An Irish avant-garde playwright, poet and novelist who is considered as one of the fathers of the Postmodernist movement, Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, “for his writing, which—in new forms for the novel and drama—in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.”
Katherine Weiss is an associate professor in the Department of Literature and Language at East Tennessee State University. She is the author of The Plays of Samuel Beckett and co-editor of Samuel Beckett: History, Memory, Archive.
Simply Charly: How were you first introduced to the works of Samuel Beckett, and what was it about him that sparked your interest?
Katherine Weiss: I was first introduced to Samuel Beckett in a Modern Drama course I took at San Francisco State University. I can’t remember what year, but I was a student there from 1991-1996. The course was taught by Maurice Bassan, who, I believe, has since retired. His passion for drama really inspired me. We read Waiting for Godot and, it just so happened, the YMCA in San Francisco was hosting an amateur production of the play. So, Bassan suggested to the class that we meet there to see the play. I was one of the few students who attended.
I was struck by how theatrical this unconventional play was. While, for a first-time reader, it is difficult to imagine how the play works on stage, the performance was beautiful despite its bare set, and the inseparable mixture of humor and despair, lost in reading, was apparent. With this play, I learned that less is more.
SC: Beckett is revered as one of the founders of the Postmodernist movement, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. What is it that makes Beckett stand out among other 20th-century writers?
KS: So many things. He does so much with so little. His stage works seem relatively bare and minimalist but are rich in their use of lighting and costuming.
Beckett reveals that theater can consist of much less than what was thought possible. We don’t need conventional dramatic structure, dialogue, action, or even clarity of theme or purpose for a play to be dramatic and engaging. He gave us plays that strip away all that was considered necessary to the medium, and we still have a wonderful work of art. In some way, his late plays are painterly.
SC: Beckett’s first published work, in 1929, was a critical essay while his last work was a poem entitled “What is the Word” and published in 1988. How did Beckett’s writing evolve over the course of his almost 60-year-long career? What changes can be observed between his early and final works?
KS: One of the fascinating things about Beckett is that his creative output spans such a long period. His early fictional work was very much influenced by the work of James Joyce and other modernists. Novels such as Murphy and Watt are, as he would say of Joyce’s work, “omnipotent” and “omniscience.” The extensive cyclical prose of Watt’s pot or the lengthy description Molly gives of how best to distribute his sucking stones are wonderful examples. The difference, however, is that unlike Joyce, these lengthy and flowery descriptions lead to nothing—Molly throws out all his stones. Similarly, in Waiting for Godot, the vaudevillian antic with the swapping of hats is funny because in the end, while thinking that they have swapped hats, Didi and Gogo are still wearing their own, and Lucky’s hat remains unworn.
Beckett’s work from the 1960s onwards takes a starker and less playful turn. Not I and Footfalls are devastating, and the minimalism of the works reflects, perhaps, a trauma of the unknown. The audience and reader, like his characters, are left unable to understand.
His prose of the 1960s onward also becomes starker. Works like Ping, Lessness, and Company are made up of three to four-word sentences—and those sentences are often mere fragments. I have argued in my own writing that his later work is less about “reduction” and more about “process.” In Ping and Lessness, for example, the fragments that are provided, bit by bit, begin to create an image in the mind of the readers, but an incomplete one—always trying to finish but never being able to do so. Perhaps, as I have also argued, this type of writing can be understood in relation to trauma studies and the Second World War. After a catastrophic experience, we can try to pick up the pieces, but despite trying to rebuild and to heal, the injury is always present.
Beckett’s many interests in these 60 years can also be seen in the various mediums he works in—the printed text, stage, radio, film, and television. He was very experimental.
SC: Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange, once remarked that “Beckett does not believe in God though he seems to imply that God has committed an unforgivable sin by not existing.” Is this an accurate representation of Beckett’s approach towards religion? What, in your opinion, was Beckett’s view of God?
KS: The question of God comes up often when teaching Beckett in America, especially in the South and in Appalachia. Students often point out the numerous biblical references in his text and struggle to understand why Beckett, who was not a religious man, would use these references.
I am unsure if I would call him an atheist or an agnostic. For me, two things are important here: Beckett-the-man is not necessarily Beckett-the-writer. What Beckett-the-writer does, however, is very intriguing. He uses the cultural significance of Christianity (Irish, and maybe even French Protestantism and Catholicism) to present us with characters who express the ambivalence modern-man has toward religion. So, his characters often blame a god that they don’t believe exists for their condition. As Hamm from Endgame says, “The bastard. He doesn’t exit.”
