Myth and Ritual in the Plays of Samuel Beckett

Myth and Ritual in the Plays of Samuel Beckett

Myth and Ritual in the Plays of Samuel Beckett

Myth and Ritual in the Plays of Samuel Beckett


All of the essays in this collection reflect a sense that Beckett's power as a playwright derives largely from a mythic vision that informs his drama. Their approaches to the definition and use of myth and ritual in his plays vary considerably, however, ranging from the Jungian to the Marxian to the Lacanian, and drawing on the theories of Campbell, Freud, Eliade, Frye, Turner, Girard, Baudrillard, and others.


Myth and Ritual
in the Plays of Samuel Beckett

An Introduction

Katherine H. Burkman

In the barren landscapes of Samuel Beckett's plays, dominated as they are by an ever more encroaching void, one may look in vain for rituals that bring renewal and myths that bespeak a meaningful redemption from that void. Yet Beckett's dramatic world is filled with ritual behavior and is suffused with fragments of old myths. Godot himself, half businessman, half white-bearded Jehovah, would seem to be nothing more than some impotent version of the ever-expected Messiah while the bondage of Didi and Gogo to this offstage figure in Waiting for Godot has parodic echoes of the myth of Prometheus. Tempted as one may be to dismiss the kind of obsessive behaviors of Beckett's characters, from the vaudeville routines of Waiting for Godot or Endgame to the repetitive knocking of Listener in Ohio Impromptu, as habit, which as Vladimir says is “a great deadener,” one may not do so. For the dynamic of Beckett's plays continuously reveals ways in which habit, as it fails to deaden, takes on a ritual aspect; and ritual in these dramas moves always toward the meanings that linger in the mythical fragments that abound—and even toward the creation of new myths.

On one level, Beckett, like Lucky in his “Think” speech, would seem in his plays to be clinging to fragments of civilization's old truths while he faces the encroaching emptiness, moving too, as Lucky does, to muteness. On another level Beckett's search is more like his Krapp's obsessive spinning of the tapes of his past to find that more personal myth which might somehow give meaning to life and help recover what is lost. The search for meaning is both intensely personal and inward in Beckett's drama, the old myths being no more (or less) useful than Winnie's “Oldstyle,” and yet extremely universal, as Beckett seems not only to give the old fragments new life but to move toward the creation of new myths for our time. Speaking of Beckett's tendency in his manuscripts to make his work ever more minimal, Stanley Gontarski remarks, “Beckett's undoing is a means to redress Nietzsche's grievance against what he broadly . . .

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