Krapp’s last tape: the evolution of a play, 1958-751

James Knowlson

The recent production of La dernière bande at the Petite Orsay in Paris on 8 April 1975, which was directed by Samuel Beckett himself, with Pierre Chabert acting the role of Krapp, brings to an end a period of almost twenty years in which Beckett has been closely involved on a number of occasions with the mise en scène of this play, either as an adviser to the director or as the director himself.2

Beckett first heard the Irish actor, Patrick Magee, reading some extracts from his novel, Molloy, on the BBC Third Programme in December 1957. He was impressed and moved by the distinctive, cracked quality of Magee’s unusual voice, which seemed to capture a sense of deep world-weariness, sadness, ruination and regret. Two months later, he began to write a dramatic monologue for a character who was described in the first draft3 as a ‘wearish old man’ with ‘a wheezy ruined old voice with some characteristic accent.’ For some time, in fact, the play was simply referred to by Beckett as the Magee monologue until, several versions later, he conferred upon the failing old man the harsh sounding name of ‘Krapp’ with unpleasant excremental associations which lead its owner and the watching audience back to a decaying, disgusting, and yet still demanding body with which Krapp has tried in vain to come to terms throughout his life.

In this article I am not concerned, however, with tracing the various stages in the composition of Krapp’s last tape through the manuscript and different typescript versions preserved in the libraries of Reading University and the University of Texas at Austin.4 What I want to do is to look at the way in which this play has evolved since its first production in London at the Royal Court Theatre in 1958 until the most recent, Paris 1975, version, linking this evolution with dramatic and thematic elements of the text and the sub-text. As well as drawing upon personal knowledge of most of the productions discussed, I shall use the manuscript notebook which Beckett prepared for his own production at the Schiller Theater in Berlin in 1969,5 and refer to annotated, corrected copies of the text now presented by the author to Reading University.6 For, in the course of working on his play for a number of productions, Beckett came to reappraise, revise, and trim it. Later versions differed therefore substantially, particularly in the setting and the non-verbal acting of Krapp, from the one first seen in London in October 1958, when Patrick Magee acted the part of Krapp.

Certain of the changes which Beckett introduced for the first time into his production of the play at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt in 1969, when Krapp was played by Martin Held, are incorporated into the text published in Das Ietzte Band Regiebuch der Berliner lnszenierung, Frankfort, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1970, which has useful notes by Volker Canaris. Beckett’s actual production notebook is, however, much fuller than this edition suggests and it proves helpful in determining the reasons that lay behind some of the changes, as well as in throwing light upon aspects of the play that have tended to be ignored. Subsequent productions in London and Paris—the Royal Court revival in January 1973, directed by Anthony Page, with Albert Finney as Krapp, and that at the Petite Orsay in April 1975—introduced further changes, either suggested or approved by the author, although, in the main, these productions followed closely the German version. It will be useful, then, to begin by summarizing and commenting upon the principal differences that existed between the 1969 Schiller Theater Werkstatt production and the original Royal Court production of 1958.

First of all, in the German version, the opening of the play was cut in order to achieve a greater simplicity and clarity of line. The cuts and changes effected by Beckett were also aimed at establishing a more marked contrast between, on the one hand, brooding silence and immobility and, on the other, sound and rapid, purposeful activity. Beckett wrote in his production notebook that he had cut out ‘Tout ce qui gêne passage abrupt de l’immobilité au movement ou qui ralentit celui-ci.’7 As a consequence, a number of Krapp’s actions were removed from the initial stage-business. There was no locking and unlocking of drawers at the beginning of the play or, later, before Krapp’s live recording. Indeed, an unlocked lateral one, situated more conveniently to Krapp’s left, replaced the two locked drawers at the front of the table. Krapp also no longer fumbled in his pocket for an envelope on which were jotted down notes for use at the time of the recording. Moreover, when he shuffled away to his backstage cubby-hole for the first time, the sound of the popping of a cork was omitted, so that there were only two later auditory indications to make clear Krapp’s continued addiction to alcohol. On the other hand, the consultation of his watch was retained at the opening of the play, since Krapp was waiting for the precise moment in time to arrive at which he was born, before embarking upon what had become a ritualized birthday recording.

