Studying Samuel Beckett
My name is Eleanor and I am a third year PhD student at the University of Manchester. My research looks at queer sexuality in Samuel Beckett’s work during the 1960s. You might know Samuel Beckett as the playwright who wrote Waiting for Godot, but did you know he was also a novelist, poet, screenwriter, director for both television and film and a short prose writer? My work focuses on the 1960s in particular because Beckett’s work during this period begins to change into something much more minimal (the scenery is often a plain white space, bodies nondescript and their actions often simply breathing and sweating) and, simultaneously, much more gender-fluid.
Here I am giving a paper at the 4th Annual Beckett Society conference in Mexico City.
At school, my favourite subjects were English Literature, Religious Studies and Art & Design. I never got on very well with Mathematics or any of the sciences, although now, surprisingly, I find that I am using theories from these disciplines in my work as well! My undergraduate degree was in English Literature at the University of Sussex, and I did a Master's in Comparative Literature at Queen Mary’s, University of London, which allowed me to study a broader range of literature in other languages and in translation—as well as translation theory—and to make more comparisons between subjects, such as comparing literature with music, art and performance. This has helped a great deal with my current studies, as Beckett wrote in both English and French, and did a lot of self-translation, as well as working in aural and visual mediums.
My current research brings queer theory to an area of Beckett Studies to which it is absolutely crucial, while simultaneously allowing this research to reflect back upon the current state of Sexuality Studies. The theoretical work that my thesis has opened up is different from what I had imagined when I started my PhD, but in an exciting way! The journey you take when you study literature can be unpredictable and messy and that’s what I love about it. Often, you will find that literary criticism has been subject to compulsory heterosexuality. This term was coined by groundbreaking feminist scholar Adrienne Rich to explain how society expects, assumes and reinforces heterosexuality as dominant. At its most basic, my work seeks to undo this.
I also work as a Teaching Assistant, which has been an extremely rewarding role and has taught me a great deal. When I graduate, I would like to continue to teach at university level. I work as a Widening Participation Fellow, I am a tutor on the MAP programme, I undertake Research Assistant work, and I am the administrator of the Beckett Society. On top of this, I also have a part-time job as a customer service assistant at an art supplies company. When you do a PhD part-time, you have to keep a very strict calendar, and be very aware of your limits.
The reason that I fell in love with studying literature was theory. Theory is a broad category, which encompasses all sorts of ideas, from feminism and Marxism to deconstruction and psychoanalysis. Some people don’t see theory as very valuable because it doesn’t have a material output, like a science subject might. However, studying literature is important because it examines the bedrock of our lives: not just language itself, but narrative and how it is constructed. In studying literature, you are also able to examine the narratives of productivity that are fed to us by society and find better ways of ascribing value and importance.
A rainbow printed onto the road in the Castro District, San Francisco, ready for Pride celebrations.
- Here is me giving a paper at the 4th annual Samuel Beckett Society conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZL3Ad_t1zE
- Here is a blog post about the importance of queer theory today: http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2019/02/queer-theory-now-and-the-pleasure-of-movement/
- Here is a basic, and slightly flawed, overview of compulsory heterosexuality: https://www.thoughtco.com/compulsory-heterosexuality-overview-3528951
- Here is an article on compulsory heterosexuality and how it might affect us today: https://www.feministcurrent.com/2017/07/07/ftf-7-ways-heterosexuality-still-compulsory/
- Here is the website for the Samuel Beckett Society, for which I am the administrator—you can become a member to read the newsletter and find out all of the latest Beckett-related news: https://samuelbeckettsociety.org/
- Here’s a recent article in The Guardian about Beckett’s hotly contested receipt of the Nobel Prize: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/17/ghost-poetry-fight-over-samuel-beckett-nobel-win-revealed-in-archives
- Here’s an interesting blog by Eva Kenny, another person who did their PhD on Samuel Beckett, about his relationship to failure: https://www.drb.ie/essays/a-fetish-for-failure
 Translation theory asks at how best to translate a text – can one translate for both sense and feel? How to make up for the importance of sound and rhythm? How to make up for small but significant differences in meaning and account for cultural context? It has been suggested, for example, that the translation of poetry is impossible.
 Queer theory is a broad category of theorizing that foregrounds sexuality and gender, reading texts through a lens that is often denied us in critical theory. Eve Sedgwick, one of the most famous queer theorists, suggests ‘it's about how you can't understand relations between men and women unless you understand the relationship between people of the same gender, including the possibility of a sexual relationship between them.' This is why it is so crucial that queer theory be brought to Beckett Studies, as this has so far been neglected in scholarship.