Samuel Beckett was born near Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1906 into a Protestant, middle class home. His father was a quantity surveyor and his mother worked as a nurse. At the age of 14 he was sent to the same school that Oscar Wilde attended.
Beckett is known to have commented, “I had little talent for happiness.” This was evidenced by his frequent bouts of depression, even as a young man. He often stayed in bed until late in the afternoon and hated long conversations. As a young poet he apparently rejected the advances of James Joyce’s daughter and then commented that he did not have feelings that were human. This sense of depression would show up in much of his writing, especially in Waiting for Godot where it is a struggle to get through life.
Samuel Beckett moved to Paris in 1926 and met James Joyce. He soon respected the older writer so much that at the age of 23 he wrote an essay defending Joyce’s magnum opus to the public. In 1927, one year later, he won his first literary prize for his poem entitled “Whoroscope.” The essay was about the philosopher Descartes meditating on the subject of time and about the transiency of life. Beckett then completed a study of Proust which eventually led him to believe that habit was the “cancer of time.” At this point Beckett left his post at Trinity College and traveled.
Beckett journeyed through Ireland, France, England, and Germany and continued to write poems and stories. It is likely that he met up with many of the tramps and vagabonds who later emerged in his writing, such as the two tramps Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. On his travels through Paris Beckett would always visit with Joyce for long periods.
Beckett permanently made Paris his home in 1937. Shortly after moving there, he was stabbed in the street by a man who had begged him for money. He had to recover from a perforated lung in the hospital. Beckett then went to visit his assailant, who remained in prison. When Beckett demanded to know why the man had attacked him, he replied “Je ne sais pas, Monsieur.” This attitude about life comes across in several of the author’s later writings.
During World War II Beckett joined the underground movement in Paris to resist the Germans. He remained in the resistance until 1942 when several members of his group were arrested. Beckett was forced to flee with his French-born wife to the unoccupied zone. He only returned in 1945 after Paris was liberated from the Germans. He soon reached the pinnacle of his writing career, producing Waiting for Godot, Eleutheria, Endgame, the novels Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, and Mercier et Camier, two books of short stories, and a book of criticism.
Samuel Beckett’s first play was Eleutheria and involved a young man’s efforts to cut himself loose from his family and social obligations. This has often been compared to Beckett’s own search for freedom. Beckett’s great success came on January 5, 1953, when Waiting for Godotpremiered at the Theatre de Babylone. Although critics labeled the play “the strange little play in which ‘nothing happens,’” it gradually became a success as reports of it spread through word of mouth. It eventually ran for four hundred performances at the Theatre de Babylone and was heralded with critical praise from dramatists such as Tennessee Williams, Jean Anouilh, Thornton Wilder, and William Saroyan. Saroyan even remarked that, “It will make it easier for me and everyone else to write freely in the theatre.” An interesting production of Waiting for Godot took place when some actors from the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop performed the play at the San Quentin penitentiary for over fourteen hundred convicts in 1957. The prisoners immediately identified with both Vladimir and Estragon about the pains of waiting for life to end, and the struggle of the daily existence. The production was perhaps the most successful ever. Beckett’s second masterpiece. Endgame, premiered on April 3, 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
All of Beckett’s major works were written in French. He believed that French forced him to be more disciplined and to use the language more wisely. However, Waiting for Godot was eventually translated into the English by Beckett himself.
Samuel Beckett also became one of the first absurdist playwrites to win international fame. His works have been translated into over twenty languages. In 1969 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, one of the few times this century that almost everyone agreed the recipient deserved it. He continued to write until his death in 1989, but towards the end he remarked that each word seemed to him “an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”