The clownish stage-business with the banana skin was retained in the Berlin production, as it has been in later versions, but in a modified form. After slipping on the skin in good circus and pantomime tradition, in the revised version Krapp picked it up and threw it away backstage left into the darkness. This same action was repeated with the second banana skin, but before Krapp let it fall, so that, as before, the ‘gag’ comically forestalled a repetition of the earlier pratfall. It seems likely that Beckett changed Krapp’s actions here because, by pushing the skin with his foot into the pit, he introduced a discordant element into a play which otherwise remained confined within the limits of the stage space and the backstage cubby-hole. Another omission removed the rather fatuous sexual innuendo clearly intended when Krapp placed the second banana in his waistcoat pocket with the end left protruding.

It is likely that this comic business is placed at the beginning of the play, as it is in Fin de partie, with the intention of prompting an ambiguity of response on the part of the spectator. For casting Krapp, initially at least, in the role of the clown tends to blunt the sentimentality that could so easily arise out of the confrontation between this ‘wearish old man’ and his earlier, more confident self. In a balanced production, therefore, neither the comic nor the pathetic aspects of Krapp’s appearance and predicament should be lost.

Yet the balance is a delicate one to preserve. When directing the play, for example, Beckett has been extremely wary of overstressing 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. Moreover, in the 1969 Schiller Theater Werkstatt production, directed by Beckett, the banana skin routine was promptly followed by several pieces of additional action that established an image of Krapp as a weak, tired, failing old man to counterbalance the image of the clown with which the audience had first been presented. In the original production, all the items that Krapp needed to enable him to listen to the tape recording were already set out on the table at the opening of the curtain. But, in the German version he had to make three separate excursions to his backstage recess to fetch, in turn, the ledger, a pile of tins containing tapes (instead of the cardboard boxes of the printed text), and, finally, the tape-recorder itself. This specific order was adopted, Beckett explained in the production notebook,8 for three reasons: it left the explanatory element until the last; it allowed Krapp’s growing fatigue to be registered, as the weight of the objects became progressively greater; and, finally, it avoided any interruption of Krapp’s movements by the plugging-in of the tape-recorder.

In the text of the play, sentimentality is avoided partly by means of the lucidity and contempt which the device of the tape-recorder allows Krapp to bring to the judgement of his former selves (‘Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that’)9 partly through the pithy, sometimes macabre humour with which his present plight is evoked (‘Fanny came in a couple of times. Bony old ghost of a whore. Couldn’t do much, but I suppose better than a kick in the crutch’).10 In fact, Krapp brings to the survey of his own past a characteristic blend of longing and loathing. With Beckett’s approval, Patrick Magee stressed in Krapp a bitter lack of resignation that lent to him something of the dignity of the rebel, expressions like ‘I told her I’d been saving up for her all my life’11 or ‘All that old misery . . . Once wasn’t enough for you’12 emerging as searing indictments of a distant, yet still disturbing, past and an empty, disastrous present.

A second change, which was first made by Beckett in the Schiller Theater Werkstatt production, was to associate obliquely the darkness that surrounds Krapp’s ‘zone of light’ with death. This association is already suggested in the text, as Krapp reads out juxtaposed entries from the ledger that refer to earlier incidents in his life (‘Mother at rest at last . . . Hm . . . The black ball? . . . Black ball? . . . The dark nurse’).13 The ‘last tape’ of the title also clearly implies that death is lurking somewhere close at hand, a feeling that is echoed—rather too blatantly for Beckett in recent years—by Krapp’s croaking efforts to sing Sabine Baring Gould’s evening hymn ‘Now the day is over.’ In the Royal Court 1973 revival and in the production directed by Beckett at the Petite Orsay in April 1975, this hymn was cut out from the play as being, in Beckett’s personal view, too clumsily explicit. Instead, in these, and in the earlier Schiller Theater Werkstatt production, when the hymn was in fact retained, Krapp cast two anxious glances over his left shoulder into the surrounding 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.’14 In the copy of the play that was corrected for the Royal Court Theatre 1973 revival, this action was referred to in a marginal note as a ‘Hain,’15 the allusion being to a poem by Matthias Claudius, set to music by Schubert, in which Death says ‘Be of good courage, I am not wild, you will slumber gently in my arms.’ It may be thought that this reference to death is too puzzlingly oblique for such a look to register at all adequately. In the Royal Court revival, although Albert Finney rehearsed the looks, they were omitted in performance.

