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Decisions and Life Choices

victor krapp walter play

As the twentieth century progressed, it seemed that people were being offered more and more choices regarding the way they lived their lives. Be it in relationships, education, religion, or job opportunities, choices had become almost a way of life, and the resulting decisions could affect each and every life.

Modern drama responded to a growing concern with making the right choice by depicting characters like the Franz brothers in Arthur Miller’s play The Price who each make definite choices that affect their outcomes. Although they make those choices willingly, and neither has fared badly in life, each reaches a point where he needs to question if he chose wisely. As Victor complains, “You’ve got to make decisions before you know what’s involved, but you’re stuck with the results anyway” (47). The play considers the way all too many of us live our lives, caught between illusion and reality, fearful of facing the truth, and resentful of the lives of others, ever wondering if the price we paid for what we have was worth it.

In Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett we meet a character who clearly made all the wrong choices and comes to an understanding of this as we witness him assessing his life one final time. Although the play is less overtly comic than many absurdist works, it remains true to the essential tenets of absurdist drama that Beckett helped to pioneer. The aim of Theater of the Absurd is not to depict lives as ridiculous, as much as devoid of purpose and without recognizable meaning, and that succinctly describes the life of Krapp, whose excremental name is certainly intentional.

Anton Chekhov, on the other hand, is famous for his ability to realistically portray those who avoid choice and decisions and live their lives in a kind of suspended animation because they do not have the courage to break free of the familiar and their routines. The Cherry Orchard depicts a group of characters   who mostly seem utterly unable to act decisively, even when such action appears both feasible and possible. Chekhov called the play a comedy, but the play’s first director, Constantine Stanislavsky, considered it a tragic expression of Russian life, and the text hovers between the two. Written while Chekhov was dying of tuberculosis, which may account for its preoccupation with weariness and the futility of human behavior, it was his final play.

The Price introduces us to the Franz brothers, Victor and Walter, who meet after a long estrangement while selling off their deceased father’s belongings. Having sacrificed a scientific career to become a New York cop and look after his father, Victor is uncertain that he made the right choices. His brother Walter, who broke away from the family, became a surgeon, but we discover that he is no more satisfied with his life. The two brothers meet, argue, and part, and it seems to be the semiretired furniture dealer, Gregory Solomon, waiting for them to agree on a price for the furniture, who understands how life works.

Victor Franz is an archetypal underachiever; a good son and husband, who sacrificed his ambition to ensure the security of his family. His brother, Walter, is an archetypal overachiever; a successful, wealthy surgeon and entrepreneur. While Victor is initially awed by the attic and its contents (which represent their family past), Walter is merely amused—offering a sense of how each brother perceives his family ties. Walter likes to live firmly in the here and now, erasing the past almost from memory, which is why he is so uninterested in what happens to his family’s belongings. But Victor has tremendous nostalgia, trying, through objects like his father’s old records, to recreate the time when his family was still together. The two brothers take opposing views on everything and, from their polarized positions, have become unnecessarily embittered and jealous of one another.

As products of the same background, the brothers illustrate the extreme possibilities within every person’s life, only restricted or freed by the choices that each of us makes. Walter suggests that, because of past decisions, they both feel they have only lived half a life. But both appear to have got what they wanted from life—Victor, love, and Walter, fame and fortune—and for this each paid “the price.” For Victor, the price was the sacrifice of fame and fortune, and for Walter, the sacrifice of love. Although it seems that together they make a whole, both have made a difference by their separate lives, but neither gains complete satisfaction from this, each wanting, in some part, the other’s life. All their talk does is show them that what they thought they had achieved may not have been so real after all, which leads them to further resentment and dissatisfaction. Solomon is right in his suggestion that it is sometimes better not to talk too much, but just to accept life at face value and enjoy what you have.

