Growing Old: Hope, Samuel Beckett, and Krapp’s Last Tape

On a trip to New York City this past December, a trip that had as its genesis a desire to see Rob Mathes’ annual Christmas concert in person (after being introduced to Rob’s music via a DVD of the Christmas show on Mike Card’s bus eight or so years ago), I spent some time with my friends Alissa and Tom. When I first let them know I would be in town, Alissa told me they had tickets one night I would be there to see John Hurt perform Samuel Beckett’s one-man play, Krapp’s Last Tape, at a small theater in Brooklyn. When I found there were still tickets available I quickly purchased one, and set about doing some research on the play, including reading the script after I found it online, having decided to do the same kind of prep work I normally do before going to the symphony every other week.

According to one synopsis: “In Krapp’s Last Tape, which was written in English in 1958, an old man reviews his life and assesses his predicament. We learn about him not from the 69-year-old man on stage, but from his 39-year-old self on the tape he chooses to listen to. On the ‘awful occasion’ of his birthday, Krapp was then and is now in the habit of reviewing the past year and ‘separating the grain from the husks’. He isolates memories of value, fertility and nourishment to set against creeping death ‘when all my dust has settled’.”

Instead of going on and on attempting to describe the play and what I loved about it, or what it was like to watch someone at the top of their craft like John Hurt alone on a stage, commanding the full attention of everyone in the audience, I would encourage you to set aside an hour and watch this video, a recording of a performance Hurt did in London six years ago. (If you do want to read a succinct and articulate review, the New York Times, as usual, is a good place to turn.)

The next day, after wandering around the city for a while, I took refuge from the crowds in the main branch of the New York City public library. Exploring the reading rooms, a book of essays about Samuel Beckett caught my eye (by chance, it was on a shelf at the end of an isle), and pulling it out, I came across an essay taken from Steven Connor’s Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory and Text, on “Voice and Mechanical Reproduction” in Krapp’s Last Tape and a couple of his other plays. The editor of the book, whose name I forgot to record, introduces Connor’s essay with this:

Connor’s reading in ‘Voice and Mechanical Reproduction’ explores the pertinence to Beckett’s texts of ideas drawn from Jacques Derrida’s critique of phonocentrism in his writing on Rousseau and Saussure (Of Grammatology [De la grammatologie, 1967]). The recorded speech Beckett uses extensively in Krapp’s Last Tape, Ohio Impromptu, Rockaby and That Time differs from the full, palpable, self-present speech which the metaphysics of presence always associates with the theatre, and whose privilege over writing in logocentric thinking, as a source of reliable meaning, Derrida identifies and reformulates. The opposition of ‘live’ speech to ‘dead’ writing is deconstructed by recorded speech, whose capacity for repetition, citation and transfer from one temporal (or spatial) context to another gives it the ‘condition of iterability’ Derrida finds in writing. In his analysis of Krapp, Connor brings out both the materiality and consequent interruptibility of the acts of reading and listening in the play, and the parallelism and stark differences between the recorded and ‘present’ voices of Krapp. Temporal over layering ’emphasized the citational nature of the original utterance’. All speech in the play can be played back and thus ‘grafted’ (the Derridean term) from one context to another.

Connor proceeds to explore this possibility of interruptibility, drawing out and giving greater meaning to what I found to be one of the more powerful moments in the play.

Beckett insists on the material facts involved in the process of reading, stressing the weight and inaccessibility of the ledger, with its entries difficult for Krapp to read with his failing eyesight and, especially, the necessity of breaking off reading to turn the page – ‘Farewell to – [he turns page] – love’. The effect of bathos is intensified by the splitting of the word in the French version – ‘Adieu à l’a … [il tourne la page] … mour’ – with the obvious hint that it gives of love turning to death. But Beckett exploits the simple physical fact of the turning of the page as well. Written language allows – one might almost say necessitates – gaps and interruptions, for its unchanging material form means that it can be broken off and resumed at the same point. The immediacy of speech, however, means that it cannot be suspended in this way without being lost for ever. In this play, the ability to break off, the possibility of introducing gaps, is evident both in the written and the spoken text – the ledger and the tape; and this ability is coincidental with the fact of the written text’s iterability. The awareness of the function of gaps gives a sense of other parallels between speech and writing. In particular, the hesitations in the younger Krapp’s voice, which punctuate his confidently continuous dialogue with moments of indecisive silence, open up possibilities of alteration or difference.

All of this was still in mind the next day as I finished the last pages of Insurrection, the newest book from Pete Rollins, while sitting on the train heading out to Greenwich, Connecticut, to meet Pete for lunch. The central thesis presented in Insurrection, as I’ve written about before (see this post on beliefnet), involves a critique of the idea of God as deus ex machina, God as that which provides justifications for our own actions and desires, no matter how base or harmful they may be to others.

Near the end, Pete reflects on the myth of eternal return, as explored in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, a question that has some relevance to Krapp’s Last Tape. Nietzsche asks:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more” … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”

Nietzsche was not, Pete goes on to explain, attempting to present some Pollyannaish view of the world, or “some moral fairy tale about the beauty of existence.” “Rather,” he writes, “Nietzsche is asking whether one can truly affirm life as such, even in the very midst of all the suffering and pain. If we are able to say “yes” to life when confronted with the possibility of repeating everything, then such a demonic curse is robbed of its sting.”

A couple paragraphs on, Pete connects this back to his central thesis and the way we conceive of God. “It is here, amidst the ashes of the death of the deus ex machina, that a different understanding of God becomes visible. This God is affirmed where people are gathered together in love and is testified to where the sick are healed, the starving fed, and where those who dwell in death are raised into life.”

Reflecting further on this, on the eve of my 30th birthday, I’m reminded of an answer related by Cathleen Falsani in an article for Sojourners that Rob Bell gave when asked, at a New Year’s Eve party this past year, for his definition of evangelical: With a glass of champagne in one hand and a smile on his face, Rob answered, “An evangelical is someone who, when they leave the room, you have more hope than when they entered.”

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