What the Krapp? — Frank McNally on phones in the theatre, Beckett’s lost love, and a technology ahead of its time

An impromptu play within a play

In the opening moments of Krapp’s Last Tape at Dublin’s Project Theatre, the silence is so profound you soon regret having merely muted your phone rather than switched off completely, as ordered. Nobody switches phones off anymore, because that’s like unplugging your life support these days. But it’s not only the fear of yours making a sound that unnerves during Krapp’s opening scene.

Just as deep as the silence around Stephen Rea is the darkness. Away from the brilliantly lit space in which he sits, the theatre is blacked out.

This is integral to the drama of a work set in what seems to be a Manichean universe, where evil powers are in the ascendant and the God of creation may not ultimately prevail over them.

In a notebook Beckett kept for one production, he listed “27 points” in the play where the alteration of light and darkness is stressed. You wouldn’t want the screen of your iPhone to inadvertently increase that number to 28.


So I hugged my phone tensely, smothering all possibility of light or vibration escaping, as we waited for Beckett’s words to break the spell. And then, from somewhere else in the auditorium, a small but unmistakably telephonic voice said “Hello?”

There were sharp intakes of breath around us. “Incredible” someone whispered nearby. But yes, an audience member had apparently just pressed “accept” on a call, no doubt to pre-empt vibrational noises, while not calculating that the person at the other end might speak.

Which he did now again – “Hello?” – with increased insistence as the woman with the phone scrambled from her seat. The voice sounded English and business-like. Disturbed by the silence, it pressed on, now urgently, with a third “Hello?” before the woman made it to her feet.

She dashed around a corner into the invisibility or a corridor. But even there the voice continued. “Hello? “Hello?” “Hello?” it asked in dramatic diminuendo as the phone owner disappeared down the hallway and finally exited, stage right, a play within the play.


The main play, of course, was more about people saying goodbye. As a 69-year-old Krapp endures another birthday, he revisits younger versions of himself via tape recorder. So doing, he relives pivotal moments of his life including his mother’s and father’s deaths and his final “farewell to love”.

All those events were drawn from Beckett’s own experience. According to his biographer James Knowlson, the real lost love was one Ethna MacCarthy, a brilliant and beautiful woman Beckett first met at Trinity College, who had dazzled not just him but many of his male contemporaries.

By 1958, when he wrote the play in a deep depression, she was dying of lung cancer. Beckett sent her a bunch of violets picked at his home outside Paris. “This is just my heart to you and my hand in yours and a few wood violets I’d take from their haunt for no one else,” he wrote.

Krapp’s Last Tape, while more tender and lyrical than most Beckett plays, and possessed of what he called “a woman’s tone”, is nevertheless cynical about love. But another biographer, Anthony Cronin, “breaking all the rules” once, probed the author about his and the character’s true thoughts on the subject.

“Krapp seems to think he missed something, if not the last chance of happiness, then of some sort of romantic fulfilment,” he put it to Beckett then. “Yes,” the latter replied guardedly, “Krapp seems to think that perhaps he did.” Then Beckett added with a smile: “But that’s no proof of anything, is it?”


I watched the play with a French-Arabic friend who is still new to Ireland and has been undergoing a crash course in our culture. The course had already included the Abbey Theatre’s recent all-female-or-non-binary production of Behan’s The Quare Fella, which was hard working but also hard work. Then this.

“Are there any funny plays in Ireland?” she asked afterwards. I protested weakly that even in Krapp’s Last Tape there are moments of comedy. My friend reflected hard. “I suppose there was the bit with the bananas,” she said, still unconvinced.


In keeping with Beckett’s elegiac theme, by the way, the woman with the phone did not return for the duration of the play. But the electronic sub-plot she had introduced was not without aptness, since Krapp’s Last Tape itself showcases a technology that was still fairly new at the time.

Beckett himself has claimed that when he wrote the text, he had no working experience of tape-recorders, which had only come into usage in the war years, although Knowlson says the playwright had recently seen one in a BBC studio and asked a friend to send him an operating manual.

But Krapp’s Last Tape is ostensibly set in the 1958 present, and involves recorded flashbacks to 30 years earlier, via which it also references a tape from a further 12 years back. This is a chronological conundrum.

As Cronin comments: “The tape recorder had not been invented 30 years before [1958], still less 42 years before, when Krapp’s father died.”