Happy Birthday Samuel Beckett – The great John Hurt Performs Krapp’s Last Tape

Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-act play, written in English, by Samuel Beckett. Consisting of a cast of one man, it was originally written for Northern Irish actor Patrick Magee and first titled “Mageemonologue”. It was inspired by Beckett’s experience of listening to Magee reading extracts from Molloy and From an Abandoned Work on the BBC Third Programme in December 1957.

The play, which premiered as a curtain raiser to Endgame (from 28 October to 29 November 1958) at the Royal Court Theatre, London, was directed by Donald McWhinnie and starred Patrick Magee. It ran for 38 performances.

The curtain rises on “[a] late evening in the future.” It is Krapp’s sixty-ninth birthday and, as has become his custom, he hauls out his old tape recorder, reviews one of the earlier years – in this case the recording he made when he was thirty-nine – and makes a new recording commenting on the events of the previous twelve months. He is described in the text as a “wearish old man.” “I saw Krapp small and wizened,” he wrote later; “Krapp has nothing to talk to but his dying self and nothing to talk to him but his dead one.”

In early productions he had a white face with a purple nose but these details were excised from later performances. “Beckett has been extremely wary of over stressing the clownish elements in Krapp’s physique, dress and behaviour. Even in the first production at the Royal Court Theatre, the purple nose of the ‘tippler,’ which is referred to in the printed text, was much toned down and has since been abandoned by Beckett.” The “[s]urprising pair of dirty white boots, size ten at least, very narrow and pointed,” suggesting an “ex-dandy rather than the former cricketer,” survived longer; such little clues may indicate that, like Henry in Embers (another of Beckett’s failed writers), Krapp is a man of independent means and does not have to depend on his writing to survive.

“When the plays that follow All That Fall begin, the ‘action’ in traditional terms has already taken place. From Krapp’s Last Tape onwards all that is left in most of the plays is recapitulation, a struggle with voices in the head, and amasochism that both demands and dreads the assault of memory.”

Krapp is sitting at his desk in his den. There is a white light above the desk but the extremities of the stage are in darkness. This black-and-white imagery continues throughout the whole play; in fact, Beckett’s Berlin “notebook lists no less than twenty-seven points in the play at which the alternation of light and dark is stressed.” Twice throughout the play he turns and peers into the darkness. Beckett explained to Martin Held at rehearsal in Berlin: “Old Nick’s there. Death is standing behind him and unconsciously he’s looking for it.”

He checks his pocket watch periodically as if waiting for the exact moment when he was born before he can begin. Before he starts he has time for a banana, a fruit he has a terrible weakness for. He retrieves a large one from a locked drawer, strokes it – the sexual connotation obvious – peels it and nearly slips on the skin he drops on the floor. After finishing the first he locates a second. This time he throws the skin into the pit but he ends up not eating the banana which gets stuck into a pocket of his waistcoat, the end rudely hanging out. He decides on a drink instead and shuffles into the darkness to get one. Done with that he returns with an old ledger.

On his desk are an old reel-to-reel tape-recorder and a number of tins (originally cardboard boxes) containing reels of recorded tape. In some productions the desk is empty at first and he brings out the tapes and recorder after the ledger. He consults the ledger. The tape he is looking to review is the fifth tape in Box 3. He reads aloud from the ledger but it is obvious that words alone are not jogging his memory. He takes childish pleasure in saying the word ‘spool’ – a moment of genuine pleasure.

The tape we get to listen to along with Krapp is the one recorded when he turned thirty-nine. The voice on the tape is strong and rather self-important but it’s clearly him. As he settles himself in his seat Krapp accidentally knocks one of the tins onto the floor. He curses, switches off the playback, and sweeps the remaining tins onto the floor before rewinding the tape to begin again.

The voice on the tape mentions the fact that he’s just celebrated his birthday alone “at the wine house” jotting down notes in preparation for the recording session later. In earlier drafts the place was peopled but Beckett progressively emptied the play of all but the most essential characters. The voice confesses to having consumed three bananas and only just resisted the urge to eat a fourth. His bowel trouble is still a problem and one obviously exacerbated by eating too many bananas. “The new light above my table is a great improvement,” reports the thirty-nine-year-old Krapp, before describing how much he enjoys leaving it, wandering off into the darkness, so that he can return to the zone of light which he identifies with his essential self. He notes how quiet the night is. Even his neighbour, the elderly Mrs. McGlome, who habitually sings in the evenings, is silent.

