The Friday Afternoon Movie: Krapp’s Last Tape

Introspection and retrospection reign supreme on this day, the Ninth day of July in the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Ten. Today the FAM presents Krapp’s Last Tape starring John Hurt and directed by Atom Egoyan for the series Beckett On Film for Irish broadcaster RTÉ, British broadcaster Channel 4, and the Irish Film Board and which began showing in 2001. The project’s aim was to film 19 of Samuel Beckett’s 20 plays; the exception being the early play Eleutheria which at the time remained unperformed and, in fact, was only staged for the first time in 2005, 58 years after Beckett wrote it. Along with Hurt and Agoyan, Beckett On Film featured an impressive stable of acting and directorial talent. Seriously, look at that list.

We, however, are here to focus on one. Krapp’s Last Tape is the story of Krapp, who is celebrating his sixty-ninth birthday and, is his habit, has hauled out his reel-to-reel tape recorder in order to review the tapes he has made upon every instance of the “awful occasion”. Those are the words used by Krapp, but the Krapp of 30 years previous and from whom we learn the majority of what we know about the man. It is this man, pompous and sneering, who narrates most of Krapp’s life and Krapp sneers along with him, laughing along condescendingly with his 39 year-old self at the idealism and naivete at the 20 year-old man he used to be. We learn from this incarnation of his mother’s death and the women he has loved.

But even Krapp at 39 cannot escape the bitterness that he hurls at his youth. At 69, there is little else left in him but bile and regret; his last book has sold next nothing, his sex life revolves around the periodic visits of an old prostitute. He has no years left for idealism. The only future for Krapp is death; and now in full light of that realization he retreats to the dim memories on those tapes. As the tape ends he can only sit frozen, the only sound the hiss of the reel as it runs down.

The most famous production of Krapp’s Last Tape, no doubt, is 1972 for the BBC, starring the late, great Patrick Magee. In fact, Beckett wrote the play specifically for McGee, it’s original title being “Magee monologue”. I must admit that, much as I love Magee’s work, Hurt seems almost as if he was born for this role. Watching him is hypnotic, every movement seems to take incredible effort and it seems as if he’s willing he joints to creak. Hurt is also in possession of an incredibly expressive face and he uses it to great effect here, betraying the sadness and despair of character with a subtlety that keeps the whole affair from becoming maudlin. It also contains the only instance in which I have laughed at the slipping-on-a-banana peel gag.

It would be hard for most to rank this as Beckett’s greatest play, especially when compared to his most famous play, the incomparable Waiting For Godot, but there is a reality present in Krapp’s Last Tape that is absent from the tale of Vladimir and Estragon that I find deeply affecting. Much of Beckett’s life is reflected in Krapp’s Last Tape and at the time he wrote it his outlook was, one could maintain, quite grim. Perhaps therein lies crux of my position. It’s effectiveness may hinge on just how much of one’s self one sees reflected here.

2 Responses to “The Friday Afternoon Movie: Krapp’s Last Tape”

  1. Charles Says:

    Thanks for sharing this…Beckett has always been close to my heart, even if I don’t always understand him. I’ve actually used one of those reel-to-reels listening to similar retrospective tapes my father made while in Vietnam. Spool. Spooooool.

  2. Marjorie Cummings Says:

    This is a wonderful magazine, and a terrific feature. I disagree about Godot being Becket’s greatest play–Endgame is. There’s nothing so obdurate in the world’s literature as the cosmos in Endgame.

    Although, in a funny way, Godot may be his “best” play even if it isn’t his greatest. I’m asking myself now how that’s possibe, but Godot _does_ have something for everyone, whereas Endgame is a comfort only to victims of severe trauma who benefit from seeing unspeakable pain externalized.

    I have never felt so elevated by having a minor disagreement with a blog post before. This site is terrific.