Discovering the Works of Samuel Beckett

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Beckett photographed by Roger Pic (public domain) – via Wikimedia Commons

The Discovery: Like a lot of people, I’ve known about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for seemingly forever, but I had never read it.  When I was an undergrad, I decided to take a course that explored the works of Samuel Beckett because I thought it would be an opportunity to learn about a writer about whom I knew so little.  Though the journey may have been frustrating, I’m glad I went ahead with it because Beckett’s work is like very little I’ve ever read before.

Thoughts on the Body of Work: There seems to be some debate among the literary community as to whether Beckett’s works are indeed “existentialist.”  Beckett himself apparently didn’t think so.  However, when I first read Waiting for Godot, I couldn’t help but compare it to one of the few existentialist works I had read, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit in English).  From Waiting for Godot, I discovered that Beckett’s work could be applied to anything you could think of.  This is the amazing and frustrating thing about the works, for in order to be about anything, they sort of have to be about nothing.  And, indeed, critic Vivian Mercier called Waiting for Godot a play in which “nothing happens, twice.”  I can’t say I really enjoyed Waiting for Godot, and I enjoyed Beckett’s other long-form play, Endgame, far less.  What I was discovering was that Beckett’s work isn’t really meant to be read – it’s meant to be seen, live, on stage.

That said, I found that Beckett’s shorter plays were infinitely easier to read.  Little happens in any of them, but what does happen is usually odd and/or philosophical.  Some (Rough for Theatre I) almost resemble Waiting for Godot and Endgame with few characters interacting in a desolate area.  Some (Not I, Krapp’s Last Tape, Eh Joe) focus on a single, troubled person.  Others (Come and Go, Footfalls) deal primarily with women.  One (Play) recounts the story of an affair in monotone.  And then there are the later, more political works (Catastrophe, What Where).  Beckett even wrote works for specifically for radio, television (Eh Joe), and film.

Favorite Works:

1.    Play: I didn’t like Play when I read it.  It opens with three people in urns, and they go on to recount their intertwined love affairs.  At the end (and no, this isn’t a spoiler), they are to repeat everything.  My perception of Play changed when I watched the 2001 Beckett on Film short film starring Alan Rickman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Juliet Stevenson.  If you want to experience Play, watch it.

2.    Come and Go: Not much is said in Come and Go, but it’s a fun exercise to try to piece the story together from what does happen.  If you want a short play that will make you read between the lines, this is it.

3.    What Where: What Where is a puzzle.  Like many of Beckett’s works, there’s an eerie, sinister vibe in the play, and the power is in what is not said, but this is one of the few instances in which it didn’t bother me.  Dialogue about torture only adds to the tension.

Will I continue the discovery? I have no desire to read any more of Beckett’s work, but I do hope to one day see one of his plays performed live.

What Beckett plays have you read?  Have you had the opportunity to see any of them performed live?

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8 thoughts on “Discovering the Works of Samuel Beckett

  1. I have never seen a Samuel Beckett play, but your post reminded me of a one-act play I saw at a Fringe Festival. All the characters were from well-known plays; they were characters that were referred to but did not make an appearance. The punchline was brilliant – a man wanders on stage and the characters ask, “Who are you?” The man replies nonchalantly, “I’m Godot.”

  2. I haven’t read any of his works. I’ve heard about Waiting for Godot but haven’t read it or seen it. Now I feel like I should try to see one of his plays.

    • Though I haven’t seen any of Beckett’s works performed professionally live, from seeing some of the plays filmed, I can definitely attest that the plays should be seen rather than read. But they’re really not everyone’s taste; I’d say sample one or two if you have the desire and opportunity, and if you don’t enjoy them, you probably won’t enjoy the rest.

  3. Pingback: An Intimidating Classic Book (The Classics Club November Meme) « Many Media Musings

  4. Pingback: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart | Many Media Musings

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