Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mechanized Memories

Krapp's Last Tape & EmbersKrapp's Last Tape
by Samuel Beckett

“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.”   ― Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape

Samuel Beckett was very precise with the stage directions for his plays. So, when beginning to read Krapp's Last Tape, a very short play, it is not surprising that the initial directions (before Krapp says a single word) take up one whole page. We learn a lot about Krapp in that page, before the dialogue begins, and he actually turns on the tape. There is even a bit of slapstick comedy (not many moments like that in this brief drama) involving a banana peel and, as he chooses a spool (this is what we would now consider an antique tape recorder with large 'spools' of tape),  he draws out the word "spooool" in an almost loving or endearing way that suggests the importance of the memories ensconced on the tapes.

He begins to listen to himself starting the dialogue, such as it is, between a sixty-nine year old man and his younger, thirty-nine year old self. He says, "hard to believe I was ever as bad as that" (p 10). It the voice of a cynical disillusioned old man listening to the more hopeful younger man. Their voices and psychologies are different. One way to imagine his feelings upon listening to the thirty-year old tape is to compare it to reading an old personal journal you may have kept or try to decipher the annotations you made in a favorite old book.

There are crescendos and decrescendos in the voice of the older Krapp. At times he caresses the tape player and leans toward it to listen more clearly (or not). It is a play of light and dark. The dark representing the present is seen in Krapp's myopia and the lighting and his own words.

"clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire". (p 9) He turns on the tape again and is jolted by the voice of his younger self in a tender emotional moment.

One may compare this drama by Beckett with the writing of Marcel Proust as they are both concerned with the contrast of finite human memory against nearly infinite time. They lay bare a tragic fact of a human existence: we compare the limitations of our own memories to the ceaseless expanse of time and space surrounding them.

Beckett's and Proust’s works demonstrate the deliberation over the extent to which we can understand the past, and they represent that past via language and the degree to which can we know either ourselves or others. In this play we have the older Krapp pouring over the pronouncements of his younger self while in the last volume of Proust's masterpiece (especially) the narrator is jolted by the changes in his friends that distance both them and him from their remembered selves. Both authors might suggest that what we can know of any of these things is an extremely limited amount, if it is any amount at all.

View all my reviews


Brian Joseph said...

Great post as usual James.

The themes that Beckett was exploring here, that of memory, the Universe, etc. would fascinate me so I want to both read and see this.

I can understand why Becket was so detailed when it comes to stage directions. When I see a performance of something that I have read I am usually struck by how much meaning is conveyed of the action. I wonder of that is the particular meaning is what the playwright actually intended.

James said...


Thanks for your observations. His detailed directions were definitely made to insure his intentions were followed. His plays focus on the essential details more than any I have ever seen or read.