During the ongoing, international celebration of Samuel Beckett’s 80th birthday, which commenced last spring, much is being said, written, and done to reiterate unequivocally his position as the preeminent playwright of our century. There is no debate, really, so much as an affirmation and an exploration of his unquestioned significance. The irony, of course, is to be found in the very notion of “celebration”; for nothing could be further from the essence of Beckett’s life and work, an oeuvre of nihilism so dreadful and methodically perfect in its devastating portrayal of nothingness that it defies celebration.

“My work,” wrote Beckett in a letter to his director Alan Schneider during the early stages of Endgame in 1957, “is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.” If Beckett felt above taking any aspirin himself, he also felt there was no possible relief from the dread of the void he insisted on facing. “The major sin is the sin of being born,” as Beckett paraphrased Sophocles to the New York Herald Tribune in 1964.

Some years ago a dissatisfied Kenneth Tynan summarized Beckett with the statement, “I am bored therefore I am.” Recently a more respectful Richard Ellman refined Tynan’s allusion when he wrote, “I suffer, therefore I may be,” as his commentary on Beckett. In their search for a consummate metaphor, both the detractor and the champion independently looked back to no one less than Descartes as a proper predecessor to Beckett. It will take an equivalent few hundred years to know if Beckett’s impact will be as influential as it now seems or halfway as profound as Descartes. Some consider it well on its way to being just that. But as literary criticism has discovered, the very notion of influence is suspect—at the very least it must be viewed as moving backwards no less than forwards. Ellman argues that not only can we locate the influence of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce on Beckett, but that since Beckett we are compelled to reevaluate their work as well.

Beckett has made a pact with the cosmos, which he reveals as being unrevealable, unmalleable, implacable. He has been rewarded handsomely in return, and many a critic has predicted that his cry in the wilderness will be heard as long as there are ears to listen. But—and this is both the grace and the curse of Beckett’s vision—as long as that may be, it isn’t nearly long enough. According to Beckett’s mercilessly grim view, any achievement is at best a whimper, a sigh, a groan. What is humanity, according to Beckett, but mere flatulence released against the grander scheme? The imperfection, the limitation of humanity, is to deduce a scheme where none exists.

“‘I suffer, therefore I may be’ was his improvement upon Descartes,” proclaims Ellmann, who goes on to explain, “as if misery marked but did not confirm existence, and as if thinking were out of the question.” For Beckett, the question itself no less than the thought that provokes it are equally artificial and absurd. Only nothing has proven sufficient or can hope to be enough. His later writings suggest that even Waiting for Godot, his 1952 masterpiece which catapulted him to international fame and which infected much that has come since, is for Beckett but a sigh in comparison to the awesome winds of eternity. Although its running time is significantly longer, Godot is no more meaningful than his opus. Breath, a play lasting 35 seconds. Both are equally meaningless in relation to the void he cannot surmount, the vacuum he has spent a lifetime trying to capture. While many contend that Beckett has succeeded in his obsessive mission to articulate the void, for Beckett success is out of the question, and the void is too terrible to ever be harnessed.

Two years ago there were two separate revivals of Beckett’s Endgame. One was a straightforward rendering, guaranteed to recapture the flavor or the imprint of the original, since it was directed by Alvin Epstein, who initiated the role of Clov (the servant or fetcher) in the 1958 premiere production and who here assumed the part of Ham (the seated, blind master) in the 1984 version. But it was another production which opened within months of Epstein’s that makes for the more interesting historical footnote. As directed by JoAnne Akalaitis for Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, this second production took creative license by positioning the four characters in an obsolete subway station. Beckett objected vigorously to reports of Akalaitis’ intended production, and the play was finally permitted to open only with the following caveat inserted in the program: “My play requires an empty room and two small windows.” (For the record, he also objected to the inclusion of background music—in this case composed by Philip Glass.) Beckett’s response was more than a little surprising, considering that the setting for Endgame had been represented in the past variously as an infant’s playpen, a chicken coop, and a boxing ring, without—as far as I can glean—incurring so hostile a reaction from the playwright. It’s also ironic and hypocritical in view of Beckett’s reputation as an active advocate of political freedom, a reputation based on his involvement with the French Resistance Movement during the war and, more to the point, his boycotting the production of any of his plays in his native Ireland in protest of the Irish government’s interfering with planned productions of works by Joyce and Sean O’Casey at an annual festival of plays in Dublin in the late 50’s.

