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The Ultimate Krappshoot

Updated: Mar 14

From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

  What spires, what farms are those?

  

That is the land of lost content,

  I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

  And cannot come again.

— A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, XL, 1896



Earl Fowler


One of the mysteries of getting older is how we retain a coherent, continuous sense of personal identity over time, but at the same time can feel utterly disconnected from the barely recognizable earlier selves we once inhabited.


That might seem like a contradiction, but old Walt Whitman had it figured. We contain multitudes.


If we’re honest, most of us feel like the same uncertain, gormless goofs we were at 17. Yet looking back in anger (or horror, or shame) at our most mortifying moments, we all occasionally find ourselves posing that deathless question: What the hell was I thinking?


Immutable answer: Who the hell knows?


Like characters in novels, human beings arrive on this planet stamped what prolific Turkish-American literary critic Merve Emre referred to in a review this month in The New York Review of Books as “that venerable shibboleth, personality.”


She writes that the way her orthodox peers see it, anyway, a novel fails the basic test of realism if it gives up on “the odd angularities of personality,” “the fruitful fiction of personality” and “the quiddity of a character’s experience.” Not to mention the “humanizing quality” of “actual individual existence.”


That might or might not be true of realistic novels, but I’m not so sure the persistence of a coherent personality with a unique quiddity — an essential “whatness” or “whoness” that makes us different from everybody else — is a done deal in the real world.


As we pass along the acacias, we may cast shadows indiscernible from those we cast half a century ago. But as we get older and pieces start falling away, rather like an oak shedding its leaves in the fall while adding a gritty acorn or two, it becomes progressively harder to reconcile the Old World of our callow and carefree salad days with the New World of macular degeneration and osteoarthritis.


The shift is gradual and subtle, especially given the way our minds tend to meander in eddying streams of Joycean consciousness, loosely plaiting together continuous themes as we go through the mundane farrago of daily living: eating, sleeping, reading, writing, cooking, drinking, shopping, driving, walking, daydreaming, forgetting.


John Lennon memorably put it this way in his song “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” on 1980’s Double Fantasy album: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” (Tragically, death is what happened to the brainiest Beatle a month after the album’s release.)


However much he might have yearned to do so as an adult, English poet and classical scholar Alfred Edward Housman was unable to return to the blue remembered hills of childhood, which had morphed into a land of lost content. None of us can. Though he seems never to have strayed far from his melancholy preoccupations with pessimism and death, the repressed faux Shropshire lad presented in the poems (Housman was born in the bordering county of Worcestershire and never spent much time in Darwin country) had lost his Christian faith while at Oxford and undergone as deep a transition as the fabled spires and farms.


Ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus had a pithier way with words. Among the cryptic epigrams of the similarly lugubrious man, who went into the history books as “the weeping philosopher,” this one best conveys his take on the world as constantly in flux: “No man ever steps into the same river twice.” A moment later the river will have changed, and so, too, has the man.


•••


And so.


Gale Garnett’s “We’ll sing in the Sunshine” is blaring from the radio in the kitchen. Dad isn’t home from work yet so supper is still an hour or so in the offing. Mum is sitting in a blue haze in the living room, reading the freshly delivered newspaper and drawing on a Player’s Navy-cut, cork-tipped cancer stick pulled from a sky-blue, hinged-lid tin. The leukaemia that will kill her is still a tiny hidden thing, embedded in the filter.


Garnett is explaining how things stand to some poor stiff hung up on her:


I will never love you

the cost of love’s too dear

But though I’ll never love you

I’ll stay with you one year …


Across from the solitary goldfish in an inhumane glass globe atop my chest of drawers, a boy lies on his stomach on my bed. He is working his way through the latest stack of coverless comic books given to him and his brother by their wildly generous Uncle Bill, who owns a store and gets his money back on unsold comics so long as he returns the covers.


The boy is pondering why equally kind and generous Richie Rich, so well-heeled in his bow-tied formal suit that his middle name is actually the dollar sign, $, doesn’t find it in his heart to subsidize the parents of his poverty-stricken besties, the perpetually patched jeans-wearing Freckles and Pee-wee Friendly, and why Pee-wee never says a word, and whether Richie might have even more money than Scrooge McDuck, who sometimes dives into his vault and goes for a swim among the coins. Mostly, the boy thinks about whether Gloria Glad, Richie’s red-haired girlfriend, who scorns the Rich family fortune (unlike already rich Mayda Munny, who covets Richie’s attention and his wallet), is hotter than Richie’s classmate Li’l Dot (real name Dorothy Polka), who is neurotically fixated on dots and clearly needs psychiatric help and has black hair but is otherwise pretty much indistinguishable from Little Audrey, who isn’t a classmate, unlike Little Lotta, who does go to the same school when not eating cones with 12 scoops of ice cream or using her incredible strength to beat up bullies who menace her shy, diminutive, glasses-wearing boyfriend Gerald, a younger version of Riverdale High’s Dilton Doiley, but unlike the unpopular Tubby in the Little Lulu comics, Little Lotta, who lives in a picket-fence suburb like all the rest, is beloved by all despite her obesity, though the mean boys at his real school call the fat girl Little Lotta, and the boy wishes he had the courage to stand up to them like Hot Stuff or Casper or Wendy the Good Little Witch would, and I’m not even going to mention disturbingly diapered Baby Huey or po-faced Nancy from the newspaper strip, which she and Sluggo commandeered from her Aunt Fritzi when flappers fell out of fashion, long before Nancy had been adopted as a queer icon.


