Monday, April 11, 2011

Top 5 Beckett Works

Recently picked up a copy of the complete plays of Beckett. Slightly less recently, went to a Beckett party where we watched  hours of the Beckett on Film box set the BBC put out and also drank a lot of absinthe. Damn good times.
I think he's mostly laughing at us.
Anyway, as a result of these events I've been reading a lot of Beckett lately. I'll probably be putting up a full profile on him soon and why you need--need--to familiarize yourself with the man's worldview. But since sitting down with Worstward Ho earlier this year I've come to respect the man as a hero and to tear through a huge amount of his back catalog. So, if you're interested in tackling one of the greatest writers of the modern age, these are the five I'd suggest starting with.

#5: Waiting for Godot (En attendant Godot)
From a Korean production of the play.
The obvious, the classic, the infamous.  Godot is, out of all of Beckett's works, the one that both encapsulates his themes (oblivion, black comedy, infinite repetition, the struggle to find joy in the face of the bottomless pit of the human experience) and, by a vast degree, his most approachable. It's incredibly comic--Didi and Gogo remain, decades later, one of the warmest, funniest, and most human comic duos of all time--while still addressing some incredibly dark questions. Is there a way to find redemption? Are we even fallen, or is this just the way of things? Is suicide a solution to boredom, or just a guaranteed way to get an erection?

If you only read one Beckett work make it this one. I don't necessarily think it's his best, but it's a piece whose importance is impossible to overestimate. Honestly, that might be why it only ranks #5 on this list: it's such a hugely influential work that its basic premise--a small cast has weird, existential conversation and nothing happens (or, as was famously pointed out, nothing happens twice)-- has become a staple of theater. Reading Godot nowadays, it's hard to remember what a revolutionary thing it was. Also, the piece itself has moved so much into popular consciousness (see Waiting for Elmo) that it's hard for it to genuinely surprise as much as it really deserves to.

Beckett: into minimalist existentialist tragicomedy before it was cool.
My advice to readers is to, for the love of god, eschew trying to read the play allegorically. Vladimir is not a symbol of Communism, Estragon is not the French Aristocracy, and Godot is NOT God. Try and approach this (and the other plays) as their own self-contained worlds and their characters as human beings in their own right. Rather than symbols, look at the story and the ideas that it dances around and the questions it poses.

#4: Krapp's Last Tape
Yes, that's a banana, and yes, he's about to slip on the peel.
Krapp's (pronounced just like it looks) has an unfair advantage in this contest. Whereas I read all the other plays on this list before seeing them (I know, I know, but surprisingly enough it's hard for a college student to go see art-house theater on a regular basis), my first experience with Krapp's Last Tape was the Beckett on Film version. With John Hurt. The fact that my first exposure was a really polished performance with one of my absolute favorite actors definitely gives this play a leg up.
Come to think of it, "Oh no, not again" is a good mantra for a lot of Beckett's work.
(You can view the whole thing on Youtube, by the way). Krapp's Last Tape is a quiet play for one actor, about a man who has, for years, been recording journals and ruminations on big reel-to-reel tapes. Pretty much all he does with his life is listen to his memories, eat bananas, and go backstage to drink. It's a 69-year-old man listening to himself at 39, listening to the memories which still hurt and which foreshadow his current pain, and laughing at the promises his younger self made to improve his life.

It is a painful, painful play at times--not just for the way it speaks to self-disappointment and the failure to grow, but that it even more speaks to the tired despair that creates. Krapp will not be spurred by his last tape to move forward, he will not grow. He will sit in the darkness, repeating his rituals forever. There's an incredibly sharp note of terror there, too: you get the feeling watching it that Beckett had a nauseous fear that he would become Krapp, and it's hard not to get the same kind of guilty vertigo from it.
"Krapp has no one to talk to but his dying self and no one to talk to him but his dead self."

#3: The Unnamable (L'innomable)

The Unnamable is pretty much the closest to the void any writer has ever come. Its narrator is a human being with all the unnecessary elements stripped away: an upright torso, a round featureless head whose eye sockets only work for the blurriest of pictures and for tears--he only knows that what he sees is likely real and not a dream because he can feel the tears. It's incredibly hard to push your way through, being the textual equivalent of cold black water. At one point within the text, the narrator compares himself to a head in a jar that is somehow still conscious, and it feels like it.
Like that story arc with Keith Moon in Achewood, except impossibly bleak and soul-crushing.
Most of Beckett's work--especially the next piece I look at, I promise--forms a set of strategies for transversing the bottomless pit at the bottom of human life. The Unnamable does not. The Unnamable is instead a map of that pit--a detailing of every aspect of the nothingness, the texture of the cold and dark we have to keep pulling ourselves through.

It does end, however, with the phrase that best encapsulates the Beckett-ian drive to endure the unendruable: "You go on. I can't go on. I'll go on."
Not even kittens will help you recover from The Unnamable.
#2: Worstward Ho
Ladies and Gentlemen, the best picture ever.

