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Samuel Beckett

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Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett was an Irish playwright, poet, writer, theatre director, and literary translator. Beckett was one of the key 20th-century figures in the Theatre of the Absurd, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Samuel Beckett's most famous work is Waiting for Godot (1953).

Samuel Beckett: Biography

Samuel Beckett was born on 13 April 1906 in the Foxrock suburb of Dublin, Ireland. His mother, Maria Jones Roe, worked as a nurse, and his father, William Frank Beckett, was in the construction business. Beckett suffered from severe depression during his childhood, which would later influence his writing.

In 1923, Samuel Beckett attended Trinity College Dublin, where he studied Romance languages (French, Italian and Spanish). After he graduated, he moved to Paris, where he worked as an English teacher. While in Paris, Beckett met the Irish writer James Joyce and joined his circle. In 1930, he returned to Ireland to work as a lecturer in French at Trinity College, but he resigned soon after that.

Beckett travelled around for a few years, spending time in different countries in Europe until he settled in Paris in 1937. As a citizen of a neutral country, he was able to remain in Paris even during the city's German occupation. Beckett was part of the underground resistance group for a while before he eventually moved to the unoccupied part of France, where he remained until the end of the war. The years during World War II were some of the most fruitful years in Samuel Beckett's literary career in which he wrote essays, short stories, poems, and three novels.

In 1945, Samuel Beckett returned to Paris and was awarded for his work in the resistance. He wrote poetry, prose, and his most well-known play, Waiting for Godot. The play's first performance was a great success that made Samuel Beckett's name recognisable. He continued to write, but, despite his fame, he lived a very private life with his wife, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. In 1969, when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Beckett accepted it but refused to travel to Stockholm to take it in person.

Suzanne died in July 1989 and was soon followed by her husband. Samuel Beckett died from emphysema on 22 December 1989. It is thought that he might have had Parkinson's disease as well. He died in a nursing home in Paris and was buried next to Suzanne in the Montparnasse Cemetery.

During his lifetime, Samuel Beckett wrote a number of poems, short stories, novels, and plays in both English and French.

Samuel Beckett: Plays

Let's take a look at two of Samuel Beckett's major works as a dramatist - the plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame (1957).

Waiting for Godot (1953)

For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh.

(Pozzo in Act 1)

Waiting for Godot is an absurdist black comedy in two acts. It was originally written in French and titled En attendant Godot. Beckett himself translated it into English. It premiered on 5 January 1953 at the Théâtre de Babylon in Paris.

The play follows the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, as they wait for someone called Godot; however, Godot never appears. Vladimir and Estragon are engaged in a constant conversation, revealing that they're not aware of why they exist on this Earth and hope that Godot has some answers for them. The action of waiting for Godot gives Vladimir and Estragon purpose in an existence that is full of more questions than answers.

Endgame (1957)

The end is in the beginning and yet you go on.

(Hamm in Act 1)

Endgame is a one-act absurdist tragicomedy that was originally written in French and titled Fin de Partie. It was translated to English by the author. The play premiered on 3 April 1957 at the Royal Court Theater in London.

Endgame follows a blind man, Hamm, and his servant, Clov, as they wait for something they call 'the end'. Like Waiting for Godot, Endgame is centred around waiting and discussing the meaning of existence.

Samuel Beckett: Books and Poems

Samuel Beckett is mainly known for his plays, but he also wrote short stories, novels and poems.

Novels

Beckett's most famous three novels, Molloy (1955), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953), are often referred to as 'the Trilogy'. Like most of his works, they were originally written in French. 'The Trilogy' doesn't follow a linear plot. Instead, the books deal with questions regarding human consciousness and the meaning of existence.

Beckett's other novels include:

  • Murphy (1938)
  • Mercier and Camier (1946)
  • Watt (1953)

Poems

Samuel Beckett wrote a number of poems in both English and French. Beckett translated his French poems into English, just as he did with his plays and novels. During his lifetime, Beckett published six poetry collections; two more collections were published posthumously — the last one, The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett, came out in 2012.

