The work of the Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett has long prompted a profound sense of unease among left wing literary critics, even among those sympathetic to his work.
Beckett is charged with the celebration of nihilism, despair and pessimism. His work is seen to represent the antithesis of any progressive political engagement.
Georg Lukács, the Marxist literary critic and theorist, accused Beckett of portraying “the utmost pathological human degradation”. The experimental writer Bertolt Brecht also despised Beckett’s artistic vision, at one point planning to write a counterattack to the play Waiting for Godot.
Sean O’Casey, the left wing Irish dramatist, wrote of Beckett’s work, “there is no hazard of hope, no desire for it, nothing in it but a lust for despair”—and declared that he would have nothing to do with him.
Another left wing writer, Dennis Potter, identified the instincts in Beckett’s work with the moral deformities that created the concentration camps and gulags: “Is this the art which is the response to the despair and pity of our age, or is it made of the kind of futility which helped such desecrations of the spirit, such filth of ideologies come into being?”
I want to argue that taking such a view is to profoundly misunderstand both Beckett the man and his work.
Yes, his characters are buried in sand, up to their necks in urns, they are disembodied voices and they crawl through the mud in limbo. But in doing so, they articulate the sorrow, brutality and despair that was the essential disquiet of being human in the 20th century.
The great Beckettian actor Billie Whitelaw said, “There is nothing to understand in Beckett beyond what you see or feel. If you come out of the theatre not having felt anything, you can’t understand.”
This is where Beckett’s incomparable literary power lies. His work articulates a feeling as opposed to an idea, the feeling of thinking and being alive. That he did it with warmth, profound sadness, fluent silence and shattering, spluttering humour—creating some of the most moving moments that you will ever experience in a theatre—is testimony to his greatness as a writer.
Beckett was transformed as a writer by the Second World War and the Holocaust. He was an active member of the French Resistance, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
After the liberation of France, he worked in an Irish run hospital at Saint?Lô in Normandy, a town so devastated by Allied bombing during 1944 that it earned the title of “Capital of Ruins”. Working there Beckett experienced human suffering and despair in all its violence and actuality. It can be no biographical coincidence that he found his voice as a writer after the war.
In Waiting for Godot (1952), Beckett’s most famous play, Vladimir and Estragon, two tramp-like old men, attempt to pass the time while they wait for the arrival of Godot, a mysterious figure who never turns up.
The play deliberately confounds the conventional expectations of an audience, whose first response is often similar to that of the characters themselves—“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!”
In the course of the play, the characters experience boredom, violence, friendship, profound longing and crushing uncertainty. They are unable to remember the previous day’s events and they are unsure whether they should leave or remain waiting. As they wait, they contemplate suicide, but so powerless are they that they are unable to even terminate their own existence.
In Waiting for Godot, Beckett articulates the modern human condition—humans are divided from themselves as they endure the random cruelty of existence, which they are unable to understand, yet are condemned to live.
Within this world, human thought is both our companion and our tormentor. Considering that Beckett wrote Godot in the aftermath of the Holocaust, when human beings inflicted unimaginable cruelty on one another, the stoicism of the characters stands as a testimony to the ability of human beings to endure:
VLADIMIR: We have to come back tomorrow.
ESTRAGON: What for?
VLADIMIR: To wait for Godot.
Beckett’s plays may appear to create austere, remote, painterly environments, but they are all based on very concrete situations. Endgame (1957), for instance, invites the audience to consider the question of human morality, through a master/slave narrative.
Hamm, a man blind and unable to walk, is attended by Clov. Clov’s sole function is to fulfil Hamm’s every desire, while Hamm is tormented by the notion of human responsibility.
He is a character who finds cruelty easier to dispense then mercy. He works his way through the play trying to tell the story of how he was asked to save a child from starvation.
Unsurprisingly for a post-Holocaust writer, death stalks Beckett’s work. For him, death represents an end to an emotional dialogue with oneself.
In Catastrophe (1982), written in response to the persecution of the Czech writer Václav Havel, the play’s protagonist appears on stage in grey pyjamas with a whitened face. It is impossible not to recall the image of concentration camp inmate, while the reference to Havel indicts the entire system of Stalinism.
Beckett’s work is metaphorical in both form and content. It is resistant, indeed hostile, to any form of literalism, including political literalism, and opposes any crude demand for optimism.
But to resist attaching the label of “political artist” to Beckett is not to say he was not shaped by the political realities of his time.
When asked during the Spanish Civil War to contribute to a set of statements on the conflict by writers, Beckett’s reply was typically laconic—it came on a card on which was simply printed “UPTHEREPUBLIC”. This was an unambiguous declaration of support—and a playful joke on himself as an Irish Protestant.
Beckett told his biographer James Knowlson how difficult it was for him that the aesthetic forms that he worked in did not allow him to respond more directly to politics.
But he was never politically ambiguous. He refused to allow his work to be performed in apartheid South Africa. He gave money to Amnesty International and Index on Censorship, and gave all the Polish royalties from his work to his Polish translator, who used it to fund underground publications and helped imprisoned writers.
In many ways, Beckett is a deeply political writer, but his politics are that of the body. In all his writings the body is broken, disembodied, imprisoned, isolated, absent.
Yet his characters continue to speak, defying the silence that surrounds them. In Beckett, even the dead have voices.
Beckett may have been described as a European existentialist who created hymns to “nothingness”. What he was was an Irish pagan who celebrated the human spirit of endurance and resistance.
Upcoming Beckett events:
Beckett Centenary Festival
Barbican Centre, London
Gate Theatre, Dublin, until 6 May
This festival includes plays, talks and films. Performances include Waiting for Godot, which runs from 4–15 April.
Prose and Poetry 1?&?2 runs from 7–23 April, consisting of readings from a selection of Beckett’s poetry, his trilogy of novels and extracts from some of his 19 stage works.
There are talks scheduled too—Beckett and Politics on 21 April and Beckett’s Influence on 29 April.
BBC Radio 3, 8–10.15pm, Sunday 9 April
This includes Stephen Rea’s new version of Beckett’s radio play Embers (1959), Corin Redgrave in a production of Krapp’s Last Tapes (1958) and a documentary Beckett And His Actors, which includes interviews with people who worked with him.
Samuel Beckett—the Irish European
Museum of Reading, Reading Town Hall, Until 25 June
Featuring interactive visual and auditory components, this exhibition looks at Beckett’s life.
A central feature of the show is an installation that incorporates many of the stage images and props which made Beckett such an iconic literary and theatrical figure.
The Beckett International Foundation is organising a series of talks and workshops to accompany the exhibition.
Part of the Brighton Festival
The annual Brighton festival is giving over a weekend of events to celebrating Beckett’s centenary. This includes Remembering Beckett, a talk with James Knowlson and John Calder.
The Gare St Lazare Players have two productions—Texts for Nothing, a dramatic recital by Conor Lovett, and the Beckett Trilogy, a dramatisation of Beckett’s novels.
Sinead Kennedy is a lecturer specialising in Irish writing at Dublin City University.