by Sam Buntz
It may be disconcerting, at first, to encounter a great work of literature that has a baldly infantile joke in its title. Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” – a short play running just over ten pages – is such a work, it being authored by someone who, in my opinion, is a truly towering genius, but who once told a publisher that he would let him know “if I happen to get a good two twists around the pan” (meaning he’d let him know if he wrote anything that seemed worthwhile.) Yet even this puerility connects to an important aspect of Beckett’s work: a journalist once asked Beckett if he could provide a key to everything he’d written, and in response, Beckett provided two quotes. The first is from Democritus and is less germane to the connection I’m attempting to establish but is still worth citing: “Nothing is more real than nothing.” The next is from the French Cartesian philosopher-theologian, Gelcineaux: “Where one is worth nothing, there one should want nothing.” This is the reason why Beckett has named his character—and, we can assume, to some degree, his self-representation—”Krapp.” Krapp is afloat in a world where he exists as a virtual non-entity—uncared for, and unsponsored. He has been crapped out into the universe and left to his own devices, to scrounge up as much life as he can.
Beckett opens the play with some bleak light vaudeville. As Hugh Kenner has noted, many of Beckett’s jokes and gimmicks spring from old vaudeville routines, and he cites the poignantly illustrative example of a man trying to sweep a spot of light off an empty stage. Krapp—the only character in this brief excursion—is a clownish old man, with messy gray hair and a drunk’s purple nose. He is but one in the long line of Beckett’s “masturbating, carrot chewing, stone sucking characters,” to quote Northrop Frye (which is to say, to some extent, that these characters are representations of almost all of us, since we all suck stones, figuratively, and kill time with sterile pursuits.) In keeping with this character type, Krapp’s vaudevillean opening includes these stage directions, as he prepares to eat a banana: “He turns, advances to edge of stage, halts, strokes banana, peels it, drops skin at his feet, puts end of banana in his mouth and remains motionless, staring vacuously before him.” And then he does this all again – after, of course, slipping on the peel of the first banana. Beckett was certainly aware that having someone slip on a banana peel had been “done,” and part of the point is to have Krapp do something that has been so thoroughly, exhaustingly, stupidly “done.” The banana routine seems to me to be essentially a commentary on how most of us spend our time, in a higher, metaphysical sense. The banana you stick in your mouth while staring vacuously off into space is whatever you do to kill time before death – but it isn’t, as I take it, an example of a time-killer that benefits anyone or has any artistic saving graces.
After this and some more light comedy—Krapp goes offstage where we can hear him popping corks and apparently chugging booze (he will continue sneaking back to do this throughout the play)—we get down to the philosophical crux of the matter, and to the “tape” of the title. Krapp has evidently been recording a sort of audio diary throughout his life, and on this occasion he turns to listen to a tape he made when he was thirty-nine, evidently a lot younger than he is now, or when he was, as the taped voice describes itself, “at the crest of the wave—or thereabouts.” (The younger Krapp also initially alludes to a fondness for bananas, “fatal things for a man with my condition.”) This earlier self is described in the stage directions as having “a strong voice, rather pompous,” but it becomes clear, despite the fact that this younger Krapp is a bit full of his own intellectual self-dramatizations, that his strength and resilience—not entirely gone from the older Krapp—are what predominate in his character.
On the tape, Krapp muses on his mother’s death, and then describes an epiphany he had shortly thereafter, when, sitting on a pier at night, he sees “the whole thing” and has “the vision, at last.” This epiphany is one of the crucial moments in Beckett, but Krapp stops the tape before his younger version can finish saying what he realized in this moment of insight—he gets as far as saying that he realized “the dark I have struggled to keep under is in reality—” And Krapp stops the tape and fast forwards. Yet Beckett later explained that he did have something further in mind—he had personally realized that the darkness was “my most precious ally.” Rather than attempting to follow the path of his friend and former employer/mentor, James Joyce, and cram every bit of his own vast accumulation of knowledge and linguistic facility into his writing, Beckett realized his own way was that of “the non-knower” and “the non-can-er.” Beckett realizes, essentially, that his own way is negative, down-and-out, the way of blindness and ignorance. He does not express, like Shakespeare or Joyce, “God’s plenty” but, as one critic has described it, “God’s paucity.” He is not looking for the decorations and the frills of the human condition but for the barest bones.
