Sue Young Histories

Samuel Barclay Beckett 1906 – 1989

September 24, 2008

Samuel Barclay Beckett 1906 – 1989 was an Irish writer, dramatist and poet. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in

  1. Beckett was elected Saoi of Aosdána in 1984.

Samuel Beckett wrote about homeopathy in Murphy, and his life long companion Suzanne Dechevaux Dumesnil consulted homeopaths for herself and for Samuel.

Suzanne later suffered from respiratory problems and other ailments but trusted her homeopathic advisers to deal with these…

Newly enthusiastic about homeopathy, she consulted a homeopath about Samuel

the doctor who was treating the cyst (in his mouth) nonsurgically was Suzanne’s homeopath

Samuel Beckett also took homeopathic remedies for his cataracts.

Beckett’s father was a quantity surveyor and his mother a nurse. At the age of five, Beckett attended a local playschool, where he started to learn music, and then moved to Earlsford House School in the city centre near Harcourt Street.

In 1919, Beckett went to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh - the school Oscar Wilde attended. A natural athlete, Beckett excelled at cricket as a left handed batsman and a left-arm medium-pace bowler. Later, he was to play for Dublin University and played two first-class games against Northamptonshire. As a result, he became the only Nobel laureate to have an entry in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the “bible” of cricket.

Beckett studied French, Italian, and English at Trinity College, Dublin from 1923 to 1927. While at Trinity, one of his tutors was the eminent Berkeley scholar and Berkelian A A Luce. Beckett graduated with a B.A., and after teaching briefly at Campbell College in Belfast he took up the post of lecteur d’anglais in the École Normale Supérieure in Paris.

While there, he was introduced to renowned Irish author James Joyce by Thomas MacGreevy, a poet and close confidant of Beckett who also worked there. This meeting was soon to have a profound effect on the young man, and Beckett assisted James Joyce in various ways, most particularly by helping him research the book that would eventually become Finnegans Wake.

In 1929, Beckett published his first work, a critical essay entitled Dante…Bruno. Vico.. Joyce. The essay defends James Joyce’s work and method, chiefly from allegations of wanton obscurity and dimness, and was Beckett’s contribution to Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, a book of essays on James Joyce which also included contributions by Eugene Jolas, Robert McAlmon, and William Carlos Williams, among others.

Beckett’s close relationship with James Joyce and his family, however, cooled when he rejected the advances of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia. It was also during this period that Beckett’s first short story, Assumption, was published in Maria and Eugene Jolas’ periodical Transition.

The next year he won a small literary prize with his hastily composed poem Whoroscope, which draws from a biography of René Descartes that Beckett happened to be reading when he was encouraged to submit.

In 1930, Beckett returned to Trinity College as a lecturer. He soon became disillusioned with his chosen academic vocation, however. He expressed his aversion by playing a trick on the Modern Language Society of Dublin, reading a learned paper in French on a Toulouse author named Jean du Chas, founder of a movement called Concentrism; Chas and Concentrism, however, were pure fiction, having been invented by Beckett to mock pedantry.

Beckett resigned from Trinity at the end of 1931, terminating his brief academic career. He commemorated this turning point in his life by composing the poem “Gnome”, inspired by his reading of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and eventually published in the Dublin Magazine in 1934…

After leaving Trinity, Beckett began to travel in Europe. He also spent some time in London, where in 1931 he published Proust, his critical study of French author Marcel Proust.

Two years later, in the wake of his father’s death, he began two years’ treatment with Tavistock Clinic psychotherapist, Wilfred Bion, who took him to hear Carl Gustav Jung’s third Tavistock lecture, an event which Beckett would still recall many years later. The lecture focused on the subject of the “never properly born,” and aspects of it would become evident in Beckett’s later works including Watt and Waiting for Godot.

In 1932, he wrote his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, but after many rejections from publishers decided to abandon it; the book would eventually be published in 1993. Despite his inability to get it published, however, the novel did serve as a source for many of Beckett’s early poems, as well as for his first full-length book, the 1933 short story collection More Pricks Than Kicks.

