- Why Beckett
Published shortly before its subject's death, Why Beckett traces chronologically Beckett's life and the evolution of his writings, noting their important intersections but avoiding the temptation to read the latter as a simple reflection of the former. This is a book written for a very general audience, one that knows Beckett, if only by name, as a playwright. Brater's focus is consonant with this perception. Although he does not neglect Beckett's fiction, the latter seems less significant, given the attention—text and photographs—paid to Beckett's plays. Brater also foregrounds the continuing presence of Beckett's Irish background in his creations—from the obvious references in such early works as More Pricks than Kicks and Murphy, through the voices of All That Fall, to the memory-scapes of Company and Ill Seen Ill Said.
The great strength of this volume lies in Brater's decision to concentrate upon Beckett's theater in terms of performance, and crucial in this regard will be his depiction of Beckett's increasing involvement, notably during the last two decades of his life, in the staging of his plays. Brater emphasizes that "in his work for the stage Beckett has stood firmly for the playwright's, not the director's, prerogatives." He quotes Beckett's condemnation of the "modern school of directing" in which, as Beckett states, the author's text becomes a "pretext" for the "director's ingenuity."
Never losing sight of his readers' limited knowledge of his subject but never insulting their intelligence, Brater presents for each work he discusses the circumstances under which it was written and various thematic and structural insights meant to give the reader, or viewer, a sense of what the work attempts to convey. Brater informs his readers of a given play's production, allowing them to appreciate Beckett's superlative sense of theatricality. He indicates, for example, in the case of Endgame how Beckett changed his initial intention to divide the play into two acts in order not to violate the "mood of claustrophobia central to the work in performance." He takes account of various stagings of the play as directors sought to find the proper pacing and comic tone, including Beckett himself (who directed a production of Endspiel in Germany). Brater apparently agrees that the best production of Endgame has been Joseph Chaikin's rather than Samuel Beckett's.
Brater examines with equal intelligence and sensitivity the problematics of performing Beckett's more recent theatrical works. He notes the "complex and highly disciplined scenic arrangement" required to make such plays as Not I and That Time work on the audience both intellectually and viscerally. He points out how in works like Quad and What Where Beckett's mastery of mixed media has enabled him to say that much more with less.
Why Beckett also says a great deal with less, and even the Beckett specialist will find much to ponder. As for those readers unfamiliar with Beckett, they will find in this brief volume not only a plethora of insights into the man and the work but also an incitement to read the texts and, above all, to see the plays performed. [End Page 282]