Beckett at 80 / Beckett in Context is a collection of essays originally presented as part of a lecture series at the University of Michigan. Samuel Beckett: Nayman of Noland, the second book reviewed here, is again based on a lecture, this one given by Richard Ellmann at the Library of Congress. Both are scholarly tributes published last year in honor of Beckett's eightieth birthday.
Beckett at 80 / Beckett in Context focuses on Beckett's work as a playwright, and in his introduction, Enoch Brater, the volume's editor, gives an excellent overview of the development of Beckett's dramatic style. The opening essay, by Ruby Cohn, maintains this retrospective mood. Cohn discusses the beginnings of Waiting for Godot: the first run at the Théâtre Babylone in Paris, the initial reactions of audiences and reviewers to the play, even the careers of actors who first appeared in it. With this as her starting point, Cohn traces the history of Godot in graceful, witty, and erudite fashion, debunking a few myths along the way.
Among the other outstanding contributions to the Brater volume is Michael Goldman's discussion of the way Beckett's major plays depict a struggle between vitality and deadness and how these issues often relate to the plays' subtexts (Goldman borrows this term from Stanislavsky). John Russell Brown's thoughtful essay deals with a related topic: the underlying issues he confronted when working on a production of Godot.
Equally impressive are contributions by two well-known Beckett scholars who also have a considerable amount of theatrical experience, Martin Esslin and James Knowlson. Esslin links observations based on his directing with a perceptive examination of Beckett's concept of infinity. Knowlson, writing on Ghost Trio, demonstrates his deep understanding of the play; the discussion of its relationship to marionette theater is particularly illuminating. [End Page 378]
Other contributors to the collection focus on more theoretical issues. Normand Berlin celebrates the "tragic pleasures" of Waiting for Godot as he persuasively explains why audiences, even those initially put off by it, are ultimately attracted to the play. Katherine Worth and Bernard Beckerman offer valuable insights on a central, if sometimes neglected, issue: the importance of the act of listening in Beckett's drama.
Among the other outstanding contributions to the Brater collection are John Russell Brown's appreciation of Beckett's dramatic language; Charles Lyons' discussion of the classical elements in Happy Days; and Andrew Kennedy's commentary on the use of monologue in Krapp's Last Tape. The concluding essay in the volume, by Thomas Whitaker, provides an interesting and wide-ranging survey of contemporary dramatists who were in some way influenced by Beckett.
One sour note must be sounded, however. Keir Elam, struggling under a heavy load of critical jargon ("narrativization," "diagenetic," "psychotropological"), sometimes deals lightly with facts. Thus, a reference to "Croker's Acres" in Not I is for Elam an illustrative example of "Beckett's illusory topography." The apparent concreteness of the place name is misleading, says Elam, because "the topographical details that might lend it sense (country, region, neighborhood, description of the scene itself, and so on) is [sic] altogether missing." Elam seems unaware that Beckett is referring to a real place—indeed, to a place with autobiographical associations. As a number of critics have pointed out, Croker's Acres is the name of an estate not far from Foxrock, Beckett's childhood home.
Richard Ellmann's Samuel Beckett: Nayman of Noland is, on the other hand, elegant in its clarity and knowledgeable in its understanding of the Beckettian tradition. Ellmann discusses three of Beckett's Irish predecessors: Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce. His comments about these writers—particularly about Wilde, whom few critics have linked with Beckett—reveal some interesting parallels. Ellmann goes on to give a good description of the qualities that enhance Beckett's writing and concludes by refuting the popular notion that Beckett should primarily be thought of...