Miller does not want us to choose one brother over the other but to sympathize with both for what they have lost, and admire each one for what he has achieved. Sadly, they are unable to bury their resentment of each other to   do this. Each is equally ignorant of the costs the other has faced; Walter cannot understand why Victor gave up college to look after their father, assuming that Victor quit so he could live a “real life” (82). Similarly, Victor knows nothing about Walter’s breakdown and divorce caused by the intense pressure of his lifestyle, and assumes that he lives a life of ease. Both are proud of their careers when challenged, but that nagging jealousy of what each perceives the other to have won will not allow them to get past their anger and shame.

Walter and Victor each remember the past differently, coloring it with their own individual interpretations. Walter insists there was no love in their family, to justify having left it, while Victor insists that love was there to justify having stayed. Victor rejects Walter’s attempts to make amends because he cannot accept Walter’s view of what happened, just as Walter cannot accept Victor’s rationale because it would make him look the villain. In reality, Walter lost his wife and children because that was the price he had to pay for the professional success he craved, just as Victor lost his science career because family meant more to him. Both made the decisions they made willingly, and for all their dissatisfaction, would probably make the same choices again if given a second chance.

Victor’s wife, Esther, also voices dissatisfaction with how her life has turned out, and drinks too much to ease her frustration. She is desperate for a more glamorous life free of money worries. But like her husband, she, too, made choices that have led to this point; it is partly to satisfy her needs that Victor remained on the force for so long. Despite their struggle for money, Victor and Esther have a happy marriage on which they can look back fondly and laugh, which is more than Walter can do.

Their father had given up because he believed in the system and could not cope with failure when that system broke down during the Depression. Losing both his wife and most of his fortune almost simultaneously was too much for him to bear. As Victor explains, “Some men just don’t bounce” (45). He burdened Victor with his remaining life, pretending destitution to avoid being alone. Walter sees this as despicable, but Victor sees it as truly pitiable.

Solomon, the wise figure his namesake suggests, witnesses the brothers’ struggle but refuses to takes sides, knowing the struggle is pointless. This is a character who understands the ironies of life, and, after three wives and a daughter who committed suicide, he knows what he is talking about. His philosophy is to accept whatever happens and not get stuck trying to change or even understand the past. As he explains, if his dead daughter came back to life, “what would I say to her?” (113). Despite his eighty-nine years, he exudes life and humor, and the play ends with his laughter, which is, finally, the only effective response to catastrophe, a response the Franz family should keep in mind.

Krapp’s Last Tape introduces us to Krapp, who at the age of twenty-four began recording a tape every year on his birthday, reviewing a previous year   before making the new tape. Now turning sixty-nine, he begins by listening to a tape he made thirty years previously, at which time he had just listened to a tape from about ten years before. Thus, the audience receives a picture of Krapp’s life and development from his twenties to the end of his sixties. We learn what decisions have affected this man’s life to reduce him to his current poverty and shabbiness.

At thirty-nine, Krapp had seen himself “at the … crest of the wave” (14), and his decision to reject love and life seemed an amazing insight, but at sixty-nine he considers this moment the start of his downfall. He fast-forwards the tape at the point when his younger self is about to announce his revelation, for it is an insight in which the sixty-nine-year-old has lost interest. Instead, Krapp is looking for the description of an encounter with the girl he decided back then to abandon. The final image he relates is of the pair of them getting stuck in the weeds while out boating, and all around them life goes on. This turns out to have been the moment when his whole life became stuck, and he ceased to move for good.

The importance of setting the play in the future is manifold. There is a practical element, in that when this play was written the tape recorder was a new invention and Beckett needed to set the play in the future at a time when it was realistic for Krapp to have been making tapes for forty-six years. But it also helps to underline Krapp’s relation to us all and ensure that he is not relegated to the past where he can be deemed irrelevant to our current lives. Furthermore, it carries the suggestion that the play might only offer a possible future, which may be changed before we travel too far on the path Krapp has chosen.

