Saturday 6 November 2010

Krapp's Last Tape

The inimitable Gambon plays Krapp
It is my birthday tomorrow and therefore it is perhaps fitting that we went to watch Krapp's Last Tape, a work which portrays an ageing writer's birthday. (Also read my brief review of Waiting for Godot.)

The one-act minimalistic play, written by Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot we saw in June last year and hugely enjoyed (Ian McKellen as Estragon and Patrick Stewart as Vladimir), is about the eponymous character's birthday ritual of recording a tape summarising his past year. Michael Gambon, one of my favourite actors (have you watched The Singing Detective?), plays Krapp and we could not think of a better person to fill the role. (As a side note, Harold Pinter was one of Gambon's predecessors.) 

The play opens with Krapp resting, motionless, on a desk, almost as if dead. At the start of the play, a moth, whether intentionally released or whether making a fortunate appearance, flew into the lone light above Krapp's head. The moth's suicidal flight towards the light added to the sense that we were looking at a corpse. Slowly, Krapp begins to move: his movements are awkward, stiff, effortful and convincingly present an image of a pathetic old man losing control of his body. For the first ten minutes of the play, Krapp undertakes a wordless and depressing series of movements around his desk – one minute he drags his fingers along the edge of the desk, another he loudly opens and closes its drawers. The motivation of these often contorted and intense movements is not always clear but they prove powerful, especially when the sounds they generate punctuate an otherwise silent stage. But as always, with Beckett, there are clownish touches, particularly a scene in which Krapp rummages for several bananas in his desk and proceeds to eat them. In one case, he accidentally throws the fruit onto the floor instead of its skin. Later, he plays with the newly peeled banana, as if it is his penis.

After this series of wordless actions – one is tempted to interpret this as a piece of beautiful performance art – Krapp settles down, more or less, to listen to a tape he had recorded on his 39th birthday. Slowly, we learn that this particular tape contains an important episode of his life; yet the details do not unfold immediately. After listening to the tape's introductory passages, we get to the most important part of the younger Krapp's reminiscences. This section is repeated and expanded upon several times within the play, the meaning changing each time. The first time we hear it, the narration appears to be a description of post coital bliss in a punt:
We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.
This is powerful poetry: 'move' is repeated three times, each with a different meaning. The characters who 'lay there without moving' are contrasted with the rest of the world that 'moved', a suggestion of lovers lying in rest. Yet when the same lines are played again, we see that our interpretation of this as a description of dreamy romantic situation is entirely wrong – Krapp is in fact describing the end of his relationship:
I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on, and she agreed, 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.
We never learn why the younger Krapp decided to terminate the romance but it is obvious that this decision still haunts the older man. As he listens to the recording the second time, we see him break down and sob.

At this point, the older Krapp attempts to record this year's birthday entry (he turns 69). However, his life has become so narrow and empty that he has nothing substantial to say. Instead, he is filled with rage against his younger self and what his life has become. Angrily, he abandons the recording and eventually returns to the older tape. Listening to the same description again, we see that it has taken on yet another meaning. Lines such as 'Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.' and 'I thought it was hopeless and no good going on' now seem to reflect Krapp's current loneliness and suggest he is about to give up on life. The moment highlights the ambiguity of the title: does the 'last' in Krapp's Last Tape mean 'most recent' or 'final'? Is Krapp's tape about to run out?

Indeed, his tape does run out, as Krapp lets his 39th birthday message play to its end. The younger Krapp arrogantly states that
Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back.
While this plays, however, the older Krapp (the excellent Gambon) looks at the reels with incredulity and utter sadness. And we understand that he can hardly believe that he was ever so young and pompous. It is clear that he would like to rewind his life to have his 'best years' back. We know he can't.

A shorter version of this review appears here

The full text of Krapp's Last Tape is available here. Opens until Saturday 20th Nov 2010, Duchess Theatre.



  1. Happy Birthday Tammy
    What a great way to celebrate
    Samuel Beckett is astonishing
    I've mostly thought of him
    As an absurdist
    existential artist
    But this play shows another side
    Though in some ways
    There still seem to be
    Absurdist and Existential elements
    Present in Beckett's play
    Still what a contrast to 'Godot'
    Also to have Gambon in the role
    Sounds like pure genius
    I still remember being stunned
    By his performace
    In the Singing Detective
    It was riveting in its power
    I really appreciate that you took the time
    To write out such a detailed description
    As usual the clarity and power of your writing is beautiful
    Such that I can see the action in my minds eye, almost as if I were seeing the play live through your words.

    So thank you and have a wonderful birthday Tammy


  2. Gontran said: "Sound veeeeeery good.
    (I didn't see "Waiting for Godot", but read it, and liked it very much. It must be very interesting to see Ian McKellen in such a weird absurdist role. I'd only heard about him for his Shakespearian roles, and seen him play very Shakespearian renditions of "Lord of the Rings"' Gandalf, "X-Men"'s Magneto, and "Last Action Hero"'s Death.

    Oh, I see that I just wrote about "Godot", but I meant "Sounds veeeery good" about "Krapp" too. ;-)"

  3. I love this play very much, especially its lack of 'final big speech', a trope common in some many plays. Beckett at his best!

  4. I think the younger Krapp in his arrogance is still correct. Regrets get you nowhere, you can't rewind life as if it's a tape recorder.


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