Dramaturg’s Note – Krapp’s Last Tape




Samuel Beckett was born in 1906 in Dublin to an upper-middle class, Protestant family.  He attended the same boarding school as Oscar Wilde had.  There, like many other leading English dramatists, he became fascinated with cricket (and, in Beckett’s case, rugby union and boxing).  He graduated in 1927 from Trinity College, Dublin, with a 1st class B.A. in French and Italian.

Having topped the class (as Wilde had before him) he was nominated as an exchange lecteur d’anglais [English speaker] at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieur in Paris and worked there from 1928-30.  At this time he met his compatriot novelist, James Joyce, and contributed the opening essay to a volume praising Joyce’s work.  He also wrote a monograph on the French novelist, Marcel Proust, and had his first short story and poem published.  He returned to Trinity College to complete an M.A. thesis on the philosopher, Descartes, and co-write Le Kid, a parody of Corneille’s play Le Cid.

For several years he moved between Dublin, London (where he sought treatment for depression) and the Continent, working on the short story collection, More Pricks than Kicks (1934), his first verse collection, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates (1935), and his first published novel, Murphy (1938).  He was based in Paris from 1936.  There in 1938 he was attacked and stabbed in the street.  When he had recovered from a punctured lung he visited his assailant in prison and asked him the reason for his attack.  The man simply replied, “Je ne sais pas, monsieur” [I don’t know], providing confirmation for Beckett that this is a world without reasons for, or explanations of, human actions.

Beckett began a relationship with Suzanne Deschevaux – Dumesnil who had tended him while he was wounded.  They eventually married, with an eye to French law regarding inheritance, in 1961.  When WWII broke out they threw themselves into the activities of the French Resistance because Beckett had been appalled by the anti-Semitism and brutality of the Nazis.  After his cover was blown by a priest, the pair fled the Gestapo to the un-Occupied south of France where Beckett began work on Watt, his last novel to be composed in English.  For his war-time activities he was later awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance.

After the war he returned to Paris and began to write in French.  At different times he offered at least three explanations for this – it was a different and more exciting experience than writing in English; there were things about himself he didn’t like and French had the right ‘weakening’ effect; and because in French it was easier to write without style.  In a burst of creativity from 1946 to 1950 he wrote his major fiction trilogy (Malloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable) and his first two plays, Eleutheria (published posthumously, never staged) and Waiting for Godot.  The latter was published in 1951 but not staged until 1953.  Its Paris premiere was a suces d’estime and productions followed world-wide.  It was first seen in New Zealand in 1958, in Dunedin in 1959 at the Globe.

The best-known of his later dramatic works are Endgame (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), Happy Days (1961), Play (1964, Fortune 2012), Breath (1969, the first skit in the New York version of the erotic revue, Oh!  Calcutta!), Not I (1972), That Time and Footfalls (both 1976), A Piece of Monologue (1979), Rockaby and Ohio Impromptu (both 1981), Catastrophe (1982) and What Where (1983).  His major radio plays are All That Fall (1957), Embers (1959), Words and Music (1962) and Cascando (1963).  For television he wrote Eh Joe (1966), Ghost Trio (1977), ‘…but the clouds…’(1977), Quad (1982) and Nacht und Traume (1983).  His film, Film, starring Buster Keaton, appeared in 1965.  Beckett’s 1956 mime, Act Without Words II, received its New Zealand premiere at the Fortune in 1974 and, in a lunchtime theatre presentation, was the second production staged by the theatre.  Beckett was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Trinity College, Dublin, in 1959, shared the Prix International des Editeurs with Borges in 1961 and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.  He died in 1989 and is buried in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.



Beckett wrote Krapp’s Last Tape in English in 1957 for the Irish actor, Patrick Magee, whose voice he had heard on BBC Radio reading extracts from Beckett’s fiction, including From an Abandoned Work with which the play has some similarities.  It was first performed as a curtain-raiser to Endgame at the Royal Court Theatre in London, at the time the leading theatre devoted to new English drama, in 1958.  It opened off-Broadway in January 1960 and in Paris in March of that year.  BBC Televison broadcast productions of it in 1963, 1982 (the latter directed by Beckett), 2001 and 2006.  The French version (La Derniere bande) was used as the libretto for an opera composed by Marcel Mihilovici.  Three other composers have also produced musical versions of it.  Famous interpreters of the role include Max Wall, John Hurt, Harold Pinter, Michael Gambon and the German actor, Martin Held.  The play received its New Zealand premiere at Downstage Theatre in Wellington in 1966 in a production featuring Martyn Sanderson.  (It was double-billed with a presentation of Beckett’s prose piece, From an Abandoned Work.)  Roy Billing appeared in Roger McGill’s Theatre Corporate production in Auckland in 1979.  The Company Theatre presented it on Auckland’s North Shore in 1979 and the Free Theatre in Christchurch staged it in 1999.  It has been presented in Dunedin as a Lunchtime Theatre piece at Allen Hall in 1981 (with Chris Balme), 1984 (with James Maclaurin) and 2003 (with Richard Huber).


Alister McDonald

Fortune Theatre Dramaturg