Irishon the BBC
Samuel Beckett, writer, dramatist and poet, has earned critical acclaim for his unrelentingly bleak style of writing.
He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 for his work which showed ‘the destitution of modern man’. He was awarded the highest honour of Aosdána, the title of Saoi of the Irish literary association.
In this clip Alan Titley profiles the life and works of Samuel Beckett, about his success writing in French and about his lesser-known role as a soldier in the French Rèsistance.
Beckett was born in Foxrock, Dublin, on April 13th 1906. His family is believed to have descended from French stock, originally Becquet, and certainly Beckett himself showed an affinity with the language and the capital city of France. He began learning French as a young child, and later studied the language at Trinity College Dublin. In his subsequent career he began writing in French as he believed it freed him from the poetic style of the English language, and is quoted as saying that in French it was easier to write “without style”. He moved to Paris for the first time in 1928, and settled there permanently in 1937 after travelling throughout Europe. It was in Paris that he was introduced to fellow expatriate James Joyce, and began a friendship that would last many years. Joyce acted as mentor to the young Beckett and influenced his work greatly.
Despite his academic and sporting excellence at school, Portora Royal School Enniskillen, he suffered from depression and spent much of his life feeling alone and detached from society. Beckett is renowned for the desolation of his writing, and for the dark gallows humour amidst his grim sense of futility. He loved to shock, confuse and offend, which he did frequently. The Catholic authorities in Ireland did not approve of the themes of Beckett’s work, and whose condemnation of him led to some Dublin bookshops refusing to stock his work. He began teaching in Belfast after finishing his degree, and later returned to Trinity College as a lecturer, but he gave up these jobs as he felt that habit and routine stifled his creativity as a writer.
When living in France during the World War II German occupation, Beckett was appalled at the Nazis and joined the French Resistance. When his unit was betrayed to the Gestapo he fled to Vaucluse in south-east France, where he lived in hiding until the end of the war. He produced the novel Watt in this period. However, Beckett’s bravado, or perhaps modesty, would lead him to refer to this period in the resistance as “boy scout stuff”!
After his first three novels in French; ‘Molloy’, ‘Malone Meurt’ and ‘L’Innommable’, were published between 1951 and 1953, Beckett was thrust into the literary spotlight and was considered among the top writers in Europe at the time. His masterpiece play, ‘En attendant Godot’, or ‘Waiting for Godot’, was written in a few months and premièred in January 1953 and ran for over four hundred performances, despite critics’ description of it as a play in which nothing happens – twice”! It was met with controversy and negative reviews in London initially, but became more popular in England following a favourable review in The Sunday Times.
His next play Endgame continued with his theme of despair and the incomprehensibility of the world. Beckett continued with his theme of despair in his next drama, ‘Endgame’, also written in French. In this play, and in Beckett’s later works, he changed the rules of theatre and ignored the usual conventions. He radically altered the concept of plot, character development and dialogue. In addition, Beckett was never reluctant to confuse and disorient people, and actively avoided those who sought to find clear meaning in his writing.
Beckett continued to write until his death in 1989 in a French nursing home.
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