Beckett also published a number of essays and reviews around the time, including “Recent Irish Poetry” (in The Bookman, August 1934) and “Humanistic Quietism”, a review of his friend Thomas MacGreevy’s Poems (in The Dublin Magazine, July–September 1934). These two reviews focused on the work of Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin and Blanaid Salkeld, despite their slender achievements at the time, comparing them favourably with their Celtic Revival contemporaries and invoking Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and the French symbolists as their precursors. In describing these poets as forming ‘the nucleus of a living poetic in Ireland’, Beckett was tracing the outlines of an Irish poetic modernist canon.

In 1935 - the year that Beckett successfully published a book of his poetry, Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates - he was also working on his novel Murphy. In May of that year, he wrote to Thomas MacGreevy that he had been reading about film and wished to go to Moscow to study with Sergei Eisenstein at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow.

In mid-1936, he wrote to Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, offering to become their apprentices. Nothing came of this, however, as Beckett’s letter was lost due to Eisenstein’s quarantine during the smallpox outbreak, as well as his focus on a script re-write of his postponed film production.

Beckett, meanwhile, finished Murphy, and then in 1936 departed for extensive travel around Germany, during which time he filled several notebooks with lists of noteworthy artwork that he had seen, also noting his distaste for the Nazi savagery which was then overtaking the country.

Returning to Ireland briefly in 1937, he oversaw the publishing of Murphy (1938), which he himself translated into French the next year. He also had a falling out with his mother, which contributed to his decision to settle permanently in Paris (where he would return for good following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, preferring—in his own words—‘France at war to Ireland at peace’).

Sometime around December 1937, Beckett had a brief affair with Peggy Guggenheim.

In Paris, in January 1938, while refusing the solicitations of a notorious pimp who ironically went by the name of Prudent, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and nearly killed. James Joyce arranged a private room for the injured Beckett at the hospital.

The publicity surrounding the stabbing attracted the attention of Suzanne Dechevaux Dumesnil, who knew Beckett slightly from his first stay in Paris; this time, however, the two would begin a lifelong companionship.

At a preliminary hearing, Beckett asked his attacker for the motive behind the stabbing, and Prudent casually replied, ”Je ne sais pas, Monsieur. Je m’excuse” (“I do not know, sir. I’m sorry”). Beckett occasionally recounted the incident in jest, and eventually dropped the charges against his attacker—partially to avoid further formalities, but also because he found Prudent to be personally likeable and well mannered.

Beckett joined the French Resistance after the 1940 occupation by Germany, working as a courier, and on several occasions over the next two years was nearly caught by the Gestapo.

In August 1942, his unit was betrayed and he and Suzanne fled south on foot to the safety of the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in the Provence Alpes Cote d’Azur region. Here he continued to assist the Resistance by storing armaments in the back yard of his home. During the two years that Beckett stayed in Roussillon he indirectly helped the Maquis sabotage the German army in the Vaucluse mountains, though he rarely spoke about his wartime work.

Beckett was awarded the Croix de guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance by the French government for his efforts in fighting the German occupation; to the end of his life, however, Beckett would refer to his work with the French Resistance as ’boy scout stuff’.

’[I]n order to keep in touch’, he continued work on the novel Watt (begun in 1941 and completed in 1945, but not published until 1953) while in hiding in Roussillon.

In 1945, Beckett returned to Dublin for a brief visit. During his stay, he had a revelation in his mother’s room in which his entire future literary direction appeared to him. This experience was later fictionalized in the 1958 play Krapp’s Last Tape. In the play, Krapp’s revelation is set on the East Pier in Dún Laoghaire during a stormy night, and some critics have identified Beckett with Krapp to the point of presuming Beckett’s own artistic epiphany was at the same location, in the same weather…

In 1946, Jean Paul Sartre’s magazine Les Temps Modernes published the first part of Beckett’s short story ”Suite” (later to be called ”La fin”, or “The End”), not realizing that Beckett had only submitted the first half of the story; Simone de Beauvoir refused to publish the second part.