Krapp begins the play as a clown figure with his purple nose, white face, and baggy, ill-fitting clothes, performing a “routine” with his banana peel. We are soon forced to see the direct contrast between this comic appearance and his tragic inner life. The potential humor of the opening is quickly deflated as we learn of the alienation toward which this man’s ego has forced him—a life of waste and loss. Every one of Krapp’s felt experiences has been of loss—of his father, mother, lovers, and, finally, of himself. Krapp at sixty-nine is a picture of humanity reduced to nothingness, as he has stripped himself of all connection to others, which is what makes us human after all, in his quest for something that simply cannot be known.

Krapp’s evidently restricted senses of sight and hearing are indicative of the restricted life he has forced himself to lead. His shabby, ridiculous, outer appearance has become a mere reflection of his impoverished, shabby, and ridiculous inner life, now that he has wasted his potential. As we learn more about him, we begin to see his long and barren life filled with meager pleasures—alcohol, bananas, occasional sex, and an obsession with words—which are his only distractions in the dark hole he now inhabits. Set apart from work, love, family, religion, and companionship, Krapp’s few remaining pleasures have become meaningless even to him.

Krapp has exchanged a “real” life of feeling for a “reel” life of mechanization. Since the earlier Krapp is only on tape, rather than a figure on the stage, he is dehumanized. We see how Krapp’s misguided impulses have created a flawed human being who has become like his tape recordings: prone to repetition and eventual silence. His behavior is mechanistic and his body a faulty machine beyond repair, highlighted by his lifetime problem with constipation. Krapp talks back to his machine, but he cannot really communicate; it is, after all, only a machine. His reactions and responses cannot affect the other speaker; all he can do is to switch himself on or off. His taped voice, likewise, cannot communicate with him as it is only a mechanical voice from the past, and no longer exists. His rituals are the only remaining way he has of announcing his existence. By the end of the play, however, he has lost both the desire and capacity for even these empty rituals, and so must cease to exist.

There is a distinct contrast between the strong and pompous voice of Krapp at thirty-nine and the cracked tones and halting diction of Krapp at sixty-nine. His voice, just like his life, has dried up. When he begins to record the tape for his sixty-ninth birthday, Krapp cannot complete it for he runs out of words. Instead, he returns to his “farewell to love” (13) and becomes lost in regret. He describes his thirty-nine-year-old self as a “stupid bastard” (24) and denigrates him as he recognizes the major mistakes he has made. He never should have chosen to ignore the larger world and concentrate on himself in the way he did. In retrospect, he can find no justification for his choice to withdraw from the larger world, because that choice has led him to achieve nothing and to reach nothing but a dead end. His great book only sold seventeen copies.

Krapp has come to the end of his recording project because he has nothing left to record. His life no longer has any point, and he has reduced it to such a state. At thirty-nine he believed he was making the right decision to rid himself of all “distractions” and could not see how he would ever regret such a decision—at sixty-nine, we see that regret. The past thirty years have been a total waste, for those distractions he has rid himself of were his life and he has lost them for good. There truly is nothing left to say as the tape runs on in silence. We are left, finally, with a stark and unpromising image of Krapp, isolated in an encroaching darkness, bleakly registering his lonely failure by complete silence.

At the start of The Cherry Orchard , Madam Ranyevskaia returns, impoverished, to her Russian estate. Unable to raise sufficient funds to pay off the mortgage, the estate is sold at auction to local businessman Lopakhin, who intends to build holiday villas on the property, an idea he had suggested the family try, but which they had refused. Unable to sacrifice the cherry orchard, which reminds them of their childhood and the family’s former glory, Ranyevskaia and her brother Gayev lose the whole estate.

