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Updated: Oct 14, 2020


Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on Good Friday, 13 April 1906 in the prosperous Irish village of Foxrock, Country Dublin. Beckett was a fearless, adventurous boy who showed as great interest for sport at school and university as he did for literature and foreign languages. He went to private schools; first to a prep school, Earlsfort House, in Dublin, then to Portora Royal School, Oscar Wilde’s old school, in Enniskillen, Country Fermanagh, where Beckett’s brother, Frank, was already a boarder and where Sam swam, boxed , played cricket and rugby for the school teams.

Beckett entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1923 and read French and Italian in the Modern European Literature course, also studying English literature during his first two years at university. He was deeply influenced by the presence, the lectures and the writings of his professor, Thomas Brown Rudmose-Brown, who inspired in him a love of the poetry of Ronsard, Scève, Petrarch and the theatre of Racine and introduced him to the work of many modern French poets. He also took Italian lessons from a private tutor, Bianca Esposito, with whom he studied Dante’s Divina Commedia.


In 1927, Samuel Beckett graduated from Trinity College, Dublin with a First Class degree and a Gold Medal and began to work towards an MA thesis on Pierre-Jean Jouve and the French literary movement, Unanimisme. He taught briefly at Campbell College in Belfast in 1928, while waiting to take up an appointment as lecturer in English at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supèrieure in Paris.

He also began a two-year love affair with his first cousin, Peggy Sinclair, who lived with her family in Kassel in Germany. His visited Kassel and established what was to be the beginning of a long and enduring contact with German art and literature.

In Paris, he was introduced to the writer James Joyce, by his fellow Irishman, Thomas MacGreevy, Beckett's predecessor as lecturer at the Ecole, who became his close friend and confidant. Beckett was strongly influenced by the force of Joyce's personality, the range of his culture and his total dedication to his work and he found it hard to escape from Joyce's influence in his own writing and to discover his own distinctive voice. While living in Paris, he wrote poetry, including his first published work, Whoroscope (1930), an essay on Joyce's Work in Progress (which was to become Finnegans Wake) and a critical study of Proust (1931).

He returned to Dublin in the autumn of 1930 to take up the post of assistant to Professor Rudmose-Brown in Trinity College, teaching French to undergraduates, taking over Rudmose-Brown lectures on Racine and lecturing on the Romantic poets, Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Gide and Bergson. While he was lecturing in Dublin he met the Irish painter, Jack B. Yeats, whom he greatly admired and with whom he remained friendly until Yeats's death in 1957.

But Beckett was almost pathologically shy and detested by the self-exposure that was involved in lecturing. So he resigned his appointment after only four terms. After a short stay with the bohemian family of his aunt and uncle, Cissie and William Sinclair, in Kassel at the beginning of 1932, he returned to Paris, where he wrote the major part of a novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which he had begun in Dublin a year earlier. The book was rejected by several publishers and only appeared posthumously in 1992.

Only weeks after his cousin, Peggy Sinclair, died from tuberculosis, Beckett's father died at the end of June 1933, leaving him feeling guilty and depressed; guilty at having, as he saw it, let his father down by resigning his academic post, depressed on account of the death of his father and of serious concerns about his own health.

THE BAD YEARS (1933-39):

A few months after the death of his father in the summer of 1933, Beckett left Dublin for London to undergo a course of psychotherapy to help him to cope with his increasingly frequent attacks of panic and depression. These were, as Beckett himself described them “bad days” both for his psychological and emotional stability and for his efforts to make a living as a writer.

The stories that he had written about an Irish intellectual, Belacqua Shuah, were published in 1934 as More Pricks than Kicks, but they had little commercial or critical success. His poems were then published in 1935 by a friend’s small private press, under the title Echo’s Bones and other Precipitates, but, again they made little impact. His attempts to carve out a career in London as a reviewer and critic also failed. He worked on a novel, Murphy, which, when completed in June 1936 after his return to Dublin, was turned down by numerous publishers until it was finally published by Routledge in 1938. But again it sold fairly bad. While he was living in London, he read widely, including several books on psychology and psychoanalysis and went to a number of classical concerts. He also visited the Bethlem Royal Hospital (a mental hospital), where one of his old friends, Geoffrey Thompson, worked as a doctor. His visits to the hospital had a major part to play in the new novel, Murphy.

Returning to Dublin, his relations with his mother deteriorated badly and there were countless arguments and quarrels. Things came to a head in 1936 when Beckett (considered by his mother as unemployed, although he was trying hard to write) drank heavily, had an affair with a childhood friend of the family - a married woman ; then smashed up his car, injuring another woman whom he adored. In an attempt to escape from these troubles and dogged by ill health, he toured Nazi Germany from October 1936 to April 1937, where he indulged his passionate interest in painting and met a number of Jewish painters who were the victims of Nazi persecution. He also witnessed at first hand the furore (outbreak) that modern art was creating inside the Nazi party – many paintings were being physically removed from the walls of galleries during his stay.

