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Reviewed by:
  • Beckett and Aesthetics
  • Linda Ben-Zvi
Beckett and Aesthetics. By Daniel Albright. London: Cambridge University Press, 2003; pp. 188. $65.00 cloth.

Daniel Albright's Beckett and Aesthetics is one of those books that is so well written, so erudite—despite its brevity—so brimming with intelligent comments, interesting juxtapositions, and new points of departure, that even a reader like myself, not in agreement with some of his contentions and conclusions, can welcome it as an important addition to Beckett studies.

Albright divides his discussion into three parts: "Stage: resisting furniture"; "Tape recorder, radio, film, television: resisting the human image"; and "Music: losing the will to resist." Rather than argue, as many scholars have, that Beckett was fascinated with the possibilities of new technology, Albright contends that Beckett's writings reflect the writer's conscious attempts to use technological forms "in deliberately awkward ways," the better to foreground not the potential of media but their "muteness, incompetence, non-feasance of transmission" (2).

Albright ties Beckett's aesthetics directly to Surrealism. "Beckett spent his whole life under the spell of the Surrealist Exhibit," and "his instincts were Surrealist" (9), he states categorically in his introduction, "Beckett and Surrealism." He points out the family resemblances: that Beckett, like the surrealists, fractures planes and bodies, calls media used into question, and ironizes artistic struggles. Although Albright does not doggedly read Beckett through Duchamp, Breton, or other specific surrealists, as the title and assertions seem to promise or threaten, and although he says that Beckett tried to remain both "inside and outside of the Surrealism" (9), he does draw analogies between certain Beckett fictions and those executed by surrealist writers, [End Page 362] pointing out, however, that "only in Beckett's texts do the words feel like chunks of rock crumbling off friable surfaces, fragments of eroded grace" (210), an illustration of Albright's own grace with language and imagery as well as Beckett's. He also invokes the paintings of Magritte, Ernst, Tanguy, de Chiroco, and Mondrian to describe Beckett's theatre: "If a Beckett play were a painting, it would consist of Mondrian grids disfigured with splashes and spatters" (92); or "if Ghost Trio is a play at all, it is closer to Mondrian than to Strindberg, just a game with superimposed rectangles—the visual system is detaching itself from every human meaning" (136).

Looking as he does at Beckett's dramas through surrealist lenses, even worn lightly on the nose, Albright tends to see structures, not people—Ghost Trio is "just a game"—and assumes that any citing of human beings in such "non-representational art" are only "flimsy, jury-rigged theatrical conveniences, all dreck and bricolage" (25). Or ooze. Albright graphically describes how everything and everyone "oozes" in Eleutheria, Waiting for Godot, and Endgame;the latter "burbles off into semi-narrative meta-undrama, play-ooze, before it stops dead" (65). All ooze in Beckett's world, according to Albright, but women seem to do it more and assume grotesque shapes. He sees Maddy in All That Fall, as "feeble, ignorant . . . a puddle of flab" (104); Winnie in Happy Days as a "mons-ster . . . kewpie Venus" whose sex organs are "dilated, engorged into a whole hot universe, a hideous jumble" (73); and M in Not I as a mouth whose "memories of rape are abstracted into a word-chase delivered by a clownishly isolated pair of lips" (6).

Often Albright totally evacuates characters from the plays, describing Play as "a dazzling light show" (6), Footfalls as "a mode of reading" (80) foisted on the drama, and Rough for Radio II as a search for "a formula that will absorb all talk into écriture and thereby permit silence" (114). He also argues that there is no Joe in the television play Eh Joe, but rather "a technical simulacrum of a human being" (129), dissolving in the final close-up into "the flimsy pattern of dark and light dots on the screen" (129).

While all Beckett's characters are fluid, mutating, and, especially in the later plays, presented as partial bodies, distorted in the manner of surrealist paintings, Albright—whose orientation is literature, music, and aesthetics, not live performance—seems...


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pp. 362-363
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