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Essay: Krapp’s Last Tape – Samuel Beckett

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  • Krapp’s Last Tape - Samuel Beckett
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Samuel Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape appears to offer a sad conclusion; its protagonist is old, lonely, and drunk, he is bitter towards the promises of life and aware of an approaching end, and he has apparently jettisoned the habit of recording annual retrospectives on his birthdays. The play ends in a protracted silence except for the sound of a tape player running to no purpose while Krapp stares silently into an apparent void. One’s first reaction is to suggest that the play posits an existence characterized by the individual’s growing awareness of meaninglessness and his arrival at despair. However, an examination of Beckett’s criticism of Marcel Proust leads quickly to a qualified interpretation—that despite his condition Krapp is in a state of transport at the play’s conclusion as he is buoyed by his “involuntary memory” of his dalliance on the punt. As Proust, according to Beckett, projects in his fiction an existence dependent on and in conflict with Time against which the individual can find joy only in the “involuntary memory”, so does Beckett demonstrate in Krapp’s Last Tape the struggle against the effects of time alleviated only by the surprising emergence of an unacknowledged significant memory.
Beckett published Proust in 1931 while in Paris lecturing at École Normale Supérieure and investigating Joyce and his circle. Beckett identifies in his analysis Proust’s obsession with the force of Time. “Proust’s creatures,” he says, “are victims of this predominating condition and circumstance—Time … There is no escape from the hours and the days” (Beckett, Proust 12-13). The notion of the inexorable passage of time is new to neither literature nor human consideration in other forms, nor is the suggestion that time destroys, but most equate the destruction by time with a literal death, a death of an organism. According to Beckett, however, Proust demonstrates that time continually destroys and reconstitutes the self: “We are not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday … The aspirations of yesterday were valid for yesterday’s ego, not for to-day’s” (13). As a result of the constant destruction of the various selves that constitute us, “We are disappointed at the nullity of what we are pleased to call attainment” (13-14). Any accomplishment, then, disappears as the self disappears; time reduces what we often insist are significant achievements to fantasies or chimaera—in fact, Beckett proposes that Tantalus is the most appropriate model for the human being (13); as we prepare to consume what we think is solid and delicious, it vanishes (probably why Camus had to go with Sisyphus).

According to Beckett, Proust proposes in his work that the individual generally attempts faulty solutions to the problem of time. One strategy is to anticipate experience and prepare for a future, but “Lazily considered in anticipation and in the haze of our smug will to live, of our pernicious and incurable optimism, it seems exempt from the bitterness of fatality: in store for us, not in store in us” (15). Such an exemption causes us to scant our preparation for the impending reality. In some instances, where the future is limited and defined in time—in one week, or in two months, or so on—we then give it far too much credence in the form of anxiety (16), but most of the time, the distance from our perception of the future reduces whatever urgency we might be able to muster and so diminishes our preparations. Another grasp at release from the pressure of time is Habit. Beckett cites Proust: “If Habit is a second nature, it keeps us in ignorance of the first, and is free of its cruelties and its enchantments” (22). When Habit is successful, it creates Boredom in Beckett’s rendering of Proust’s world; if not, it introduces Suffering, “that opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience” (28). As a third mechanism of the individual’s defense against time, Beckett posits Proust’s notion of voluntary memory, a sub-category of Habit; of voluntary memory, Beckett offers that its “action has been compared by Proust to that of turning the leaves of an album of photographs” (32). The photographs contain “nothing of the past, merely a blurred and uniform projection once removed of our anxiety and opportunism—that is to say, nothing” (32-33).

