‘I'd be quite incapable of writing a critical introduction to my own works.’
A generation after his death, Samuel Beckett remains one of the giants of twentieth-century literature and drama. More troubling for his critics, he is also one of the last century's most potent literary myths. Like other ‘modernists’, he has a reputation for obscurity and difficulty, yet despite this his work permeates our culture in unique ways. The word ‘Beckettian’ resonates even amongst those who know little Beckett. It evokes a bleak vision of life leavened by mordant humour: derelict tramps on a bare stage waiting desperately for nothing, a legless old couple peering out of dustbins, geriatric narrators babbling out their final incoherent mumblings. It evokes sparseness and minimalism and, with them, a forensic, pitiless urge to strip away, to expose, to deal in piths and essences.
Part of the reason that Beckettian images have seeped into popular culture is of course because of his peerless influence on post-war drama. His stage images have a visual and concrete dimension that the modernist poets and novelists arguably lack. One can visualise the spare Beckettian stage more easily than the poetic urban wasteland. Moreover his plays are not perceived as so forbiddingly highbrow that several have not become staples of repertory theatre. The Beckett ‘myth’ or ‘brand’ has been fuelled by two related phenomena: Beckett's refusal to offer any explication of his own work, his insistence that they simply ‘mean what they say’, coupled with his determined reclusivity (a horror of publicity that led his wife to greet news of his 1969 Nobel Prize for literature with the words ‘Quelle catastrophe!’).
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