A third, and, in my own view, theatrically a far more effective change has been incorporated into all the versions with which Beckett has been concerned since the 1969 Berlin production. Instead of the curtain closing on a motionless Krapp, staring in front of him with the tape running on in silence, Beckett had both the stage and the cubby-hole lights fade at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt, the Royal Court Theatre in 1973 and the Théâtre d’Orsay in 1975, leaving only the ‘eye’ of the tape-recorder illuminated. This change, ‘originally an accident—heaven sent’ Beckett wrote,16 accentuates a theme and contributes to an effect that is fundamental to this play and to much of Beckett’s work. For the words that Krapp had recorded so many years ago now represent the only form of contact that he can achieve in a depleted, solitary, almost totally barren existence that, ambiguously, he has both sought out and fears (‘Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited’).17 In watching Krapp’s last tape and experiencing its final moments, we are left, then, to ponder not only on the particular sadness of an individual lifetime of unfulfilled aspirations and frustrated ideals but also on the ephemeral nature of all human life and the irreality of past human experience that, vainly; one tries to recapture in the memory or set down on the printed page or on magnetic tape. Yet, paradoxically, perhaps even ironically, a faint glimmer of light persisted at the end of the play and it is relevant that Beckett included the ‘voyant blanc du magnétophone clans l’obscurité’ among its light emblems.’18

Krapp is haunted by the memory of the episode with the girl in the punt and, as director of the play, Beckett introduced into the old mans actions and manner a number of elements that reflect or underline this obsession. One such element provided what certainly came to be the most moving moment in the play. As the tape recounted his earlier experience with the girl on the lake, Krapp slowly lowered his head, until it rested upon the table by the side of the tape-recorder. Then, while the voice of his younger self related the words ‘I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her,’ Krapp’s gnarled old hand echoed pathetically a gesture that he had performed some thirty years before.19

In Beckett’s own productions, Krapp responded to the bland air of self-assurance conveyed by his own voice at thirty-nine years of age and to the extravagant claims that he had expressed at that time, not merely with the explicit curses that are referred to in the printed stage-directions but also with little sounds of impatience, irritation and anger. Yet, by contrast, he remained transfixed, listening intently and in total silence to his own recorded account of the incident with the girl on the lake, so mesmerized was he by the intensity and the evocative power of the memory. This variety of response achieved several different, though related, results. Krapp’s impatience and obvious lack of sympathy with the voice on the tape emphasized the vastness of the distance that separated him from his former self. The sounds that he made also formed part of a whole repertoire of looks, exclamations, smiles and gestures that characterized the relations of a recluse with material objects. In particular, as Beckett explicitly pointed out,20 the tape-recorder, as the sole companion of Krapp’s solitude, had come to be identified with whatever the tape was relating and Krapp responded to it accordingly. More important, however, the contrast between the sounds made by Krapp and the brooding silence that accompanied his moments of despairing fascination and dream reflects a much wider dramatic contrast between sound and movement, on the one hand, and silence and immobility, on the other, with which Beckett has been intensely concerned in his own productions of this play. ‘[The] Time,’ he wrote in an annotated copy of the text, ‘[is] divided about equally between listening (silence, immobility) and non-listening (noise, agitation).’21