SC: Beckett was a close friend of fellow Irish author, James Joyce, even assisting him with research for Finnegans Wake. How did Joyce influence Beckett’s early works, and how did Beckett come to establish his own voice? Can Joyce’s influence still be seen in Beckett’s later work?
KS: There is a great deal to be said about Joyce’s influence on Beckett. In Beckett’s early work, especially More Pricks than Kicks, we see Joyce’s influence very clearly. Beckett’s collection of short stories, like Joyce’s Dubliners, contains stories that take place in or around Dublin. While Joyce’s are connected, it seems, by a theme, Beckett’s are connected by the character of Belacqua. Beckett’s collection is also much lighter in tone than Joyce’s. There is a sense that Beckett is playing with what Joyce has given to Irish writers.
When Beckett met Joyce in Paris, he did help with Finnegans Wake, as you say. In addition to helping with research, Beckett also translated a part of the novel (although the translation was not published) and he wrote an essay in support of Joyce’s “Work in Progress,” as it was then called.
James Knowlson, founder of the Beckett International Foundation, and others have charted Beckett’s parodies of Joyce to a greater extent than I can cover here.
What is important to note is that in an interview in 1956, Beckett notes that while Joyce’s work is about “omnipotence” and “omniscience,” his work is about “impotence” and “ignorance.” This interview is quoted from James Acheson’s Samuel Beckett: Artistic Theory and Practice, published in 1997. I don’t quite see this as a break from Joyce. I see it as allowing the influence of Joyce to help shape a unique style. His work is no longer weighed down by Joyce’s style, but it isn’t devoid of all influence either.
And, yes, we do find Joyce’s influence in Beckett’s later work. It is present in Beckett’s need to experiment by going to the same types of extremes that Joyce did. Additionally, we find Joyce’s imprint in Beckett’s Film. I have written on this topic for the Journal of Beckett Studies. The protagonist of film wears an eye patch, an overcoat, and hat, which eerily recall a postcard of Joyce when he was living in Trieste. While away from Dublin, Joyce went into a business venture to bring the first cinema to Dublin. He and his European partners failed to keep the cinema open, but the memory of such a venture ghosts Beckett’s Film.
SC: Waiting for Godot is probably Beckett’s most famous work, an absurdist play that’s been subject to intense critical analysis and various interpretations over the years. What is it that makes Godot stand above Beckett’s other works in terms of notoriety and acclaim?
KS: Well, it is the first play of its kind, a play that breaks away from dramatic structure. I think that audiences recognize the radical shift from the convention of waiting for a climax and resolution to seeing the same downward spiral (a term I am borrowing from Xerxes Mehta, who directed many of Beckett’s plays). This happens twice, without a climax, without the questions answered, as Irish critic Vivian Mercier noted in his famous theatre review of Godot. This approach doesn’t quite unsettle audiences in the way Beckett’s later plays do. It is still relatively conventional in how it doesn’t alienate the non-academic audience member. I am not sure exactly how Beckett accomplishes this. Perhaps it is achieved through its vaudevillian antics and fun.
SC: In The Plays of Samuel Beckett, you examined Beckett’s work under a technocentric lens, with each chapter focusing on the different script mediums Beckett wrote for: theater, radio, television, etc. What made you decide to take this approach? What is the importance of medium when analyzing Beckett?
KS: I became interested in Beckett’s wide use of mediums when working on my Ph.D. at the University of Reading. Under the supervision of Prof. John Pilling, and spending many hours looking at manuscripts available at the Beckett International Foundation, I was struck by how fully Beckett was engaged with each medium. He didn’t simply write for stage, radio, film, and television; he took part in the various technological processes. He directed his television plays, for example. And, his interest in various technologies inspired him to write works using these technologies and transferring this knowledge into other mediums. So, for instance, after being brought a reel-to-reel so that he could hear the production of All That Fall, which was broadcast on the BBC, he wrote Krapp’s Last Tape. My Ph.D. also included an analysis of Beckett’s short stories and novels as part of Beckett’s examination of mechanization.
The book is a rethinking and reworking of much of that early work. It still fascinates me that Beckett was able to be so technologically versatile. With grants from East Tennessee State University’s Research and Development Committee (RDC), I have been able to study Beckett’s television plays in further detail by traveling to the SWR television studio in Stuttgart. Seeing the original productions and going through their archives was a real treat, as was interviewing director Goggo Gensch, who worked with Beckett.
