Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
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Born on Good Friday in 1906, Samuel Beckett was the son of a prosperous Foxrock builder. Like Oscar Wilde, he was educated at Portora Royal School and at Trinity College, where he studied modern languages. After his graduation, he taught briefly at Campbell College in Belfast and from 1929 to 1930 he took a position as lecteur at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris.
In Paris, Beckett was introduced by his friend Thomas McGreevy to James Joyce, to whom he became a close friend and assistant and who was a particular influence on his early work and attitudes. Beckett's first work, the poem "Whoroscope" was published in Paris in 1930 and banned in Ireland. He returned to Trinity College in 1930 to lecture in the French Department but was unhappy in Dublin, particularly due to the pressures of living with his widowed mother. On receiving his MA in December 1931, he resigned his position and returned to Paris. Over the years, he returned to Ireland occasionally and only with the greatest reluctance and suffered from depression and actual physical illness as a result of these visits. His time was mainly divided between Paris, where he renewed his friendship with Joyce, and London. His book of stories set in Dublin "More Pricks than Kicks" (1934) and a novel "Murphy"(1938) received little attention from anyone except the Irish censors. In January 1938, Beckett narrowly missed death when he was stabbed on a Paris street. A French woman, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who came to his aid was to become his companion and later wife. Their activities in the French Resistance (for which Beckett received the Croix de Guerre after the war) led in 1942 to their near-arrest by the Germans and their flight to refuge in the village of Roussillon in southeast France. Here, Beckett wrote his surreal novel "Watt", the last of his works to be composed originally in English.
A moment of revelation on Dun Laoghaire pier during a visit to Ireland after the war gave Beckett a new direction for his writing. His celebrated trilogy "Molloy", "Malone Dies" and "The Unnamable" was written and published in French between 1947 and 1953 and appeared in English a few years later. The protagonists look in vain for the meanings of life, suffering and ultimate death, concluding that the purpose of life is simply to endure it, to "go on". At this fruitful time Beckett's first play "Waiting for Godot", produced in Paris early in 1953, took the theatrical world by storm and launched a whole new movement in drama. The play tantalised audiences with its ambiguity and threw critics into heated debate. It was quite inconclusive, a meaningful portrayal of a meaningless existence.
Beckett's subsequent plays were peopled with grotesques. "Endgame" (1958) features Hamm, a blind cripple with two legless parents shut in dustbins and his servant Clov, who cannot sit and cannot leave. Krapp in "Krapp's Last Tape" (1959) sits alone in a room with his own recordings. The characters in "Happy Days" (1961) are buried in sand and those in "Play" (1964) peer out of jars. The remarkable "Not I" (1976) is presented by a disembodied mouth. Beckett was very particular about how his plays should be presented and wrote detailed directions in the text. In his later works he pared down the action and the words to a minimum, ruthlessly reaching for a representation of life at its most essential. Some of his plays last minutes or even only seconds on the stage. The austerity of Beckett's vision, however, does not exclude humour and the grimness of his plays is enlivened with the spark of comedy.
Throughout his life, Beckett shunned publicity. He never discussed his work nor recorded interviews and when in 1969 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he declined to attend the award ceremony. Although he very rarely visited Ireland, memories of his youth occur in many of his works and some of his characters have a distinctly Dublin flavour. Significantly, the last lines he wrote were in aid of an Irish entreprise and were inscribed in "The Great Book of Ireland" shortly before his death in 1989.