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Beckett's Centenary: Revisiting a Legacy

Beckett, shown here in an undated photo, died in 1989.
Beckett, shown here in an undated photo, died in 1989.

Samuel Beckett's legacy skips from continent to continent. He was born in Dublin, Ireland; he became an assistant and friend to James Joyce in his adopted home of Paris; and later turned the London and New York theater scenes upside down with his absurdist play Waiting for Godot.

"Mix a powerful imagination with a logic in absurdum, and the result will be either a paradox or an Irishman. If it is an Irishman, you will get the paradox into the bargain..." reads the presentation speech for Beckett's Nobel Prize in Literature. "Paradoxically, this has happened in 1969, a single award being addressed to one man, two languages and a third nation, itself divided."

As the centenary of Beckett's birth approaches this week, remembrances and performances of his work are under way. In addition to plays such as Godot, Krapp's Last Tape and Endgame, Beckett wrote novels, essays and poetry, as well.

Godot, considered an influential classic today, earned everything from apathy to anger when it debuted in 1953. The dialogue bounces back and forth between two tramps named Vladimir and Estragon, stuck waiting for the arrival of an M. Godot -- who, like God, will never appear. When Godot opened in London, the British Lord Chamberlain censored some of the lines for supposed vulgarity and blasphemy.

Beckett's plays are sometimes characterized as desperate or depressing. But biographer Richard Ellman wrote that, in stripping away the niceties of life and the filigrees of traditional theatre, Samuel Beckett entered the real territory of God -- not of his plenty, but his paucity, where nothing is left but the elemental grief and joy of being alive.

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Frank Browning
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