Biography of Samuel Beckett, Irish Novelist, Playwright, and Poet

Ulf Andersen Archive - Samuel Beckett
Author Samuel Beckett walking while in Paris, France, in April of 1984. Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

Samuel Beckett (April 13, 1906 – December 22, 1989) was an Irish writer, director, translator, and dramatist. An absurdist and revolutionary figure in 20th-century drama, he wrote in both English and French and was responsible for his own translations between languages. His work defied conventional constructions of meaning and instead relied on simplicity to pare down ideas to their essence.

Fast Facts: Samuel Beckett

  • Full Name: Samuel Barclay Beckett
  • Known For: Nobel Prize-winning author. He wrote the plays Waiting for Godot and Happy Days
  • Born: April 13, 1906 in Dublin, Ireland
  • Parents: May Roe Beckett and Bill Beckett
  • Died: December 22, 1989 in Paris, France
  • Education: Trinity College, Dublin (1927)
  • Published Works: Murphy, Waiting for Godot, Happy Days, Endgame
  • Awards and Honors: Croix de Guerre, Nobel Prize (1969)
  • Spouse: Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil
  • Children: none
  • Notable Quote: "No, I regret nothing, all I regret is having been born, dying is such a long tiresome business I always found."

Early Life and Education (1906-1927)

Samuel Barclay Beckett may not have actually been born on Good Friday, 1906, as he later suggested. Contradictory birth certificates and registrations in May and June, suggest that this may have been an act of mythmaking on Beckett’s part. He also claimed to retain memories from the pain and imprisonment he felt inside the womb.

Beckett was born in 1906 to May and Bill Beckett. Bill worked at a construction surveyor firm and was a very hearty man, attracted to horse racing and swimming rather than books. May worked as a nurse before she married Bill, and enjoyed gardening and dog shows as a homemaker. Samuel had an older brother, Frank, who was born in 1902.

The family lived in a large tudor home in the Foxrock suburb of Dublin that was designed by Bill’s friend, the prominent architect Frederick Hicks. The grounds included a tennis court, a small barn for the donkey, and fragrant shrubs that often featured in Beckett’s later works. While the family was Protestant, they hired a Catholic nurse named Bridget Bray, whom the boys called “Bibby.” She stayed with the family for 12 years and lived with them, supplying many stories and expressions that Beckett would later incorporate in Happy Days and Texts for Nothing III. In the summers, the whole family and Bibby would holiday at Greystones, an Anglo-Irish Protestant fishing village. Young Beckett also practiced stamp collecting and cliff diving, two contradictory hobbies that presaged his later precise diligence and fixation with mortality. In the home, the Beckett boys were scrupulously clean and polite, as Victorian manners were extremely important to May.

Samuel Beckett. Artist: Anonymous
Samuel Beckett, circa 1920. Heritage Images / Getty Images

As a boy, Samuel attended a small village school run by two German women, but he left at the age of 9 to attend Earlsfort House in 1915. A non-denominational prep school in Dublin proper, Beckett studied French there and became attracted to English composition, reading comics with other schoolboys. He studied with several specialty faculty members who also taught at Trinity. Additionally, on Bill’s influence, Beckett took up boxing, cricket, and tennis, which he particularly excelled at, winning local tournaments.

In 1916, following the Easter Uprising, Frank was sent to board at the Protestant-leaning Portora Royal School in the north of Ireland. At 13, Samuel was deemed old enough to board and joined the school in 1920. A well-regarded but strict school, Beckett particularly enjoyed playing sports and studying French and English literature, including the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and Stephen Leacock. 

In 1923, at age 17, Beckett was admitted to Trinity College Dublin to study Arts. He continued playing cricket and golf, but most importantly, became widely versed in literature. There, he was greatly influenced by Romance language professor Thomas Rudmose-Brown, who taught him about Milton, Chaucer, Spenser, and Tennyson. He was also influenced by his beloved Italian tutor Bianca Esposito, who taught him his favorite Italian writers, including Dante, Machiavelli, Petrarch, and Carducci. He lived at home with his parents and commuted to school and to performances of the many new Irish plays premiering in Dublin. 

