Beckett in isolation

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Simon Dobey takes a look at the relevance of the works of Samuel Beckett in today’s world.

In the past year life as we knew has ceased to exist. It has been replaced with a reality so strange it echoes a Beckettian drama. The works of Samuel Beckett primarily concern the abject boredom which all of humanity encounters during its existence. Beckett, who was raised in the leafy Dublin suburb of Foxrock, fled to France just after the outbreak of the Second World War. He famously said; “I would rather France at war than Ireland at peace.” During the war, Beckett worked for the French resistance accompanied by his friend Alfred Peron. Peron was arrested by the Gestapo and never seen again, but Beckett narrowly escaped their clutches and fled to Vaucluse France, where he remained until the end of the war. 

Beckett’s experiences of war undoubtedly had a major impact on his work. His plays, Waiting for Godot included, examined the effect of collective trauma, of a lived experience that was too close at hand to truly comprehend its devastating effects. The natural response to the sort of trauma and boredom we experience according to Beckett is to develop a habitual nature. “Habit”, wrote Beckett, “is the compromise effected between the individual and their environment, the guarantee of a dull inviolability. Breathing is habit. Life is habit” Habit for Beckett constituted control over the vast unpredictability of the universe. The pandemic disrupted old habits, but we quickly found new ones. 

Vladimir: “We could do our exercises.” 

Estragon: “Our Elevations” 

Vladimir: “Our Relaxations” 

Estragon: “Our Elongations” 

The characters in Beckett's post-war plays experience a sort of ambiguity towards their past. The history which shapes their very existence occurs to them only through a mystified haze. In the dystopian reality of Endgame Hamm, Nell and Clov elegiacally yearn - “ah yesterday”, while Vladimir and Estragon experience a fragmented memory from everything to the events of the previous day to the origins of our religious and moralistic values. 

At the core of Beckett’s post-war plays is a recognition that in the face of existential boredom, one of the few comforts is found in human connection. Stripped of our ability to connect with others, the depressing core message of Beckett has been revealed to us in its full, truly ugly form, is that we are simply waiting for death, all else is merely a momentary distraction on a linear path. In recent times, conversations have felt like those held between Estragon and Vladimir, going nowhere but in circles. I have had various discussions concerned primarily with how we used to live, a topic on which everyone has a different opinion.