Undoing Time: The Life and Work of Samuel Beckett


Jennifer Birkett

May 2015

This dynamic new account of Samuel Beckett’s life and literature offers a systematic overview and discussion of his drama, prose and poetry; making accessible his later and less well-known pieces. It is informed by the most recent biographical and critical perspectives on Beckett and his modernist contexts.


Since his death in 1989, it has become difficult to imagine that Samuel Beckett was once a virtually unknown writer. Born in 1906 into a respectable middle-class family in a Dublin suburb, he came late to fame in the early 1950s with the ground-breaking play, Waiting for Godot. Since Godot, his writing has been translated, published, and staged throughout the world.

This highly accessible and original narrative account offers a new opportunity to engage with a towering figure of Irish and world literature. It offers a systematic overview of his best-known and most popular work, in poetry, drama, prose, radio and television along with his more difficult pieces. Original close readings explore his transformative work on language and form. For Beckett, life was a matter of doing time, while writing was a way of undoing it. In the process, writer, audiences and readers enter into a different understanding of how it is to be human.

Table of Contents

A Life in Time
Human Time
Everybody’s Beckett
Ireland’s Beckett

1. The Long Beginning (1928-46)
‘James Joyce’s White Boy’
Poetic Beginnings: Translating
Coming into His Own
The Writer in Wartime
The Poetry of the Subject: Lost in Time

2. Beginning with Prose
The Apprentice
The Journeyman

3. Refusing Mastery
Consuming, Composting, Composing
Impasse: The Rhythm of Contradiction
Another Way Through: The Turning of Worm

4. The Shorter Prose: False Starts, Fresh Ends
Texts for Nothing: ‘Under a Different Glass’
How It Is
‘Eternally I’: The Mobile Text

5. Drama from Eleutheria to Happy Days
A Material Stage
Eleutheria: Subverting the Spectator
Waiting for Godot: Doing Time
Endgame: Playing to Lose
Krapp’s Last Tape: ‘Drowned in Dreams and Burning to be Gone’
Happy Days: The Dance of Love

6. The Shorter Plays: Diminishing Returns
The Gender Gap
Watch this Space

7. Broadcasting Beckett
Beckett on Radio
Beckett on Screen: Projecting Meaning onto the Void

About the Author

Jennifer Birkett is Emeritus Professor of French Studies at the University of Birmingham. Her books include The Sins of the Fathers: Decadence in France and Europe 1870-1914; A Guide to French LiteratureFrom Early Modern to Post-Modern (co-ed.); Samuel Beckett (Longman Critical Readers, co-ed.);Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett; and most recently, an acclaimed biography: Margaret Storm Jameson: A Life.