On returning home, under pressure to find gainful employment and not wishing to remain in Ireland, he applied for a lectureship in Italian at Cape Town University in South Africa. Failing to be appointed, he upset his mother still further by agreeing to act as a key witness in a celebrated libel case that his uncle, Harry Sinclair, was bringing against Oliver St John Gogarty. Then, after a blazing row with his mother, he left Ireland definitively to settle in Paris late in 1937, renewing his friendship with the Joyces and becoming friendly there with a number of painters and writers. Soon after that, in January 1938, he was stabbed by a pimp, the knife narrowly missing his heart.

He had a number of affairs in Paris, including one with the American art collector, Peggy Guggenheim, and another with a French Woman, Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil, an accomplished pianist, whom he had met ten years earlier and who renewed their acquaintance by visiting him in hospital after the stabbing. Although they lived together soon after their reunion, they did not marry until 1961.

Beckett described these years in Paris before the outbreak of the Second World War as a ‘period of lostness, drifting around, seeing a few friends – a period of apathy and lethargy’. None the less, he was evolving in different directions as a writer, writing poems in French and translating Murphy into French, with the help of a friend, Alfred Pe`ron.


Returning to Paris from his work with the Irish Red Cross Hospital in Saint-Lo after the war, Beckett and Suzanne endured some of their most difficult years. To earn money in those inflationary times, he did many translations and taught English; she did dress-making and gave music lessons to children.

From February 1946, Beckett wrote in a frenzy of activity- and this time he wrote in French. After a short story, La Fin (The End), there followed a shortish novel, Mercier et Camier, and three more stories, L’Expulse (The Expelled), Premier amour (First Love), and Le Calmant (The Calmative). A year later, he wrote a play which has still to be produced, Eleuthe`ria. Then he began a major novel trilogy in French: Molloy, Malone meurt (Malone Dies) and L'Innommable (The Unnamable), all of which took him over two and a half years to write.

Eventually, after many rejections, Suzanne, to whom Beckett in his own words 'owed everything', found a young publisher named Jèrome Lindon, who had taken over the former underground publishing house of the Resistance figure Vercors, Les Editions de Minuit. Lindon was prepared to publish all of Beckett's novels and promptly offered him a contract. So began a close relationship between the two men which was based on mutual respect and trust. Lindon did far more for Beckett than most publishers ever would for their authors. But Beckett repaid that faithfulness and conscientious concern with personal friendship and total loyalty, as well as with

practical help and financial support in difficult times.

Although the novels received a high level of critical acclaim, success of a more public nature eventually came to Beckett in his mid-forties in the shape of a play which many have seen as transforming twentieth-century theatre. This was of course En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), written between October 1948 and January 1949.

Two personal events marked Beckett very intensely at this period of his life. In 1950, his mother, May, became critically ill with advanced Parkinson’s disease and dementia. She died in August months of her life. With the money from the sale of her property after her death, he had a modest little house built in the country village of Ussy in the Seine et Marne region. He used to love to go there to write. At the beginning, Suzanne accompanied him, but later she took against the house as being too quiet and remote from all the things that she enjoyed in Paris: friends, music, theatre, bustle.

Almost as traumatic was the death of his brother, Frank, in September 1954. Again Beckett devoted several months to caring for him, and this experience seems to have had a major impact on several of his later plays, most notably Endgame and the 1956 radio play All That Fall.

GROWING FAME (1955-69):

With the success of Waiting for Godot in so many countries and the publication of his novels and later plays in dozens of languages, Beckett’s fame spread fairly quick. He was the recipient of a number of international awards, most notably the International Publisher’s Prize in 1961 (shared with Jorge Luis Borges), and then the Noble Prize for Literature in 1969. The growth in literary celebrity did not, however, make him in the least complacent or satisfied with his achievements and his ways of seeking to express being in both his prose (eg. Comment c’est [How It Is]) and his drama (eg. Play [Comedie]) continued to be innovative and radical. He also wrote plays for radio and, later, for television.

He had taken up important friendships again after the war: with his old friends, the Irish writer and art historian, Tom MacGreevy, and the Trinity College, Dublin lecturer, 'Con' Leventhal; with the Dutch painter brothers Geer and Bram van Velde; with the French painter Henri Hayden and his wife, Josette, whom he had first met in Roussillon; and with Georges Belmont, his former student, previously Pelorson. New friendships were also initiated: with the painter Avigdor Arikha; with the composer Marcel Mihalovici and his wife, the concert pianist Monique Haas; with the theatre director Roger Blin, with whom he worked on several productions of his plays with the script editor at the BBC in London, Barbara Bray, who encouraged him to write for the radio and became first a close friend then a lover, moving to Paris to be near to him; and with numerous actors and directors in Paris, Berlin and London. He also became friendly with a number of writers, broadcasters and thinkers: Robert Pinget; Harold Pinter; Edward Albee; Aidan Higgins; at the BBC, Donald McWhinnie and Martin Esslin; and the Romanian-born philosopher Emil Cioran. He had a remarkable gift in friendship.


