Little Chicks, Broken Dolls, and Krapp’s Last Tape

John Hurt, Krapps Last Tape, London 1999

John Hurt, Krapps Last Tape, London 1999

In Coming to Our Senses, Morris Berman, following Freud, describes three types of creative artists. Type I individuals can hardly be called artists at all, since they are defined by their extreme inhibitions toward making art. Conversely, few of us are as free of neuroses as a Type III, the most readily available example being the unconscious abandon of children.

Type I’s and Type III’s are therefore polar opposites. Creativity is blocked in Type I and totally open, or accessible, to Type III. Which leaves us with Type II, the “neurotic model”. Here is how Berman describes it:

The person fights back, for the spirit was not completely extinguished. But the result of this partial repression is a situation soaking in ambivalent emotions. The creative work has an obsessive quality to it; one is “married” to one’s work . . . Tension and passion are the characteristic modes.

There are degrees of Type II’s, for the category encompasses most practicing artists. At one extreme of Type II, according to Berman, the artist paradoxically “depletes the self,” and becomes “like a broken doll . . . exhausting himself for the sake of his art.” Fortunately, we’re not all as bad off as that; after all, it is possible to consciously aim for health. Thus Berman proposes Type IIb:

One stays fully conscious of the neurotic dramas [going] directly for the liberation from those dramas.

Self-awareness is the first step the IIb artist makes on the road to health.

I thought of Berman’s schematics of the artistic types after watching the film version of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Krapp, played by John Hurt, struck me as a classic Type II and Beckett a Type IIb.

The play features Krapp, an elderly writer who at the end of every year makes a recording about himself on a reel to reel tape recorder. The one-act play has Krapp dig out a tape—spool number five—made thirty years prior. He listens to sections of it, then attempts to make a new tape, abandons the attempt, and the action ends with Krapp listening again to old spool number five as he stares into space.

Krapp’s Last Tape presents a portrait of a deeply neurotic individual who has abandoned his one chance at happiness in favor of an artistic project: the exemplary and extreme case of Type II.

As one of Beckett’s most celebrated plays, and one of his personal favorites, he said of it,

I feel as clucky and beady and one-legged and bare-footed about this little text as an old hen with her last chick.

The emphasis on “last” is my own. Perhaps I shouldn’t read too much into that word, but it’s impossible to ignore the juxtaposition of his earthily comic choice of words in reference to a play that is more tragic than comic.

Beckett enjoyed such contrasts, hated sentimentality, and was known to be modest, but his choice of words in this instance is not self-deprecating. On the contrary, Beckett’s description of his feeling toward this work shows him to enjoy a much healthier orientation to the earth than his poor creation, Mr. Krapp.

Beckett was not Krapp, and very happy not to be. He turned Krapp into his little object, his little chick, the “last” one—the last move in a type II game? At least I’m not as bad off as that fellow!

A word that crops up often in commentaries on Beckett is “bleak”. The image of Beckett as an anguished soul—strongly propounded by the early biography by Deirdre Bair—persists. True, Beckett’s humor is of a peculiar kind. He found humor in despair, yet one doesn’t laugh when Krapp slips on the banana peel he has just dropped. One would have to be callous to laugh heartily at Krapp. He is a warning sign: Don’t go down this road!

Yet if Beckett hadn’t been fortunate enough to devote his energies to writing, if he had not been the man to write Waiting for Godot, or Godot was not seen when it was . . .

One wonders. But such speculation isn’t worth much. The bottom line is, whether one comes to money or poverty, Nobel Prize or garret, there is no meaningful substitute for facing the challenge of your life. It is clear that Beckett was the kind of man who was determined to do that, no matter what.

One detail of the play particularly resonates with me: when Krapp begins listening to spool number five, he accidentally knocks something off the desk, swears and violently sweeps the desktop. Hurt’s performance here is powerful. It reminds me of a time when I was nineteen and forced to do work I was resisting with all of my being. The work involved a piece of wood and was for my father, with whom I was very angry. No longer able to control my rage, I threw the piece of wood as hard as I could across the room. It hit the wall and broke into pieces. Destroying the object quickly broke the spell of anger for me. The last time I got this angry, seven or eight years ago, remains vivid in my memory. Like Krapp I swelled with rage, cursed, probably threw something. Afterwards I resolved to never again take out my frustrations on my tools, my materials, or my world.

I like the way Berman ends his chapter, quoting Mary C. Richards:

Eventually the soul asks to be born again into a world of the same order as itself—a second coming into innocence, not through a glass darkly, but face to face, in consciousness . . . We pass through cruel ordeals on the way. Estrangement, coldness, despair. Death. By going through the experience faithfully, we may come through on the other side of the crossing point, and find that our faithfulness has borne a new quality into the world.

This is an allegory for the kind of person the IIb artist is trying to become.

An epiphany is alluded to in old spool number five. We hear it in fragments as Krapp impatiently searches for the part of the tape that interests him now, thirty years later. The young Krapp’s epiphany involved an abrupt altering of his belief system–“the dark” is loosed from a place where it has been suppressed, creating a life-changing “fire” ignited by the “light of understanding”. We hear these fragments as Krapp, with increasing impatience, angrily winds the tape forward several times in search of something else. He is disgusted with this youthful episode, related to his work as a writer, which has not brought him happiness.

As the model Type II artist, Krapp has been married to his work, sacrificing everything to it. That his work has not paid off emotionally is made very clear when the old man fast-forwards to the part of the tape he wants to hear . . . .

In the tape, the young Krapp describes a beautiful afternoon on a boat with a woman. Tenderly, he notices a scratch on her thigh, and asks 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. I asked her to look at me and 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. Let me in.

Then he lay down across her breast, feeling the gentle movement of the boat.

It is significant that Krapp was not able to penetrate the woman’s eyes. Earlier in the tape he mentions the eyes of two other women, one a girlfriend from his youth and the other a stranger with eyes like chrysolite. His failure to engage the eyes of the woman on the boat illustrates the failure of their relationship.

After listening, Krapp attempts to make a new tape. He begins by saying, “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 attempt has Krapp bitterly mocking himself, past and present, while struggling between wondering if he could have been happy with the woman and holding down those questions. “All that old misery,” he says. “Once wasn’t enough for you.” But he abandons the new tape, goes back to spool five, listens again to the scene on the boat, and finally we hear how the tape ends:

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.

The play ends with Krapp staring into space as his prerecorded words play in mockery of the hollow man he has become.

We know that the young Beckett also experienced an epiphany, and that it also involved a certain type of darkness. The young Beckett’s epiphany had to do with ignorance, unknowing, and that the impossibility of knowing is fertile ground for art. This discovery was made in part by his struggle to escape the influence of the master, James Joyce; and the difference between the two became the difference between the illusion of a transcendent form and the disillusionment of a virtuoso.

Beckett’s epiphany enabled him to create characters such as Krapp. He became conscious of some fact of his existence, just as Krapp does. Krapp comes to realize that his epiphany, and the life-work resulting from it, have not made him a privileged being. He realizes that he’s connected to the earth and its creatures the same way everyone else is. But he realizes this too late. He is old, a wreck, a hollowed out man, a broken doll.

Beckett is the Type IIb artist, keenly self-aware, and attuned to the dangers of illusion and delusion found at every turn in the work on one’s self, on the road to health. For Beckett, it is neither the fire in him, nor yet the fire he passes through that matters. It is the passage itself.

There are no guarantees as to what awaits us on the other side, but can the alternative—to avoid this challenge—truly be called living?

escape biopicMark Kerstetter is the former poetry editor of Escape into Life. Along with poetry, he writes fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.