Samuel Beckett's Drama and Beyond

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					Samuel Beckett’s Drama and Beyond
Spring 2011
Dr Emilie Morin (em549@york.ac.uk)


If critics have long considered Samuel Beckett one of the most important playwrights of the
twentieth century, his influence upon the development of experimental currents in twentieth-
century British and Irish drama has remained difficult to pinpoint, not least because Beckett’s
position within the canon remains fraught with complexity. It is all the more important to
address this paradox at this point in time given Beckett’s recent transformation into an Irish
cultural icon, and given the recent wave of British productions which aim at making his plays
accessible to mainstream audiences by giving them a clearly-established meaning.
         In this module, we will discuss Beckett’s drama and developments beyond Beckett,
charting the development of non-naturalistic trends in texts written for theatre, radio and
television. We will begin by considering the influences shaping Beckett’s rejection of realism,
paying particular attention to his response to the Irish Literary Revival, and we will end by
thinking about the ways in which qualities commonly associated with the idea of ‘the Beckettian’
are echoed in a range of British and Irish plays from the late 1960s to the present.
         Our seminar programme will be divided into two parts. In the first four seminars, we will
focus on a range of dramatic texts written by Beckett, from absurdist plays such as Waiting for
Godot and Endgame to short dramatic texts whose status as plays is open to question. Waiting for
Godot and Endgame were heralded as groundbreaking plays in the 1950s, and Beckett’s desolate
landscapes responded to the anxieties of the post-war period, as their presentation of man’s
relentless search for meaning in a meaningless universe echoed contemporaneous philosophical
concerns. In plays of the 1960s and 1970s, Beckett moved away from an absurdist aesthetic and
experimented with the boundaries of dramatic expression, showing a particular fascination with
the possibilities of the voice, dramatic monologue and technology. His investigation of the
modalities of perception and meaning had a determining influence on subsequent developments
in Irish and British drama, and playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Sarah Kane and Marina Carr,
for instance, have acknowledged Beckett as their forefather. The second half of the module will
lead us to think about Beckett’s legacy, and we will look at plays by Sarah Kane, Frank
McGuinness, Tom Murphy, Martin McDonagh, Marina Carr, Conor McPherson, Martin Crimp,
Owen McCafferty and Tim Crouch. We will discuss these playwrights’ representations of
linguistic, sensory and cognitive breakdowns, elements which evoke the transformative effect
that Beckett had on dramatic form, and we will consider the motives shaping their engagement
with a non-naturalistic aesthetic.
         No previous experience of studying drama is required. Because some of Beckett’s plays
raise important issues of performance, we will watch a number of film adaptations during the
first half of the course (all relevant DVDs are held in the Main Library, so you will be able to
return to them at a later point if you wish to do so).
         All plays by Beckett may be found in his Complete Dramatic Works (Faber). All other texts
are available from Amazon and online sellers. No particular recommendations as regards editions
unless otherwise stated. Photocopies of critical essays and/or links towards online pdfs will
accompany seminars as appropriate each week.


Reading list and schedule of seminars
As and when indicated, knowledge of additional texts will be assumed, with these texts operating
as points of reference and/or providing a background for discussion.

Week 1: No seminar
Week 2: Beckett and the Irish Revival
Beckett, The Old Tune and ...but the clouds...
W.B. Yeats, Purgatory and ‘The Tower’ (handout provided)
Lady Augusta Gregory, The Workhouse Ward (handout provided)
J.M. Synge, Riders to the Sea and In the Shadow of the Glen

Week 3: history and oblivion
Beckett, Waiting for Godot and Endgame
Theodor Adorno, ‘Trying to Understand Endgame’ (handout provided)
Sean O’Casey, Juno and the Paycock (available in Three Dublin Plays, Faber – but other editions are
fine)
[Strongly recommended reading: Beckett, Happy Days]

Week 4: radio drama
Beckett, All That Fall; Embers; Words and Music; Cascando

Week 5: technology and experiment
Krapp’s Last Tape; Play; Breath; Not I; That Time; Film; Quad
Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Exhausted’ (handout provided)
[strongly recommended reading: Beckett, Eh Joe]

Week 6: Reading week – no seminar

Week 7: memory and storytelling
Tom Murphy, Bailegangaire
Martin McDonagh, The Beauty Queen of Leenane
W.B. Yeats, Cathleen Ni Houlihan (handout provided)

Week 8: voice and dramatic monologue
Sarah Kane, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis (I recommend the Complete Plays, Methuen)
Conor McPherson, Port Authority

Week 9: landscapes of the mind
Marina Carr, Woman and Scarecrow and The Cordelia Dream, from Carr, Plays 2 (Faber)
Frank McGuinness, Baglady (handout provided)

Week 10: indeterminacy and playwriting
Martin Crimp, Fewer Emergencies
Owen McCafferty, Waiting List
Tim Crouch, England

Some useful starting points:
S.E. Gontarski, ed., A Companion to Samuel Beckett (Blackwell)
John Pilling, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Beckett. Book and e-book
Lois Oppenheim, ed., Palgrave Advances in Samuel Beckett Studies
Chris Ackerley and S.E. Gontarski, The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett
Hans-Thies Lehmann, Post-dramatic theatre
Anthony Roche, Contemporary Irish Drama

				
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