©2003 Ross E. Lockhart
Samuel Beckett is considered one of the strongest voices of a dramatic movement known as the Theatre of the Absurd, which appeared in Paris in the wake of World War II. Absurdist authors, including Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Jean Genet, Eugène Ionesco, and Jean Tardieu, found inspiration in the writings of existentialist philosophers Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that a rational explanation of the universe was beyond humanity’s grasp, and, therefore, the world could only be seen through an absurd lens. To represent this absurd view of the world, Beckett and the Absurdists willfully challenged previous conventions of drama, abandoning traditional plot elements at will, crafting long-winded stream-of-consciousness speeches for their characters, and using symbolic imagery drawn from seemingly innocent everyday objects. As absurd as they may appear on the surface, however, according to Petri Liukkonen, Beckett’s “plays are concerned with human suffering and survival, and his characters are struggling with meaninglessness and the world of the Nothing” (¶1).
Of Beckett’s vast body of work, perhaps his most disorienting, confusing, and absurd play is Krapp’s Last Tape. In the play Krapp, “an old, sordid, wearish man, dressed in rags and living alone in his den,” listens to a tape of his own voice recorded thirty years earlier (Robinson 284). In addition to reviewing and contemplating aloud his earlier self, Krapp “sighs, fumbles, squints at keys and written papers, extracts bananas from a desk drawer kept resolutely locked, skids on banana peels,” and “stares vacuously before him with a banana end in his mouth” (Kenner 129). Beckett meticulously spells out every detail of movement, every parcel of action, every moment of uncomfortable silence in Krapp’s Last Tape, removing any ambiguities in the reader’s mental picture of the action. This departs considerably from earlier customs in drama, which would leave most of the decisions of staging a play in the hands of a director. Instead, Beckett insists on total control over Krapp’s Last Tape, beginning with almost an entire page of stage, set, and movement directions before Krapp even utters his first line.
At first glance, Krapp appears to be the only character in the play, making it tempting to classify Krapp’s Last Tape as a monologue. However, it may be more accurately interpreted as a dialogue between Krapp’s past and future selves. The elder Krapp, the one physically present in the play, is celebrating his sixty-ninth birthday by listening to an earlier recording of himself, as seems to be his annual tradition, while the second Krapp is the thirty-nine-year-old Krapp whose voice is heard on tape. In addition, the voice of young Krapp makes reference to an even younger self, perhaps twenty-eight years old, a “young whelp” he has trouble believing he ever was. There may be, in fact, an infinite number of Krapps, imprisoned on the spools of tape carefully catalogued and locked away should the present-day Krapp feel the need to summon them.
While dramatic literature can often be clearly defined as either comedy or tragedy, Beckett juxtaposes elements of both in crafting Krapp’s Last Tape. On one hand, the elder Krapp is portrayed comically, wearing “rusty black narrow trousers too short for him” and a “surprising pair of dirty white boots, size ten at least, very narrow and pointed” (2771). This costume, along with his “cracked voice,” and “laborious walk,” is evidence that “there are remnants of the clown in his appearance, a white face and a large red nose (and in the banana skin over which he inevitably falls) but [tragically] he is also still […] ‘condemned as always to live again in the dream-reality of the instantaneous present'” (Robinson 284). Although the younger Krapp pledges never to sing when he reaches old age, future Krapp sings the prophetic refrain, “Now the day is over, / Night is drawing nigh-igh, / Shadows — of the evening / Steal across the sky” (2776). When these bittersweet lyrics are considered in light of the play’s title, Beckett’s symbolism is quite clear: the reader is witness to the recording of Krapp’s last tape; Krapp has reached the end of his life and the value of that life is, well, Krapp.
One of Beckett’s primary themes in Krapp’s Last Tape is that of unfulfilled goals. Despite his early convictions that he should give up his nasty obsessions, drinking and eating bananas, we still see him at sixty-nine and hear him at thirty-nine doing both, and are reminded of the way that many people make the same New Year’s resolutions year after year. Beckett meditates on the uselessness of every goal ever set by Krapp. Krapp has never accomplished anything he hoped to, nor has he ever really tried.
