Beckett, Samuel (1906–1989)

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BECKETT, SAMUEL (1906–1989)


Irish dramatist and novelist.

Samuel Barclay Beckett was born at his parents' house in the prosperous Dublin suburb of Foxrock on Good Friday, 13 April 1906. He was educated locally and in Dublin city before completing his schooling at Portora Royal School in Northern Ireland. In 1923 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied French and Italian, graduating in 1927 with the award of a gold medal for achieving first among firsts.

He taught school in Belfast for two terms before moving in 1928 to Paris, where his university had an exchange-lecturer arrangement with the É cole Normale Supérieure. Almost immediately Beckett was introduced to James Joyce (1882–1941), the leading literary artist of the time. The association with Joyce led to Beckett's first publications, a short story and a critical essay on Joyce's "Work in Progress" (published as Finnegans Wake, 1939) in the magazine transition. Beckett was also writing poetry, and in 1930 his award-winning poem Whoroscope was published in book form by the Hours Press in Paris.

He returned to Dublin in 1930 as an assistant lecturer in French at Trinity College. The following year his critical monograph, Proust, was published in London. He was, seemingly, launched on a career as a scholar and academic. However, in 1932 he resigned from Trinity and moved to Paris to set up as a full-time writer. Within months he had completed his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women (posthumously published,1992). No publisher took the novel, so Beckett recast his materials as linked short stories, published in 1934 as More Pricks than Kicks.

Beckett could not subsist on earnings from his writing and was back living in the family home in 1933 when his father died. The impact of this death, in conjunction with difficulties in his relationship with his mother, propelled Beckett into psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic in London. He read widely in psychology while in London and used his reading in the composition of his second novel, Murphy (published in 1938). Beckett corrected the proofs for Murphy while in hospital recovering from an unprovoked and near-fatal knife attack on a street in Paris. Joyce was supportive of him at this time, providing his personal physician to care for him and paying the hospital bills.

Beckett decided to leave Ireland in 1937 with only a small annuity from his father's estate—earnings from his writing were negligible. Within a year he had embarked with his friend Alfred Péron on a translation into French of Murphy. Beckett saw his future in France but it was not until 1946 that he used French as his language of composition. In 1939 he began cohabiting with Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. They formalized their relationship by marriage in 1961 and continued to live together until Suzanne predeceased Beckett in July 1989.

Beckett was visiting his mother in Dublin when war broke out in September 1939. He returned to Paris, preferring "France at war to Ireland at peace," as he later said. After the German occupation he was recruited into the French Resistance by his friend Péron. The security of the cell he worked for was breached in 1942, and Beckett fled with Suzanne to refuge in the village of Rousillon in the south. By war's end Beckett had completed another novel in English, Watt, which did not appear in print until 1953. By then Beckett had achieved a distinguished reputation as a French author of experimental novels and a puzzling and controversial play, En attendant Godot (1952).

His autotranslation, Waiting for Godot (1954), established Beckett as a major presence in mid-twentieth-century international theater and was to prove seminal and influential. For the rest of his writing life he continued to produce (in French and English) stage plays notable for bold experimentation and dramatic power—Fin de partie (1957; Endgame, 1958), Krapp's Last Tape (1959), Happy Days (1961), Spiel (1963; Play, 1964), Not I (1972)—that increasingly dispense with plot, characterization, movement, and dialogue. A Beckett stage play offers its audience a dramatic experience that is not educible to a single interpretation, to a single meaning. The "outcome" of whatever dramatic action there is takes place in the collective mind of the audience. Thus Krapp's Last Tape ends with Krapp still seated by his tape recorder. The audience realizes he has made and discarded his last tape—his death is imminent. Play is brought to a conclusion by the failure of the mobile spotlight to continue its interrogation. Beckett also wrote innovative works for radio and television. In 1964 he traveled to New York to participate in the filming of his screenplay, released under the title Film (1965), featuring Buster Keaton (1895–1966).

He wrote prose and poetry right up to December 1989, when he died in Paris. While many of his works did not command a popular audience, they have proved to be enduring. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 and an honorary doctorate from Trinity College (1959), politely declining all other honors. He is buried in Montparnasse.

See alsoTheater.


Akerley, Chris J., and Stanley E. Gontarski. The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett: A Reader's Guide to His Works, Life, and Thought. New York, 2004.

Cohn, Ruby. A Beckett Canon. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2001.

Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. London and New York, 1996

Gerry Dukes

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Beckett, Samuel (1906–1989)

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