Beckett's Krapp

October 28: On this day in 1958 Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape was first performed. According to the authorized biography (Damned to Fame, James Knowlson, 1996), the play was one of the author's favorite works—a "nicely sad and sentimental" play about which he felt "as an old hen with her last chick," Beckett wrote in his letters at the time, but not likely to achieve the fame of Waiting for Godot and Endgame: "It will be like the little heart of an artichoke served before the tripes with excrement of Hamm and Clov. People will say: good gracious, there is blood circulating in the old man's veins after all, one would never have believed it; he must be getting old."

 

For decades, as an attempt to document and decipher his life, the aging Krapp has been making a tape recording on his birthday. On this sixty-ninth birthday, as he plays back "Box three, spool five," he all but gags on the precious thoughts of "that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago":

What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely—(Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again)—great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most—(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape forward...)

In some ways, Beckett's last years were as Krapp's—a hopeless compulsion to articulate what words couldn't ever seem to capture, to "fail better." One letter from 1983: "I remember an entry in Kafka's diary. 'Gardening. No hope for the future.' At least he could garden. There must be words for it. I don't expect ever to find them." And another letter several months later: "The wall won't recede and I have no reverse gears. Can't turn either." At about his time he was writing What Where, the play that turned out to be his last, and which ended in tape recorder fashion:

Time passes.

That is all.

Make sense who may.

I switch off.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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