Samuel Beckett’s Dublin - A Theatre of the Absurd?

Each day, respectably hatted and warmly wrapped men stepped from the trams and trains and wound their way through the city streets. Going about their business, confidently swinging gold topped canes in time with their step, they politely gave way to the better class of ladies.

Dublin, at the time of Samuel Beckett’s birth in 1906, was the second city of the British Empire and largely in the business of administration and commerce. Those atop the social and economic pyramid wielded great influence within business, state and the church. Whereas once this class was dominated by the Protestant Ascendancy, Catholics now increasingly filled its ranks. 

Their businesses offered some polite employment to the well scrubbed lower middle classes. However, Dublin lacked the large manufacturing industries which could offer employment to the ever increasing numbers littering the bottom of the pyramid. The Nationalism of the day sought to deliver control from British hands to this Irish middle class. For the lower orders they promoted the sunny ideal of rural peasant traditions, denying the very evidence of their eyes - barefoot and barely clad children, the army of ragged sandwich board men, malnourished street musicians, beggar women and scuttling servants.

The children of the tenements knew little of emancipation and more of emaciation. Tuesday and Thursdays their mothers lined up in their thousands for the relief of a little package of bread, sugar and tea - their staple diet. Other days they sought the mercy of the pawnbrokers, exchanging their rags for the price of a loaf. To their fathers jobs were meted out at the whim of an employer, the weekly wage below subsistence if you were lucky enough to be in receipt of one. Much work was of a casual nature, sought out daily, back breakingly hard and paid with a pittance. When they dared to band together as they did under the leadership of James Larkin in 1913, their priests joined with their middle class masters and politicians, railed against them and eventually brought them to their knees.

Thus one third of the population of the city retreated to the tenements and the victors crowed about their defeat of socialism. Magnanimously, the priests visited them there, promising them salvation and equality before God while requiring them to step aside when they crossed paths on the street. The courts dealt with the miscreants who dared for more - the eleven year old boy sentenced to fourteen days in prison and five years in a reformatory school, for the illegal possession of a blanket.

First as boy and then as man, Beckett, respectably hatted and warmly wrapped, walked these city streets and observed this theatre of the absurd - the poor ever hopeful and waiting in the shadows cast by masters who loudly demanded of them but quiet acceptance of their lot.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 11th September 2013