Samuel Beckett was born on Good Friday, April 13, 1906, near Dublin, Ireland. Raised in a middle class, Protestant home, the son of a quantity surveyor and a nurse, he was sent off at the age of 14 to attend the same school which Oscar Wilde had attended. Looking back on his childhood, he once remarked, “I had little talent for happiness.”
Beckett was consistent in his loneliness. The unhappy boy soon grew into an unhappy young man, often so depressed that he stayed in bed until mid afternoon. He was difficult to engage in any lengthy conversation–it took hours and lots of drinks to warm him up–but the women could not resist him. The lonely young poet, however, would not allow anyone to penetrate his solitude. He once remarked, after rejecting advances from James Joyce’s daughter, that he was dead and had no feelings that were human.
In 1928, Samuel Beckett moved to Paris, and the city quickly won his heart. Shortly after he arrived, a mutual friend introduced him to James Joyce, and Beckett quickly became an apostle of the older writer. At the age of 23, he wrote an essay in defense of Joyce’s magnum opus against the public’s lazy demand for easy comprehensibility. A year later, he won his first literary prize–10 pounds for a poem entitled “Whoroscope” which dealt with the philosopher Descartes meditating on the subject of time and the transiency of life. After writing a study of Proust, however, Beckett came to the conclusion that habit and routine were the “cancer of time”, so he gave up his post at Trinity College and set out on a nomadic journey across Europe.
Beckett made his way through Ireland, France, England, and Germany, all the while writing poems and stories and doing odd jobs to get by. In the course of his journies, he no doubt came into contact with many tramps and wanderers, and these aquaintances would later translate into some of his finest characters. Whenever he happened to pass through Paris, he would call on Joyce, and they would have long visits, although it was rumored that they mostly sit in silence, both suffused with sadness.
Beckett finally settled down in Paris in 1937. Shortly thereafter, he was stabbed in the street by a man who had approached him asking for money. He would learn later, in the hospital, that he had a perforated lung. After his recovery, he went to visit his assailant in prison. When asked why he had attacked Beckett, the prisoner replied “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur”, a phrase hauntingly reminiscent of some of the lost and confused souls that would populate the writer’s later works.
During World War II, Beckett stayed in Paris–even after it had become occupied by the Germans. He joined the underground movement and fought for the resistance until 1942 when several members of his group were arrested and he was forced to flee with his French-born wife to the unoccupied zone. In 1945, after it had been liberated from the Germans, he returned to Paris and began his most prolific period as a writer. In the five years that followed, he wrote Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, Endgame, the novels Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and Mercier et Camier, two books of short stories, and a book of criticism.
Samuel Beckett’s first play, Eleutheria, mirrors his own search for freedom, revolving around a young man’s efforts to cut himself loose from his family and social obligations. His first real triumph, however, came on January 5, 1953, when Waiting for Godot premiered at the Théâtre de Babylone. In spite of some expectations to the contrary, the strange little play in which “nothing happens” became an instant success, running for four hundred performances at the Théâtre de Babylone and enjoying the critical praise of dramatists as diverse as Tennessee Williams, Jean Anouilh, Thornton Wilder, and William Saroyan who remarked, “It will make it easier for me and everyone else to write freely in the theatre.” Perhaps the most famous production of Waiting for Godot, however, took place in 1957 when a company of actors from the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop presented the play at the San Quentin penitentiary for an audience of over fourteen hundred convicts. Surprisingly, the production was a great success. The prisoners understood as well as Vladimir and Estragon that life means waiting, killing time and clinging to the hope that relief may be just around the corner. If not today, then perhaps tomorrow.
Beckett secured his position as a master dramatist on April 3, 1957 when his second masterpiece, Endgame, premiered (in French) at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Although English was his native language, all of Beckett’s major works were originally written in French–a curious phenomenon since Beckett’s mother tongue was the accepted international language of the twentieth century. Apparently, however, he wanted the discipline and economy of expression that an acquired language would force upon on him.
Beckett’s dramatic works do not rely on the traditional elements of drama. He trades in plot, characterization, and final solution, which had hitherto been the hallmarks of drama, for a series of concrete stage images. Language is useless, for he creates a mythical universe peopled by lonely creatures who struggle vainly to express the unexpressable. His characters exist in a terrible dreamlike vacuum, overcome by an overwhelming sense of bewilderment and grief, grotesquely attempting some form of communication, then crawling on, endlessly.
Beckett was the first of the absurdists to win international fame. His works have been translated into over twenty languages. In 1969 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He continued to write until his death in 1989, but the task grew more and more difficult with each work until, in the end, he said that each word seemed to him “an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”