‘A student’s guide to the plays of Samuel Beckett’

by Beryl S. Fletcher, John Fletcher, Barry Smith and Walter Bachem, London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1978, pp.222

 

‘Happy Days; Oh les beaux jours’

by Samuel Beckett, a bilingual edition, edited by James Knowlson, London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1978, pp. 149.

 

Tom Bishop

 

These two books, largely the work of two senior Beckett scholars, have been eagerly anticipated; both live up fully to the expectation and open up important approaches to Beckett’s theatre.

 

A student’s guide to the plays of Samuel Beckett aims to offer ‘as much help as possible to its users, students and general readers alike.’ It succeeds so well that it will likely become a permanent reference for Beckett’s dramatic works. A guide is meant to provide a wealth of information and the Fletcher et al. Guide obliges generously. The play-by-play format allows for the recounting of details of composition, publication, first performance, critical reception, structure, language, décor, and characters. The notes on each text are especially illuminating; neither pedantic nor superficial, they provide significant facts and substantial insights which will make each dramatic piece clearer and more richly textured for the reader.

 

As might be expected, the best-known plays are analyzed most fully. The notes clarify references, quotations, and obscurities, often referring to comments by leading critics and by Beckett himself. Just as valuable are the pages devoted to the less frequently discussed radio works (notably All that fall, Embers, and Cascando, whose importance the Guide’s coverage happily recognizes) and the major, brief plays of the nineteen seventies, published in Ends and odds, and still inadequately studied. Specifically, the Ghost trio annotations represent the most substantial material to date on this recent television play. Throughout, the analyses of each play’s theatricality and the references to specific productions and to the French versions enhance the scope of the Guide. The bibliography (unusual for the many contemporary German sources cited), and a biographical chronology add another welcome convenience.

 

But the Guide is not limited to information. In dealing with the individual dramatic pieces, the authors have been willing to take critical positions which add to the book’s overall impact; on a more important level, the twenty-page introduction both orients Beckett’s work in the context of such concepts as modernism and metatheatre, and in the development of modern drama since Ibsen, and raises several ‘problems of interpretation’ stemming from Christian, Marxist, Brechtian, and other possible approaches. The point of attack is always clear, straightforward: ‘It is therefore evident that a Christian interpretation, which would see some hope of salvation, in spite of all, in the arrival of Pozzo or the messenger, is as unhelpful to an understanding of this play as a Marxist reading, which would see it as an indictment of the alienation of man under capitalism. Both these and other exegeses—even those which see it as an “anti-Christian” play—make the mistake of assuming that the work must have a positive meaning; whereas its whole manner eschews the positive and the definite like the plague.’ Scholars and students of Beckett will delight in adding the F.F.S. and B. volume to their ever-expanding reference library.

 

James Knowlson’s bilingual edition of Happy days; Oh les beaux jours is a fascinating and altogether splendid book. It counterposes on facing pages the original English text with the French version—itself an immediate initiation into the universe of Beckett’s self-translation. But the Knowlson book is much more than a bilingual edition; this is a definitive critical edition of the play, coupled with a major essay by one of the world’s leading Beckett scholars. Knowlson brings to bear his vast knowledge of Beckett’s oeuvre, to explicate Happy days, to enlighten the many resonances through the dialectic established between the English and French texts.

 

The nearly twenty pages of ‘Notes on the Text’ are a model of the genre: informative, the result of a career of careful scholarship, precise yet not picayune, relating easily to other Beckett writings and to a number of explicit and implicit allusions made by the playwright. Beyond this intertextual process, Knowlson refers felicitously to Beckett’s notes and to productions, especially those at the National and the Schiller. The only element lacking, for obvious reasons, are references to Beckett’s own production of Happy days at the Royal Court in June, 1979. (Perhaps a later edition will rectify this).

 

Even more rewarding is the dense, more than forty-page long essay on Beckett’s work in general and Happy days in particular, entitled with excessive modesty, ‘Afterword.’ The first part situates Beckett’s theatre with respect to his biography, his novels, and diverse influences such as Dante, Descartes, Geulincx, Mauthner, Bergson, Synge. While little of this segment breaks new ground, the information will prove cumulatively useful even to readers familiar with these seascapes in Beckett’s philosophic and literary navigations. In the bulk of the essay, devoted to Happy days alone, Knowlson gives us the finest critical appraisal of this work to date. He probes the play for its richest textures, dealing with it both as an integral part of Beckett’s theatre and as a dramatic work apart, a world unto itself. Knowlson’s reading is closely textual, enriched with a multitude of insights. The setting for the play and Winnie’s unique predicament are likened to Beckett’s particular purgatory, Dantean in some ways, yet ‘radically different from the conical purgatory of Dante.’ The critical analysis dwells on the open-endedness of her unresolved situation at the conclusion: ‘we have no assurance that it has yet reached any terminal point.’

 

Among the best pages are those that analyze the elemental phenomena predominance of earth and fire, aspiration toward air, absence of water—and the downward movement that characterizes the second act, the descent into earth, ‘inert, barren, alien, and indifferent alike to the tremors of human suffering or the smiles, gestures, and sounds of human courage.’ In viewing the interactions of the couple, Knowlson rightly gives more attention than most critics to the presence of Willie. Still, it is naturally Winnie’s play, and the essay’s most subtle passages concern her situation. For instance, Knowlson helps us see Winnie as a more sexual being than we might have thought. Despite her disclaimers, she is shown to be ‘fascinated by Willie’s pornography, and her dearest, and most painful, memories are at root sexual, as with her first kiss in the toolshed with a certain Mr. Johnson . . . and in her story of the symbolic rape of Mildred.’ Further, in contrasting Winnie with characters from Beckett’s earlier plays, Knowlson underlines her relationship to words, and stresses particularly her quotations from the classics: ‘She seeks . . . in the poets’ words a more authoritative witness to the reality of her own experience, since they can show her that others have shared, and expressed more memorably than she is able to do, similar emotions.’ A study of various drafts of Happy days enables Knowlson to examine the selection of specific quotations and to conclude that ‘basically, they are used functionally rather than referentially.’

 

This bilingual edition will not only be required reading henceforth for an understanding of Happy days, it will remain a model for further bilingual editions of Beckett’s works.