In contrast to these awkward psychic devices, Proust celebrates the effectiveness of “involuntary memory” in his evocation of all the effects of the perception of the madeleine. In Beckett’s description, “Strictly speaking, we can only remember what has been registered by our extreme inattention and stored in that ultimate and inaccessible dungeon of our being to which Habit does not possess the key … here … is stored the essence of ourselves, the best of our many selves” (31). When it is brought to the surface, in Beckett’s metaphor like a diver bringing to the surface a pearl, “involuntary memory is explosive, ‘an immediate, total and delicious deflagration’” (33). The problem is that the involuntary memory is an “unruly magician”; “it chooses its own time and place for the performance of its miracle” (34). In other words, we cannot call forth “involuntary memory”, as its name insists, when we want its salutary effects. However, Beckett offers the following possibility: “This accidental and fugitive salvation in the midst of life may supervene when the action of involuntary memory is stimulated by the negligence or agony of Habit” (35). While Beckett identifies in Proust two other mildly successful, and rare, strategies against time—living dangerously (19-20) and Curiosity (30)—neither offers salvation, as he puts it, to the individual. Therefore, Beckett, in his criticism of Proust’s work, honors Proust’s adoption of “this mystic experience [the involuntary memory] as the Leitmotiv of his composition” (35).

In his composition of Krapp’s Last Tape, published and performed in 1958, Beckett again honors Proust’s “Leitmotiv” of the salvific possibility of the involuntary memory. To do so, Beckett must first create for his character Krapp the conditions that would necessitate salvation: the destruction of Krapp by Time; the futility of Habit; and the ancillary weakness of voluntary memory.

As the play begins, Beckett has created in Krapp a caricature of an old man. He is “wearish” and clownlike in his appearance—short pants, dirty clothes, big boots, white face, purple nose, wild hair. His faculties are in decay—near-sighted, “hard of hearing. Cracked voice … Laborious walk” (Beckett, Krapp 311). In the traditional sense of much of the literature of Western Civilization, Time has destroyed Krapp. Indeed, the play’s title suggests that Krapp will soon die and implies that we are watching his last moments. Krapp’s actions at the start of the play confirm our first impressions. The painfully long sequence of puzzling behaviors—fiddling with keys, finding and eating bananas, wandering or simply standing aimlessly on stage, preparing the tapes—frustrates the viewer’s expectations and reinforces the sense of Krapp’s decrepitude; he is at a point where he has little dignity left. His name, too, carries scatological meaning, and Beckett may suggest that our end is not ashes or dust but crap (et il ne reste plus qu’à chanter!).

Beyond the physical evidence of Time’s destructive power, the play appropriates the notion Beckett attributes to Proust that Time destroys and reinvents the self continually. Beckett’s great dramatic device is the tape recorder. On his birthdays, Krapp usually listens to a recording of his observations made on an earlier birthday and then records a new tape reexamining the past year. Each tape is in effect a soliloquy and therefore an authentic rendering of that self’s persona at that time. As we witness Krapp at 69 listen to himself on a tape made on his 39th birthday, a tape on which he announces he has listened to a rendering of himself 10 or 12 years earlier, we recognize the presence of the process identified by Beckett in Proust: we have our first suggestion of the existence of separate selves in the life of an individual. Then, as the elder Krapp listens, Krapp at 39 mentions the youngest Krapp’s comments about a woman from the past, causing Krapp at 39 to say about the reflective process, “These P.M.’s are gruesome” (314). To call a look at one’s life as an earlier self a postmortem recognizes the end of that earlier self. When Krapp at 39 continues, Krapp at 69 stops the tape and broods for a time suggesting either some displeasure with the earlier Krapp or a pondering of the reality contained in Krapp at 39’s use of the expression “P.M”. Then Krapp at 69 restarts the tape and listens to Krapp at 39 voice his ridicule of the younger Krapp, “Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. The voice! Jesus! And the aspirations! [Brief laugh in which Krapp joins.] And the resolutions! [Brief laugh in which Krapp joins.] To drink less, in particular. [Brief laugh of Krapp alone.]” (314) Here, Beckett magnificently creates a conversation between three manifestations of an individual, and they do not agree with each other. The two older Krapps agree about the youngest Krapp’s view of the future—it is worthy of humiliation—but only Krapp at 69 laughs at the intention of the youngest Krapp to drink less. It may be that Krapp at 39 is seriously concerned about his own drinking and intends to try to stop, but Krapp at 69 has clearly given up that battle, so he greets the initial mention with a cynical laugh. There are several other representations of the differences between selves. For example, Krapp at 69 later edits by winding forward or backward the tape made by Krapp at 39 because he can’t stand his earlier self, and in his own tape he ridicules Krapp at 39 in the same way Krapp at 39 ridiculed the youngest Krapp. All in all, Beckett demonstrates what he recognized in Proust, “The aspirations of yesterday were valid for yesterday’s ego.”