Beckett also began to write his fourth novel, Mercier et Camier, which was not to be published until 1970. The novel, in many ways, presaged his most famous work, the play Waiting for Godot, written not long afterwards, but more importantly, it was Beckett’s first long work to be written directly in French, the language of most of his subsequent works, including the “trilogy” of novels he was soon to write: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. Despite being a native English speaker, Beckett chose to write in French…

Beckett is publicly most famous for the play Waiting for Godot

Like most of his works after 1947, the play was first written in French with the title En attendant Godot. Beckett worked on the play between October 1948 and January 1949. He published it in 1952, and premiered it in 1953. The English translation appeared two years later.

The play was a critical, popular, and controversial success in Paris. It opened in London in 1955… It is still frequently performed today.

… Beckett went on to write a number of successful full-length plays, including 1957’s Endgame, the aforementioned Krapp’s Last Tape (written in English), 1960’s Happy Days (also written in English), and 1963’s Play.

In 1961, in recognition for his work, Beckett received the International Publishers’ Formentor Prize, which he shared that year with Jorge Luis Borges.

… In 1961, in a secret civil ceremony in England, he married Suzanne, mainly for reasons relating to French inheritance law. The success of his plays led to invitations to attend rehearsals and productions around the world, leading eventually to a new career as a theatre director.

In 1956, he had his first commission from the BBC Third Programme for a radio play, All That Fall. He was to continue writing sporadically for radio, and ultimately for film and television as well. He also started to write in English again, though he continued to do some work in French until the end of his life.

Actor Cary Elwes explains in his video diary of The Princess Bride that Beckett was a neighbour of the Roussimoff family, and used to give one of the Roussimoff sons, André René, a lift to school every day, since the boy was unable to take the school bus owing to his large size. André René Roussimoff would, in later years, go on to become professional wrestler André the Giant.

In October 1969, Beckett, on holiday in Tunis with Suzanne, learned he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Suzanne, who saw that her intensely private husband would be, from that moment forth, saddled with fame, called the award a “catastrophe.”

Suzanne died on 17 July 1989. Beckett, suffering from emphysema and possibly Parkinson’s disease and confined to a nursing home, died on December 22 of the same year. The two were interred together in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris, and share a simple granite gravestone which follows Beckett’s directive that it be “any colour, so long as it’s grey.”

Suzanne Dechevaux Dumesnil 1900 - 1989 was the tennis partner, lover, and later wife of Samuel Beckett.

In the 1930s, Beckett, an avid tennis fan his whole life, chose Dechevaux Dumesnil as his lover over the heiress Peggy Guggenheim.

Six years older than Beckett, Dechevaux Demesnil was an austere woman known for avante garde tastes and left wing politics.

During the Second World War, Beckett joined the French Resistance. For over two years, he and Dechevaux Dumesnil hid from the Germans in a village in the South of France.

Beckett’s Waiting for Godot has been called “a metaphor for the long walk into Roussillon, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks… during the day and walked by night…”

During the relationship between Beckett and Dechevaux Dumesnil, which lasted more than fifty years, she maintained a private circle of friends and is credited with having influenced Beckett to produce more work.

During the late 1950s, Beckett often stayed in London, where he met Barbara Bray, a BBC script-editor, a widow in her thirties… Their encounter was highly significant for them both, for it represented the beginning of a relationship that was to last, in parallel with that with Suzanne, for the rest of his life.”

Soon, their association became “a very intimate and personal one”. In a visit to Paris in January of 1961, Bray told Beckett she had decided to move there. His response was unusual.

In March, 1961, he married Dechevaux Dumesnil in a civil ceremony in Folkestone. On the face of it, this was to make sure that if he died before her Dechevaux Dumesnil would inherit the rights to his work, since there was no common law marriage under French law. He may also have wanted to affirm his loyalty to her.

In June, 1961, Bray moved to Paris, and despite his recent marriage Beckett spent much of his time with her. This side of his life was not well known, as Beckett’s reserve was “allied to his fear of giving offence to Suzanne”. Beckett’s play Play (1963) seems to be inspired by these events.


Any views or advice in this site should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice or treatment, especially if you know you have a specific health complaint