Contrast and balance were, indeed, two of Beckett’s principal concerns as a director. In sections of the Schiller Theater Werkstatt Krapp notebook headed ‘immobility écoute’ and ‘jeux écoute,’ he worked out most meticulously the many contrasts in Krapp’s acting between listening and non-listening, movement and stillness, dream and feverish activity, and elaborated in great detail the physical expression of these opposites in terms of opening and closing the eyes, raising and lowering the head, and so on.22 Repetition is, in fact, a device that Beckett favoured almost as much as a director as he did as a writer, as could also be seen from his other productions at the Schiller Theater (Glückliche Tage, Endspiel and Warten auf Godot). In Beckett’s two productions of Krapp’s last tape at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt and in the Petite Salle of the Théâtre d’Orsay, numerous small actions and looks were picked up and repeated, sometimes in very different contexts. At the Schiller, when Krapp closed the dictionary, after looking up the word ‘viduity,’ he glanced up with exactly the same look used earlier to accompany the ledger entry ‘Farewell to love.’23 On a number of occasions, repetition was used primarily for comic effect, as when Krapp, having placed the dictionary upside down upon the table, showed that he had learned from his earlier mistake and corrected himself before opening the book; the technique employed here was clearly the same as with the banana skin ‘gag’ mentioned earlier. A number of Krapp’s other actions were repeated so often that they became identifiable mannerisms or physical habits. For example, when he rose from the table and moved around it, he always did so with the help of his hands; as he carried objects from his cubbyhole, he clutched them closely to his chest; and, in an interview with Ronald Hayman, Martin Held recalled that, while rehearsing Krapp, he imitated Beckett’s own crooked way of holding his hand and evolved a curious shuffling walk that was adopted as one of Krapp’s physical characteristics.24

Yet, if Beckett recognized the comic or dramatic value of repeated actions, particularly in so short and concentrated a play, he also acknowledged that an excess of stylization would produce an unnatural, artificial dramatic structure and lead to a style of acting unsuited to Krapp’s last tape. In the Schiller Theater Werkstatt production, therefore, Krapp’s gestures, looks, grunts, curses, and sounds of impatience and irritation were all carefully varied and timed so as to avoid these pitfalls. To choose only one detailed example, pauses in the text differed considerably in length and were closely related to Krapp’s responses to the words on tape. Beckett wrote in an annotated copy of the text that one pause needed to be long enough for Krapp to look sharply at the tape-recorder, as if to say ‘What’s keeping you?’25 In an additional pause introduced by Beckett, Krapp’s direct, almost personal relationship with the tape-recorder is fostered by the added stage-direction ‘in longer pause ear closer to tape-recorder to receive final ‘no.’’26 Even within the recording itself Beckett tried to introduce planned variations of tone. For the younger Krapp’s initial tone of self-assurance was punctured at several points by the appearance of three themes that are frequently linked together in the play: solitude, light and darkness, and woman. Beckett explained this change of tone in musical terms as a shift from the major key to the minor with the appearance of these themes.27

As the last example suggests, however, repetition and repetition with variation, which characterize so much Beckett’s own productions, are not merely structural devices or means of establishing comic patterns. They are as closely related to the fundamental themes of this play as are the repeated phrases and gestures of the tramps to those of En attendant Godot. Repetition lies, in fact, at the very thematic centre of Krapp’s last tape. At seventy years of age, Krapp repeats a ceremony that he has been performing for the past forty-five years; this ceremony consists partly of playing back an old tape and partly of recording a new one. As so often in Samuel Beckett’s theatre, the central dramatic idea is both simple and bold. By adopting the mechanical device of the tape-recorder and giving to Krapp the power of instant recall of his own past, Beckett has created a stark confrontation between man’s various selves in which decline, loss, failure, disillusionment and discontinuity are shown concretely. Moreover, in this way, the spectator has become the active agent, listening, observing, and able himself to assess the width of the chasm that separates Krapp from his former self and judge the strength of his obsession with a portion of his own past that he had earlier rejected as being unworthy of him. For the taped ‘memory-bank’ allows Krapp to hear again, repeatedly if he should so wish, his own account of important moments in his life. Yet the incident to which he returns so compulsively is not that of the vision, which, at the time, seemed to promise so much, but the scene with the girl in the punt which is indexed in the ledger as a ‘Farewell to love.’ But repeating the account of a moment in which Krapp was attempting to discard an unwanted part of his life merely serves to reveal a much deeper rift between Krapp and his earlier self, which is worth exploring rather more fully here.