Along with Godot and Endgame, Beckett’s other most famous play is probably Krapp’s Last Tape, currently revived in New York in what must be viewed as an authorized production, since it has been directed by Beckett himself Krapp is the first postwar work written in English following many years of his composing in French, his adopted language. The decision to revert to English was a kind of inspiration. According to Deirdre Bair’s biography of Beckett, he was blocked against writing prose at the time (1958) and “plagued” by multiple ailments and illnesses. He conceived of Krapp after meeting the Irish actor Patrick Magee, who had previously recorded Beckett’s radio play All That Fall for the BBC. As Bair tells it, “Beckett told Magee that he was astonished when he first heard him speak because Magee’s voice was the one which he heard inside his mind.”

Such circumstances help to account for what was written. Since it traffics in one figure, Krapp is quintessential Beckett. For Beckett is the epitome of the solipsist, too busy doubting his own existence to begin to imagine the existence of others. Krapp’s Last Tape is a breakthrough for Beckett, since it is both a monologue and a drama. If the dramatic interaction is between a character and his previous self, there is interaction nevertheless. Beckett’s conception of the tape recorder as a theatrical contrivance ingeniously allowed him the opportunity to retain interaction, without which there can be no drama, while it also adhered to the integrity of his depiction of man alone. Krapp marks a turning point, after which Beckett will increasingly evoke the sense of the last or the first (i.e., the only) person alive.

Krapp is posed as an ailing man who, when we meet him on his 69th birthday, is about to record a fresh tape in his ongoing oral diary. The conflict in the 50-minute play emerges when he gets sidetracked from his mission by listening to “Box three, spool five,” or an entry he recorded when he was 39. He locates the desired tape (“The little scoundrel . . . the little rascal”), and we hear along with him his reflections and impressions made when he was 30 years younger, from specific descriptions (“a girl in a shabby green coat on a railway-station platform”) to general musings (“the things worth having when all the dust . . . when all my dust has settled”). Krapp the elder is noticeably impatient with his younger, more hopeful and vital self When he isn’t demeaning himself (” . . . that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago”), he’s interrupting the flow of the tape by stopping the machine and fast-forwarding ahead.

In what amounts to perhaps the most telling conceit in all of Beckett’s work, Beckett has Krapp spitefully cut himself short just as he is about to share his most important revelation with himself and with us: “The vision at last. This I fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle . . . for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was that, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely . . . ” At that instant Krapp interrupts the tape, and we’re never told what “that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing” consisted of for the younger Krapp.

But the point—that there is no point—made so swiftly yet emphatically here by Beckett, was made time and again since: by Kurt Vonnegut in The Sirens of Titan, which reduces the purpose of mankind to conveying a message that “The part is on the way” to some extraterrestrial species that needs to repair its intergallactic spacecraft; by Stanley Kubrick, who dismisses civilization before “2001” in one fell swoop, so to speak, as a prehuman ape hurls a bone into the sky and it becomes an interplanetary ship in what is still for us the future; by Updike, who, in the Foreword to his own Bech: A Book, was compelled to say, “Already the contents of a book count as little as the contents of a breakfast cereal box.”

Now that 30 years have elapsed since Beckett penned Krapp, we can see that it is his most significant work. Hardly anyone would dare respond today as Kenneth Tynan did in 1958 by writing his review for The Observer as a parody of the play itself called “Slamm’s Last Knock,” complete with ironic props and irreverent stage directions, while depicting the process of his writing a review of the play. On the other hand, I don’t know if anyone other than Robert Brustein recognized it then for what it was and remains: ” . . . Beckett’s latest, and very possibly his best, dramatic poem about the old age of the world.”

As a self-contained autobiographical statement, Krapp boasts of no loopholes, every loop of the tape and every jump ahead accounted for. Krapp presents a man regarding himself who is in turn regarding himself again; and to this apparently enclosed circle must be added Beckett regarding/conceiving the first man, and our regarding the entire enterprise. The dilemma, for Beckett, is our propensity to regard at all. He resents our self-appointed mission to wonder, to wander, to ponder, to question, to hope, when all that he finds is despair.

On a more mundane level, Krapp is to Beckett what Prufrock was to Eliot: In each of these works the author projected himself into the future looking back (” . . . before embarking on a new retrospect,” says Krapp). In keeping with the comparison, the peach Prufrock would only “dare to eat” becomes Krapp’s banana just as it had been Estragon’s carrot before.

In this latest production of Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett the director has left nothing to chance—which must be viewed as a typically Beckettesque paradox, since Beckett the writer apparently believes there is nothing beyond the random and the arbitrary. Even a particle of dust floating and noticeable in the flood of a theatrical spotlight seems calculated and preordained within this context. And Rick Cluehey’s performance is so studied and affected (whether he’s methodically peeling the bananas, shuffling to the rear room to collect his canisters of tape, or overreacting to hearing his younger self) that it does a disservice to the script. Only Bud Thorpe, who designed a painterly set and enhanced it with striking lighting, has succeeded here.

