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The Bathos of "Krapp's Last Tape" (1 Viewer)

Jolly McJollyson

Senior Member
The Bathos of Krapp’s Last Tape

In 1957, one year before the publication of Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett released the English translation of Endgame, wherein the English-speaking world heard Nell assert that “nothing is funnier than unhappiness…. And we laugh…, with a will, in the beginning. But it’s always the same thing. Yes, it’s like a funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh any more” (18-19). While all of Beckett’s works laugh (along with the reader or audience) as they stare down the cavernous gullet of existential and linguistic hopelessness, Krapp’s Last Tape explains the indispensability of that laughter by focusing solely on what happens when “we don’t laugh any more.” The play explores and defines the concept of the joke, and entirely revolves around a few motifs of that same theme: namely ideas of intellectuality, nostalgia, and age. At its center, Krapp’s Last Tape examines a fallen intellectual mired in his simultaneously destructive and sustaining nostalgia. In Krapp, the audience watches a character torment himself so that he might keep even a loose grip on his past, a grip not voyeuristic, but “auristic” in nature. But Krapp does not simply exist as a mere figure of pathos; there lies in his character, and, in fact, the entire play, an exploration into the proverbial slip on the banana-peel. The joke of the text itself, for all its complexity, is poked fun at (via reduction) when it plays itself out in miniature in the first few minutes of the action. The audience can ascertain Krapp’s entire history before he even opens his mouth; the play shows them what will happen long before any of it actually does. In fact, the action of the entire play is foreshadowed and completed in Krapp’s first movements on the stage.

After the curtain, the audience first sees Krapp for an instant motionless at his desk, then taking various items from his pockets, most notably “a small bunch of keys” (312), which grant him access to two more items: a tape and a banana. As a linguistic element in the overall discourse of the play, Krapp’s keys function as a kind of unifying, “perfect” language, allowing him to interact both with the high, intellectual discourse of audio recording, and the low, survivalist discourse of banana eating. The tape, to begin, reveals two things. Inherently, the “tape reel” (312), as the text calls it, carries associations with the past; naturally, the tape must have been recorded before it can be played. Before Krapp is even given a voice, the action of the play forces him to let the tape, and therefore the past, speak for him merely by its presence. Secondly, the tape represents an intellectual language; tape recording is a technological milestone, the spoken word becomes, in a way, eternal. Later in the play, we see both these elements present simultaneously in the tape, which houses both literally and metaphorically the language of young, intellectual Krapp, whose voice is “rather pompous” and overblown (313). At thirty-nine, Krapp thinks conceptually, rather than concretely, and “close[s his] eyes” to “try to imagine” things” (313). The Krapp on the tape is “intellectually…at the…crest of the wave—or thereabouts” (313), he concerns himself with scientific, high-minded inquiries, and rejects the “lower,” bodily elements of existence, regretting his eating “three bananas and only with difficulty refrain[ing] from a fourth. Fatal things for a man with my condition” (313). The tape language wishes to “cut…out” the survivalist banana language driven by appetite and desire; the world of the mind, in Krapp’s younger, Cartesian incarnation, must eliminate the need for the world of the body (313).

That Krapp “puts [the tape] back” implies that he has lost that world of intellectual language (312), or at least that it is not the linguistic discourse he means to access or can even understand at his current age. By putting the tape back in its drawer, Krapp again foreshadows the play’s later action. While the tape still belongs to him, its discourse is no longer useful to him as anything but an element of nostalgia. He has replaced the intellectual, conceptual value of the tapes with a sappy, emotional value that ultimately makes a mockery of Krapp himself, and he no longer understands the language of his youth, having to stop and look up the word “viduity” after hearing it in his own tape (314). Even after finding the word in the dictionary, he finds far more excitement in thinking about “the vidua-bird” (315), a superficial, aesthetic object existing in stark contrast to the abstract, conception of viduity. Additionally, Krapp, who did not “sing as a boy,” or, in fact, “ever sing,” sings now as an old man (313). His linguistic discourse has changed, but the song is not of his boyhood, as Old Miss McGlome sings “of her girlhood” (313), instead it concerns only the bitter twilight, “night is drawing nigh” (314). In fact, by singing at all, Krapp directly rebels against his youthful arrogance, which asserts that “no,” he would not “sing when [he was Old Miss McGlome’s] age” (313). Clearly Krapp no longer uses or even respects the tape language, it is not what he chooses to fill his mouth.