Krapp’s relations with women figure prominently in the play—in his younger days with his mother, Bianca, the ‘girl in a shabby green coat, on a railway station platform,’ the girl with ‘eyes like chrysolite,’ as well as the woman in the punt on the lake, and in his old age with Fanny, the ‘bony old ghost of a whore’ and his fantasy woman, Effi, the heroine of Fontane’s nineteenth century novel, Effi Briest. But all of Krapp’s ‘affairs’ are described in terms of mingled regret, relief, and unsatisfied longing. Even the momentary harmony that was achieved with the girl in the punt was attained only after they had agreed that ‘it was hopeless and no good going on.’28

The black and white imagery that runs through the entire play suggests that Krapp’s inability, even his unwillingness, to find happiness with a woman arises out of a fundamental attitude towards life as whole that affects most aspects of his daily living. Krapp is only too ready to associate woman with the darker side of existence and he clearly sees her as appealing to the dark, sensual side of man’s nature, distracting him from the cultivation of the understanding and the spirit. Krapp’s recorded renunciation of love is then no mere casual end of an affair. The words of Sir Philip Sydney’s sonnet apply strikingly to Krapp’s situation: ‘Leave me ô Love, which reachest but to dust,/ And thou my mind aspire to higher things.’29 In Krapp’s case, earthly love is not renounced for the greater love of God, as it was in the Petrarchan tradition. Instead, the renunciation of love forms part of an ascetic quest that rejects the world as an inferior creation and shrinks away from the material element of the flesh to concentrate upon the spiritual or the pneumatic. Krapp is clearly following here in a Gnostic, even a specifically Manichean tradition, with its abstention from sexual intercourse and marriage (so as not to play the Creator’s game, its rift between God and the world, the world and man, the spirit and the flesh, and its vision of the universe, the world and man himself as divided between two opposing principles, the forces of darkness constantly threatening to engulf the forces of light.

There are numerous indications in the play that Krapp has attempted to separate the light from the darkness in his life in order to rise above the dark side of his nature and liberate the light of the understanding which (in Gnostic thinking) is regarded as being imprisoned in an envelope of matter. Krapp sees the new light above Krapp’s table, for instance, as a great improvement because it forms a clearer division between the light and the dark. As a result, Krapp can move out into the darkness before returning to the zone of light with which he would wish to identify his essential self, but which, ironically, takes him back to the excremental associations surrounding his name. ‘I love to get up and move about in it [the darkness], then back to here to . . . (hesitates) . . . me Pause. Krapp.’30

But Krapp’s den is an artificially created setting and the point about God’s world outside this refuge is that there is no such clear division between the light and the darkness. Separating one from the other in his life and in his relations with others is a much more difficult, painful, and morally isolating business. For the world appears to Krapp in the form of a bewildering mixture of light and dark. Even the women with whom Krapp has been involved at different times are portrayed, disquietingly, in both light and dark images. Blanca is white by name, but they live together in Kedar (or, in Hebrew, Black) Street. Conversely, the nurse whom he admires at a distance is a dark young beauty with an incomparable bosom, who pushes a black pram, ‘most funereal thing’—linking characteristically birth and death—but she wears a uniform that is all ‘white and starch.’ And although Krapp’s fantasy woman is placed in the Northern light-filled setting of Fontane’s novel, her name ‘Effi’ links her with that of Fanny, the whore, with whom she is ostensibly contrasted, by announcing her physical function, recalling as it does also Beckett’s remark that one should ‘eff the ineffable.’

It is clear that for Krapp the central issue in his life is one of coming to terms with a fundamental dualism, either by attempted separation or reconciliation. Krapp’s account of the experience of the vision is heard only in fragmentary form, yet enough is played back for it to be apparent that what is being described there is the belief that light and darkness have at last been reconciled. The natural setting for the experience (‘in the howling wind . . . great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the windgauge spinning like a propeller’)31 reflects the storm and night that Krapp has been striving to keep under in his life and his work, as well as the light of the understanding by which he has tried to be guided. ‘Storm and night’ are seen, then, as mysterious, wild, uncontrollable, exciting elements that can be reconciled with the experience of light only by regarding them as irrational compared with rational. As I have shown elsewhere,32 it is certainly in this way that Beckett himself regarded the vision, for, in the Krapp production notebook, Beckett explained that ‘Krapp decrees physical (ethical) incompatibility of light (Spiritual) and dark (sensual) only when he intuits possibility of their reconciliation as rational-irrational. He turns from fact of anti-mind alien to mind to thought of anti-mind constituent of mind.’33 The two warring elements remain then identified as sensual and spiritual, are independent even incompatible, but reconciliation is effected at the level of the intellect. However, Beckett commented, although ethically correct, Krapp is guilty of intellectual transgression, for (and this is a Gnostic belief) it is the duty of the intellect to separate the light from the dark and not to reconcile the two.

