1969 Nobel Prize for Literature
1906 – 1989
at school 1920-1923
Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin on 13 April 1906, the second son of William and Mary Beckett. He attended primary school in Dublin, and then a boarder at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen from 1920 to 1923. At Portora he became an accomplished sportsman, playing scrum-half on the rugby team and later captained both the team and the cricket eleven. In 1923 he entered Trinity College in Dublin, graduating first in his class in 1927, also being awarded the college’s gold medal.
Following a short period teaching in Belfast he secured, in 1928, an exchange fellowship to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris where he met a number of influential writers and publishers, most notably James Joyce on whose work Work in Progress, later renamed as Finnegan’s Wake, he published his first critical essay. He also wrote his first short story Assumption while there.
On returning to Dublin Beckett’s stint as lecturer lasted less than a year. In 1933 he underwent psychoanalysis in London for two years. While there he visited Bethlem Royal Hospital and the experience was reflected in Murphy and Watt. Beckett was steeped in European culture with a lifelong love of music and painting. In his work he was influenced by a wide range of European writers and philosophers, with an abiding fascination for Dante Alighieri, the author of The Devine Comedy, his student edition of which was at his bedside when he died. In 1939, following a controversial libel case Dublin involving the writer Oliver St John Gogarty, Beckett left Ireland permanently.
During the Second World War, Beckett became involved in the Paris Resistance. In 1942 his cell was betrayed and most of them captured. He managed to escape to unoccupied France where he continued his underground activities. After the war he was decorated with Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Reconnaissance Francaise.
Perhaps his most famous work Waiting for Godot was written between October 1948 and January 1949. Although receive with acclaim in its Paris production, it was initially scorned in London, only later being recognised as the most revolutionary and influencial play of the century. The play brought Beckett international fame and established him as one of the leading names of the theater of the absurd
After Waiting for Godot Beckett wrote Fin de Partie (1957, Endgame) and a series of stage plays and brief pieces for the radio. Endgame developed further one of Beckett’s central themes, men in mutual dependence. In the 1960s Beckett wrote for radio, theater, and television. Billie Whitelaw became one of the most noted interpreter of his works. Her performances include Play, Not I, and Footfalls.
Beckett was the first of the absurdists to win international fame. His works have been translated into over twenty languages. In 1969 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature
In the 1970s appeared Mirlitonnades (1978), a collection of short poems, Company (1979) and All Strange Away (1979), which was performed in 1984 in New York. Catastrophe (1984) was written for Vaclav Havel and was about the interrogation of a dissident. In the last ten years of his life he wrote three of his most important prose works, the three novellas Company (1979), Ill Seen Ill Said (1982) and Worstward Ho (1984). His last work was the poem What is the Word (1989).
Beckett died on 22 December 1989. He is buried interred in the Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris. At the foot of his grave stands one lone tree, a reminder of the stage set for his most famous play.
Further reading: Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut by Ruby Cohn (1962); Samuel Beckett by R. Hayman (1968); Samuel Beckett by J. Friedman (1970); Beckett by A. Alvarez (1973); Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study by Hugh Kenner (1974); Samuel Beckett: A Biography by Deirdre Bair (1978); Samuel Beckett by Linda Ben-Zvi (1986); The Beckett Actor: Jack Macgowran, Beginning to End by Jordan R. Young (1988); Waiting for Godot and Endgame – Samuel Beckett, ed. by Steven Connor (1992); Beckett’s Dying Words by Christopher Ricks (1993); The Beckett Country by Eoin O’Brien (1994); Beyond Minimalism by Enoch Brater (1995); Beckett Writing Beckett by H. Porter Abbott (1996); Conversations With and About Beckett, ed. by Mel Gussow (1996); Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996); Samuel Beckett by Anthony Cronin (1997); Beckett and the Mythology of Psychoanalysis by Phil Baker (1998)
Beckett Photo: Photographer John Minihan
Location of plaque: Portora Royal School, Enniskillen BT74 5HD