On its fiftieth anniversary, Conor Leahy takes a look at one of Beckett’s greatest works
Amidst the hefty Beckett oeuvre, relatively straight realism can often seem an elusive – if not ethereal – luxury. It is no surprise, therefore, that the mournfully candid Krapp’s Last Tape has, on occasion, been labelled Beckett’s most approachable play. This October marks the fiftieth anniversary of its inaugural production at the Royal Court Theatre, London.
In a play that takes scarcely ten minutes to read, Beckett momentarily blunts his typically horrific, eschatological (and indeed scatological) edge. He chooses instead to invest a rare lyricism in carving the delicate vignette of Krapp – an aged man listening to a 30-year old recording of himself. “Krapp has nothing to talk to but his dying self,” noted the playwright, “and nothing to talk to him but his dead self.” Much has been made of Beckett’s relentless eschewal of sentimentality, and though Krapp’s Last Tape is no exception, it stands almost uniquely in the Irishman’s work as a landscape in which hope – albeit faded hope – rears its brow. As he wrote to a friend: “People will say: good gracious, there is blood circulating in the man’s veins after all, one would never have believed it; he must be getting old.”
In 1958, Beckett was already a literary colossus, having safely outgrown his image as simply a robust tick shivering in Joyce’s corpse. In many ways Krapp’s Last Tape, along with 1961’s Happy Days, completed Beckett’s most significant creative period. Subsequently, he would withdraw further from convention, sacrificing the relative coherency of excremental daubs and phlegmy prose effusions for a more discreet yet passively subversive concision. Fifty years on, however, it is clear that Krapp’s Last Tape has held firmly amongst Beckett’s great masterpieces.
In recent times, the play has been second only to the ubiquitous Waiting For Godot in terms of media exposure and popularity, especially during the heady mist of the 2006 centenary celebrations. An effortlessly august John Hurt reprised his interpretation of Beckett’s protagonist as part of festival proceedings at The Gate. “It’s a common misconception that Beckett is a gloomy old bastard,” said Hurt. “But most of the audiences that saw me play Krapp found it quite uplifting.”
Later that year, however, Krapp’s Last Tape was infused with a more tangible significance; it became the vehicle for what may prove to be master playwright Harold Pinter’s final encounter with the theatre. Having overcome cancer of the oesophagus in 2002, remaining in a frail condition ever since, the then 76-year old Nobel laureate delivered a gravely austere and entirely sedentary performance of the work from an electric wheelchair. A close friend and admirer of Beckett, Pinter had publicly stated that he would never write another play, choosing instead to focus on poetry and his increasingly astringent political activism.
Fifty years on and, in spite of any such associative revisionism, the essence of Krapp’s Last Tape remains undiminished as a deeply moving and pervasively funny play. Hurt is quite right when he dubs it “uplifting”; there is no question of its not being so. More specifically, however, it is uplifting in the Beckettian sense of the word – namely the coldly implacable and stiflingly masochistic sense. “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that,” noted Beckett memorably in Endgame. “Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world.”