The issue of separating or reconciling the light and the dark also forms the underlying infrastructure of the episode with the girl in the punt, which, significantly, immediately follows the experience of the vision recorded on the tape. Since Krapp first winds the tape so far forward that we only hear the end of the episode, it appears that the harmony that is achieved results from a purely physical union. However, when the tape is wound back and replayed, the sense of the passage is markedly changed.

—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 agree, 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.34

In this unashamedly lyrical passage, the girl is prevented from opening her eyes by the fierce glare of the sun and it is only when the man creates shade for her that her eyes open. Rather as he has done when alone in his ‘old den,’ Krapp has therefore created a separate area, in this case a zone of shade, which makes the temporary union that they attain possible. It would seem that once Krapp has equated woman with darkness and the irrational, he is able to establish and accept contact with a woman from whom he has resolved to part anyway, thus avoiding any possibility of continued physical entanglement.

Bianca, the dark nurse, and the girl in the punt all have eyes that have, fascinated Krapp at different moments in his life. Blanca’s eyes are said to be ‘very warm’ and ‘incomparable’;35 the dark nurse has ‘eyes like chrysolite,’ echoing Othello’s words ‘If heaven would make, me such another world/ Of one entire and perfect chrysolite/ I’d not have sold her for it.’36 If this preoccupation with the eyes of women recalls the image of the eye in the work of the Metaphysical poets, or Proust’s narrator’s fascination with the mystery discerned in Albertine’s eyes, Beckett tends to widen the resonance of the image by showing the girl’s eyes not merely as windows on to the soul but as mirrors too, reflecting and uniting all the contrarities of a divided cosmos, ‘Everything there, everything on this old muckball, all the light and dark and famine and feasting of . . . (hesitates) . . . the ages!’37

Krapp ended the recording made at the beginning of his thirty-ninth year on a high note of buoyant optimism, acknowledging that, although happiness was something that he would perhaps never attain, this was more than compensated for by the fact that there was within him a fire that made mere happiness seem totally irrelevant. Throughout the play fire and light have been used to distinguish the understanding and the spirit. Yet these inspired words are listened to at the end of the play by a weary and a disillusioned Krapp, an old man who is still enslaved by those strong physical appetites that, for so long, he had tried to subjugate and in whom the fire of the understanding has now dwindled to a few dying embers. The final confrontation between the younger and the older Krapp evokes, then, more than mere sadness at the inevitable decline that occurs in man. For Krapp shows us a man who is torn by conflicting forces and whose life has been ruined by this conflict.

The old polarities of light and darkness are reflected in Krapp’s last tape in numerous images of, on the one hand, light, fire, breeze, and clear water and, on the other, darkness, heat, mist, and vapour. The greater number of what Beckett called the light and dark emblems in the play do not occur, however, in isolation but are explicitly integrated. Even the death of Krapp’s mother, which would seem to represent only the final corruption of the flesh, still hints at integration for, as Beckett pointed out, ‘if the giving of the black bail to the white dog represents the sacrifice of sense to spirit the form here too is that of a mingling.’38

Explicit integration of the light and the dark occurs also in the setting, the stage props, and in the costume of Krapp. In the Schiller Theater Werkstatt 1969 production, it was in this area in particular that Beckett chose to emphasize the dualistic theme of the play. For, in addition to the black and white elements in Krapp’s costume that were already described in the printed stage directions, Beckett ensured that other props, as well as the lighting, illustrated this contrast or ‘mingling.’ For example, in the Berlin production, the ‘cagibi’ or cubby-hole at the back of the stage was lit by a white light and was separated from the stage by a black curtain. The central light, which was suspended low over Krapp’s table, had a light coloured shade. Clearly, Beckett had originally conceived the ‘zone of light’ as emanating directly from that source but a note, added several years after the production, recalls that this light was ‘Extinguished finally Berlin because cold light unobtainable from this source.’39 Other props picked up the central confrontation of black and white, light and dark, as, for example, the envelope, the tins, and even the table. The ledger that Krapp consulted was large, worn, and black in colour, while the dictionary was bound in a light coloured leather binding.

