Krapp's Last Tape and the Futility of Human Existence

Topics: CultureIrony

Question: Absurdist drama is often said to be a critique of the human existence, that the situation is often meaningless and absurd. Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is a typical absurdist drama. How does Beckett, through the use of language, setting and the character Krapp, highlight the futility of the human existence in this particular drama? Absurdist drama originated in the 1950s and follows Albert Camus’s philosophy that the human situation is meaningless and absurd (Culik). As such, absurdist drama is, in a sense, absurd.

It follows none of the typical rules of modern drama, and that is in fact its true intention, to go against the norm so as to surprise or shock readers out of their comfort zone, to force people to confront the weaknesses and hopelessness of mankind. Many components of an absurdist drama will be seen as illogical, ridiculous or mundane. Samuel Beckett’s drama, Krapp’s Last Tape, is an excellent example of an absurdist drama.

Perhaps the first thing that the audience is drawn to, when reading the play at least, is the setting itself.

Beckett goes to great length to describe how he wishes the setting to be, right down to the last trivial detail of Krapp’s clothes. “Rusty black narrow trousers too short for him. Rusty black sleeveless waistcoat, four capacious pockets. Heavy silver watch and chain. Grimy white shirt open at nick, no collar. ” Beckett further describes Krapp’s slow, laborious actions in a lengthy and monotonous manner.

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“Krapp remains a moment motionless, heaves a great sigh, looks at his watch, fumbles in his pocket, takes out an envelope, puts it back, fumbles, takes out a small bunch of keys… Indeed, Krapp himself is a source of ridicule, for he is poorly dressed, slow, clumsy and even almost trips on a banana skin that he tosses on the ground. One must note, however, that despite Krapp’s frailties, Beckett constantly reminds the audience that Krapp is a “thinker”, from his constant pacing to his “meditative” way of eating banana. Hence, by putting together both messages, Krapp epitomizes the proverbial unsuccessful scholar, the intellectual who tries to survive on idealism but soon realizes that cold hard truth of reality.

Indeed, Beckett has foreshadowed the later parts of this drama with this initial hint of who Krapp is as a person, and the reader learns much later that Krapp is in fact a failed writer bemoaning the mistakes he made when he was young. In essence, Beckett’s portrayal of Krapp is as a symbol of ridicule, and made even more ridiculous from the fact that Krapp is supposed to be of considerable intellect. Hence one sees the first example, right from the beginning, of an absurdist piece. Beckett further uses a minimalist setting for a reason.

The stark empty space present in a minimalist setting serves to highlight to the audience that there is no one else in the room, for Krapp is there, alone in his own solitude. The audience focuses on Krapp and only Krapp, which is the essence of absurdist drama; for the audience to focus on the human so as to realize, throughout the course of the drama, the futility of the human existence. Interesting too, is Beckett’s use of lighting in the drama. He specifies, above all, that: “Table and immediately adjacent area in strong white light.

Rest of stage in darkness. ” Light and darkness has often been used as an allegory to success and failure, knowledge and ignorance. By putting Krapp in the light and the rest of the stage in the dark, it would appear that Beckett is attempting to portray Krapp as having had the knowledge to succeed in life, hence Beckett’s choice to have light and darkness on the stage as a stark comparison as opposed to having the stage fully lighted. However, one soon suspects, and later realizes, that Krapp is anything but successful.

Hence, the audience realizes the irony of the situation; Beckett’s use of light to portray Krapp’s dark life shows a yearning for a success that never came, and this is in fact the case, which the audience sees later. The themes of light and darkness are shown repeatedly throughout the entire play, as shall be discussed later. With regards to the drama itself, reminiscence on the part of Krapp is a major theme. The audience is introduced to a total of three Krapps, all different from one another. Hence the audience is able to view each Krapp as being detached from one another, in an intense separation of self (Lagier).

Sixty-nine year old Krapp listens to a tape made by his thirty-nine year old self, in which his thirty-nine year old self muses on his actions when he was twenty-nine. To deduce exactly what Krapp is reminiscing about, the audience must listen closely to the content of the narration, as well as the present day Krapp’s reactions to it. Twenty-nine year old Krapp, as recounted by his thirty-nine year old self, was living with a woman named Bianca, whom twenty-nine year old Krapp described as “hopeless business”.

Thirty-nine year old Krapp derides his twenty-nine year old self for being “young whelp”, for making aspirations and resolutions like to drink less and to have a “less engrossing sexual life”. Thirty-nine year old Krapp believes that Bianca and the above resolutions are silly, for he “sneers at what he calls his youth and thanks to God that it’s over”. Twenty-nine year old Krapp then talks about the “shadow of the opus magnum”, which in essence belies his desire to be a great and successful writer, to publish an amazing and impressive piece of work that none will rival.

This, thirty-nine year old Krapp appears to concur fully; in fact, he describes a moment of epiphany that he has when he is thirty-nine. “What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely-” “The dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality my most-” Once again the theme of light and darkness emerges, and Krapp believes that he has seen the light, seen the truth of what must be done in order to achieve the “shadow of the opus magnum” that he talked about when he was twenty-nine.

To do so, Krapp must accept the darkness that is manifest in him, instead of trying to keep it under wraps, as seen when he says “my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire-”. The audience, however, should be wary, as is Beckett’s intention in portraying enlightenment through the acceptance of darkness. This blatant contradiction stands in fact for the irony of Krapp’s situation; he believes that by giving up love and companionship, and hence embracing darkness, he will be able to attain success.

