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Feeling like Krapp: Birthday Blues July 24, 2008

Posted by jeffclef in beckett, krapp.

Since passing the big 2 5, I find birthdays more depressing than ever. Getting older loses its appeal when you have no new milestones to celebrate and your special day arouses the same dread as a deadline: “This paper is due in three hours and I haven’t even started!” In college, we had finals, recitals, and even p.e. to boost our self-esteem. But in grad school, there’s what? Teaching evaluations? Awesome powers of interpretation? The only milestones in the academy are getting hired and getting published. That and the dissertation, and I ain’t quite there yet.

Today’s gloom was exacerbated by thunderstorms. This morning, I had to splash my way to the hospital. It’s been a month since I began taking this drug called isotretinoin to treat nodular acne. I’m happy with my chapped lips and inability to cry, though dread the more adverse side effects ranging from organ damage to suicidal depression. If that isn’t bad enough, treatment requires a pledge of abstinence for six months (the treatment period is five) since the drug causes serious birth defects in unborn children. A paper chad with the X’ed out icon of a pregnant woman stands between me and each of the tiny, orange pills; I’ve punched out 60 so far. Given the potency of the drug, I have to get a blood test every pill cycle just to make sure the drug isn’t messing up my system. Then I’m cleared for the next 30-day supply to be picked up the next day. Today was day thirty, my first blood test and my 26th birthday.

When I got home, it was still thundering outside, and I felt like reading some Beckett, who, I remembered, wrote a play for such occasions. Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-act about the tragedy of selfhood, but it is also a play about birthdays.

At the age of 69, Krapp remains single and pretty much feels like his name. To pass the time, he drinks a lot (backstage) and downs bananas (onstage) in a ritual suggestive of auto-fellatio. Since his twentieth birthday, he has kept an audio diary on a set of tape reels. Every birthday, he plays entries from past birthdays before recording his latest reflections on a fresh tape. You could say that Krapp was a podcasting pioneer.

His annual reports, however, bring little joy to the listener. He expresses little remorse for his mother’s death and recalls being accused of harassment after trying to flirt with a lady outside his mother’s room. He regrets calling off a love affair with a past flame. These events are never relayed in linear fashion. Longing, frustration, envy, make him rewind and fast-forward, stop, start, and linger on certain tapes. And it is through his attempts to connect with his past selves that we begin to understand his failure to connect with others. At one point, he stops the tape to look up the meaning of an unfamiliar word uttered by a Krapp forty years his junior:

[reading from a dictionary] State — or condition — of being — or remaining — a widow — or widower. [Looks up. Puzzled.] Being — or remaining? … [Pause. He peers again at dictionary. Reading.] “Deep weeds of viduity” … Also of an animal, especially a bird … the vidua or weaver-bird … Black plumage of male … [He looks up. With relish.] The vidua-bird!

Why does Krapp go from puzzled to delighted in the blink of a word? Is it that he’s tickled by the tritone of meanings here. While viduity denotes forlornness, its sound evokes a creative being (“weaver bird”), which appeals to the writer’s sagging ego (“plumage of male”). But I also hear the resonance of vidua and viduity with individual. Individuals are not in-divisible, as the etymology would have us believe. Rather, each person, like a tape reel in a box of many tape reels, remains vidual, alienated from his past selves.

Krapp’s Last Tape is like the dramatic counterpart to Magritte’s La Reproduction Interdite (Not to be Reproduced, right), in which a man stares into a mirror and only sees the back of himself. So how does one escape the abyss? I suppose it requires a leap of sympathy, though that only leads to rejection in Krapp’s case, or else the willingness to make oneself vulnerable for the sake of making a connection. And yet, despite seeming to grasp the import of this passage, here I remain in my weeds of viduity….

…until the next day, when my friend and I take the bus to New York and the real party begins. The moral of this story: like deadlines, birthdays are best honored one day late.



1. Martin - December 13, 2008


Just happened upon this page, a happy happenstance. I was endeavouring to discover a googlewhack via viduity and pseudovector.
Enlightening read.

Happy Birthday!

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