Frustrated by their refusal to accept reality or act on their predicament, Lopakhin declares, “I’ve never met such feckless, unbusiness-like, queer people as you are” (358). Although Lopakhin’s idea may seem like an excellent solution to the family dilemma, in the way it destroys the cherry orchard—the play ends with the sounds of an ax chopping down the trees—it implies a destructive rather than a constructive impulse. Lopakhin frequently recalls his lowly origins, and the decimation of the estate seems, in part, as a way to exact revenge on the estate to which his father and grandfather were bound as serfs. This is despite Lopakhin’s apparent gratitude toward the family for aid they have given him in the past. Chekhov’s personal opinion of villas was that they were venues of tedium and futility, in which nothing of note was ever achieved. Lopakhin is a member of the new bourgeois order rising in Russia, part of the growing revolutionary ferment in the country that had been increasing over the past twenty years and would culminate in the Russian Revolution of 1917. However, Lopakhin’s failure to propose to Varia marks him as another indecisive character, despite his business acumen. He is unable to find meaning in anything deeper than materialistic acquisition.

Ranyevskaia and Gayev are representatives of the old Russian aristocracy, prone to decadence and irresponsibility, unable to preserve itself. The nursery in which we begin and end highlights their childish irresponsibility and romantic illusions, which make them so ineffective. Ranyevskaia has been abroad for five years, avoiding memories of her young son’s death. While in France she lived with a lover who disappeared when her money ran out. Her daughter Ania discovered her living in poverty and has brought her home. Ranyevskaia is kind-spirited but undignified and immoral by the standards of her time. She largely survives by refusing to recognize her impoverishment, lending money she cannot afford to Pishchik, who is similarly in debt, and spending irresponsibly. Prone to emotional outbursts, she continuously reacts, but rarely acts, incapable of even running her own estate. At the close, she plans to return to her lover using the money sent by a relative to try to buy back the estate.

Just as Ranyevskaia hides from her responsibilities in her love affairs, Gayev resorts to billiards to escape from his incompetency at life. During the three months over which the play takes place, he is unable to raise sufficient funds to even pay off the interest on the mortgage. Like their neighbor, Pishchik, he tries to stay optimistic, but his luck seems far worse. Pishchik is saved by various resources discovered on his property, but the once-profitable cherries from the orchard can no longer be sold since no one recalls the popular recipe once used to dry them for the market, so Gayev cannot save the estate. He takes a job at the local bank, but Lopakhin insists that it will not be for long, since Gayev is too lazy to work.

Varia and Ania, Ranyevskaia’s daughters, are the next generation. More focused than their elders, Varia plans to join a convent, since Lopakhin is evidently incapable of commitment, but one wonders if this will really suit her spirit. Ania plans to elope with perpetual student Trofimov, whose optimism about a better future would be more convincing if he himself could complete his degree or stay in one place. Like so many of Chekhov’s characters, Trofimov likes to glorify the concept of hard work without actually doing any himself. Ania is initially upset at losing the family estate, but her youthful optimism leads her to look for a new and better life elsewhere. However, the vagueness of her plan provides little real hope that this will be accomplished, especially attached to a man who refuses to fully commit by declaring them to be “above falling in love” (367).

The servant class seems no more decisive. Dooniyasha is torn between the accident-prone Yepihodov, who has proposed marriage, and her unreciprocated admiration for Yasha, who toys with her affections as he waits for an opportunity to return to Paris with Ranyevskaia. Yepihodov declares that he cannot decide whether “to live or to shoot myself” (355), but like everyone else, he does nothing. Gayev’s ancient manservant, Feers, who sees freedom as a misfortune and desires a return to feudal days, is as decrepit as the system he praises, and provides no better solution. Perpetually worried about the family’s health, ironically and pointedly he is left ill and alone at the close, as the family to whom he has given his life leaves, having forgotten to take him to the hospital.

Trofimov sums up everyone’s problem, “We just philosophize and complain of depression, or drink vodka” (368), and he is as guilty of this as the rest. All of them prefer to talk rather than act. Yet at the play’s end there is an air of hope. This is perhaps not so much for that better future Ania vaguely describes, as relief over not having been forced to make any firm decisions. The play began with an arrival and ends with a departure, with little in between that was substantially altered or completed beyond the estate changing ownership; relationships and futures remain incomplete as no one has the strength to make the necessary commitment. It is unsurprising that the last person we see is Feers, drained of strength, lying down on the stage, a fitting metaphor for the entire cast.

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