What was I thinking? Was I thinking anything?


But we can sing in the sunshine

We’ll laugh every day

We’ll sing in the sunshine

And I’ll be on my way


•••


And so again.


I could descant endlessly and just as incoherently on later versions of myself that I no longer recognize, or wish to, but I’m feeling kind of seasick and the crowd cries out: No more. Neil Young summarized teenagehood pretty well for all of us in his song “Out on the Weekend”:


See the lonely boy on the weekend, trying to make it pay. Can’t relate to joy, he tries to speak and can’t begin to say.


I try to speak now and can’t relate to that boy, who needs a good slap upside the head. This blatantly contradicts my earlier remark about my cohort sometimes still feeling like we’re 17, but there you are. Multitudes. Of boomers. Sounding our barbaric yawp, as ever, over the roofs of the world.


A character in Irish author Sally Rooney’s 2021 novel Beautiful World, Where are You captures the way we all feel from time to time about the selves we’d like to leave behind: “I keep encountering this person, who is myself, and I hate her with all my energy. I hate her ways of expressing herself, I hate her appearance, and I hate her opinions about everything.”


That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise. Shut up and deal.


Which sets up my later-to-be-loathed opinion about Samuel Beckett, about whom, believe it or not, this sort of is.


Of all the 20th-century literary geniuses, and there were quite a few, James Joyce’s Irish compatriot, acolyte and fellow Parisian ex-pat stands out as the greatest dramatist on the strength of the two absurdist plays for which he is best known: Waiting for Godot and Endgame. (A century, I’ll remind you, that included such illustrious names as Shaw, Brecht, Ionesco, Wodehouse, Pirandello, García Lorca, Pinter, Stoppard, Williams, O’Neill, Albee, Mamet, Kane, Wilder …)


If the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature winner and courier for the French Resistance (recipient of the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance) had never written another word, those two existential tragicomedies — which you might have encountered in high school or an introductory university English class, notwithstanding the fact that they presuppose a now exceedingly unlikely knowledge of Shakespeare, Dante and a host of other dead European males (“all the dead voices”) — would have been more than enough to earn him a stool under the Super Trouper spotlight illuminating centre stage.


That bit in Godot where the tramp Vladimir (aka Didi) fears that he might be a dream projection of the equally bedraggled Estragon (Gogo), and that someone (tiens, that’s us in the audience) might be staring at him as he stares at the dozing Estragon — my God, suddenly we’re in the realm of Daoist sage Zhuangzi and that bloody butterfly, dreaming he’s a man!


Philosopher George Berkeley’s subjective idealism and Percy Shelley’s poem “Art Thou Pale for Weariness” are in play when the moon rises and Estragon says: “Pale for weariness … of climbing heaven and gazing on the likes of us.” If the likes of us are unworthy of the bored moon’s attention and our very existence depends on our being perceived, then — as someone once remarked — all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts.


Tiens, again! Isn’t that what we were just discussing? Cantankerous critic Harold Bloom is at his polemical peak as he touches on the matter in his signature 1994 work, The Western Canon. But I dig Bloom’s next speculation even more:


If the ultimate models for Estragon and Vladimir were Beckett and his eventual wife, Suzanne (Déchevaux-Deumesnil), then their long march of a month’s duration from Paris to southeast France in November 1942, in flight from the Gestapo (after his unit was betrayed), could be considered the materia poetica out of which Waiting for Godot was formed.


Wake me up before you, Gogo.


Still. What I really wanted to get to here is Beckett’s terse but major play Krapp’s Last Tape, which requires no deep grounding to comprehend and should be the taste of Beckett that kids are first offered in high school.


It’s mercifully short and can be easily read in one sitting, even by the TikTok generation. It’s also the most searing, moving, partly autobiographical investigation any of us is likely to encounter of a lonely old grubber encountering a younger version of himself — “that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.”


It’s rizz. (Look it up, boomer.)


