Samuel Beckett

By: Franklin Bruno
April 13, 2010

“The laugh sensation of two continents” — so ran the promotional tagline for the first US production of Waiting For Godot, and it’s become de rigueur to cast low comics (Bert Lahr, Robin Williams) in the play that transformed SAMUEL BECKETT (1906-89) from an underappreciated modernist novelist (Murphy, Malone Dies) into the 20th century’s most influential dramatist. It’s undeniable that broad humor, verbal and physical, leavens his early prose and best-known plays (Endgame, Happy Days), but the picture of the one-time Joyce and Proust scholar as a schtickmeister is hardly complete: For Beckett’s figures, joking — like eating, farting, counting, speaking and not speaking — is a futile but necessary stay against death and time (which “would have passed anyway.”) While “I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” has long been Jan. 1 on the Existentialist Quote-a-Day Calendar, a passage from the late prose text Worstward Ho looks to be gaining ground: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Failbetter now names a hip literary website, and Slajov Žižek has recently proposed Beckett’s lines as a possible mantra for future communists. If linking this most “universal” of authors to worldly political commitment seems perverse, recall Beckett’s own comment on his activities as a message-carrier for the French Resistance: “I couldn’t stand with my arms folded.”


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