Still, Krapp’s Last Tape may very well be Beckett’s last important work. In subsequent years, he has focused his attention on writing prose monologues that have become ever more internalized, wending their way into an interior that knows no bottom as they duplicate with uncanny precision the way one “talks” to oneself when one is thinking. Appropriately, the syntax is chaotic, the vocabulary is limited, the grammar is inelegant, the thoughts are fleeting, fragmentary and only amount to something through rhythm, pattern, and redundancy, the accumulation and index of impulses.

In his discussion of Beckett’s Happy Days in 1961 (or 26 years ago), Richard Oilman wrote: “The miracle lies in the fact that here every element that has been thought to be necessary to the theatre’s conquest of life—plot, character, movement, linear revelation, the resolution of struggle—has dwindled to a set of notations and gestures, if anything at all remains; and yet life continues to rise from Beckett’s stage as it does from few others.”

Some of the more recent attempts to render Beckett’s recent monologues on stage, albeit monologues that were designed for the written page, have not proved as resurrectable. Nearly four years ago, Mabou Mines-member Frederick Neumann delivered a staged reading of Beckett’s prose monologue Company, which was an exercise in tedium and inadvertently symptomatic of the pointlessness that is Beckett’s point. Now, and to much more winning effect, Neumann is back with a staged version of Beckett’s 1983 opus, Worstward Ho. The differences may have less to do with what is inherent in these works, however, and more to do with the stunning visual effects achieved by Mabou Mines in realizing Worstward Ho (there were none to speak of in Company).

The autobiographical narrator of Worstward Ho is still steeped in “The same dim, the same narrow void” we’ve visited him at before; but if anything, he seems closer to death and wishes for it that much more. He speaks of the failure of words (“How almost true they sometimes almost ring”), the failure of failure (“Fail again, fail better”), the price of life (“Remains of mine where none for the sake of pain” and “all cannot go fill the dim go” and “Nothing ever unseen of the nothing to be seen”), as he fades in and out of consciousness (“Blanks—how long till somehow ‘on’ again?” and “No dim go, then all go”).

What makes this dim, grim 50 minutes endurable are the theatrical effects of Mabou Mines. John Arnone has provided a set of a black mound that later comes into view as a pyramid. At first with a shovel as if he were digging his way to the surface, Mr. Neumann emerges through an opening in the center to narrate the piece. He’s like some ghastly humanoid version of a hedgehog or a burrowing creature, but his usually mellifluous voice does justice to Beckett’s fragmented language; his pauses and reflections guide us through some of the more incomprehensible passages. The remains of a human skeleton are imbedded in the surface of the mound near the cavernous opening, a skeleton which directly figures in the narration as well as suggests that, as usual, the time is after some nuclear catastrophe. When the narrator refers to “a body somehow standing in the dim void,” the recollected body gradually assumes shape behind him as if it were floating or hovering just above the mound. Jennifer Tipton’s brilliant lighting design makes the performer appear as if she were a hologram. Even more effective is the visual realization of “The old man and child” recalled by the narrator, who “plod on as one . . . hands held.” Their backs to us behind the narrator who is facing us, they are walking slowly, perpetually, towards the top of the mound which now is a pyramid resembling a road in a surrealist painting by Dali or Magritte.

Whether or not the old man and child are Beckett’s dim memory of Estragon and Vladimir, the key to Beckett remains what it always was—autobiography. He has been too obsessed with beating the cosmic void at its own game, by submitting to it, to expend any energies manufacturing fictions. Beckett understood sooner than his followers that the design of one’s life, the situations and the circumstances, are fictions. In retrospect, it seems like the progress of Beckett’s work will have documented the deterioration and death of his own mind. Certainly it’s impossible to imagine it reaching more of a vegetable state than in Worstward Ho.

Well, oddly enough, 30 years after Krapp’s Last Tape we’re still here—or some of us are, anyway—dithering and blathering (Beckett more than the rest of us) and taking the aspirins that Beckett prescribed for us in his now famous letter to Alan Schneider.

During the run of JoAnne Akalaitis’ controversial version of Endgame at Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theatre in the winter of 1984, I sent Brustein a copy of my disparaging review of the Alvin Epstein production which had opened in New York a few months earlier. Brustein responded in a letter, “Don’t you find a certain affirmation and exhilaration in a playwright who courageously confronts the awful?” If by “certain” Mr. Brustein meant “perverted,” then perhaps there is an “affirmation” in Beckett’s work after all. But with the subsequent works as testimony to Beckett’s diminutive sensibility, any earlier shreds of “exhilaration” have been erased altogether. For D.H. Lawrence, an image of the “hare erect” alone in a field was the supreme metaphor of perfect order in an otherwise chaotic world. For Virginia Woolf, it was the recurring, terrifying image of a fin on the crest of a wave. For Beckett, only the absence of the possibility can suffice.