Beckett Great and Not

Samuel BeckettLast year on this day, I celebrated the birth of Samuel Beckett. I do love his work. Although I have come to think that to some extent he’s overrated. Or rather that people appreciate him in the wrong way. For example, much of Waiting for Godot is pure silliness. That’s true of Happy Days and Endgame as well. Act Without Words I is cruel silliness. I’ve read that he was a big admirer of Charlie Chaplin. I don’t doubt that. Look at the business with the hats in Godot. That’s straight out of Vaudeville or silent comedy.

When Beckett is serious, he has a strong tendency toward the sentimental. But he was quite aware of this and so explicitly pushed against it. Look at Ohio Impromptu. It is extremely sentimental, which he manages to avoid focusing on too much with the use of repetition and the knocking. Much the same can be said of Krapp’s Last Tape or even Not I and Footfalls. They are still all brilliant, though.

In the end, I’m not sure what I get out of many of them. Certainly I get a great deal out of Godot and Krapp because I am very interested in those subjects. But a lot of his work is too involved with what can be done in the theater. Too much of it is intellectual more than truly affecting. There is far too much Come and Go, which like everything, I admire. But I don’t think there is too much of a point to his lesser work.

At the same time, I never tire of Waiting for Godot. I never tire Krapp’s Last Tape. But it simply isn’t true that he was always great. And this is despite the fact that he didn’t write that much. And of the few plays he wrote, most were short. Godot is about the only true full length play. Happy Days and Endgame are kind of like theater novellas . Krapp can be too, but it is only 20 short pages long in published form. So it shouldn’t shock us too much that every word was so well chosen given that there weren’t all that many of them.

Still, I do love his work. Here is Rick Cluchey in Krapp’s Last Tape in a production meant to mimic the way that Beckett felt it should be performed. The Beckett on Film version is not so reverential and it works better as a result. But I’m sick of embedding videos from that series because they always end up getting taken down.

Happy birthday Samuel Beckett!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Beckett Great and Not

  1. I’d argue that sentiment is what separates "Deadwood" and "The Wire" from "The Sopranos" and "Breaking Bad." You mentioned elsewhere that movies are for kids, TV shows for adults, and I’d agree. But I am tired of cable nihilism; it’s facile. I like just a bit, just a shred, of optimism in my art. Not so much it breaks reality as I grasp it. Just a tidge. Dark visions with a hint of light; that’s my speed.

  2. @JMF – I don’t especially mean to put down sentiment. My favorite dramatic combination is silly and sentimental. It is the essence of comedy.

    The main problem with [i]Breaking Bad[/i] was that the Jessie character wasn’t developed as far as he needed to be. The show focused too much on Walt and as a result, it became little more than fantasy. [i]Deadwood[/i] had far more complex and compelling characters. Some of them were even heroic, like Doc and Saul and even the deeply troubled Jane. I miss that show!

    But with serious work, there is a difference between sentiment and affection. Sentimental elicits pre-existing feelings. Affection creates new feelings. That’s what I’m getting at.

    I don’t mean to put down Beckett at all. I love his work. But there is too much reverence for him. And that is bad for the work.

  3. That’s a great distinction between "affection" and "sentiment." I’m going to use it. It’s like what defines a "cliche." Cliches don’t have to be old; you can make up new situations that manipulate audience expectations in a lazy, uninventive fashion. (I feel like a lot of current memoirists do this.) Or you can subvert old cliched story lines and plots and do something new with them, like Altman at his best.

    So: Frank is down on Shakes and Beckett for being overrated, high on Williams. I dunno if Wilde, Shaw, and Ibsen should be scared in heaven when their birthdays come up . . . ;)

  4. @JMF – That distinction is my literary take on an emotional distinction by Jiddu Krishnamurti. He was getting at the distinction of, for example, appreciating a sunset and more or less fooling yourself that you appreciate it because we all know we are supposed to appreciate sunsets. I think it is a more powerful concept when applied to literature.

    If I’m willing to criticize a writer like I do with those two, it usually indicates that I have spent a lot of time with them. I like them both a great deal, and my impression is that most people love them at the expense of appreciating them. It is kind of like the Krishnamurti thing: they know they should like them so they fail to really see them. I don’t know what I think about the other three. I’m pretty keen on them. I do, however, think that Chekhov is kind of overrated…

  5. Mr. Krishnamurthy sounds like a quite interesting individual . . .

    Thanks for reading as responding as always, and especially for your great work on the posts!

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