The only really hard thing about Samuel Beckett’s work is its demand that an audience have an attention span. Whether the play you’re watching lasts two hours like Waiting for Godot or forty-five seconds like Breath, you need to be fully alert or you’re wasting your time. There is nothing obscure about Beckett’s writing: Stripped bare of the ornaments and stratagems of virtuosity, his characters’ utterances are to the point–even when they include repetitions, interruptions, screams and burps. From behind these syllables no symbols beckon: What you see is what you get. Once a director pointed to a line in the Godot script and asked the author, “What does it mean?” Beckett answered, “What does it say?”
As Harold Pinter has testified, Beckett’s indispensability derives from the fact that “he’s not fucking me about, he’s not leading me up any garden path, he’s not slipping me a wink, he’s not flogging me a remedy.” If Beckett is difficult, it is not because he’s abstract but because he’s so astringently direct. No playwright has given plainer witness to the terrors of the planet’s most violent century, or made clearer the shamelessness of totalitarians as they turn their fellow humans into beasts of burden, then piles of rags and ashes. At the same time he bears loving witness to people for whom a flogging is as much a daily expectation as ill-fitting shoes and an empty stomach. Beckett attests to the passionate souls and capacious minds of those reduced to beggary, madness, exile, failure. His lost souls are always much more than the sum of their torments and privations: They illuminate their own dark paths with little flames of wit, hope, desire. That’s why his debts to Laurel and Hardy are as large as the ones to Dante.
Beckett was shaped by birth in an Ireland that had some fifty years earlier lost half its population to starvation and emigration. In his childhood some of the famine era’s displaced survivors were still alive, and frequented his middle-class family’s door looking for a coin or a crust. His own experience of the margins–living as a tramp in his early wanderings across Europe, fleeing a Gestapo raid on his Paris home and hiding out in the Pyrenees until the end of World War II, living hand-to-mouth in postwar France–cultivated in him a modesty and empathy that later triumphs, like the Nobel Prize, would fail to dislodge. Beckett was well-known among Paris street people as an easy touch. Once while on a stroll with a friend, a beggar offered his tale of misfortune, and the playwright produced a generous offering. Shouldn’t you consider the possibility, the friend asked, that the beggar was taking advantage of you? Replied Beckett: “I just couldn’t take the chance.” In this his centenary year, Beckett’s plays still radiate that same quality: They give human beings the benefit of the doubt.