It should be evident to the audience that such logic is clearly absurd, and Krapp realizes this much later when he is sixty-nine. Hearing his thirty-nine year old self talk about his visions of grandeur disgusts the present Krapp, as is seen by his swearing and fast-forwarding of the tape. “Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again. ” Later, as is customary of Krapp’s birthday, he makes a fresh tape and curses himself for being a fool. “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. The scene poignantly reminds the audience of the thirty-nine year old Krapp mocking his twenty-nine year old self, much like the present day Krapp is mocking his thirty-nine year old self. What is starkly different, however, is that sixty-nine year old Krapp is now mocking his thirty-nine year old self for something his thirty-nine year old self derided himself for doing at twenty-nine; for being with Bianca, or perhaps, for the companionship and humanity that Bianca symbolizes, for what his thirty-nine year old self swore to give up.

In essence, the present Krapp realizes that he has spent thirty years pursuing a dream of writing, with little achievement of speak of. His “shadow of the opus magnum”, his great literary vision, is nothing more than “Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known. One pound six and something, eight I have little doubt. ” On a higher level, one may perhaps see this as Beckett’s warning to society about the frailties of mankind, and how one will fail more often than succeed.

Human beings are selfish and self centred, and are forever striving to achieve ever greater heights, resulting in ever greater failures, which is clearly illustrated in the case of Krapp. The Absurdist Theatre, as such, paints this thoroughly pessimistic picture of the existence of human kind. A second major theme present in the drama is that of solitude and isolation. This isolation can be considered a self-imposed one, a result of Krapp turning away from the women in his life when he was younger.

There are two instances of this, one when Krapp was aged twenty-nine and the woman was called Bianca, and one when Krapp was aged thirty-nine. It is clear that Krapp regrets his situation. Both sixty-nine year old Krapp and thirty-nine year old Krapp jeer at his younger self, and one can consider these Krapps ‘‘emotional bananas”, in which Krapp attempts to ‘‘stop up’’ any regrets he may feel through mockery (Moran). However, his actions give him away, for Krapp cannot forget the women, or rather, the symbol of humanity he gave up. “Krapp switches off, winds tape back, switches on again. Whereas Krapp impatiently fast-forwards the parts of him musing about his epiphanies, he listens intently and repeatedly to his memories of the woman he used to have. He then belatedly muses what could have happened if he had not chosen to turn her away. “Could have been happy with her, up there on the Baltic, and the pines, and the dunes. Could I? ” He realizes that he has made a horrible mistake, choosing his delusions of grandeur over love, and is now left with nothing except superficial sex from the whore Fanny, which he once again mocks. I told her I’d been saving up for her all my life. ” Also present are many literary obscurities that Beckett uses throughout the play. The presence of bananas, for one, plays a bigger role than being a mere food. Beckett chooses to add an element of physical degeneration in the play to complement that of Krapp’s spiritual degeneration; Krapp’s fondness for bananas causes him to suffer from a bowel problem. Twenty-nine year old Krapp had “unattainable laxation”, thirty-nine year old Krapp ate “three bananas and only with difficulty refrained a fourth”.

At the beginning of the play, sixty-nine year old Krapp had eaten two bananas already. It is easy to see that the bananas are symbolic. Krapp eats so many bananas even though they make his constipation problem worse as a form of escapism; he wishes to bury his emotions within him even as his stool stays stubbornly within his body. This is similar to the way thirty-nine year old Krapp resolves to bury his emotions, end his relationships with women and retreat into a life of solitude with the false hope that doing so would allow him to achieve his “shadow of the opus magnum”.

Ironically, or perhaps aptly, Krapp’s last name sounds remarkably similar to the word “crap”, which means to defecate. This is yet one more example Beckett utilizes to make Krapp an object of ridicule; he cannot achieve laxation even though his name suggests the very same thing. Krapp also appears to place special emphasis on the word “spool”. While it is entirely possible that Beckett has Krapp repeat the word over and over, drawing it out, in order to make Krapp seem even more absurd so as to fit the character he is playing, the word “spool”, and even all the tapes in Krapp’s boxes, may in fact have special significance to Krapp.

Indeed, it appears that Krapp has been documenting his life every birthday in an individual spool, perhaps in hope that in the future, he would be able to look back and reminisce about the evolutions of his success. The real reason for Krapp’s documentation of his past, however, may be the simple fact that he has become so detached from the others that the only way he may hear a voice speak, is to hear his own voice.

Hence, Krapp guards his tapes and boxes zealously, labelling them carefully, because they are the only connection he has left to humanity, the only method he has to break the monotony of his solitude. In retrospect, Krapp’s Last Tape does an excellent portrayal of a very real fear that society, caught up in fulfilment of never-ending wants and desires, will result in a generation of people who lead a meaningless existence, finding all too often that instead of achieving their desires, they not only fail to do so, they also lose whatever speck of humanity they had in them.

All too often, they find themselves alone in their old age, having turned away or denied companionship in the mistaken thought that it would prevent them from attaining their ideals. Overall, this presents a powerful issue for one to consider. Still, one should note that while Absurdist Theatre is thoroughly pessimistic, it may not always be representative of the real situation. Hence, cone can disagree that the human situation is always meaningless and absurd, but concur to the possibility of one leading a meaningless existence as a result of misjudgements.

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Krapp's Last Tape and the Futility of Human Existence. (2017, Dec 22). Retrieved from

Krapp's Last Tape and the Futility of Human Existence
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