I’m a little hesitant about adding these short Becket plays to our list of dementia narratives. I doubt that Beckett intended them to be read as an insight into dementia, though his work leaves itself so intriguingly open for interpretation I can’t imagine that he’d be surprised by this particular approach. It’s a long time since I last saw Krapp’s Last Tape performed but as I’ve been reading through dementia novels and plays over the last few months it has frequently come to mind. It is essentially a short play about an old man remembering back over his life. He relistens to tapes he’s recorded of himself at various younger stages and then amends and adapts these memories based upon how he now views the experiences he’s been through. As a metaphor for how memory evolves, fractures and repeats within the mind of a person living with dementia, I think it’s stunningly accurate. The old man’s fleeting awareness of what he’s doing, trawling through these tapes of his former life always reminds me of the Robert Frost poem, “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” and, in particular, the lines,
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.
Beckett’s characters with all their physical limitations and constraints seem incredibly familiar when considered in light of how ageing and indeed dementia can impact a person’s physicality.
Having re-read Krapp’s Last Tape, I progressed on to other short plays by Beckett and couldn’t help but see a possible dementia reading in many of these pieces. Memory and age are a frequent theme in Beckett’s work, as is confusion around issues of identity, repetition and the passage of time. To be honest, though these texts don’t claim to be dementia narratives, and I’m not too sure whether they’ve been considered as such before, Beckett’s use of language comes the closest I’ve seen in print text to conveying the sense of both internal confusion and linguistic disruption which occurs during the later stage of dementia. Take this section from That Time, for example:
When you started not knowing who you were from Adam trying how that would work for a change not knowing who you were from Adam no notion who it was saying what you were saying what you were saying whose skull you were clapped up in whose moan had you the way you were.
I’ve read multiple verbatim transcripts of people living with dementia which sound incredibly similar to this and other sections of Beckett’s plays where phrases are repeated, sentences fractured and narratives disarranged and devolved until they lose their sense. I’m now intrigued. Am off to read some of Beckett’s longer plays to see how they stand up as dementia texts.
Krapp’s Last Tape and Other Plays was published by Faber and Faber in 2009.