One result of the inexorability of time and the constant metamorphosis of self in Beckett’s analysis of Proust is the “nullity of attainment”; time allows for achievement but destroys that achievement as it is met and surpassed in the dimension of time. The best example in Krapp’s Last Tape is the epiphany experienced on the “Memorable equinox”. Krapp at 39 believed that he had the answer to the major questions of existence while out on that jetty, and the experience provided the material for his book, his “magnum opus”, or “opus . . . magnum” (314), which finally has not sold. Krapp at 69, however, at first has no memory of the experience when he sees it listed in the ledger, as he forgets so many other significant episodes—“The black ball” and “Farewell to love” (313), for example. Furthermore, upon reacquaintance with the equinox, Krapp at 69 vehemently denies that the epiphany is important to him in his current state; he refuses to listen to his earlier rendering of it. In one moment, Beckett dialogues with two major figures in literature; he affirms Proust’s view of time’s effect on “attainment” even as he rejects the suggestion of the permanence of the transcendent effect of Joyce’s epiphany.

One solution attempted by the individual to solve the domination of self by Time is Habit, in Beckett’s interpretation of Proust. Beckett’s Krapp is defined by his Habits; indeed, as he is a caricature of an old man, he is also a caricature of one defined by Habit, which, in its most extreme form, is addiction. Ruby Cohn describes Krapp at 69 thus: “addicted to bananas that constipate him, to alcohol that he drinks offstage, to desire for women in fact (Fanny) and fantasy (Effie Briest)” (Cohn 537). We hear from his earlier selves that his addictions have haunted him for some time. The youngest Krapp suffers from “unattainable laxation” (Beckett, Krapp 314) (due presumably to his compulsion for bananas), resolves to stop drinking, and breaks up with Bianca. Krapp at 39 has “just eaten I regret to say three bananas and only with difficulty refrained from a fourth” (313), celebrates his birthday at “the Winehouse”, and also moves on from a lover, the girl on the punt.

Although Beckett creates a parody of Habit in his depiction of Krapp’s addictions, which he renders more comically than fatally despite their seriousness, his most important dramatic demonstration of Habit occurs in Krapp’s fetishizing of his system of memory, the detailed ledger, the labeled tapes, the locked drawer, and the rhythmic, annual retrospective. Krapp’s prolonged process of retrieval of the tapes, which some might deem an evocation of the length and difficulty of the task of memory retrieval in an older person, might also denote ritual. Certainly Krapp’s movements seem slow, his pauses long, and his purpose confused, but such judgments could mask a measured pace and a solemnity certainly absurd in such a ragged fellow, but not beyond Beckett.

More importantly, as Krapp’s system of memory contributes to Beckett’s view of Proust’s conception of Habit, it also manifests the Proustian notion of “voluntary memory”. The metaphor of the tape player is one technological step removed from Proust’s “album of photographs”; both are flawed systems of storage and retrieval of past essence. As Krapp proceeds through his retrospective and listens to the bits and pieces of the two other Krapps, he quickly senses how much he has lost. He no longer remembers the word “viduity”, a word he once used with facility; as mentioned earlier, he cannot remember the dog outside his mother’s house or the epiphany celebrated by himself at 39; once he reacquaints himself with the epiphany, he refuses its significance because his system cannot fully recreate the personal moment; and he exhibits shame at the manifestations of his earlier selves. He is miserable: “Habit does not possess the key” (Beckett, Proust, 31) to what might save him; his designs replete with keys have failed him.

