Krapp's Last Tape and the Futility of Human Existence

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  • Topic: Samuel Beckett, Theatre of the Absurd, Krapp's Last Tape
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  • Published : August 29, 2008
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Question: Absurdist drama is often said to be a critique of the human existence, that the situation is often meaningless and absurd. Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is a typical absurdist drama. How does Beckett, through the use of language, setting and the character Krapp, highlight the futility of the human existence in this particular drama?

Absurdist drama originated in the 1950s and follows Albert Camus’s philosophy that the human situation is meaningless and absurd (Culik). As such, absurdist drama is, in a sense, absurd. It follows none of the typical rules of modern drama, and that is in fact its true intention, to go against the norm so as to surprise or shock readers out of their comfort zone, to force people to confront the weaknesses and hopelessness of mankind. Many components of an absurdist drama will be seen as illogical, ridiculous or mundane. Samuel Beckett’s drama, Krapp’s Last Tape, is an excellent example of an absurdist drama.

Perhaps the first thing that the audience is drawn to, when reading the play at least, is the setting itself. Beckett goes to great length to describe how he wishes the setting to be, right down to the last trivial detail of Krapp’s clothes.

“Rusty black narrow trousers too short for him. Rusty black sleeveless waistcoat, four capacious pockets. Heavy silver watch and chain. Grimy white shirt open at nick, no collar.”

Beckett further describes Krapp’s slow, laborious actions in a lengthy and monotonous manner.

“Krapp remains a moment motionless, heaves a great sigh, looks at his watch, fumbles in his pocket, takes out an envelope, puts it back, fumbles, takes out a small bunch of keys...”

Indeed, Krapp himself is a source of ridicule, for he is poorly dressed, slow, clumsy and even almost trips on a banana skin that he tosses on the ground. One must note, however, that despite Krapp’s frailties, Beckett constantly reminds the audience that Krapp is a “thinker”, from his constant pacing to his “meditative” way of eating banana. Hence, by putting together both messages, Krapp epitomizes the proverbial unsuccessful scholar, the intellectual who tries to survive on idealism but soon realizes that cold hard truth of reality. Indeed, Beckett has foreshadowed the later parts of this drama with this initial hint of who Krapp is as a person, and the reader learns much later that Krapp is in fact a failed writer bemoaning the mistakes he made when he was young.

In essence, Beckett’s portrayal of Krapp is as a symbol of ridicule, and made even more ridiculous from the fact that Krapp is supposed to be of considerable intellect. Hence one sees the first example, right from the beginning, of an absurdist piece.

Beckett further uses a minimalist setting for a reason. The stark empty space present in a minimalist setting serves to highlight to the audience that there is no one else in the room, for Krapp is there, alone in his own solitude. The audience focuses on Krapp and only Krapp, which is the essence of absurdist drama; for the audience to focus on the human so as to realize, throughout the course of the drama, the futility of the human existence.

Interesting too, is Beckett’s use of lighting in the drama. He specifies, above all, that: “Table and immediately adjacent area in strong white light. Rest of stage in darkness.” Light and darkness has often been used as an allegory to success and failure, knowledge and ignorance. By putting Krapp in the light and the rest of the stage in the dark, it would appear that Beckett is attempting to portray Krapp as having had the knowledge to succeed in life, hence Beckett’s choice to have light and darkness on the stage as a stark comparison as opposed to having the stage fully lighted. However, one soon suspects, and later realizes, that Krapp is anything but successful. Hence, the audience realizes the irony of the situation; Beckett’s use of light to portray Krapp’s dark life shows a yearning for a success that...
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