"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
— Quote from prose poem "Worstward Ho".
Samuel Barclay Beckett (13 April 1906 – 22 December 1989) was an Irish playwright, theatre director, poet and novelist. His early work is generally dark comedy with a lot of references to art, music and philosophy; his mature work loses all the youthful cleverness and combines great compassion for the old, weak, infirm or ill with plentiful amounts of gallows humour; his late work is even more stripped down and goes into Mind Screw territory.
He also used to drive André the Giant to school.
His works include:<!—index—>
- Act Without Words I and II
- Not I
- Waiting for Godot
- Krapp's Last Tape
- Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable
- Happy Days
- Animate Inanimate Object: The plot of Act Without Words I is that an unnamed man is annoyed by objects that move on their own.
- Author Avatar: The prose characters have a tendency to declare themselves the authors of the stories preceding theirs. Malone, in Malone Dies, references “the Murphys, Merciers, Molloys, Morans”, and the speaker in The Unnamable thinks of Malone as if he were an imaginary construct.
- Beige Prose / Purple Prose: Beckett's prose works are an odd (and deliberate) mix of overwrought and comically banal.
- Body Motifs: Immobile or amputated limbs, the scatological, and blindness are very common.
- Buried Alive: Many characters in Beckett's plays and novels are physically trapped, either by being partially buried in dirt (and eventually completely buried, as in Happy Days) or by being stuck inside of trash cans, urns, etc.
- Crapsack World: The characters of his novels and plays often inhabit bleak and desolate surreal landscapes, most notably the protagonists crawling through mud in How It Is, a husband and wife living out their last days stranded in the middle of the desert in Happy Days, and the implied post-apocalyptic world of Endgame, largely devoid of human and animal life apart from the crippled and sick main characters.
- The Dividual: His protagonists often come in pairs.
- The Drifter: Many of the characters in the novels and short stories are vagrants, wandering either to find a particular person (like Molloy and his mother) or just to find peace and rest.
- Eloquent in My Native Tongue: Deliberately invoked. Beckett started writing exclusively in French from the 1940’s onwards, because he wanted his writing to be as bare and unstylised as possible. Despite being fluent and having a wide knowledge of French literature, he would still have lacked a sense of rhythm and connotation that a native speaker would possess.
- Featureless Protagonist: The Unnamable, to the point that "he" doesn't even know if the first-person narration is his own words or what he's hearing around him.
- The Ghost: Godot, Youdi, and many others.
- Homoerotic Subtext: Since much of Beckett’s work solely features male characters, it lends itself to queer readings. Vladimir and Estragon in particular are often seen as having an "old married couple" dynamic, and "the dear name" in Ohio Impromptu is sometimes interpreted as a man (especially since it seems to be partly inspired by Beckett's real-life friendship with James Joyce).
- I Just Want to Be Free: A trait shared by the "seedy solipsist" characters like Murphy and Krapp. However, their idea of freedom tends to involve retreating into their minds and disengaging from the outside world entirely, and they find themselves unable to do that for various reasons. Victor Krap, from the unpublished play Eleutheria, expresses it quite memorably:I have always wanted to be free ... That's all I desire. At first I was a prisoner of other people. So I left them. Then I was a prisoner of myself. That was worse. So I left myself.
- The Insomniac: Beckett suffered from insomnia, as well as anxiety attacks and heart palpitations, traits shared by characters like Belacqua and the man in Ohio Impromptu. A character in Murphy meditates by inducing a state of cardiac arrest.
- Legacy Character: Inverted with the Unnamable, which seems to be a consciousness cycling through different fictional identities (see Author Avatar). Having seemingly finished with Malone, it sets about creating Mahood, and later Worm.
- Minimalism: His plays tend to be shorter than most other plays. Also, he generally calls for minimal staging. His novels also increasingly tended toward this, culminating in The Unnamable, which lacks almost everything that traditionally constitutes a novel.
- Minimalist Cast: He often uses this, most notably with Play (which has three characters), Krapp's Last Tape (which has one character listening to his own voice from a tape recorder) Act Without Words I (which has one character menaced by an unseen outside force) and Breath has no characters.
- Mouthscreen: In an extremely minimalist production by the BBC of Not I, this is all that can be seen of actress Billie Whitelaw (and later with the 2001 production of the play for Beckett on Film with Julianne Moore) as she performs the extended monologue, of a woman on the brink of insanity describing her life. The camera never moves from a full-screen shot of her lips and moving mouth.
- My Beloved Smother: Beckett had a very difficult relationship with his mother, and it informed much of his later writing.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: He’d easily fall on the cynical side but his work is far too minimalist and strange to really fit in the scale.
- The Nothing After Death: A common interpretation of The Unnamable and Not I, where the main characters are a disembodied voice and mouth respectively, monologuing for eternity as they try to understand their situation.
- Thematic Series: Although Beckett himself rejected the grouping, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable are generally referred to as "The Trilogy" and are seen as products of the same literary experimentation. Not I and That Time are also seen as companion pieces.
- Theme Naming: Character names beginning with “M”, the thirteenth letter in the middle of the alphabet.
- The Storyteller: The characters often recite fragments of bleak, unnerving stories to sustain their meagre existence and keep themselves going.
- The Voice: Pre-recorded offstage voices were a feature of the later part of his career, such as May's mother in Footfalls.
- Third-Person Person: Many of his characters are unable or unwilling to refer to themselves with "I", due to being deeply alienated from themselves. "Mouth", in Not I, repeatedly stops her monologue dead to insist she's talking about "she!", and the protagonist of That Time even berates himself on the issue."for God's sake did you ever say I to yourself in your life come on now [Eyes close.] could you ever say I to yourself in your life"
- Toilet Humour: Lots. Not for nothing is one of his protagonists named "Krapp".
- Wall of Text: All three of the trilogy novels feature long stretches of stream-of-consciousness prose, but Molloy takes it to an extreme, with the eighty-page first chapter comprising only two paragraphs.
- Word-Salad Horror: Most of his plays and novels are filled with bizarre non-sequiturs and strange juxtapositions of phrases, often combining existential dread with the most mundane everyday events.
I see me on my face close my eyes not the blue the others at the back and see me on my face the mouth opens the tongue comes out lolls in the mud and no question of thirst either no question of dying of thirst either all this time vast stretch of time
- From How It Is: