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October 23, 2017

Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett's Last Days

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), it 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. It was not bound for the fame of Waiting for Godot and Endgame, but something companionable: "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."

At something under an hour, Krapp's Last Tape is one of Beckett's longer plays. If it is uncharacteristically sentimental, it is characteristically hilarious and reductive. "I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more," Beckett said in one of his last talks with Knowlson. "I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding." The play almost dramatizes this discovery. For decades, Krapp has been making a tape recording on his birthday, trying to document and decipher his life. On this sixty-ninth birthday, as he plays back "Box three, spool five," he all but gags on the crap he thought to record as a younger man:
    ...The vision, at last. This I fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and no place left in my memory, warm or cold for the miracle that ... (hesitates) ... for the fire that set it alight. 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 ...)
When Krapp finds courage to begin this year's birthday tape, it is clear why it will be his last: "Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago..." Still, perhaps it won't be the last after all: "Sometimes wondered in the night if a last effort mightn't--(Pause.) Ah finish your booze now and get to your bed. Go on with this drivel in the morning. Or leave it at that. Leave it at that."

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.
Knowlson's portrait of Beckett shows a man who was not unrelentingly private and anguished. Friends and colleagues offer endless examples of his wit, especially over a pint of Guinness. And of his generosity: he gave all his Nobel money away, most of it anonymously. His last days were spent in a nursing home -- a simple room, an evening whiskey, a borrowed television for the Saturday rugby match. His last work, a poem written some months before his death on December 22, 1989, shows the struggle continuing right to the end. It is entitled "What is the Word."

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