Beckett once described the only true paradise as being “the paradise that was lost,” and it is to that paradise that Krapp young and Krapp old both turn. Fast-forwarding the tape past the unrevealed epiphany, old Krapp listens to young Krapp describe the end of a youthful relationship, dozing with a girlfriend on a boat on a pond. We never hear why this affair was doomed, but it apparently references the young Beckett’s un-fulfilled passion for his own cousin, Peggy Sinclair. Yet, instead of listening to the conclusion of the tape—which we do eventually get to hear—Krapp stops it, removes it, and begins to record a new tape, first railing against his younger self, calling him “that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago,” (so we learn that Krapp is now sixty-nine…) But he softens a bit, saying, “Ah well, maybe he was right,” before describing his own boring daily routine and his habit of painfully reminiscing about the same lost spots of time.
Yet, in frustration, Krapp takes off the new tape he’s been recording and throws it away—he puts on the first tape, and we hear his younger self’s final self-summation, just as valid for the old Krapp as it was for the younger: “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.” In the end Krapp rejects the possibility of having had a life of perpetually pleasing circumstances, instead resting in the consolations of a still fiery soul, a real character. If he hasn’t had all the bliss he could’ve had, at least, like Pinocchio, he gets to be “a real boy.” The fire Krapp has within him, now, is not entirely different from what John Keats describes in a letter, in which he speculates that this world may be “a vale of Soul making” rather than a “vale of tears”: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?” Fire and light are among the most ancient symbols of the human life-force or of the soul—as Cleopatra says in Shakespeare: “I am fire and air. My other elements I give to baser life.”
It may be somewhat surprising to have a conclusion—though not entirely unambiguous—that is almost positive in a writer like Beckett, who endlessly evades our attempts to sneak a little hope into his work, though without totally withdrawing the carrot, at the same time. But that exceptional quality is a good part of the reason why I personally like “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Beckett is not a writer who cares about our political or theological quibbles: his only interest is in getting to the bottom of the self’s dark eddy, and in “Krapp”—unlike in other plays, like his masterpiece Endgame—he finds more than a constant flowing away in the self, more than the discontinuities of the ego. He finds the fire… The fire is clear to the earlier Krapp, but the older Krapp is still affected by it, still believes in it—with however many qualifications—even though he is, at this point, propping himself up at night and continually attempting to dwell in that lost paradise of an earlier time. For Beckett, who was a devotee of the Buddhistic German philosopher Schopenhauer, the human realm is a place where we are trapped in twisted bodies and ignorant minds, and in which life precipitates but one bewildering episode following another, the ego wandering through one desire after another, never fixing wholly on one thing, or remaining securely in one place, one aim. Per Schopenhauer, literature and the other arts (particularly music) provide an escape from the ego and an escape from time—they illuminate our situation and free us from that constant wandering in confusion and ignorance, which the Buddhists and Hindus call samsara. (It doesn’t seem, to my knowledge, that Beckett ever commented on what he knew about Eastern religions, but the parallels have been drawn by others.) And Krapp is, like Beckett himself, an artist, a writer.
Even though Beckett—along with Schopenhauer—is usually thought of as being “pessimistic,” he provides, in “Krapp” and in his other works, what may be some of the most consoling and relieving realizations life has to offer—principally, the realization that time’s spell can be broken, that we can suddenly emerge into clarity about ourselves and our situation, in a stillness above and beyond the tortured fray of everyday existence. In his novels, Beckett calls this “the silence.” It was Krapp’s encounter with this silence—which is also “the dark” that he realizes is his “most precious ally”—that helped him to grow the fire inside himself, to prosper in that energy which allows one to endure and go on even when one can’t go on. The man with internal fire can accomplish, through his art, a form of revenge against time and an escape from time, unavailable to the mere time-killing stone-sucker—though Krapp is, as are almost all artists, both, being but mortal. While Beckett usually isn’t willing to imagine very far beyond the skeptical mysticism of “Nothing is more real than nothing,” (though he does imagine the experience of encountering the true nature of his self after death at the end of the Trilogy), Schopenhauer offers some enigmatic hints about this silence, this dark reality that exists behind and before the unreal world: “the natural man…is just the ‘will to live’ which must be denied if deliverance from an existence such as ours is to be attained. Behind our existence lies something else, which is accessible to us only if we have shaken off this world…” Perhaps in “Krapp” too, there is something more than an exhortation to stoic endurance in the face of sure obliteration—a slight intimation of immortality.