Beckett employs the banana motif throughout the play as a representation of these unfulfilled goals. From the opening burlesque of slipping on the discarded banana peel to the confession from thirty-nine-year-old Krapp that he has “just eaten I regret to say three bananas and only with difficulty refrained from a fourth” (2773), Beckett simultaneously references the slapstick silent-movie humor of Buster Keaton and Krapp’s own tenuous grip on sanity. As Marina Warner writes, “Going bananas implies the zaniness of losing control; […] it is a state precariously poised on the edge where pleasure yields to distress.” In addition, she points out that “the phrase refers to monkeys, as in the related slang of ‘going ape shit’ […]. It makes clear our closeness to animals, particularly to apes, who are the only other creatures who use their hands to eat, and can peel bananas” (349-350). Through the symbolic metaphor of the banana, and all it entails, Beckett is insinuating that in reliving the unrealized dreams of his past, Krapp has driven himself “ape shit,” and in doing so has entered into “a hell, or perhaps a purgatory without promise of issue” (Kenner 134).
Another theme that Beckett explores within Krapp’s Last Tape is that of polar opposites, black and white, light and darkness. One of the strongest examples of this is in Krapp’s memory, triggered by a reference in his enormous ledger, of giving a black ball to a white dog as he awaited the death of his mother. Into this momentary connection, he has loaded a cascade of emotion. Unfortunately, he is unable to grasp the gravity of the association as he reviews these “moments. Her moments, my moments. The dog’s moments,” giving each equal measure. Although elder Krapp was unable to remember the situation with the dog mere moments earlier, young Krapp claims that he will remember the encounter, stating, “I shall feel it, in my hand, until my dying day. I might have kept it. But I gave it to the dog” (2774).
Beckett’s use of opposites is further illustrated in Krapp’s memories of his affair with “Bianca in Kedar Street” (2773). “Before breaking off their love affair, Krapp had lived with Bianca—white in Italian—on Kedar Street, Kedar being an anagram for dark. The names “Bianca” and “Kedar” further Beckett’s dark/light imagery […]” (Kehler 160). As James Knowlson explains, “Beckett chooses ‘Bianca’ for the name of one of Krapp’s lovers, […] mainly on account of its associations with light in a play that is full of black and white contrasting imagery” (68). Ultimately, it appears that Krapp has rejected the light of the outside world in favor of the darkness of his own interior. “This darkness can certainly be seen as extending to a whole zone of being that includes folly and failure, impotence and ignorance” (Knowlson 319).
Michael Robinson suggests that Beckett’s decision to integrate past and present in Krapp’s Last Tape would have been nearly unworkable in the hands of a lesser playwright. By confining the younger Krapp to magnetic tape, Beckett avoids the need “for one character to separate himself from the action, call another aside and tell him everything. This is what Shakespeare did in The Tempest and risked Prospero being thought a bore. […] Moreover, it gives unprecedented freedom to the dramatic monologue” (Robinson 283-284). Like Prospero with his books, Krapp is empowered by his recordings, relying on their magic to allow him to grapple with his past, hoping that through them, he can somehow reconnect with his former life.
The comparison between Shakespeare’s Prospero and Beckett’s Krapp, however, does not withstand the test of the storm. Prospero exists in conjunction with others: his daughter Miranda, the spirit Ariel, the subhuman Caliban. Krapp, on the other hand, is alone, master only of the voices of his own past, which, like Caliban, seek to usurp him. Krapp exists in the darkness of his own memories, a hell of his own design. For Prospero, magic gave him hope of escape, for Krapp, there is nothing left.
At the play’s conclusion, the older Krapp is left silently listening as his younger self ponders the loss of his best years, saying, “But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back” (2776). With that, the tape runs out.