In Beckett's last poem 'What is the Word' (1988), which he wrote in the hospital not long before he died, Beckett explores his struggle to find the language to express what he felt in the last days of his life. This could be interpreted more generally as our collective human struggle to express ourselves through words.

Have a read of 'What is the Word' below. How would you interpret the poem?

folly –

folly for to –

for to –

what is the word –

folly from this –

all this –

folly from all this –

given –

folly given all this –

seeing –

folly seeing all this –

this –

what is the word –

this this –

this this here –

all this this here –

folly given all this –

seeing –

folly seeing all this this here –

for to –

what is the word –

see –

glimpse –

seem to glimpse –

need to seem to glimpse –

folly for to need to seem to glimpse –

what –

what is the word –

and where –

folly for to need to seem to glimpse what where –

where –

what is the word –

there –

over there –

away over there –

afar –

afar away over there –

afaint –

afaint afar away over there what –

what –

what is the word –

seeing all this –

all this this –

all this this here –

folly for to see what –

glimpse –

seem to glimpse –

need to seem to glimpse –

afaint afar away over there what –

folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what –

what –

what is the word –

what is the word

What are the main themes in Samuel Beckett's works?

Samuel Beckett instilled a fair amount of philosophy in his works: the meaning of existence, communication and language, and the passing of time are three main themes that Beckett explores in his writing.

The meaning of existence

Have you ever felt like you're in the middle of an existential crisis? If so, you are not alone. Many people have, and this is why so many can relate to the questions Beckett raises.

The meaning of existence is one of the main themes in Beckett's works. The dramatist was an existentialist, and his fictional works are influenced by the ideas of French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Existentialism is a philosophical movement that was prevalent in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Existentialist philosophers and writers address and explore the meaning of existence, the human search for purpose, and the anxiety that existence has no meaning in an absurd world. Existentialism proposes the view that conscious reality is too complex to have a single specific meaning. Thus, the individual perceptions and choices are of value.

In his plays, Beckett explores human beings' desperate need for purpose. In Waiting for Godot, that purpose is the arrival of Godot and the overarching anxiety is that he is not coming, which, in turn, makes the characters feel stuck in a meaningless existence.

Communication and language

The language used in Beckett's plays is very repetitive. This is done, in parts, to show the miscommunication of the characters. They use long sentences, forget what they have said and heard, and repeat themselves. As a result, they struggle to connect with each other. This is because neither Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot nor Hamm and Clov in Endgame talk to each other because they want to. They only have conversations with each other because they are stuck, and the exchange of language is the only thing that reminds them that they are alive.

The passing of time

The passing of time is a recurring theme in Beckett's works. It is a theme connected to existentialism that raises the question of what people do with the time they have and how they come to terms with the fact that their time is limited. Both in Waiting for Godot and in Endgame, time passes in a very tangible way and, while the time passes in both plays, the different stages of waiting are presented. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon have hope that Godot will come eventually, and they find ways to pass the time so that it doesn't weigh on them. In Endgame, on the other hand, the characters have waited for the 'end' for so long that they have become worn down by their despair at the realisation that time would always pass and nothing would ever change.

Why is Samuel Beckett important to English literature?

Samuel Beckett is a key figure in the Theater of the Absurd, a post-World War II genre in drama influenced by existentialism.

The Theater of the Absurd (or Absurdist drama) is a genre of drama that was started by European playwrights in the 1950s. Plays in this genre are 'absurd' and seemingly illogical. The purpose of the plot is not the classic conflict and resolution but an expression of existentialism that asks questions about the meaning (or lack thereof) of human existence. Plays categorised within the Theater of the Absurd usually have a round narrative structure, meaning that they end in the same way they started.

The Theatre of the Absurd questions the meaning of existence and, especially in Beckett's dramas, puts an emphasis on the human failure to overcome absurdity. In all of his works, he depicts people who are trapped in absurd, meaningless patterns from which they fail to escape from.