The importance of the medium when analyzing Beckett is that he plays with its possibilities and comments on the medium he is working in. There are jokes about the process of stage acting and performance in Play, jokes and more serious notes about the creation of a soundscape in All That Fall, and ruminations about photography and the camera in his television and film scripts. Also, they reveal a great deal of experimentation through harkening back to older traditions (a sort of nostalgia, perhaps) and breaking all the molds. I read Beckett’s claim that the artist should “fail as no other dare fail” as a manifesto (perhaps that is too harsh of a word) that the artist, whether an author or painter, must never strive to create conventional, and thus successful, works of art.
SC: In 1960, play critic Martin Esslin named Samuel Beckett as one of the four key members of what he called the “Theater of the Absurd.” Did Beckett himself object to this designation? What aspects of his writing fit the absurdist mold?
KS: Beckett objected to being called a nihilist, and in general, he didn’t like categories. He begins his 1929 essay, “Dante … Druno . Vico .. Joyce,” with the statement: “The danger is in the neatness of Identifications.” That said, there are aspects of his writing that do fit Esslin’s theory, especially when we remember that Esslin is looking at post-World War II writers. Their experience of the world after the war may seem futile and devastating, but going on with daily life, as Winnie in Happy Days does, is necessary. Essential to understanding this concept is Phyllis Gaffney’s Healing Amid the Ruins; the book is an account of her father’s experience in the Irish Red Cross. He, like Beckett, was stationed in Saint Lô. Gaffney’s work draws, in part, on letters her father sent home, describing the “absurd” images which make Beckett’s plays seem really not that “absurd.” And, much of the absurdity lies in people’s persistence to go on with life as normally as possible. In Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Beckett’s characters have an awareness of their destitution and their need to continue despite the circumstances.
In some ways, Esslin’s idea of absurdity goes to the heart of post-war reconstruction. Re-building out of the rubble is a seemingly impossible and futile task, but one that is necessary.
Esslin’s theory also accounts for the plays depicting helpless characters trapped in spaces that seemingly void. And, he stresses that the burden of meaning is on the audience. I would say that this is definitely a characteristic of Beckett’s plays. Winnie in Happy Days is trapped in her desert void, entrapped in a mound. I just finished teaching this, and although I find it easier than his later work, my students still struggle to “make sense of it.” There is no “meaning” in the sense of a message. Rather the audience and readers must try to come to terms with the play, finding an interpretative space between “finding the meaning” and resigning all attempts to connect with the play.
SC: Beckett was an Irishman, but he rejected Irish neutrality during World War II and quickly joined the French Resistance to work as a courier. He continued writing during this time; Watt was written while he was hiding from the Gestapo in Roussillon. What was the impact of this tumultuous time in Beckett’s life? How did his experiences in occupied France influence his prose?
KS: The most I can say is that in Beckett’s work I see a deep connection to the underdog and the voiceless. Whether this is because of his experience during the war or something that was already part of who he was—and prompted him to become involved in the Resistance—is difficult to say.
SC: As a teacher at East Tennessee State University, how do you typically go about introducing students to Beckett’s work? What are some hurdles that new readers face when first tackling Beckett’s work in a critical frame?
KS: I usually teach Waiting for Godot in my undergraduate Drama Survey course, which spans from the Greek plays to the Moderns. In this course, we look at how dramatic structure changes over the centuries, and, more generally, how drama has been conceived of and received throughout the history of the art form. In Modern Drama, another undergraduate course, I give students another dose of Beckett, this time focusing on Beckett’s late drama.
Honestly, they struggle with Beckett, but the struggle is fun. We discuss what makes his work difficult; that usually leads to an understanding of how Beckett challenges the conventions of drama and theater. While the students still have questions over the “content,” I share with them Beckett’s own frustrations with critics trying to answer the questions that he has left open.
In 2010, I had the very rewarding opportunity to direct undergraduates in Footfalls and Come and Go. The student actors, after their initial fear subsided, embraced the opportunity to engage with plays that required such precision from them. They are used to being able to improvise, explore and emote. However, that was taken away from them, and they found that it was more difficult to carry out the precise instructions of the playwright than they expected. They also discovered that it was extremely difficult to move with the slow precision needed and to speak without emotion, and yet still stir emotion in their audience.
The largely student audience was receptive and, overall, appreciated the performances. Without the pressure of thinking they had to “speak intellectually” about Beckett, they took in the work and responded to it emotionally and intellectually.
With graduate students, the discussion of Beckett is much more theoretical. We deal a lot more with theory and how to approach texts. They still have difficulty but generally are more open to the openness of Beckett’s texts.