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Samuel Beckett: Laughing Matters, Comic Timing by Laura Salisbury (review)

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 132-134 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0010

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"Beckett studies" is virtually an academic field unto itself. The critical studies on Samuel Beckett's poetry, prose, and television and theater works continue to grow exponentially. These studies cross several traditional academic fields; while "Beckettians" are usually literary scholars, there remain significant engagements in philosophy, linguistics, musicology, and theater studies. As such, there has been a proliferation of "Beckett and..." books and essays, which evaluate Beckett's work in terms of a particular concept, field, or phenomenon. Laura Salisbury's recent monograph Samuel Beckett: Laughing Matters, Comic Timing signals the possibility of a departure from accumulative Beckett studies: as a book that traces the links forged between comedy and temporality, and comedy and materiality, in Beckett's work, Salisbury's text does not simply connect Beckett to a concept, or articulate an aspect of style, but reveals the way in which Beckett's use of language and performance itself forges linkages between states of existence and self and others.

Salisbury's Samuel Beckett: Laughing Matters, Comic Timing considers Beckett and comedy, and the achievement of this book in elucidating linkages internal to Beckett's work is in part due to the rather enigmatic status of "comedy." Comedy is at once a subgenre or form, a cultural concept, and a certain aesthetic achievement or by-product. The combination of formal and transitory stakes in the term are embraced and exploited by Salisbury, who uses these permutations both to render a very close literary study and to develop an independent theory of comedy in Beckett's work. Salisbury's work, which spans Beckett's oeuvre and charts the changing relationship of this work to comedy, is organized chronologically, beginning with a section on "critical joking" in Beckett's early prose, followed by a section on "gagging" in the Trilogy, one on "power playing" in Endgame, and, finally, sections on "comic tremors" in the late prose and "slapstick echoes" in the late plays.

In its historical register, Salisbury's book asks important questions about the definition of comedy that pertain to the nature of comedy in the face of horror, particularly the possibility of poetry or comedy in the wake of the Second World War. Salisbury stakes a claim for comedy as central to understanding Beckett's own work, but in particular the ethical stakes in his work: "it is precisely within this grainy resistance of temporal form...that Beckett's oft noted yet seemingly rather unthematizable concerns with the ethical obligations of art find their hesitant, wary, often merely whispered, articulation" (3). Salisbury's focus is the ethical onus of comedy, and her work seeks to unpack the profundity of Beckettian comic effect: "it is more that, through humour, shards of humanity and dignity are still to be found amid the ruins of narrative and the detritus of a post-apocalyptic theatre space" (5). The particular formulation of art necessary in these circumstances becomes what I might call a "restricted comedy"—an echo of Mallarmé's "restricted action." In the essay in which he articulates his concept of restricted action, Mallarmé argues for poetic work to take precedence over political activity, maintaining that the political significance of art is present in the restricted action of the poet or, in some senses, the specificity of art divergent from political action. A century later we have a kind of reverse question: in the fact of the horrors of the Second World War, how can art, after the replacement of politics with fascism, be produced? Even more acutely, what happens to comedy in this historical condition?

Specifically, it is comedy's relation to "otherness" that concerns Salisbury and is a remarkably understudied phenomenon. Salisbury's readings of the types of movement that accompany comedic form demonstrate the peculiar—and notably nonlinguistic—effects of the comic in time and space: "As Murphy's 'clonic' reaction shows, the comic, like the movements of trembling or shaking that seem to describe its formal qualities, is persistently affective: it is described by a form of movement that is itself moving" (23). Salisbury comes to theorize comedy in terms of those difficult affective and grammatical features characteristic of Beckett: trembling laughter that corresponds to the imposition of language that...


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