Islanders Read the Classics: Philip Weinstein on Beckett

Philip Weinstein to look back at Beckett

Samuel Beckett is the latest in the continuing series Islanders Read The Classics. —Wiki Commons

When you have a chance to witness an expert at work, why not take it, especially if it’s free of charge? Islanders who like to read, especially the work of writers regarded as geniuses, will have a special opportunity on Tuesday, June 13, when Philip Weinstein speaks at “Islanders Read the Classics.” The talk will take place at 7 pm in the Katharine Cornell Theater on Spring Street in Vineyard Haven.

Before recently retiring to Aquinnah, Phil Weinstein was a professor of English at Swarthmore College for more than four decades. He has written eight works of literary criticism, most of them focusing on William Faulkner. Still called to teaching, for the past several years he has shared his love and broad knowledge of literature with dedicated students each fall in classes presented by the Vineyard Haven Public Library.

Far from the density of Faulkner, Beckett was a master of the spare, at least in his most famous work, “Waiting for Godot,” and an even shorter play, “Krapp’s Last Tape,” on which Weinstein will focus on June 13. “Samuel Beckett was one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, winning the Nobel Prize in 1969, and this talk attempts to provide some of the reasons for such an assessment,” Weinstein told The Times.

To some readers, Beckett’s inscrutable absurdism is off-putting, leaving them wondering what he was up to, why they don’t get it, or, worse, if they have been had. “Waiting for Godot” relies on a largely static plot, without the guiding structure of a beginning, middle, or end. And the characters, are they at least interesting? Well … not so much, in fact. Other than Godot, who never appears, the principles are Estragon and Vladimir, two lost souls who wrestle listlessly with their fecklessness. When they become animated, they usually forget, when challenged, what animated them. About almost anything that comes along in life, Vladimir concludes, “Nothing you can do about it.” To which Estragon replies, “No use struggling.” Vladimir, in a bit of foreshadowing of a modern throwaway line, has the last word, “One is what one is.”

And then there’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” barely 20 pages long. There’s something in the title, isn’t there? Three short sounds. Or was the imp in Beckett just messing around with sound, leaving the reader to grapple with the intent of his minimalism? This was, after all, someone who wrote to a friend, “Let us hope the time will come … when language is most efficiently used where it is being most efficiently misused.” Whatever that means.

It might mean that we take almost everything too seriously, a fundamental tenet of absurdism, though that’s a bit hard to swallow from someone who put his life on the line helping the resistance in France during World War II. “Godot” was written in 1948, when the echos of the war still reverberated. Having lived through it, those of Beckett’s generation (he was born in 1906) understood the absurdity of all the death and destruction, even as they were willing to sacrifice everything to maintain a sane world. He wrote “Godot” in French, his second language, before translating it into English, his first.

In both “Waiting for Godot” and “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Beckett leavens his absurd take on the world with humor, the surest way to make the absurd palatable, and therefore at least potentially meaningful. In both plays it may take a while to relax and appreciate the humor in them, given the characters’ bleak, detached circumstances. In the former, two losers wait forlornly for the purported arrival of someone they are not sure even exists. In the latter, Krapp critiques his recorded self-criticism from many years earlier. If this isn’t funny, what is? And if it isn’t funny, what is it?

Whatever it is, it will be a pleasure to hear Phil Weinstein’s appreciation of it. Some English professors are so bent on deconstructing a work that it loses its flavor, like chewing a bit of fish too long to make sure there are no bones in it. In the case of Beckett, who stripped things down to the bare bones, this can be a special challenge: How do you deconstruct a building made out of a dozen two-by-fours and a few sheets of plywood? It will be interesting to hear how Phil Weinstein uses a 20-page play (including three pages before Krapp utters his first word) to explain the genius of Samuel Beckett to those of us who are still not quite sure we get it.


Phil Weinstein’s discussion of Samuel Beckett takes place on Tuesday, June 13, at 7 pm at the Katharine Cornell Theater. This program is free and open to the public. Presented by The MV Times, the Vineyard Haven Public Library, and the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association. The Vineyard Haven library has copies of “Krapp’s Last Tape” at the circulation desk.