Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Krapp’s Last Tape

            In the September, 1960 edition of Horizon, that glorious “magazine of the arts” which ceased publication in 1989, I read a theater review by Robert Hatch entitled “Laughter at Your Own Risk.” His subject was Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Hatch acknowledged that at times the play is funny; the audience laughs. But he sees it primarily as “a sad play for anyone; for artists it may be an object of terror.” It represents, Hatch proposes, a nightmare Beckett escaped. He then goes on to give some biographical information. Beckett wrote for twenty years with almost no recognition; he was forty-six when Waiting for Godot “threw him a bridge to the world.” Krapp has no such good fortune, and in this character Beckett shows us a failed writer who, in Hatch’s words, is “going down for third time.”
            This review prompted me to get a copy of the play. It’s very short — I would say that the running time couldn’t be more than a half hour. It has one character. Krapp is sixty-nine years old (it’s his birthday) and he is, to put it simply, a wreck. The set — his den — is minimalist; what matters, as described in the stage directions, is “a table with a tape recorder with microphone and a number of cardboard boxes containing reels of recorded tapes.” Krapp celebrates the “awful occasion” of his birthday (alone, of course) by recording a summary of the past year. But the on-stage Krapp has little to say. He immediately — and with relish — seeks out an old tape: “Box thrree , spool five. Spooool!” This particular spool was recorded thirty years ago, when Krapp was thirty-nine. For the most part what we’ll hear is that recorded voice.
            Though never stated directly, Krapp is an artist. Specifically, a writer. He takes an almost sensuous pleasure in words (“Spooool!”). And he can use language exceedingly well. His younger self describes a ball he threw to a dog as “a small, old, black, hard, solid rubber ball. I shall feel it, in my hand, until my dying day.” The elderly Krapp speaks vividly, and with vigor: “Scalded the eyes out of me reading Effie again, a page a day, with tears again. Effie . . . (Pause.) Could have been happy with her, up there on the Baltic, and the pines, and the dunes. (Pause.) Could I? (Pause.) And she? (Pause.) Pah! (Pause.) Fanny came in a couple of times. Bony old ghost of a whore.”
            Effie is both the name of a real person and the name of a book, one that only Krapp could have written. Yes, he’s a writer. In the tape from thirty years ago he mentions listening to one he recorded when he was in his twenties, and he laughs derisively at his aspirations to produce an “opus . . . magnum.” Yet he adds that “intellectually I have now every reason to suspect at the . . . (hesitates) . . . crest of a wave — or thereabouts.” The sixty-nine -year-old Krapp considers his thirty-nine-year-old self to be a “stupid bastard.” Yet he still holds onto the faintest shred of hope; he wonders if “a last effort” — and then abruptly dismisses that idea: “Ah finish your booze now and get to your bed. Go on with this drivel in the morning. Or leave it at that. (Pause.) Leave it at that.” At one point in the play Beckett has the elderly Krapp utter words (with absolutely no context) that indicate the extent of his failure: “Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known.”
            But this is more — so much more! — than a play about a failed writer. It’s about a failure at life — when you fail to get “those things worth having when all the dust has — when all my dust has settled.” And Krapp’s dust has almost settled; from the “Last” in the title it’s inferred that he will not live to make another tape. The play approaches the subject of failure and loss in an elusive manner. The younger Krapp begins to speak of a night on a jetty when he had a “vision” of the whole thing: “What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely —” here Krapp irritably switches the tape off, winds it forward, begins it again; but he comes to more revelatory thoughts; those too he cuts short, with curses. What Beckett chooses to give us are fragments; but the fragments add up to something enigmatic and powerful. We may not know what Krapp’s story is, exactly, but we feel it. That was the task Beckett set for himself — to evoke feelings — and he succeeded to a degree that is remarkable. When I reread the play it seemed to gain substance. There’s something there, not quite discernable, but it is there, and it seems vast.

            Of course, I am Krapp. In more ways than I care to go into. But like him I’m still capable of feeling. Krapp is compelled to repeatedly return to one section of the tape that takes place in a boat, on a lake; this he listens to with rapt absorption. In the ledger that identifies what’s on spool five his younger self had written “Farewell to love.” Maybe spool five contains the point where life got stuck.

      “. . . I noticed a scratch on her thigh and asked her how she came by it. Picking gooseberries, she said. I said again that I thought it was hopeless and no good going on, and she agreed, without opening her eyes. (Pause.) I asked her to look at me and after a few moments — (pause) — after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause. Low.) Let me in. (Pause.) We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause.) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.” 


Jimmy Scoville said...

I remember seeing this performed in New Orleans during the '90s & felt it was an agony experience to witness. Now, with your & the Horizon's words, I might attempt to read it. I have always steered clear after that performance. I, too, am an aging man, most would call me a failed writer. Now, with age, it might really make perfect sense.

Phillip Routh said...

Read it. It's too good not to.