Viewed as “a late modernist

Viewed as “a late modernist, the last modernist, and the first postmodernist” (Abbott, 1988: p. 306), Samuel Beckett is the only man who “in this century has most single-mindedly dedicated himself to the exploration of … being, identity and presentation” (Connor, 1988: p. 1). For this essay, I will specifically discuss his plays (such as Waiting for Godot and Not I) from which theatre of the Absurd emerged as well as Samuel Beckett’s legacy with reference to Martin Esslin and other playwrights such as Tom Stoppard.
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) was an avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and a poet and is most widely recognized for his famous play, ‘Waiting for Godot’ in which “nothing happens, twice” (Vivian Mercier as cited by Hayman, 1979: p.2). His contributions have been vast as well as significant as he confidently rejected the naturalistic system put forward by Konstantin Stanislavsky and instead encouraged to show the state of a human mind, “I can’t see any trace of system anywhere” (Fletcher et al, 1978: p. 34).
The novelist was born in Ireland, and although he had “little talent for happiness” (Pilling, 1976: p.1), he “had a happy childhood” (Pilling, 1976: p.1) and was largely interested in vaudeville and black comedy, and was influenced by them in his future works. Beckett’s poor relationship with his mother was also explored in his later works. Samuel was always academically successful, but several deaths of member of his family, especially of a “girl cousin he was particularly close to” (Pilling, 1976: p1.) led to a depressing state of mind, this played a great deal in Beckett’s works and his ideology of human existence overall.
Growing up, Samuel Beckett was a successful athlete, he “went running, played cricket and rugby .. and went fishing” (Pilling, 1976: p.1) and completed a degree in Modern Languages at the Trinity College; this eventually led Beckett to move to Paris and work alongside James Joyce as his assistant. Samuel Beckett did research for his book that became Finnegans Wake and although the two were fond of each other, was not ever-lasting. After rejoicing with “his friend Alfred Péron … the first stirrings of what has come to be called ‘modernism’ began to be heard” (Pilling, 1976: p. 3). Beckett was rejecting the Joycean principle whose style became increasingly abstract; “Beckett’s conception of his undertaking, what we would now call his postmodernism, recognized that an absolute break with the past, a complete supersession of what had gone before, was itself the product of a teleological or modern form of thinking. Proust and Joyce therefore became .. telling points of reference in an ongoing dialogue between past and present” (Begam, 1996: p. 14). Beckett wanted to offer a tragicomic view on the mental state of mind which is exactly what the play Waiting for Godot explores.
Written in 1949 yet published in 1953, the play consists of two acts of two tramps waiting for someone, named Godot, who never arrives. Initially, the play didn’t receive the response it wanted or in my opinion deserved, “the critics who were uncomprehending … Beckett’s approach was so radical it provoked fierce resistance” (Gussow, 1996: p. 8). However, I seek to disagree as I believe that although Beckett was creating a new style, he was putting truth on stage, just in a very specific and minimalist way. The importance of language is heightened and explored in the play, the first dialogue outlines colloquialism, fallibility of language and repetition “Help me off with this bloody thing” (Beckett, 1953: p. 1) and is therefore very informative to the audience. Beckett’s “vision was as humane as it was tragic” (Gussow, 1996, p. 6 ) – putting on a play for humans exploring humanity, although original, isn’t hard to comprehend. I feel that the reason why the play wasn’t taken kindly was that people were afraid of familiarity – the inner desperation of the two tramps was visible throughout and there were enough pauses to allow audience to consider their thoughts. People were afraid to see the worst outcome of themselves on that stage. Unknowingly to Beckett, because of this “contemporary classic” (Esslin, 1965: p.1) Theatre of the Absurd was born.
The word originally means ‘out of harmony’ in a musical context. Commonly, ‘absurd’ may simply mean ‘ridiculous’ but that is not the case in this context. Instead, Esslin prefers Lonesco’s definition of the term, as follows: “Absurd is that which is devoid of purpose… Cut off from his religious, metaphysical, and transcendental roots, man is lost; all his actions become senseless, absurd, useless.” (Esslin, 1968: p. 23)
Similarly, Not I explores the mental state through nihilism and according to Billie Whitelaw (Gussow, 1996), the “mouth” was so stripped back and bare of its tendencies that the audience were trying to escape as it reminded them too much of their own state – so the staff turned off the lights in the loo’s, to ensure there was nowhere to hide. Samuel Beckett’s work was and arguably still is a radical challenge demanding the audience to be honest and fully immersed with themselves and what is happening on the stage but was also inventing a new Beckettian era.
Along with that came another drastic change, the demand of actors’ hard work. Beckett always had an image in his mind and this would have to be delivered perfectly. He would often ask the characters to “Stop acting” (Whitelaw as cited by Kalb, 1989: p. 234) and this would completely defy with everything that the actor will have learnt – this was a challenge – show no colour, no emotion. Most of the time, voice was all an actor could use to show their character, emotion and background. A play like Breath (consisting of the sound of an instant birth-cry, followed by an amplified recording of somebody slowly inhaling and exhaling accompanied by light of changing intensity and finishing with the same birth-cry) that may not have a lot of movement or speech – still manages to have context and deliver a very bare message. It was important for the actor not to only familiarize themselves with the speech, but to recognize themselves in it too; “everyone’s got to find their own hook to hang the play on” (Billie Whitelaw as cited by Kalb, 1989: p. 234) and it is so subjective hence why Beckett was so specific with his cast and his vision.
Amongst others such as Brecht and Stanislavsky, Beckett’s notions and concepts were critiqued by the audience and the press explained above – nevertheless, the avant-garde novelists legacy has vastly span over the entire century until present day. Similarly, to Brecht, he wrote his own plays and eventually directed them as well. Unlike Bertolt, Beckett does not wish to investigate a new form of theatre for a political purpose but rather explore the human condition, the search for meaning in self and life overall. His influence is “immeasurable” (Gussow, 1996: p. 10), especially when it comes to playwrights such as Tom Stoppard – although he mainly reworks “Shakespeare’s plays” (Esslin, 1958: p. 19), he takes a strong absurdist and modernist approach and puts it on stage.
Admittedly, he “writes deliberately in the shadow of what he calls ‘the great homicidal classics’ (Esslin, 1968: p. 20) but it is clear in his works that not only is Beckett’s legacy thorough in his work, there is also evidence of post-modernism and absurdism which is “impinged the consciousness of a wider public” (Esslin, 1968: p. 1).