Introduction to Samuel Beckett: Life, Plays, and Novels

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  • 1:03 Beckett & Joyce
  • 2:19 WWII - Post-WWII
  • 4:15 Theater of the Absurd
  • 6:24 Trilogy Novels
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Farran Tabrizi
This video will introduce the late modernist author and playwright Samuel Beckett. A close friend of James Joyce, Beckett's works typically portray a meaningless, absurd existence. This is epitomized in his most famous work, 'Waiting for Godot.'

Samuel Beckett

We're going to be talking about Samuel Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd. He's a writer who is kind of on the latter end of Modernism and right up into Postmodernism; he straddles that border a little bit.

He was born in Ireland in 1906 on Friday the 13th, which was Good Friday, so he was clearly destined for great things as well as slightly creepy things. He's most famous now for his plays, particularly Waiting for Godot, which was first performed in 1953.

He also wrote prose. Actually, he started out writing prose.

Beckett was born in Ireland in 1906.
samuel beckett

Samuel Beckett & James Joyce

He spent a lot of time hanging out with fellow Irish writer James Joyce early in his career. He helped him research and transcribe Finnegan's Wake. Beckett was basically his secretary, taking transcription, essentially, of Finnegan's Wake.

There is a story that a professor of mine used to tell, which may or may not be true, but gets at the essence of this relationship. Apparently, Joyce was saying what he wanted to write down and Beckett was typing it or writing it. Then, Joyce dropped something on his foot and swore. Beckett asked if that should go in the book and Joyce said, 'Yeah, just throw it in.' If you read Finnegan's Wake, you'll understand; everything is in that book. So that was what Joyce and Beckett got up to in an influential time in Beckett's career; he was a lot younger than Joyce at that time.

Beckett's Works

Through the 1930s, he publishes a few novels. He publishes story and poetry collections. The most famous of those is probably Murphy in 1938. Also, just as an aside, he loves M names, particularly in his fiction, not so much in his plays. Names that start with M and Beckett? They're like this.


He kind of bums around Germany for a while. He ends up in Paris. He almost dies when stabbed by a pimp (no joke!). He kind of upset him for some reason, though no one really knows. Then World War II breaks out and he joins the French Resistance. He hangs out doing that.

When World II ends, some important things happen for Beckett. The first is that he starts writing in French. His native language is English, but he knew French pretty well and he was able to write in it. So it's different than if, say, I were trying to write in German or something like that. But it's still going to have an effect on his prose and what he's able to do.

The second thing is that he makes a conscious decision that he's going to be way more minimalist and weird than he was prior to World War II. He makes this conscious decision to not be like Joyce. Joyce, especially by the end of his career, was trying to cram everything in, everything and the kitchen sink into his books.

For the sake of argument, let's compare Joyce to J.K. Rowling (post-book three when she maybe fires her editor). She puts everything in those books. There's nothing that's left out in those later Harry Potter books.

Beckett spent some time in Germany, then moved on to Paris.

If Beckett were telling the story of Harry Potter, it would probably be more like a conversation on a blank stage between Professor Quirrell (the guy with the turban who had Voldemort in the back of his head) and then the four creators of the Marauder's Map, which is just four guys and a map. It would be the most absurd, boiled down conversation between just random people. That's Beckett's take on material that Joyce would've tried to put everything in that's possible.

Theater of the Absurd

When Beckett is doing this kind of bizarro form of minimalism in theater, it's called the Theater of the Absurd. This is a movement that's getting going. It's not just him. It's getting going in the 50s and 60s in theater.

Waiting for Godot is the hallmark play of this. It premieres in 1953. It's about two dudes named Vladimir and Estragon. They are, you guessed it, waiting for Godot who (spoiler alert) never shows up. We also never really find out who he is.

Like I said before, it's really the centerpiece of the Theater of the Absurd. These plays tend to have characters that talk a lot and meander around, but without really a meaning to ground it. So they talk around meaningless, basically. So they kind of just bicker and talk about stuff.

Nothing really happens. It doesn't really go anywhere. But it's kind of funny. They circle this drain of nothingness, but in kind of a very funny way. A lot of the Theater of the Absurd is darkly comic.

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