Krapp’s Last Tape (Beckett – 1)

Harold Pinter as Krapp, in Krapp's Last Tape, ...

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 It is a characteristic of Beckett’s plays to give the impression that there is nothing outside the stage. In Beckett’s plays God is never allowed to die altogether, but rather God is made to be felt by the audience as his absence, as the nothingness outside the stage. Krapp’s Last Tape is a good example of this recurring presence of God as an absence in Beckett’s plays. It is very rare not to have a couple, or more than one couple in Beckett’s plays, and Krapp’s Last Tape comes especially handy as a Beckett play with a single individual in it; locked in the past and trying to figure out not only how he has become what he is, but also why he is in general. There is no concern at all with the future in Krapp’s Last Tape, unlike Endgame for instance, where Hamm and Clov, although they don’t seek salvation from misery, they at least, just like in Waiting for Godot, expect a message from without, from some unknown external source about which they know nothing as to its relation to their future. They do strive for the unattainable knowledge of the nothingness outside. It is as though all their thoughts, actions, and speeches are governed by the nothingness off the stage. Whereas in Krapp’s Last Tape there is no sign of will, rather than willing nothingness, Krapp prefers not to will at all.

The tape recorder is the projection-introjection machine in Krapp’s Last Tape. Krapp is now introjecting what he had projected over the years, likewise the tape recorder is projecting what it had introjected over the years. This change of roles between machine and man reflects a perhaps often-neglected aspect of Beckett’s work, that aspect being the ambivalence of Beckett’s relation to projection-introjection mechanisms as exemplified by the tape recorder in Krapp’s Last Tape. Krapp oscillates between rejecting the past and affirming it.

During the sixties we see Beckett’s plays getting shorter and shorter, and the subject deprived of the unity of mind and body, the conscious self and the unconscious. Beckett progressively shortens the text and moves towards theatrical, or visual expression. The characters’ experience on the stage is limited to people once able to live dramas and capable of remembering those dramas. Dispersal of the subject, disappearance of the body, the subjects reduced to bodies in jars, to a mouth, or merely a voice, are some of the characteristics of Beckett’s final period of writing. Now his characters are no more capable of doing anything other than trying to remember those days in which they could still express their thoughts and feelings on stage.[1]

At the beginning of Krapp’s Last Tape Beckett announces that it is “a late evening in the future. Krapp’s Den. Front centre a small table, facing front, i.e. across from the drawers, a wearish old man: Krapp.”[2]

Krapp is an old and lonely man. He is shown on his 69th birthday listening to tapes he had recorded on his previous birthdays. As usual he will listen to the tapes and then record his voice telling what happened throughout last year. Krapp is the analyst and the analysand at the same time. He listens to his past from his own mouth through the speakers.  The play opens with Krapp who has always lived alone, reducing his life to a few physical actions carried out in a ritualistic way. This is Krapp’s daily routine; a few meaningless actions. Sometimes Krapp goes inside and drinks, eats a few bananas, takes a few steps in his “den,” and as he says, he sleeps with the old bitch who comes around once in a while.

Krapp lives his life neither by writing his mind games as Molloy and Malone do, nor talks as Hamm and Clov do. Krapp has no memory at all. Besides, he does not construct stories for himself. His tapes are his memory. But like all the other Beckett characters engaged in a play of consciousness Krapp deconstructs his story by using the rewind, play, and f.forward buttons. All that remains is a mass of misery pieces of which are not even imperfectly remembered, a multitude of unrelated and disconnected thoughts and impressions about the past.

Throughout the play we watch the three stages of Krapp’s life. The most important stage is the one narrated by the voice of Krapp at 39. The tape he recorded at the age of 39 contemplates the tape that he had recorded at 29, and Krapp at the age of 29 contemplates the period corresponding to his youth. And all the past periods of his life are judged by Krapp at the age of 69, which is “the present.”

Krapp at the age of 29 looks down on his youth and at times mocks himself for being the way he was. He is very happy to have done with that earlier period of his life. That Krapp at the age of 39 does not remember that he used to sing shows that he does not want to remember those unhappy days of childhood and adolescence. Krapp at the age of 29 is at a stage in his life where he has to make choices and decide what to do with his life. (This is matter of laughter for Krapp at the ages of 39 and 69).

One of the most important decisions Krapp has to make is the one concerning breaking his habit of drinking and giving up alcohol. At this stage we see young Hamm from Endgame meeting Krapp. Krapp tells his story using numbers and statistical information. A numerical exactitude in his narration is clearly discernible. One other important decision that Krapp has made at 29 is about reducing the intensity of his sexual life. Perhaps that is why he broke up with Bianca. (However, Bianca’s loving gaze is remembered by Krapp even when he is 39). Krapp’s 29th year passes in search of happiness and eventual frustrations. 29 years old Krapp’s tape ends with a call to God to show himself? To this call to God Krapp at 39 (on the tape) and 69 (on the stage) laugh. According to Krapp at 39, from that miserable year there is nothing left apart from that lost lover.

In Endgame Hamm and Clov are the father and son repelled and yet attracted by one another at the same time. They can do nothing with or without one another, or they can neither do, nor not do anything with and without one another.

The stage decoration is such that considering the on-stage activity as taking place within a head is easy and helps to understand what Beckett and we with him are dealing with here. The portrait hanging on the wall is turned towards the wall and the two windows facing the external world are sufficient signs to associate the stage as the inside of a man’s head, with the spectators watching the play from behind the split open head. This is signified by the portrait of the father on the wall looking towards the wall with the nothing behind the picture turned towards the stage and the spectators. At some point in the play Clov even attempts to communicate with the spectators, he turns towards and addresses the spectators, which shows us that Beckett was trying to make this point clearer by making the audience aware of the inverted projection-introjection mechanism that they are caught in. In all his plays and novels, one way or another, Beckett achieves inverting the projection-introjection mechanism into the spotlight. And he achieves this precisely by putting under a magnifying glass the failures within the projection-introjection mechanism.

What Beckett wants to say by employing these unorthodox techniques in theatre is simple and yet sophisticated. He wants to say that to escape from the Cartesian mind-body dualism and the mechanistic view of the world associated with it one has to create an imbalance between the projecting side and the introjecting side, between apprehension and comprehension.

The creation of imbalance can take the form of either an excessive projection of the imaginary and the symbolic onto the real, or a lack of projection resulting in total introjection. In the first case the subject loses himself in the chaos of the real, and in the second case the subject loses touch with the real and becomes a totally imaginary and symbolic construction. In both cases there is a loss of gap between the imaginary and the symbolic. And when the imaginary and the symbolic become one the real in-between them becomes impossible to be in touch with.  In Dissymetries Badiou repeatedly and recreatively points out that Beckett is not divided into two but into three. To use Derrida’s words, “one plus one makes at least three.”

A very rare picture indeed...

[1] Linel Abel, Metatheatre (New York: Hill and Wang), 82

[2] Samuel Beckett, “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 215

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