What Krapp does choose to fill his mouth at his current age is, of course, the banana language. Notably, he does not bite the banana for a time, he merely “puts [the] end of [the] banana in his mouth and remains motionless, staring vacuously before him” (312). Having spent so much time with the conceptual language of the intellectual, Krapp simply doesn’t understand how to use a lower form of language, and the result is the hilarious image of a man simply shoving a banana in his mouth. The joke, really the first joke of the play, is on Krapp, who mistakenly takes a non-concept-driven (or object-driven) language to mean a “literal” language, literally shoving the object into his mouth, and from the pathos of the situation, it is not difficult to understand why the banana further embitters and frustrates Krapp: something so simple should not be so hard to understand. Moreover, Krapp’s frustration appears in his bitter language in his own live recording which points to two contempts: one for his current state, and one for his past. He calls himself at thirty-nine “that stupid bastard,” and reduces all the earth to an “old muckball” (317). Now Krapp has gone silent, he has “nothing to say, not a squeak” (317). He does not use the banana language, then, to communicate. Instead, he uses it to “bite,” just as he “bites” the banana in his initial pantomime (312).
So far we have seen that Krapp began by taking on the tape-recording language, which communicates intellectually, but that he somehow lost his understanding and connection with that world. In addition, we’ve seen that Krapp now simply goes through the motions to sustain himself, using his new “lower” discourse not to see the world from a new outlook, but to bite down. However, his angry misapplication of the bodily banana language backfires on him. When Krapp “treads on [the banana] skin, [and] slips” (312), the audience that assumes the play miniaturized in this first pantomime then recognizes that there will be a fall due to Krapp’s willful ignorance of the world of appetite in favor of intellectualism. That he favors intellectualism becomes clear in the fact that he “meditatively” eats the banana (312), and it is this ivory tower, misapplied and unconnected intellectualization which causes Krapp to fall into embittered decay. The slip on the banana peel, like all humor, at its core, reveals the reality in opposition to what one claims to be. In other words, though Krapp clearly has intellectual sympathies, slipping on the banana peel reveals that he is a man too stupid and oblivious to realize that he shouldn’t drop a banana peel directly at his feet. That his meditations surround the eating of bananas should provide irony enough, but that Krapp can’t even eat a banana properly indicates that his old, youthful, ivory-tower intellectualism has ruined him. The only thing Krapp can learn now, as the audience watches him go through the exact same motions a second time, is to “toss [the banana] skin into the pit” (312), but immediately afterward, Krapp scampers off to acquire a much more emotionally damaging banana peel: the ledger that will guide him to today’s listening-tape.

That tape which has the last operation in the pantomime, of course, has the last word in the play. Krapp willingly stops talking in favor of listening, perhaps tired of his self-loathing tirade, more likely because it is simply too late for Krapp. Younger Krapp wonders if “perhaps [his] 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” (318), and here the listening Krapp sits “motionless staring before him” (318). Older Krapp realizes he has wasted his life in an obsession with the past, “listening to an old year, passages at random” (314), but he cannot stop himself from indulging in the self-destructive “aurism” which has him listening to a version of himself he simultaneously longs for and reviles. All three Krapps have different functions; the young Krapp mocked by the Krapp on tape is Krapp in the early stages of his intellectualism, his knowledge still rudimentary, a “young whelp” (314). The Krapp on the tape is a later stage of the same phase, which constructs false parallels in overwrought language, comparing, for example, a woman’s eyes to “chrysolite” (315), which is itself a delightful false parallel. The word “chrysolite” comes from the Greek for “golden stone,” but the actual mineral chrysolite is a yellowed green color. Here we see a gap between the signifier “chrysolite” and its signified object; the sign deteriorates into oppositions, not unification, and this epitomizes the problem of thirty-nine-year-old Krapp’s form of ivory-tower intellectualism. The final Krapp willingly subjects himself to relive again and again the pompous foolishness of his past, and to that extent becomes the most pathetic incarnation of himself. All three Krapps are the true Krapp, none of them any less Krapp then the others. Rather, in fact, they are all just different pieces of Krapp, and the implications of that pun are not lost on a Beckettian audience. Krapp does not laugh at his youthful hypocrisy in claiming not to want his “best years…back” (318), because Krapp is past hope; he has learned absolutely nothing from the banana peel, and, as Nell asserts in Endgame, “nothing is funnier.”