As with Brecht’s plays, every dramatist writing after 1945 must contend with the plays of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). For both the American and European theatre, Beckett and Brecht — operating from opposite sides of the aesthetic and ideological divide — turned the conventions of the pre-war theatre upside-down. No dramatist — and no critic — can be said to appreciate the massive earthquake these two writers represented without a close, intense, rigorous, and long investigation of their work.
Beckett’s plays after 1962 (Play) exhibited a far more revolutionary aesthetic stance than those before 1962. Shorn to the bare elements of expression, these plays regard the individual as fractured and fragmented from the start, their lives directed towards constructing, in vain, a meaningful experience. In this case, the individual has not disintegrated — this assumes an original integrated personality — but the certainty of consciousness itself is shattered, dispersed along a personal history lived within the terrifying structures of time and memory. Like the three dramatis personae of Play, the characters of Not I and That Time inescapably live and relive the events and occasions of personal catastrophe.
Towards the end of his playwriting career, with his final two plays Catastrophe and What Where, Beckett turned to more explicitly political concerns which echoed his own public activities in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and the suppression of individual thought and expression in the countries of the Eastern Bloc. The director of the first play and the torturer of the second suggest the superego of personal certainty which seeks to shape a world; this certainty always leads to the manipulation and destruction of the Other. In this, Beckett explores the dangers of political power, imperial colonialism, and cultural adventurism writ large; in Catastrophe, Beckett’s setting of the play in a theatre (and Catastrophe is one of the few late plays that take place in a specific locale) implicates the author in arranging and manipulating the mute individual at the mercy of the director, his assistant, and the lighting designer.
The presentation of sexuality and gender in Beckett’s plays is problematic, and there is a stream of contemporary criticism that is undertaking a study of this presentation. Sex and erotic love, when they’re an element of his plays and prose at all, are regarded with an impotent amusement at best, with disgust and violence at worst. This dismay does not belong merely to the reproductive dimension of sex and romantic love, but even to pleasure itself. For Beckett, his biographers suggest, a genial bonhomie through compassion and forgiveness might be the best basis for interpersonal relationships; but even this is a veneer of urbane civility which only prevents one from doing one’s worst to one’s fellow human beings — it does not eradicate the underlying destructive force upon which all existence is founded.
In an era in which egocentric certainty and pride have the highest value in self-presentation, an active self-doubt might be the most revolutionary stance a dramatist can take — a self-doubt which reaches not merely to everyday activity, but also to the significance of individual existence.
Beckett’s plays can be found in Volume 3 of Grove Press’ Collected Works of Samuel Beckett — at 500 pages, the collection lacks both Eleutheria and the very early Human Wishes, both of which are available elsewhere, but is otherwise complete. The secondary literature on Beckett is far too broad and varied to permit the selection of only one or two books, but the authorized life is James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (1996). Anthony Cronin’s and Deirdre Bair’s biographies are also of interest, even if Bair’s has gained something of an unwarranted notoriety. The second volume of the collected letters (there will be four in all) from Cambridge University Press has just been published.
Beckett studied Schopenhauer systematically at two points in his life — in 1929/1930, just before embarking on his Proust monograph, and then again in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first volume of The World as Will and Representation represents the cornerstone of Schopenhauer’s philosophy; E.F.J. Payne’s translation and that of the ongoing Cambridge series of Schopenhauer’s writings can be recommended.
My own past writings about Beckett are here.