Samuel Beckett took a keen interest in productions of his plays from the very beginning of his career as a dramatist. In the mid-1950s and early 1960s, he attended rehearsals with Roger Blin and Jean Marie Serreau in Paris and came over to London to help the directors of several productions at the Royal Court Theatre: George Devine, Donald McWhinnie and Anthony page. Then, from the mid-1960s on, he began to direct his own plays, in London and Paris, but especially at the Schiller-Theatre in Berlin. He also directed his television plays in Stuttgart with Suddeutscher Rundfunk, ending his career as a director of his own work only at the age of eighty.

He went on to direct his plays with a small theaterical company called the San Quentin Drama Workshop. This came about through a strange friendship which evolved over the years with the founder of the Workshop, a former prisoner, Rick Cluchey. Cluchey received a life sentence in 1955 for a kidnap, robbery and shooting incident and served twelve years in the notorious maximum security prison of San Quentin, until his sentence was commuted to one which allowed for the possibility of parole. He was later given a full pardon. While in prison, Cluchey had become heavily involved in drama and acted in several of Beckett's plays. Then, when he came out on parole, he travelled to Europe with his own play, The Cage, and met Samuel Beckett, who, intrigued by the man and his background, agreed to direct him in Krapp's Last Tape at the Akademie der Kunste for the Berlin Festival in 1977 and went on to befriend him for the next twelve years. He worked with the group again in 1980, directing Endgame in London, after advising them on an earlier production of the same play in Berlin, and then directed – ‘supervised’ was the word that Beckett himself used - Waiting for Godot with them at the Riverside Studios in London in 1984, a production which Walter Asmus had begun in Chicago.


From the late 1950s Beckett used to come over to London fairly regularly to attend rehearsals of his plays, especially when they were being put on for the very first time. In Berlin, as we saw earlier, he started to direct his own productions at the Schiller- Theatre from 1967 onwards. Later in the 1970s he directed a few plays at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in addition to advising the directors, Anthony Page or Donald McWhinnie, on others. In London, with so many friends and family eager to see him, his social life often became incredibly hectic. In Berlin, where he stayed quietly at the Akademic der Kunste, it was still busy but less pressured.

One of his characteristic was to take a keen interest in the technical side of a production and he became friendly with some of the crew, often going for drinks with them after rehearsals.


Beckett came to the United States only once, in the summer of 1964, to help Alan Schneider to film his script of Film, with Buster Keaton playing the main character. He also read American fictions including Faulkner, Salinger and Bellow. Beckett himself has always had a large and faithful following in the USA. Many American writers, artists and musicians have been inspired by his prose or by his drama.


Beckett’s sixties and seventies were still highly productive years. He wrote several short, challenging plays for the stages in the 1970s and early 1980s (Not I, That Time, Footfalls, A Piece of Monologue, Rockaby, Ohio Impromptu and Catastrophe). He also wrote minimalist plays for television, which have exercised a great influence on video and installation art. His prose works of that period like Company, Mal vu mal dit and Worstward Ho are powerful and thrillingly innovative.

Productions of his plays in London, Berlin and Paris kept Beckett actively involved in the theatre, in which some of his friends worked. His support- both moral and financial – for members of his family and his friends was unwavering and he gave money away constantly to charities and institutions, as well as to numerous private individuals. Friendships with ‘Con’ Leventhal, his publishers John Calder and Barney Rosset, Barbara Bray, Josette Hayden (whose husband, Henri, died in 1970) continued to be unswerving. Always deeply humanitarian, he began, in a new development, to take much more public stances on political issues: apartheid in South Africa, greater freedoms in Communist Eastern Europe, and human rights cases throughout the world (e.g. the house arrest of Va`clav Havel).

His fame made many other demands on his time and his appointment diaries of this period reveal that he met a quite extraordinary number of people whom he knew scarcely at all to discuss new productions and publications or musical and dance works inspired by his writing. Looking back at his work a hundred years after his birth in Foxrock, County Dublin, its impact on writers, artists and musicians, as well as on those who are none of these, seems likely to last for many generations to come. He passed away in December 22, 1989.


BECKETT REMEMBERING, REMEMBERING BECKETT: uncollected interviews with Samuel Beckett and memories of those who knew him by None.

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