Today is the birthday of the Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett (books by this author), born in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock (1906). He studied French and Italian at Trinity College, and, for a while, divided his time between Paris and Dublin. He taught English at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and taught French at Trinity College, and traveled around Europe for several years. He settled in Paris permanently in 1937. It was there that he met and befriended fellow Irish ex-pat James Joyce. Joyce’s eyesight was failing by this time, so Beckett would read to him and help him as he worked on Finnegans Wake. One day in 1937, Beckett was out walking with some friends when a panhandler attacked and stabbed him. A young piano student named Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil came to his aid and phoned for an ambulance. It was the start of a lifelong romance and eventual marriage. After he recovered from the stabbing, he visited the attacker in prison. Beckett asked the man why he had decided to attack him; the man said simply, “I don’t know.” Beckett was deeply influenced by the conversation, and began to realize how much of life is just a random series of events.
As an Irish citizen, Beckett was allowed to remain in Paris even after the Germans occupied the city. He chose to remain with Suzanne, and they both worked in the French Resistance until the Gestapo captured some of the members of their group. They went into hiding in rural France, where Beckett spent the rest of the occupation working on a farm and passing messages for the Resistance.
Beckett wrote a great deal beginning in the 1930s: poems, stories, novels, and essays. But it was a play he wrote in 1952 that made him famous. That was Waiting for Godot, which was first performed in 1953. Godot was groundbreaking. Typically, plays are concerned with questions that Beckett considered nonessential: will the hero gain fame or fortune, will he win the hand of his lady, will he live happily ever after? In Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s two characters are more concerned with the reason for their existence: what are we here for? One critic hailed it as “a masterpiece that will cause despair for men in general and for playwrights in particular.” It changed what a play could do. As Beckett scholar Ruby Cohn wrote: “After Godot, plots could be minimal; exposition, expendable; characters, contradictory; settings, unlocalized, and dialogue, unpredictable. Blatant farce could jostle tragedy.” The identity of the mysterious Godot has been the subject of much debate; Beckett once said, “If I knew, I would have said so in the play.”
Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969, but by this time he was avoiding all publicity to focus solely on his art. He accepted the award, but did not go to Stockholm for the awards ceremony because he didn’t want to make a public speech. His work became more and more sparse as he stripped away everything he decided was not essential. In 1967, he wrote a play, Come and Go, which contained only 121 words, which were spoken by three characters. His play Rockaby (1980) is only 15 minutes long, and his prose works also became shorter and shorter. He wrote a total of six novels, four long plays, many short plays and story fragments, and poems, teleplays, and essays. Beckett was also a prolific letter writer. His letters have been published in two volumes, and last year even more material was published as Dear Mr. Beckett: Letters from the Publisher, the Samuel Beckett File (2016).