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Samuel Beckett's minimalist, bleak writings about alienation, death, and language made him one of the 20th-century's most influential playwrights, one of the founders of the Theatre of the Absurd, and a favorite of academic and avant- garde intellectuals alike. Beckett was born in Foxrock, Ireland, in 1906, lived an uneventful childhood, and after he graduated from Trinity College, moved to Paris. There he became friends with fellow Irish expatriate James Joyce, and became the venerable author's personal assistant, taking dictation for Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake.
During World War II, Beckett joined the French Resistance and fled from the Nazis. He hid in a village in Southern France with his girlfriend, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, for over two years. He and Dechevaux-Dumesnil marry in 1961. He wrote poetry and prose while in France, but it was not until his French- language theatrical masterpiece—Attendant en Godot—which he later translated into English as
Waiting for Godot
—was staged in Paris in 1953 that Beckett gained his own renown. The play was hailed for its stark portrayal of two tramps who wait endlessly on a deserted road for a man named Godot who never arrives. Beckett was also later recognized for his novel trilogy written in the late 40s and 50s: Molloy,
Malone Dies, and The Unnamable.
While Beckett considered himself separate from the French Existentialist playwrights, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Eugène Ionesco, their shared themes and technical innovations united them under the umbrella "Theatre of the Absurd." Taken from an essay of French philosopher Albert Camus, the Absurdists believed that the world was beyond rational explanation, that the universe was chaotic, and that man had to commit himself to something important to make life meaningful. They employed new techniques to communicate their ideas. While the static, stripped action and dialogue of Beckett's plays may now seem like bad performance art, at the time they were revolutionary. He focused especially on silences and the unspoken desires of humans, and the way death dominates our thoughts. He developed his work in the successful plays Endgame (1957), Krapp's Last Tape (1958), and Happy Days, which was first performed in 1961. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, but refused to go to Switzerland to accept the award in person and it is also rumored that he gave the prize money to needy artists. He continued writing for the theater, as well as for radio and television, through the 60s and 70s, though he never regained the startling success he had with his early plays. He maintained a quiet life in Paris until his death, of respiratory problems, on December 22, 1989. His influence is far-reaching, and his plays are still among the most performed in the world. Actors as varied as Buster Keaton and Robin Williams have tackled his philosophical, comic roles. The name Samuel Beckett transcends mere ideas or theatrical schools; it stands for a cosmic and comic vision of pessimism and paralysis, despair and destiny, wanting and waiting.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Happy Days!