Reflections on Samuel Beckett's Plays

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Author: Eva Metman
Editor: Timothy J. Sisler
Date: 2004
From: Drama Criticism(Vol. 22)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,848 words

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[(essay date January 1960) In the following essay, Metman explores the different embodiments of God, treatment of women, and the depiction of the human condition in Beckett's earlier dramatic works.]


Jung (1951, Coll. Wks. [Collected Works], p. 121) speaks of a class of schizophrenic and neurotic patients whose illness "seems to lie in their having something above the average, an overplus for which there is no adequate outlet." And he continues: "We may then expect the patient to be consciously or--in most cases--unconsciously critical of the generally accepted views and ideas."

The impression one gains in such cases is that there is somehow more wisdom in their madness than in the kind of sanity in which the majority feels safe. These patients do not find their feet in the world unless they succeed in integrating those notions which can form the nucleus of adequate self-expression. As long as they have not reached this point, they tend to vacillate between moods of inflated rebellion and of deep despair and sense of failure. Their disorientation seems to be an unconscious compensation for what has been described as a contemporary threat to the uniqueness of the individual. This threat of collectivization has been called the illness of our epoch.

In a letter to the critic George Jean Nathan, Eugene O'Neill says that the dramatist of today has to reveal the root of the sickness of our time. This root of sickness he describes as "the death of the old god and the incapacity of science and materialism to give a new god to the still living religious instinct." The dramatist's task, he continues, is "to find a new meaning of life" with which to allay man's fear of death (Mellinger, 1950).

This statement of O'Neill's should be seen against the background of an historical development. The fact that the collapse of the old projections on the one hand and the fascination by his own discoveries and inventions on the other have driven modern man away from his psychic roots, and that the levelling down and the hollowing out of his mind have gradually become a widespread phenomenon, has led to the response by the creative few. Ever since the first passionate warnings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche about a hundred years ago, a small minority in the field of art, literature, and philosophy has been moved by an increasing feeling of urgency about man's self-estrangement in the modern world. Partly simultaneously and parallel with the growing contribution which Jung's life-work made to this very problem, the interest in it gradually became a powerful trend in Western thought.

This reaction did not start in the field of drama. The idea of man's tragic self-estrangement has been expressed in the works of, for instance, Dostoievsky, Rilke, and Kafka, and those writers of very varied orientation who have--against their own protest--been thrown together under the common description of "existentialists," Heidegger, Jaspers, and Sartre.

That these three and their followers have all been given the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420058167