First staged in 1958, Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-act play written with hard-drinking Northern Irish actor Patrick Magee in mind; Beckett liked the way Magee, with his alternately crackly voice and full-throated Irish accent, had read extracts from his work on BBC productions in 1957. Most of the play consists of old man Krapp sitting in the dark in his den while listening and reacting to a reel of a tape recording he had made thirty years ago, when his voice was stronger and his vocabulary richer.


Krapp (the name is self-explanatory), who is 69 when we meet him, might have avoided becoming a lonely old grubber had he stayed with a woman he identifies as Effie, about whom he has written a text that “scalds the eyes” out of him and with whom he has one of the tenderest moments of lovemaking in all of Western literature.


Could have been happy with her, up there on the Baltic, and the pines, and the dunes. (Pause,) Could I? (Pause.) And she? (Pause.) Pah!


Krapp still sees a “bony old ghost of a whore” named Fanny from time to time, so I suppose that alone would see the play bounced from every red state high school.


Couldn’t do much, but I suppose better than a kick in the crutch. The last time wasn’t so bad. How do you manage it, she said, at your age? I told her I’d been saving up for her all my life. (Pause.)


Like Endgame and the novel How It Is, Krapp’s Last Tape was written in a five-year-burst of creativity after Beckett had turned 50 in 1956. In place of the usual abstruse puns and literary allusions, Krapp’s Last Tape features personal elements drawn from the unbelieving Protestant’s life that biographers like James Knowlson (whose insightful authorized portrait, Damned to Fame, checks in at a hefty 800 pages) have found relatively easy to map.


No less than his thirsty protagonist, for example, Beckett enjoyed sitting alone in village pubs “before the fire with eyes closed, separating the grain from the husks.”


Krapp’s writing career has come to nothing, notwithstanding the confidence he expressed (while drunkenly celebrating his 39th birthday alone) that surely some revelation was at hand: “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”


At 69, he stares motionless before him upon hearing that bold and foolish declaration. The tape runs on in silence.


And what would one of the century’s greatest literary masters know about a failed writing career? Knowlson explains that Beckett, too, had experienced a lack of success resembling Krapp’s “seventeen copies sold … to free circulating libraries beyond the seas” with the French version of his wonderful avant-garde novel Murphy. It fell stillborn from the press (as a disappointed David Hume once said of his own Treatise of Human Nature) when first issued in 1938.


You won’t find the celebrated playwright’s rueful mantra in many self-help books:


Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again.


“Beckett had already experienced plenty of artistic failure by the time he developed it into a poetics,” The Guardian literary critic Chris Power once wrote. “No one was willing to publish his first novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and the book of short stories he salvaged from it, More Pricks Than Kicks (1934), sold disastrously.”


Krapped out, you might say. Speaking of whom:


Along with the description of lost love, to which the old man listens avidly and repeatedly by rewinding the tape to the juicy bits, there is the shared derision of Krapp at both 39 and 69 toward the noble aspirations and resolutions he had expressed on an earlier tape made in his late twenties (“to drink less in particular”; meta as hell).


There’s a poignant description of his mother’s death at a nursing home based on the passing of Beckett’s mother eight years before. There’s a slapstick bit about a recent trip to Vespers, “like when I was in short trousers,” and falling off the pew after falling asleep.


Above all, there’s Krapp’s deep remorse over the abandonment of a great love that some critics have suggested might be a reflection of Beckett’s passion for his cousin, Peggy Sinclair, who died in 1933. An incident off an Irish beach in Dream of Fair to Middling Women has been deemed a clue that he likely had her in mind.


But Knowlson quotes Beckett as speaking, “briefly but movingly, of the woman with the hauntingly beautiful eyes (in the play), linking her with Ethna MacCarthy, whom he had loved when he was a young man” and who was terminally ill with cancer as he was working on Krapp’s Last Tape. He sent MacCarthy a note when the play was finished: “I’ve written in English a stage monologue for Pat Magee which I think you will like if no one else.”


With an eye to using it as a short play to accompany Endgame on the Royal Court program — a possible replacement for Act Without Words I — Krapp’s Last Tape was indeed composed in English, marking the first time in 12 years Beckett had switched from his pared-down style in French and resulting in what Bloom calls “an aura of release in the language, and a Proustian, almost a Wordsworthian return to the personal past, to Ireland.”