In 1926, Beckett began experiencing severe insomnia, which would plague him for the rest of his life. He also contracted pneumonia, and read Nat Gould’s pulp racing novels while on bed rest. His family sent him to France for the summer to try and aid his recovery, and he biked about the South with an American he met, Charles Clarke. Beckett continued his French fascination when he returned to Trinity and befriended the young French lecturer Alfred Péron, who was on a prestigious two-year exchange from the École Normale. When Beckett graduated at the end of 1927, he was recommended by Rudmose-Brown as Trinity’s exchange lecturer at the École. However, the position was temporarily occupied by the Trinity lecturer Thomas MacGreevy, who wanted to stay on for another year, despite Trinity’s insistence that Beckett take up the post. MacGreevy won, and it wasn’t until 1928 that Beckett was able to take up the Parisian posting. While frustrated over the situation, he and MacGreevy became close confidantes in Paris.

Early Work and World War II (1928-1950)

  • “Dante...Bruno. Vico...Joyce.” (1929)
  • Whoroscope (1930)
  • Proust (1931)
  • Murphy (1938)
  • Molloy (1951)
  • Malone muert (1951)
  • L’innommable (1953)

While teaching in Paris, Beckett participated in the native and expat Irish intellectual scenes. He studied French with George Pelorson, and was notorious for refusing to meet in the mornings, as he slept through them. Becket was also enamored with James Joyce, and began working for him as an unpaid secretary. Joyce had grown up poor and enjoyed making an errand boy of posh Protestant Beckett. Beckett, along with a host of young Irishmen, assisted Joyce in some phrasing and research for Finnegan’s Wake to help make up for the author’s poor eyesight. Beckett claimed that “Joyce had a moral effect on me. He made me realize artistic integrity.” 

In 1929, he wrote his first publication, a glowing essay defending Joyce’s genius and technique, “Dante...Bruno. Vico...Joyce.” The culmination of his critical work was Proust, a long exploration on Proust’s influence, which was published in 1931 and well received in London, if gibed in Dublin. Beckett always translated his own work into French, but refused with Proust as he thought it pretentious. 

Portrait of Samuel Beckett
Portrait of Irish avant-garde novelist, playwright, theatre director, and poet Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). Corbis / Getty Images

His friends’ attempts to relieve Beckett’s depression resulted in his submission to Nancy Cunard’s chapbook contest and 1930 publication of his poem Whoroscope, a farcical meditation on Descartes. While in Paris, Beckett also engaged in serious flirtations with his cousin Peggy Sinclair and Lucia Joyce, but returned to Trinity to lecture in 1930. He only lasted in academia for a year and, despite his three-year contract, left to travel Europe and write, settling in Paris in 1932, where he wrote his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women and attempted to get translation work. An intentionally incoherent and episodic narrative, the text would not be translated until 1992, after Beckett’s death.

He bounced back and forth between Dublin, Germany, and Paris until 1937, when he moved to Paris for good. In 1938, he published his first English language novel, Murphy. After his brief but tempestuous affair with Peggy Guggenheim, he met the slightly older Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, and the pair began dating. Beckett remained in Paris, by virtue of his Irish passport, after World War II formally began in France in 1939 and the German occupation began in 1940. He said “I preferred France in war to Ireland in peace.” For the next two years, he and Suzanne operated with the resistance, translating communications as part of the Gloria SMH team out of England. When their group was betrayed, the couple fled to the Southern village of Roussillon, where Beckett and Deschevaux-Dumesnil stayed undercover and wrote until the liberation in 1945. 

After returning to Paris, Beckett set about processing the war through an intense period of writing. He published nearly nothing for five years, but wrote an immense amount of work that, with the help of Deschevaux-Dumesnil, found publication at Les Éditions de Minuit in the early 1950s. Beckett’s non-trilogy trilogy of detective novels, Molloy and Malone meurt were published in 1951, and L’innommable was published in 1953. The French-language novels slowly lose all sense of realism, plot, and conventional literary form. In 1955, 1956, and 1958, Beckett’s own translations of the works into English were published.

Dramatic Work and Nobel Prize (1951-75)

  • Waiting for Godot (1953)
  • Endgame (1957)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (1958)
  • Happy Days (1961)
  • Play (1962)
  • Not I (1972)
  • Catastrophe (1982)

In 1953, Beckett’s most famous play, Waiting for Godot, premiered at the Théâtre de Babylone on the Parisian Left Bank. Roger Blin produced it only after serious convincing by Deschevaux-Dumesnil. A short two-act play in which two men wait for a third who never arrives, the tragicomedy immediately caused a stir. Many critics thought it a scam, hoax, or at least, a travesty. However, the legendary critic Jean Anouilh deemed it a masterpiece. When the work was translated into English and performed in London in 1955, many British critics agreed with Anouilh. 