It is understandable that questions of meaning and existence began to appear after such a devastating event as the Second World War. What makes Samuel Beckett's works and legacy important is that he took that idea, presented it, and proposed a unique view on it. To put it simply, Beckett wrote about the human condition, creating undefined characters in undefined places asking the questions that every person, no matter where they're from or what they do, asks.

Samuel Beckett - Key takeaways

  • Samuel Beckett was an Irish dramatist, poet, writer, theatre director and literary translator. He was an existentialist and one of the key figures in the Theater of the Absurd. Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969
  • Samuel Beckett was born on 13 April 1906 in Dublin, Ireland. He died from emphysema on 22 December 1989 in Paris, France.
  • In his works, Samuel Beckett explores the human condition and the absurdity of existence.
  • Samuel Beckett's most famous plays are Waiting for Godot (1953) and Endgame (1957).
  • The main themes in Beckett's works are the meaning of existence, communication and language, and the passing of time.

Frequently Asked Questions about Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett wrote plays, short stories, poems, novels, essays, and literary translations. 

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland.

Samuel Beckett was an Irish playwright, poet, writer, theatre director and literary translator. He was one of the key figures in the Theater of the Absurd and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

Samuel Beckett wrote in French because not using his mother tongue (English) allowed him to gain clarity and to think more fundamentally. Beckett was fluent in French and he spent most of his life in France.

Waiting for Godot (1953) is a well-known stage work by Samuel Beckett.

Final Samuel Beckett Quiz

Question

Where was Samuel Beckett from?

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Answer

Dublin

Show question

Question

What did Samuel Beckett study at Trinity College Dublin?

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Answer

Romance Languages

Show question

Question

True or false: Samuel Beckett lived in Paris.

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or false: Samuel Beckett had no wife.

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Answer

False.

Show question

Question

True or false: the plays Waiting for Godot (1953) and Endgame (1957) were originally written in English.

Show answer

Answer

False.

Show question

Question

Vladimir is a character in ..?

Show answer

Answer

Waiting for Godot  (1953)

Show question

Question

Where did Waiting for Godot (1953) premiere?

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Answer

Théâtre de Babylon in Paris

Show question

Question

Which of these is NOT one of the main themes in Samuel Beckett's works?

Show answer

Answer

Class and society

Show question

Question

True or False: Both Waiting for Godot (1953) and Endgame (1957) tell stories about waiting.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or false: the Theater of the Absurd is influenced by existentialism.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or false: plays categorised under the Theater of the Absurd usually have a round narrative structure - they end the same way they start.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Hamm is a character in..?

Show answer

Answer

Endgame (1957)

Show question

Question

True or false: Beckett's characters are stuck because they fail to overcome absurdity.

Show answer

Answer

True.

Show question

Question

True or False: Waiting for Godot has a circular structure.

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Answer

True.

Show question

Question

Who is NOT a character in Waiting for Godot?

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Answer

 Clov

Show question

Question

Which character is the only one who remembers things the other characters have forgotten?

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Answer

 Vladimir

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Which characters puts on a hat to show that they are thinking?

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Answer

 Lucky

Show question

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True or False: 'Godot as God' is one of the most famous interpretations of Godot.

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Answer

True.

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True or False: The leafless tree which grows leaves symbolises the passage of time.

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Answer

True.

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True or False: Vladimir and Estragon can only wait for Godot duing nghttime.

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Answer

False.

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What was the original title of the play?

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Answer

 En attendant Godot

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True or False: The boots symbolise the characters' uncertainty as individuals.

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Answer

False.

Show question

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Which dramatic technique reveals to the audience that the characters are stuck?

Show answer

Answer

Repetition

Show question

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What is the phrase 'waiting for Godot' synonymous with?

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Answer

Waiting for something that would probably never happen. 

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Question

What is NOT one of the main themes in Waiting for Godot ?

Show answer

Answer

 Money

Show question

Question

How many acts does Waiting for Godot have?

Show answer

Answer

 2

Show question

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