Directing the play himself for the first time at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt in 1969, Beckett chose, then, to highlight the Gnostic, even Manichean, distinctions within the play. Subsequently, however, he seems to have felt that he had tended to over-emphasize these Manichean elements by making the oppositions in setting and costume too starkly explicit. In the 1973 Royal Court production, therefore, instead of the black waistcoat and grimy white shirt referred to in the printed text, Krapp was dressed in a dark coloured dressing gown, which was also adopted for the 1975 Paris production. This less explicit approach to the play is in keeping with other minor changes introduced into the Royal Court and Petite Orsay revivals, such as the excision of the hymn already mentioned.

If Beckett has had few second thoughts concerning the actual text of Krapp’s last tape, the various productions with which he has been associated show him working towards an interpretation in which every element of the production will be dramatically and thematically justified. One does not need to welcome all of Beckett’s second thoughts to recognize that one of his primary concerns is to discover what works best in the theatre. Some appalling liberties have been taken at times with this particular play, from a television version that employed a flash-back technique for the scene with the girl in the punt to a London production in which video-tape was substituted for sound-tape and multiple television screens for the single tape-recorder. The lack of success of these wilder productions is scarcely surprising, for a director forgets to his cost that what works best in the theatre with Samuel Beckett’s plays also satisfies the need for faithfulness to the author’s artistic vision. To analyse Beckett’s production notebooks is to observe him, as a director, grappling, sometimes hesitantly, but always rigorously, with this same challenge, while, occasionally, throwing light upon the character of that vision.


1 An excellent article on ‘Beckett metteur en scène’ by the actor, Pierre Chabert, has appeared in Travail théâtral since I completed my own. It has also recently appeared in an English version in Gambit vol. 7, no. 28, 1976.

2 Beckett was very closely involved with the original October 1958 Royal Court Theatre production; he spent several weeks in London attending rehearsals with Patrick Magee, Donald McWhinnie, the late George Devine and Jocelyn Herbert, who designed Krapp’s last tape and Endgame. He also attended rehearsals of the first French production of La dernière bande, directed by Roger Blin, with R. J. Chauffard as Krapp, in March 1960. Beckett directed himself Das letzte Band at the Schiller Theater Werkstatt, Berlin, in October 1969 and, again, in French, in Paris in April 1975. The BBC 2 television version in 1972, with Patrick Magee again playing the part of Krapp, was based upon a copy of the text amended by Beckett in the light of the earlier Berlin production; the BBC typed script represents, therefore, the first corrected version in English. Beckett also attended rehearsals of the Royal Court revival in January 1973.

3 The first known holograph is contained in the Été 56 notebook in Reading University Library. It is headed Magee monologue and is dated 20 February 1958.

4 In a letter to Jake Schwartz dated 15 March 1958, in the library of the University of Texas, Beckett wrote ‘I am also keeping for you, if you would be interested, the MS of my translation of L’Innommable of which I have completed the first draft and four states, in typescript, with copious and dirty corrections, of a short stage monologue I have just written (in English) for Pat Magee. This was composed on the machine from a tangle of old notes, so f have not the MS to offer you.’ It is possible, of course, that there may be some old notes which ante-date the manuscript draft referred to above or, alternatively, and this seems more likely, that they are the same.

5 The Regiebuch is a bound notebook written in French, English, and German of 71 leaves, of which 51 to 69 are blank; it is entitled Krapp Berlin Werkstatt 5.10.69 and is preserved in Reading University Library, along with other Berlin and London production notebooks. It is referred to henceforth as Krapp Regiebuch.

