The poet and playwright Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock near Dublin in 1906 and died in Paris in 1989. He is considered one of the most important authors of the theater of the absurd and of the 20th century in general. In 1969 Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is known to a wide audience primarily for his dramas, especially “Waiting for Godot”. But his work also includes prose and poetry.
Childhood and upbringing
Samuel Beckett was born on April 13, 1906 in Foxrock near Dublin. He was the second child of the wealthy Anglican couple May and William Beckett. At school he stood out for his outstanding athletic performance. At the age of thirteen he went to the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen / Fermanagh, which Oscar Wilde had also attended about 50 years earlier.
Studies and literary beginnings
From 1923 Beckett studied Romance languages and English at Trinity College in Dublin. Educational trips took him to France, Venice and Florence in 1926 and 1927. After completing his studies at the top of his class in 1927, Beckett first worked as a high school teacher in Belfast, then for two years as an English lecturer at the renowned École normal supérieure in Paris. He found access to the Parisian artistic life and met his twenty-four years older and famous compatriot James Joyce. The encounter made a strong impression on Beckett and he worked as his secretary for a time.
Beckett’s first publications began in 1929; however, his works were repeatedly rejected by the publishers. As a result, Beckett did not even submit his 1932 novel “Dream of more to less beautiful women”; the work was published in 1992 from the estate. In 1930 Beckett returned to Trinity College in Dublin as an assistant, but found it difficult to settle in again. In the same year he won a poetry competition with the poem “Whoroscope”.
As a result of psychosomatic illnesses, Beckett decided to end his academic career in late 1931. He made trips to Germany and France. After the death of his father and his childhood sweetheart Peggy Sinclair in 1933, Beckett’s health problems intensified. He started psychotherapeutic treatment in London. During a six-month trip to Germany in 1936/37, he met with artists and observed the cultural scene. He commented sharply on the changes brought about by Nazi rule.
In 1937 Beckett finally moved to Paris, where he met the young pianist Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who would become his wife twenty-four years later. He met the artists Alberto Giacometti and Marcel Duchamp and had a brief affair with Peggy Guggenheim.
Second World War
When the Second World War broke out, Beckett was in Ireland, but immediately traveled back to Paris. During the German occupation, Beckett and Suzanne worked for a resistance group of the Resistance. Many members of their group were arrested, but Beckett and Suzanne were able to go into hiding in Roussillon, in the unoccupied southern France. There Beckett worked on his novel “Watt”.
Literary breakthrough and successful years
After the war, Beckett decided on his own style, with which he wanted to set himself apart from James Joyce: According to Beckett’s biographer James Knowson, Beckett consciously chose the shortage and the omission. Back in Paris in 1946, Beckett began writing consistently in French. A very productive period of about fifteen years began with the novel Mercier and Camier, several short stories and art reviews.
On January 5, 1953, “Waiting for Godot” premiered at the Théâtre de Babylone in Paris and established Beckett’s fame as an author of the theater of the absurd. The same apocalyptic mood as in “Waiting for Godot” can also be found in the pieces “Endgame”, “The Last Volume” or “Happy Days”. All are about the futility of human existence, about desperation in the face of a world that is equally incomprehensible and indifferent.
Beckett’s much-noticed prose works of that time are the novels “Molloy” (1951), “Malone dies” (1952) and “Der Namenlose” (1953), which are becoming increasingly sparse and puristic. They are pessimistic and hopeless, but nevertheless characterized by an inexplicable will to survive or persevere.
Late years and death
In 1961 Beckett married Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. Shortly before, he had started a relationship with Barbara Bray, who worked as a dramaturge for the BBC. Beckett remained connected to both women until his death. In 1969 Beckett received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
As early as 1956 Beckett had written his first radio play with “All who fall there”; the original broadcast was in 1957. In the following years he wrote other radio plays and numerous theater and television pieces, some of which were staged by himself. His pieces became strikingly minimalist and sometimes consisted of just a single camera shot or a few words. In 1982 he dedicated the short play “Catastrophe” to the imprisoned Czech writer and human rights activist Václav Havel.
Suzanne died in July 1989, Samuel Beckett on December 22, 1989. Their grave is on the Cimitière Montparnasse in Paris. Barbara Bray died in Edinburgh in 2010.