similar personality traits. “Both men were prone to long silences and their conversations were usually suffused with sadness, Beckett mostly for the world, Joyce mostly for himself” (Bair 93). Eventually, Joyce’s schizophrenic daughter, Lucia, took a liking to Beckett, who did not return the affection. It was Beckett’s refusal of Lucia that caused Joyce to ban Beckett from his home. They would later reconcile, though Beckett would never resume his former position in Joyce’s literary circle, as much out of his own unwillingness to do so as Joyce’s.
While living in Paris, Beckett’s poem, Whoroscope (1930), was published. It wasn’t very successful outside of the small presses and literary groups with which Beckett associated. After his lectureship at ENS ended, Beckett returned to Dublin and was given an appointment as a lecturer in French at Trinity College under the recommendation of Rudmose-Brown. Beginning in September of 1930, it was a three year contract which allowed for the possibility of him being reelected to the faculty with tenure. In a similar fashion to his experience at Campbell College, Beckett hated teaching and paid little attention to his students. On March 5th, 1931, he published a critical essay on Marcel Proust, entitled “Proust.” Beckett was proud of the publication, but it was not enough to rescue him from his deteriorating mental health. The increasing frequency of his breakdowns led to his resignation from Trinity near the end of 1931.
|“What! You are giving up your Queen? Sheer madness!” The publishers ignored Beckett’s request that this image be featured on the cover of “Murphy.”|
In 1932, Beckett decided to return to Paris in an attempt to find publishers and recognition for his works. During this time he supported himself by doing translations and small pieces for literary journals. He also began to work on his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932). Though unpublished until 1992, Beckett borrowed many lines and ideas from this piece throughout his subsequent works. (His collection of short stories, entitled More Pricks Than Kicks (1933), is a prime example of his doing so.) The novel satirizes many of his close friends and illuminates his tendency to turn on those closest to him in his early works (Bair 146). Beckett was soon forced to return to Dublin, as he could no longer support himself. He wanted to spend quality time focusing on his writing, but his mother was irritated by his unemployment and constant drunkenness. His father was more tolerable of his behavior, but died of a massive heart attack on June 26th of 1933. In trying to care for his mother, Beckett became very ill himself due to his heightened anxiety and depression. His mother eventually agreed to send him to London for six months, where he subjected himself to psychoanalysis. He also published a book of poems while in Dublin entitled, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates (1935) and began working on another novel, Murphy, which was eventually published in 1938.
Beckett moved back to Paris in October of 1937. While walking home one night, Beckett was stabbed in the chest by a pimp. He was immediately hospitalized, at the expense of James Joyce, and soon made a full recovery. When asked at the trial why he stabbed Beckett, the pimp simply responded, “I don’t know.” Many Beckettian scholars like to cite this incident as one of many catalysts for the overwhelming amount of “futility, despair, and meaninglessness” found in his work (Bair 283). The incident also reacquainted Beckett with a former interest of his, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who visited him in the hospital regularly. After his release, their relationship progressed until their marriage in 1961.
World War II
Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3rd, 1939. Though most of his friends urged him to retreat to the south of France, Beckett chose to stay in Paris. He tried to remain neutral but the ill treatment of the Parisian Jews, many of whom were his close friends, angered him into becoming a member of the French Resistance in October of 1940. He served as a drop-off point and translator of many important documents and letters. Years later, Beckett dismissed his involvement in the movement as “Boy Scout stuff” (qtd. in Bair 309). In late 1942, Beckett finally fled Paris for Roussillon, a small town in southeast France, with Suzzanne. Here he suffered from his most severe mental breakdown, the conditions of which are explored in his third novel, Watt (1943; published 1953). After the Americans liberated Roussillon in 1944, Beckett returned to Ireland. When the war ended, he was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance and the Croix de Guerre by the French government for his work during the war.
The years following the war, which Beckett dubbed “the siege in the room,” were his most productive. Within a few short years, he produced a trilogy of novels: Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953). Despite such productivity, Beckett still lacked financial stability and had to do translations of others’ works in order to earn money. He soon dove into play writing, claiming to do so “as a relaxation, to get away from the awful prose I was writing at the time” (qtd. in Bair 381). It took just four months for him to complete Waiting for Godot (1953), the piece which established Beckett as a significant
|Vladimir and Estragon from a production of “Waiting for Godot”|
literary figure of the Twentieth Century. Throughout the play, the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, find various methods of passing the time while waiting for Godot–a character who never actually appears. This has led to much speculation about the identity of Godot; many assume Godot to be an allusion to God. Beckett, however, has said, “If Godot were God, I would have called him that” (qtd. in Bair 382-83). Like many of Beckett’s pieces, the play stresses the futility and meaninglessness of our lives and actions.
Beckett subsequently published many more plays, such as, Endgame (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days (1960). While they were all successful, none received the same attention that Godot did. In light of his many achievements in the field of literature, Trinity College, Dublin, bestowed an honorary doctorate upon Beckett in July of 1959. In a move that Bair describes as characteristic, Beckett kept the news between himself and Suzanne (Bair 503). A few years later in 1969, Beckett was honored with an even more prestigious award–the Nobel Prize for Literature. When the academy officially announced its decision, Beckett was hiding out in a small village in Tunisia, having anticipated the award. Though intensely private, Beckett was always extremely polite. When reporters found him in Tunisia, he agreed to allow them to take his picture if they promised not to ask him any questions. His obvious discomfort prompted one reporter to apologize, to which Beckett replied, “That’s all right, I understand” (qtd. in Bair 608). The New York Times article from October 24th, 1969 announcing Beckett’s win can be read here .
|Beckett’s grave in Paris|
Beckett died on December 22nd, 1989 at the age of 83, after respiratory complications. His wife, Suzanne had already passed earlier in the year. He was buried in Paris at the Cimetière du Montparnasse. Beckett’s death marks the end of modernist literature, as he is often considered to be the last great modernist of the English language. In regards to his writing, he has said, “I couldn’t have done it otherwise. Gone on, I mean. I could not have gone through the awful wretched mess of life without having left a stain upon the silence” (qtd. in Bair 640).
- Waiting for Godot (1953)
- Endgame (1957)
- Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
- Happy Days (1960)
- Breath (1969)
- Not I (1972)
- Catastrophe (1982)
- What Where (1983)
- Dream of Fair to Middling Women (1932; published 1992)
- Murphy (1938)
- Watt (1943; published 1953)
- Mercier and Camier (1946; published 1974)
- Molloy (1951)
- Malone Dies (1951)
- The Unnamable (1953)
- How It Is (1961)
- Whoroscope (1930)
- Echo’s Bones and other Precipitates (1935)
- Collected Poems in English and French (1977)
- What is the Word (1989)
- Selected Poems 1930-1989 (2009)
Beckett on Film: Opening Act of Waiting for Godot
University of Delaware students can watch a video biography of Samuel Beckett below.
- Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: a Biography. London: J. Cape, 1978. Print.
- Beckett on Film: Waiting For Godot, a collaboration by Michael Colgan and Alan Moloney. More information can be found here: http://www.beckettonfilm.com/
- Close-up of Beckett courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
- All other images courtesy of http://www.themodernword.com/beckett/beckett_images.html