In a Beckettian Proustian world, Krapp’s only hope is that the “accidental and fugitive salvation in the midst of life may supervene when the action of involuntary memory is stimulated by the negligence or agony of Habit.” Beckett, as is his wont, chooses the agony of Habit as the mechanism for the involuntary memory that will bring solace to Krapp. As we have amply demonstrated, Krapp’s exercise of Habit has brought misery. He is quickly a drunken, despairing old man, but in the midst of his grasping and pawing at his past, an involuntary memory arises, the episode on the punt. The episode describes a breakup and last fling with an unnamed woman, but it is detailed in such a way as to give to the sad and tawdry moments a grace, a lyricism, and a meaning that were lacking, apparently, in their riven relationship. Beckett emphasizes the significance of the found memory to Krapp by having him play it three times, and it is that memory that concludes the play. Furthermore, the episode describes a real consummation Krapp was unable to recognize at the moment: “I asked her to look at me and after a few minutes—[Pause.]—after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. [Pause. Low.] Let me in” (Beckett, Krapp 316).

While Krapp continues to render a lyrical account of what is a wondrous shared sexual experience, it is the communication that occurs through the eyes that brings magic and mystery to the moment. Krapp’s plea to “let me in” is the only authentic attempt at communication with a woman we are allowed to hear, and it clearly leads to a climax. A few minutes later, when Krapp begins his birthday retrospective, he cannot help but talk about her: “The eyes she had! [Broods, realizes he is recording silence, switches off, broods. Finally.] Everything there, everything, all the—[Realizes this is not being recorded, switches on.] Everything there, everything on this old muckball, all the light and dark and famine and feasting of … [hesitates] … the ages! [In a shout.] Yes!” (317) Although Krapp at other moments remembers women’s eyes, this particular evocation begins slowly and accelerates until it arrives at the ejaculatory “Yes!”, trumpeting in its list of the transcendent contents of the eyes and in its rhythmic crescendo and arrival the effect of the involuntary memory on Krapp’s psyche—he is a changed man. Proust’s salvific involuntary memory finds a place in Beckett’s theatre, rendering it, once understood, far less absurd than some would suggest.

Seeing Krapp’s Last Tape in perfomance reinforces the more positive perception of the play’s conclusion. In the version found in Beckett on Film, starring John Hurt directed by Atom Egoyan, after Krapp has heard the account of the episode on the punt, Krapp hugs the tape recorder in addition to his other recognitions of the transcendence of the moment. At the end of the play, as the tape ends, Krapp continues to hug the tape recorder clearly transported by “the performance of its miracle” (Beckett, Proust 34). In this version, the passivity suggesting despair demanded by the stage directions at the end transforms into a meaningfulness lacking in Krapp’s other memories. The physical gesture of the hug adds dramatic weight to, embodies, the words, most of which are disembodied and so diminished on stage.
In Krapp’s Last Tape then, Samuel Beckett transposes the route to salvation he finds in Proust’s fiction into his own dramatic expression. While at first glance the play offers a vision of despair (or even at second, third, or fourth glance, stupidly ignoring hints offered freely), in truth Beckett, while as always acknowledging a physical and psychical process of decay, holds hope to his audience in the form of the involuntary memory.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Krapp’s Last Tape in Modern Irish Drama. Ed. John Harrington. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
Beckett, Samuel. Proust in Proust and Three Dialogues. Beckett, Samuel and Duthuit,
Georges. London: Calder, 1965.
Cohn, Ruby. “Krapp’s Last Tape” in Modern Irish Drama. Ed. John Harrington. New
York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
Hurt, John, perf. Krapp’s Last Tape. Dir. Atom Egoyan. Laser disc. Blue Angel, 2001.

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