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Reviewed by:
  • The Irish Beckett
  • Linda Ben-Zvi
John P. Harrington. The Irish Beckett. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1991. 210 pp. $29.95.

In October 1992 Samuel Beckett—who had fled Dublin sixty years before, following the route of other Irish emigres who could love their native land only from afar—was officially honored in his native city, in a month-long celebration, the center of which was the Gate Theatre's marathon staging of Beckett's complete dramatic oeuvre, all with Irish actors.

The Irish Beckett was the theme of the events; it is also the theme of John P. Harrington's study which attempts to situate the writer in his native locale. Not interested in reducing Beckett to a "dextrous celebrant of Irish 'realities'," Harrington sets as his goal, rather, to "supplement the ways in which Beckett has been read by paying greater attention to Irish contexts than to humanistic studies." The former, he correctly notes, has been "well-charted"; the latter has been generally ignored. Harrington makes a contribution to Beckett studies by reminding critics that Ireland shaped the man and undergirds many of the works.

It is the early Beckett of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, More Pricks than Kicks, and Murphy—all written before he made his final departure from Dublin in 1937—which bears the most discernible marks of place. Harrington is helpful in providing a sense of the Irish literary establishment against whom Beckett struggled. More Pricks than Kicks was more than an affront to them: it was, Harrington suggests, a response to the times at home. Harrington's study is at its best when it moves between exegeses of these early Beckett fictions and specific Irish reactions to and influences upon them.

Where the book is less successful at arguing the Irish connection is with the later writings. In a chapter entitled "Major Fiction and Drama," Harrington acknowledges that—along with place names—Beckett seems to jettison all sense of his early Irish roots once he moves to Paris. However, he argues that the well known antinomies in Beckett's fictions—"place and identity, antecedence and self, collective consciousness and individual desire"—are clear marks of his Irish roots, earlier registered in more discernible ways. Wherever a Beckett character mentions the pull between "home and away," seems uncertain about self, and manifests signs of alienation from place, Harrington labels the cause Ireland. Preoccupation with place—or loss thereof—may denote the modern age; it does not necessarily mark Beckett as Irish. [End Page 401]

Harrington is even less successful in his quick perusal of the plays. He is dismissive of A. J. Leventhal's argument that Godot is more universal than Irish; but his own argument for its local connections rests on the fact that Vladimir and Estragon "are away from home"; that Beckett's favorite actors were Irish, and that one of the reasons he fixed on Roger Blin for the first production of Godot in Paris was because Blin had appeared in a French production of The Playboy of the Western World.

Harrington would have made a stronger case if he had chosen to discuss language in the major works—rhythms, plays on words, preoccupations with storytelling and with a self-consciousness of form—and argued that these elements, even when found in works first written in French, bear the shadow of the Irish. Probably the best argument for an "Irish Beckett" comes from simply seeing Godot on the stage of the Gate, with all the characters speaking with the same cadences and rhythms as their creator. Seeing Beckett's characters come alive through the agency of Irish actors is to feel that Beckett is, first of all, an Irish playwright.

Linda Ben-Zvi
Colorado State University


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pp. 401-402
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