"Waiting for Godot" Outdoor Performance in New Orleans
Performance of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in New Orleans. October 10, 2007.  Skip Bolen / Getty Images

He followed Godot with a series of intense productions that cemented his status as a visionary 20th century playwright. He produced Fin de partie (later translated by Beckett as Endgame) in 1957 in a French language production in England. Each character is unable to perform a key function, such as sitting or standing or seeing. Happy Days, in 1961, focuses on the futility of forming meaningful relationships and memories, yet the urgency of this pursuit in spite of that futility. In 1962, mirroring the trash-bin figures in Endgame, Beckett wrote the play Play, which featured several actors in large urns, acting with only their floating heads. This was a productive and relatively happy time for Beckett. While he and Deschevaux-Dumesnil had been living as partners since 1938, they formally married in 1963. 

Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969, for his work in both English and French. In the Prize speech, Karl Gierow defined the essence of Beckett’s work as existentialist, found “in the difference between an easily-acquired pessimism that rests content with untroubled scepticism, and a pessimism that is dearly bought and which penetrates to mankind’s utter destitution.”

Beckett did not stop writing after his Nobel; he simply became more and more minimalist. In 1972, Billie Whitelaw performed his work Not I, a severely minimalist play in which a floating mouth spoke surrounded by a black curtain. In 1975, Beckett directed the seminal production of Waiting for Godot in Berlin. In 1982, he wrote Catastrophe, a stridently political play about surviving dictatorships. 

Literary Style and Themes

Beckett claimed that his most formative literary influences were Joyce and Dante, and saw himself as part of a pan-European literary tradition. He was close friends with Irish writers including Joyce and Yeats, which influenced his style and their encouragement bolstered his commitment to artistic rather than critical output. He also befriended and was influenced by visual artists including Michel Duchamp and Alberto Giacometti. While critics often view Beckett’s dramatic works as central contributions to the 20th century movement, Theater of the Absurd, Beckett himself rejected all labels on his work.

For Beckett, language is both an embodiment of the ideas of what it represents, and a corporal meaty experience of vocal production, auditory understanding, and neuronal comprehension. It cannot be static or even completely understood by the parties exchanging it. His minimalist absurdism explores both the formal concerns of literary arts—linguistic and narrative fallibilities—and the human concerns of meaning-making in the face of these dissonances.

Death

Beckett moved into a Parisian nursing home with Deschevaux-Dumesnil, who passed away in August, 1989. Beckett stayed in good health until he had difficulty breathing and entered a hospital shortly before his death on December 22, 1989.

Bono at the Launch of the Samuel Beckett Centenary Festival - March 29, 2006
Bono poses beside a Samuel Beckett poster during Bono at the Launch of the Samuel Beckett Centenary Festival - March 29, 2006 at Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland. FilmMagic / Getty Images

Beckett’s New York Times obituary described his personality as ultimately empathetic: “Though his name in the adjectival form, Beckettian, entered the English language as a synonym for bleakness, he was a man of great humor and compassion, in his life as in his work. He was a tragicomic playwright whose art was consistently instilled with mordant wit.”

Legacy

Samuel Beckett is considered one of the most impactful 20th century writers. His work revolutionized theater making and minimalism, influencing countless philosophical and literary greats including Paul Auster, Michel Foucault, and Sol LeWitt. 

Sources

  • “Award Ceremony Speech.” NobelPrize.org, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1969/ceremony-speech/.
  • Bair, Deirdre. Samuel Beckett: a Biography. Summit Books, 1990.
  • Knowlson, James. Damned to Fame: the Life of Samuel Beckett. Bloomsbury, 1996.
  • “Samuel Beckett.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/samuel-beckett.
  • “Samuel Beckett.” The British Library, 15 Nov. 2016, www.bl.uk/people/samuel-beckett.
  • “Samuel Beckett's Wife Is Dead at 89 in Paris.” The New York Times, 1 Aug. 1989, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/08/01/obituaries/samuel-beckett-s-wife-is-dead-at-89-in-paris.html.
  • “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1969.” NobelPrize.org, www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1969/beckett/facts/.
  • Tubridy, Derval. Samuel Beckett and the Language of Subjectivity. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • Wills, Matthew. “Samuel Beckett and the Theatre of Resistance.” JSTOR Daily, 6 Jan. 2019.