Worstward Ho, Beckett's last major work, is in many ways a companion to The Unnamable. Like its dark twin, it positions us in the middle of the void, speaking a language that's been all but reduced to ruins. "On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on." The work is obsessed with heading to "nohow"--a state of meaningless entropy, an eternal shrug--and perpetual decline. Blindness, the ineffectiveness of the flesh, and an old man and son plodding into the shadows are the recurring themes. The whole work is, as the title suggests, focused on the perpetual motion of things from bad to worse.
"First the bones. On back to them. Preying since first said on foresaid remains. The ground. The pain."
Yet Worstward Ho is a hopeful book. As the title suggests, it cheers on the decline worstward. Beckett elaborates throughout the text the idea which formed the mission statement of his whole artistic career: the joy to be found in oblivion. The narrator can barely see, but he isn't blind. He clings to life--just barely, but he clings nonetheless. The old man and son plod forever onwards, but they remain together, hand in hand.

The essential meaning is that yes, we are in a state of decline and we are moving ever downward, but at least we're moving. To remain as we are would be the true oblivion of paralysis. To move worstward ho, to head towards nohow, is still motion, and thus life.

(There's a really good annotated/translated version of the text here).

#1: Endgame (Fin de partie)
An endgame, in chess, is the last moments, when there are so few pieces on the board that the King enters the fray and the conclusion seems apparent. The French title refers to the point in any game at which one player's eventual victory becomes a foregone conclusion.
That's pretty much what the play is about. Its four characters (Hamm, who is blind and cannot stand, Clov, his servant with poor eyes and poor legs who cannot sit, and Nag and Nell, Hamm's parents who live in trashcans) are trapped in a gray room in the middle of nowhere. There is a shore nearby, but the weather is always gay, the time is always zero, and there is no life outside their room. (Yes, people have made the Cold War connection). They berate each other, with Hamm ruling over the rest of the "family" like a spoiled child--one of his first lines in the play is to monologue about how no one has had to suffer more than he. "Granted, they suffer in as much as such creatures can suffer, but can it compare to mine?" He demands that Clov, his long-suffering servant and, occasionally, affectionate friend, entertain him and he and the other characters go through petty routines and tired arguments.

HAMM: I won't feed you.
CLOV: Then I'll die.
HAMM: I'll feed you just enough to keep you alive.
CLOV: Then I shan't die.
From the Beckett on Film collection. That's Michael Gambon as Hamm. Or possibly, Michael Jambon as Ham!(I got French puns, folks!)
What makes Endgame my favorite Beckett piece is the fact that this pathos is so incredibly balanced with the comic. It goes to much, much, much darker places than Godot (in Godot they just wait, not suffer endlessly at the end of the world-- the cast of Endgame don't have the option of walking away, and only one of them can even move on his own). But the whole thing is run through with both incredibly complex metaphysical humor (the emotional sadism of Hamm is coupled with an incredibly childish affection and dependency) and goofy slapstick (Clov endlessly adjusting Hamm's wheelchair by millimeters so that he can be in the exact center of the room). 

It's one of Beckett's only works that dips down into that kind of bleakness while still offering us the escape of comedy. Moreso even than Godot, it epitomizes everything great about him.(View the Gambon version here)
You've done something right when this image can represent you.


  1. For my money, "Company" trumps "Worstward Ho." It's less didactic and engages the senses more, or at least alerts them more to their absence. Plus that "Fail better" line has become a cliche in surface-level Beckett discussions. However, "Worstward Ho"'s clearer sentences serve better to introduce Beckett's late prose style, so it fits better on your list.

    If you haven't read "Watt," check it out. It's his second novel in English, and it comes at a point when he's still under Joyce's shadow, still having a grand old time with Joycean experimentation. It's not as indulgent and profuse as "Murphy," his first novel, but he has fun with the English Language. The language is striking in contrast to his French or later (post-French) English. Also, I've never laughed harder at a Beckett work. Not even close.

    Thanks for the post! I'd like to see more people read beyond the four big plays and the three big novels. "Worstward Ho" is probably the best way to start.

  2. While I mostly agree with your list and analysis I must point out that you've approached Waiting for Godot, Krapp's Last Tape, and Endgame purely as literature rather than dramatic works. Beckett did not intend these plays to be read but rather to be performed, and it is truly the performances that make these plays great--or in the case of a some productions, awful.

    Consider Krapp's Last Tape. Beckett wrote the character of Krapp specifically with Patrick Magee in mind, thus shaping his play around a specific actor and a specific type of performance. But to see this specific performance, to truly understand what Beckett was going for, one must look to the production and not merely the script. Given this, it is perhaps not a coincidence that both Waiting for Godot and Endgame have become among his more popular works. While the writing in Krapp's Last Tape is remarkable, it is not as readily performable. Waiting for Godot, while perhaps not the same caliber of writing, is immensely more watchable. This suggests that Waiting for Godot, while not a greater piece of literature, may perhaps be a better play. If you don't agree, I suggest looking into the production histories of each play; they are remarkably different.

    I would never presume to weigh either the script or the performance greater than the other, but they must work in tandem and their partnership must be acknowledged when discussing a playwright as unique as Beckett. Other than that, a well reasoned post.

  3. Do you know who owns the photo of the smiling beckett? i thought of using it myself..?