Such a parsing of into which school Samuel Beckett can be slotted may seem to be nothing more than intellectual engagement -- not that there is anything wrong with this -- but it also serves as an important way of assessing both the "Irishness" and the humor of Beckett's writings. Unlike a writer like John Synge, for example, or William Butler Yeats, Beckett is generally not clearly identifiable as Irish from the dialect or settings or historical references in his writings. (This is especially true, of course, once he begins to write in French.) But there are hints of his nationality in this back-and-forthing that he does with literary genres and literary conventions. Such liberty with self-identification in terms of artistic identity is not solely Irish, of course. But an unwillingness to be categorized neatly does seem to be clearly associated with colonial identity. Ireland in Beckett's time was still culturally and politically very much a colony, very much a nation that did not get to define himself. By refusing to be a single kind of writer, Beckett both acknowledges and laments this kind of colonial sidelining.
But Is It Funny?
Beckett's plays are full of the absurd, of things that cannot happen, or cannot happen together. He writes lines of dialogue that are full of legerdemain, pulling not rabbits out of hats (although this too is absurd when one thinks of it -- why rabbits, after all?) but words that stick to each other like gorse to tweed. An exchange like the following from the second act of Waiting for Godot seems to be just lighthearted word play at first, but the volleys back and forth between Vladimir and Estragon are their method for wearing down each other's humanity:
When you seek you hear.
That prevents you from finding.
That prevents you from thinking.
You think all the same.
No no, it's impossible.
That's the idea, let's contradict each another.
You think so?
We're in no danger of ever thinking any more.
Then what are we complaining about?
Thinking is not the worst.
Perhaps not. But at least there's that.
That's the idea, let's ask each other questions.
It's a funny scene because of its absurdity. Beckett manages to convey an important truth in this scene -- thinking isn't the worst thing, after all, feeling is -- with the bluntest of instruments. This is key to humor throughout Beckett's work: He presents us with layers of incongruities and so we find ourselves laughing at his characters in the same way that we do at the clown with the too-big shoes and the absurdly large hammer. Beckett's world is, behind the austerity of his language and the outright misery of most of his characters most of the time, a funhouse one.
The same theme of what is the worst that can happen -- and then could be worse still -- comes up again in Endgame, as in this scene:
Clov: You've got on with it, I hope.
Hamm: (modestly). Oh not very far, not very far. (He sighs.) There are days like that, one isn't inspired. (Pause). No forcing, no forcing, it's fatal. (Pause.) I've got on with it a little all the same. (Pause.) Technique, you know. (Pause. Irritably) I say I've got on with it a little all the same.
Clov: (admiringly). Well I never! In spite of...
Oh not very far, you know, not very far, but nevertheless, better than nothing.
Clov: Better than nothing! Is it possible?
We in the audience are prepared to answer, "Of course it is possible." But then we are overtaken by the farcical nature of Beckett's writing and characters. Maybe, after all, nothing is as good as we can expect.
Krapp's Last Tape, which premiered in 1958 as an accompaniment to the play Endgame (first performed the previous year) is like so many of Beckett's works most immediately grim: This is our impression as we watch the lone actor on the stage. That life is grim. That human existence is indeed as nasty, brutish, and short as Hobbes could have imagined. Nothing redeems us. And yet -- again -- Beckett asks us to laugh at this fact. No, life goes on in its tedium and smallness and terribleness. And we can live with this, and even smile (Barrett, 1965).
While Beckett does not conform to stereotypes of Irish humor, he does play with stereotypes of the Irish, something that is most obvious in Krapp's Last Tape. In this set of stage directions from Krapp's Last Tape he plays with stereotypes of the Irish drunk -- the jolly Irish drunk. And yet he plays with this stereotype, makes it unfamiliar. He introduces one of the most absurd of all physical props -- the banana -- into a scene of "typical" excessive Irish drinking. By doing so, by emphasizing the what-does-not-belong in this picture nature of the scene, he invites us to laugh along with him at the unexpectedness of the choices that humans make.
Krapp switches off, broods. Finally he fumbles in his pockets, encounters the banana, takes it out, peers at it, puts it back, fumbles, brings out the envelope, fumbles, puts back envelope, looks at his watch, gets up and goes backstage into darkness. Ten seconds. Sound of bottle against glass, then brief siphon. Ten seconds. Bottle against glass alone. Ten seconds. He comes back a little unsteadily into light, goes to the front of table, takes out keys, raises them to his eyes, chooses key, unlocks first drawer, peers into it, feels about inside it, takes out reel, peers at it, locks drawer, puts keys back in his pocket, goes and sits down, takes reel off machine, lays it on dictionary, loads virgin reel on machine, takes envelope from his pocket, consults back of it, lays it on table, switches on, clears his throat and begins to record.
At the very end of this set of stage directions, we feel that we should know what comes next. We know this scene, after all. The Irish drunk pushes up to the bar, demands a drink -- but of course that scene is not this scene. Beckett has his drunken Irishmen drinking offstage. Our expectations have, in fact, been turned upside down from the very beginning.
Faced with such incongruity wrapped inside the unexpected curled into the enigma of both humor and Irish identity, we find ourselves smiling. Wryly, and even sadly. That last is the core of Beckett's humor: There are things that can make us simultaneously smile and cry.
Barrett, William. Real Love Abides. The New York Times, September 16, 1956.
Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works. New York: Faber and Faber, 2006.
Cronin, Anthony. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Fiedler, Leslie, Search for Peace in a World Lost. The New York Times, August 3, 1997.
Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Spender, Stephen. Lifelong Suffocation. The New York Times,…