6 The first annotated text (A1) is the Grove Press Evergreen original, E-226, Krapp’s last tape and other dramatic writings (New York, 1960, 4th printing). Beckett has written ‘London 1973’ in ink on the front cover and it is almost certain that this copy was prepared for the Royal Court Theatre, London revival in January 1973. Although there are minor differences in the corrections, the second annotated copy (A2) is probably a copy of A1 and is the Faber and Faber paper-covered edition, Krapp’s last tape and Embers (London, 1970 reprint of 1965 edition). Beckett identifies it on the opening page of the text as ‘corrected for revival at Royal Court Theatre Jan 1973 with Albert Finney.’ It was presented by the author to Reading University and is inscribed and dated 2 January 1973.

7 Krapp Regiebuch, 13 (Beckett’s own pagination used throughout).

8 Krapp Regiebuch, 8.

9 Krapp’s last tape and Embers, London, Faber and Faber, 1959, 16. This edition is used throughout and is referred to in the abbreviated form KLT.

10 KLT, 17.

11 Ibid, 17.

12 Ibid, 18.

13 Ibid, 10-11.

14 ‘Martin Held talks to Ronald Hayman,’ Times Saturday Review, 25 April 1970.

15 In the Grove Press annotated copy (A1), a marginal note on p. 13 reads ‘Action interrupted by first took over his shoulder left into darkness backstage’; the note in the Faber and Faber annotated copy (A2) is ‘Action interrupted by Hain 1’ (p.11). In A1, p. 27, a marginal note reads ‘Action interrupted by second look into darkness as before’; in A2, p. 19, the note is ‘interrupted by Hain 2.’ After the first drink backstage, there is in both copies the query ‘Faint Hain here?’, A1, p. 17, A2, p. 14.

16 Personal letter to J. Knowlson, 18 May 1972.

17 KLT, 15, 18.

18 Krapp Regiebuch, 43.

19 Ibid, 20.

20 Ibid, 67.

21 The annotation is written on the pre-title page of the Grove Press corrected copy (A1).

22 Krapp Reglebuch, 19-35.

23 Ibid, 16-17.

24 ‘Martin Held talks to Ronald Hayman,’ Times Saturday Review, 25 April 1970.

25 Grove Press annotated copy (A1), 15.

26 Ibid, 15.

27 Krapp Regiebuch, 53.

28 KLT, 16, 18.

29 The poems of Sir Philip Sidney, ed. William A. Ringler, Jr., Oxford, 1962, 161.

30 KLT, 11.

31 KLT, 15.

32 J. Knowlson, Light and darkness in the Theatre of Samuel Beckett, London, Turret Books, 1972.

33 Krapp Regiebuch, 47, reprinted in facsimile in Knowlson, Light and darkness.

34 KLT, 15-16.

35 Ibid, 12.

36 Beckett has written in this quotation on p. 15 of the Faber and Faber annotated copy (A2) with the source Othello, V, ii.

37 KLT, 17.

38 Krapp Regiebuch, 47.

39 Ibid, 72. This note was not written in the notebook when it was loaned for the Samuel Beckett Exhibition at Reading University in 1971.

Productions referred to

First production: Royal Court Theatre, London, 28 October 1958, in a double bill with Endgame. Krapp: Patrick Magee. Director: Donald McWhinnie. Designer: Jocelyn Herbert.

In French: La dernière bande (French translation by Pierre Leyris and the author). Théâtre Récamier (Théâtre National Populaire), Paris, 22 March 1960, with Robert Pinget’s Lettre morte. Krapp: R. J. Chauffard. Director: Roger Blin.

In German: Das letzte Band (German translation by Elmar Tophoven). Schiller Theater Werkstatt, Berlin, 5 October 1969. Krapp: Martin Held. Director: Samuel Beckett. Designer: Matias.

British Television BBC 2, ‘Thirty Minute Theatre,’ 29 November 1972. Krapp: Patrick Magee. Director: Donald McWhinnie.

London revival: Royal Court Theatre, London, 16 January 1973, in a double-bill with Not I. Krapp: Albert Finney. Director: Anthony Page. Designer: Jocelyn Herbert.

Paris revival: Théâtre d’Orsay, Petite Salle, 5 April 1975, in a double-bill with Pas moi. Krapp: Pierre Chabert. Director: Samuel Beckett. Designer: Matias.