A Separation of Selves in Krapp’s Last Tape
The most noticeable feature of Samuel Beckett’s plays, when regarded as a whole, is the almost complete lack of a story-line or a plot. The majority of his works, rather, describe an event or series of events from a removed, or even surreal reflective standpoint. In his 1957 play, Krapp’s Last Tape, one gets a much more directed message. Krapp, “a wearish old man” (Beckett 9), who seems to have recorded every aspect of his life and is quite obviously somewhat detached from reality, submerges himself entirely in his past. Unlike some of Beckett’s other works, the dialogue is straight-forward and the movements are clear. However, the most strikingly apparent emotion found in Krapp’s Last Tape is the intense separation of self that Krapp finds among his tapes.
By listening to these tapes, these little pieces of his past, Krapp manages to relive and review his life, events long passed. The most interesting phenomenon that the viewer experiences while regarding this play, then, is the feeling of regarding past events through several sets of eyes, each more experienced and more jaded than the last. The audience gets to immerse itself in three timelines, each further in the past, as each separately aged Krapp remarks on events and actions in the past. Rather, however, than giving a sense of a long and full lifetime, it gives the picture of a strange man who, throughout his life, grew more and more attached to the past, until the only way he could deal with events in the present is by immersing himself entirely in the past, by way of the innumerable and carefully archived recordings of himself that he maintained. The point where the elderly Krapp is listening to the middle-aged Krapp talking about listening to the young Krapp seems to be the definitive moment where all three timelines intersect.
Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. The voice! Jesus! And the aspirations! (Brief laugh in which Krapp joins.) And the resolutions! (Brief laugh in which Krapp joins.) To drink less, in particular. (Brief laugh of Krapp alone.) Statistics. Seventeen hundred hours, out of the preceding eight thousand odd, consumed on licensed premises alone. More than 20%, say 40% of his waking life. (Pause.) Plans for a less . . . (hesitates) . . . engrossing sexual life. Last illness of his father. Flagging pursuit of happiness. Unattainable laxation. Sneers at what he calls his youth and thanks to God that it’s over. (Pause.) False ring there. (Pause.) Shadows of the opus . . . magnum. Closing with a –(brief laugh)–yelp to Providence. (Prolonged laugh in which Krapp joins.) What remains of all that misery? A girl in a shabby green coat, on a railway-station platform? No? (Beckett 16)
One cannot fail to notice the manner in which Krapp the elder seems both charmed and somewhat bitter about his middle-aged self, and altogether amused with his younger foibles. This, however, draws near to what is most pressing about the play.
The most astounding thing one notices about Krapp’s Last Tape is the manner in which the three Krapps relate to each other. It is quite right to note that the three Krapps are entirely separate from one another, enough so that they become wholly separate entities. The young, middle-aged, and old Krapp are, at least while listening to the tapes, entirely separate people. It is not incorrect to note that, while the actions of the younger two Krapps directly influence the state of the eldest Krapp, while isolated via the tapes, each Krapp is, at least apparently, an entirely different person. It has been noted that “structure in Beckett’s fiction and theatre seems to be determined by the conception … that man is essentially alone, that even his I is a stranger, a me to his consciousness” (Kern 17), and, indeed, this separation of selves seems most readily apparent in Krapp’s Last Tape.
It is this separation that has spurred scholars to postulate that, along with several of Beckett’s other plays, Krapp’s Last Tape may be intended to represent the mind and thinking of Krapp himself. The tape-player, perhaps, represents the memories of the elder Krapp, as he looks upon his younger self. A more plausible explanation is that the play is intended to signify the recollections of the middle-aged Krapp, the narrator of the piece, as he mockingly remembers his youth, and, with some horror, thinks of what he may become in the future. This second explanation of the setup seems somewhat more likely, as it would better explain the separation of the Krapps, each existing only in the mind of the middle-aged Krapp as a memory or prediction, and each acting independently of the middle-aged Krapp. However, as the middle-aged Krapp does not exist until the elder Krapp begins his reel, it is somewhat more likely to consider the tape-player the memories of the elder Krapp, rather than vice-versa. It is noted that “Most if not all of Beckett’s protagonists … experience at some point an … in-between or unmarked state, which inevitably has to break down because no form (not even the observer him- or herself) can exist without being observed” (Berensmeyer 480). This point, I believe, is when the separation of selves occurs, when the young, middle-aged, and old Krapp are all in existence on the tape player concurrently, each observing the younger.
What one learns from Krapp’s Last Tape applies to the self, and to everyone, it is a commentary on memory itself. When it is realized that, in memory, each and every event, each person that is thought of or imagined, is entirely separate from any related event, person, or imagining thereof. Krapp demonstrates that a person is a unique and separate individual at every point in time. Beckett seems to be showing that it is not enough to simply thing of an individual by name, but also by time and action. It is not enough to simply name a person, as that person may be entirely different depending on the time of reference. If one was to talk about “Krapp,” the question arises: which Krapp? The young Krapp? The elder Krapp? A Krapp that you did not hear on the tape? Only through careful consideration can this be resolved.
One of the underlying messages, aside from the emitted sense of weariness and finality that Krapp emits, is the revelation of human change over time, no matter how long or short. When considering a person, it is necessary to consider “which” person you are thinking about. The absolute separation of selves is important to consider while forming thoughts or responses to anyone, and so it becomes increasingly important to know the events surrounding a person so you might better be able to evaluate which person, which self you are thinking on and so act in response. Beckett, through Krapp, truly illuminates the plethora of selves that each individual person possesses.
Beckett, Samuel. Krapp’s Last Tape, and Other Dramatic Pieces. NY: Grove Press, Inc., 1957.
Berensmeyer, Ingo. “Twofold Vibration: Samuel Beckett’s Laws of Form.” Poetics Today Fall 2004: 465-495.
Kern, Edith. “Structure in Beckett’s Theatre.” Yale French Studies 1971: 17-27.