The description of his mother’s death brings me to tears, maybe because we all feel our parents’ deaths as palpably as a ball in our hands until our dying day:


There I sat, in the biting wind, wishing she were gone. (Pause.) Hardly a soul, just a few regulars, nursemaids, infants, old men, dogs. I got to know them quite well — oh by appearance of course I mean! One dark young beauty I recall particularly, all white and starch, incomparable bosom, with a big black hooded perambulator, most funereal thing. Whenever I looked in her direction she had her eyes on me. And yet when I was bold enough to speak to her — not having been introduced — she threatened to call a policeman. As if I had designs on her virtue! (Laugh. Pause.) The face she had! The eyes! Like . . . (hesitates) . . . chrysolite! (Pause.)  Ah well . . . (Pause.) I was there when — (Krapp switches [the tape] off, broods, switches on again) — the blind went down, one of those dirty brown roller affairs, throwing a ball for a little white dog, as chance would have it. I happened to look up and there it was. All over and done with, at last. I sat on for a few moments with the ball in my hand and the dog yelping and pawing at me. (Pause.) Moments. Her moments, my moments. (Pause.) The dog’s moments. (Pause.) In the end I held it out to him and he took it in his mouth, gently, gently. A small, old, black, hard, solid rubber ball. (Pause.) I shall feel it, in my hand, until my dying day. (Pause.) I might have kept it. (Pause.) But I gave it to the dog.


(Pause.)


Ah well …


(Pause.)


Here’s a truncated description of that exquisite night on the punt with Krapp’s young woman, whoever she was:


… my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.


(Pause.)


Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.


(Pause.)


Here I end —

Krapp switches off, winds tape back, switches on again.

— upper lake, with the punt, bathed off the bank, then pushed out into the stream and drifted. She lay stretched out on the floorboards with her hands under her head and her eyes closed. Sun blazing down, bit of a breeze, water nice and lively. I noticed a scratch on her thigh and asked her how she came by it. Picking gooseberries, she said. I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on, and she agreed, without opening her eyes. (Pause.) I asked her to look at me and after a few moments  —(pause) — after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause. Low.) Let me in. (Pause.) We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause.) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.


(Pause.)


Past midnight. Never knew —


Krapp switches off, broods …


Listen. I could copy and paste the whole play here. It’s only a little over nine pages in my copy of Samuel Beckett: The Collected Shorter Plays. But I’ll do you one better.


What the BBC refers to as Patrick Magee’s definitive performance of Krapp’s Last Tape was recorded in 1972, 10 years before the staunch Irish republican effectively drank himself into a fatal heart attack at age 60. Beckett, who in his early fifties was seeing close friends ailing or dying all around him (Joyce, his spiritual father, had wound up in Zürich’s Fluntern Cemetery two decades before at 58 after ulcer surgery), seemed to believe at the time that dipsomaniacs on the cusp of 70 (Krapp regularly vanishes for a little nip) must be irredeemably senescent and decrepit.


Yet the venerable playwright would make it to 83 before emphysema (there was also a suspicion of Parkinson’s) permanently yanked down his nursing home blind, one of those dirty brown roller affairs, just before Christmas in 1989. Far from going soft in the brain, Beckett was still producing innovative work reflecting his obsessions with memory, the self, solipsism and the inevitable decline in one’s facility with language in his final years. Suzanne Déchevaux-Deumesnil was 89 when she died, five months before him.


If you can spare the exhilarating half hour it takes to watch Magee’s magnificent performance, to which I hereby helpfully provide a link, I guarantee you’ll never think of aging, acting or your 39-year-old self in quite the same way. Likewise bananas.


That’s also Magee as Krapp in the photo I’ve attached to this. Now stand by for box … three … spool five. Prepare to revel in the word “Spoooooool”:



As for me and the multitudes I contain, I can close my eyes and hear the gate swing open outside my bedroom window, where a collection of glass dinosaurs is precariously perched on the ledge of memory, and know that my father is finally home and it’s my turn to peel the potatoes.


Past midnight, I still have nightmares about the fish thrashing its limp threnody in the insufferable boredom of the insufficient bowl.


And it occurs to me as I finally wrap this up that blind and crippled Hamm — Endgame’s brilliant parody of Hamlet, stuck in an armchair fitted with castors  expressed what I was doing all those years ago on my bed with the comic characters spread out in my head. If what we’ve all seen while visiting elderly friends and relatives in nursing homes is any indication, this existential Krappshoot is lying in store for us all should we live to become very, very old. It’s also the impulse behind the creation of plays and novels:


Then babble, babble, words, like the solitary child who turns himself into children, two, three, so as to be together, and whisper together, in the dark.


We’ll sing in the sunshine. Then we’ll be on our way.




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A brilliant jaunt down the potholed road of what some may still remember, if they remember and if they'd rather not forget. Way back, my thinking was reserved by the portion of my anatomy below the belt. Today, I think with what cells remain above my neck except I can't remember what I was thinking about. As Jesse sang, "Life is mainly just memories and everyone's got them a few."

Where was I?

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Or as Jesses idol, Elvis, used to sing: I forgot to remember to forget.

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