The voice reports that he has just reviewed an old tape from when he was in his late twenties. It amuses him to comment on his impressions of what he was like in his twenties and even the sixty-nine-year-old Krapp joins in the derisory laughter. The young man he was back then is described as idealistic, even unrealistic in his expectations. The thirty-nine-year-old Krapp looks back on the twenty-odd-year-old Krapp with the same level of contempt as the twenty-odd-year-old Krapp appears to have displayed for the young man he saw himself for in his late teens. Each can see clearly the fool he was but only time will reveal what kind of fool he has become.

The taped voice continues with a review of his last year. This was the year his mother died. He talks about sitting on a bench outside the nursing home waiting for the news that she had passed away. When the moment comes he is in the process of throwing a rubber ball to a dog. He ends up simply leaving the ball with the creature even though a part of him regrets not hanging onto it as some kind of memento. Krapp at sixty-nine is more interested in his younger self’s use of the rather archaic word “viduity” (Beckett had originally used “widowhood” in early drafts) than in the reaction of the voice on the tape to their mother’s passing. He stops listening to look up the word in a large dictionary.

Done with that he returns to the tape. The voice starts to describe the revelation he experienced at the end of a pier. “The dark that Krapp has always struggled to keep under is, one may guess, in reality his most valuable subject-matter and, in particular, his greatest source of enlightenment.” Krapp grows impatient and gets worked up when his younger self starts enthusing about this. He fast-forwards almost to the end of the tape to escape the onslaught of words. Suddenly the mood has changed and he finds himself in the middle of a description of a romantic liaison between himself and a woman in a punt. Krapp lets it play out and then rewinds the tape to hear the complete episode. Throughout it he remains transfixed and visibly relives the moment while it is retold.

Afterwards, Krapp carefully removes this tape, locates a fresh one, loads it, checks the back of an envelope where he has made notes earlier, discards them and starts. He is scathing when it comes to his assessment of his thirty-nine-year-old self and is glad to see the back of him. He finds he has nothing he wants to record for posterity, save the fact he “Revelled in the word spool.” But he does mention a trip to the park and attending Vespers, where he dozed off and fell off the pew. He also mentions his recent literary disappointments: “seventeen copies sold”, presumably of his last book, eleven of which have gone not to interested readers but to foreign libraries; “Getting known,” he sarcastically summarizes. His sex life has been reduced to periodic visits by an old prostitute recalling the jibes made in Eh Joe: “That slut that comes on Saturday, you pay her, don’t you? … Penny a hoist tuppence as long as you like.”

Unlike his younger selves, Krapp has nothing good to say about the man he has become and even the idea of making one “last effort” when it comes to his writing upsets him. He retreats into memories from his dim and distant past, gathering holly and walking the dog of a Sunday morning. He then remembers the girl on the punt, wrenches off the tape he has been recording, throws it away and replays the entire section again from the previous tape. It is a scene of masochism reminiscent of Croak in Words and Music, tormenting himself with an image of a woman’s face. This time he allows the tape to play out. It ends with the thirty-nine-year-old Krapp determinately not regretting the choices he has made, certain that what he would produce in the years to come would more than compensate him for any potential loss of happiness.

Krapp makes no response to this but allows the tape to play on until the final curtain. “Krapp’s spool of life is almost wound, and the silent tape is both the time it has left to run and the silence into which he must pass.” Whereas the younger Krapp talks about the “fire in me” the tired old man who sits listening is simply “burning to be gone.” The title of the play seems obvious, that what we have witnessed is the recording of Krapp’s final tape, “yet there is an ambiguity: ‘last’ can mean ‘most recent’ as well as ‘ultimate’. The speaker in Browning’s My Last Duchess is already planning to marry his next duchess … Still, one hopes for Krapp’s sake that he will be gone before another year is over.”