Today is the 111th birthday of the playwright Samuel Beckett. Waiting for Godot was a big read one summer at Interlochen, it went around my group of friends like a head cold. It was great. I should read it again. We also read Dante’s Inferno, Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs And All, Jack Kerouac‘s On The Road. When I think of Godot, I remember that humid summer at Interlochen, our inside Beckett jokes, beach bonfires, late night swims and those friends. It seems like a strange group of memories if you are familiar with the play, but that’s how memories work. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on Good Friday, April 13, 1906, in Dublin, Ireland. His father, William Frank Beckett, worked in the construction business and his mother, Maria Jones Roe, was a nurse. Young Samuel attended Earlsfort House School in Dublin, then at 14, he went to Portora Royal School, the same school attended by Oscar Wilde. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Trinity College in 1927. Referring to his childhood, Samuel Beckett, once remaking, “I had little talent for happiness.” In his youth he would periodically experience severe depression keeping him in bed until mid-day. This experience would later influence his writing.
In 1928, Samuel Beckett found a welcome home in Paris where he met and became a devoted student of James Joyce. In 1931, he embarked on a restless sojourn through Britain, France and Germany. He wrote poems and stories and did odd jobs to support himself. On his journey, he came across many individuals who would inspire some of his most interesting characters.
In 1937, Samuel Beckett settled in Paris. Shortly thereafter, he was stabbed by a pimp after refusing his solicitations. While recovering in the hospital, he met Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnuil, a piano student in Paris. The two would become life-long companions and eventually marry. After meeting with his attacker, Beckett dropped the charges, partly to avoid the publicity.
During World War II, Samuel Beckett’s Irish citizenship allowed him to remain in Paris as a citizen of a neutral country. He fought in the resistance movement until 1942 when members of his group were arrested by the Gestapo. He and Suzanne fled to the unoccupied zone until the end of the war.
After the war, Samuel Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery during his time in the French resistance. He settled in Paris and began his most prolific period as a writer. In five years, 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 publication, Molloy, enjoyed modest sales, but more importantly praise from French critics. Soon, Waiting for Godot, achieved quick success at the small Theatre de Babylone putting Beckett in the international spotlight. The play ran for 400 performances and enjoyed critical praise.
Samuel Beckett wrote in both French and English, but his most well-known works, written between WWII and the 1960s, were written in French. Early on he realized his writing had to be subjective and come from his own thoughts and experiences. His works are filled with allusions to other writers such as Dante, Rene Descartes, and James Joyce. Beckett’s plays are not written along traditional lines with conventional plot and time and place references. Instead, he focuses on essential elements of the human condition in dark humorous ways. This style of writing has been called “Theater of the Absurd” by Martin Esslin, referring to poet Albert Camus’ concept of “the absurd.” The plays focus on human despair and the will to survive in a hopeless world that offers no help in understanding.
The 1960s were a period of change for Samuel Beckett. He found great success with this plays across the world. Invitations came to attend rehearsals and performances which led to a career as a theater director. In 1961, he secretly married Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnuil who took care of his business affairs. A commission from the BBC in 1956 led to offers to write for radio and cinema through the 1960s.
Samuel Beckett continued to write throughout the 1970s and 80s mostly in a small house outside Paris. There he could give total dedication to his art evading publicity. In 1969, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, though he declined accepting it personally to avoid making a speech at the ceremonies. However, he should not be considered a recluse. He often times met with other artists, scholars and admirers to talk about his work.
By the late 1980s, Samuel Beckett was in failing health and had moved to a small nursing home. Suzanne, his wife, had died in July 1989. His life was confined to a small room where he would receive visitors and write. He died on December 22, 1989, in a hospital of respiratory problems just months after his wife.