‘Just Play: Beckett’s theater’ by Ruby Cohn. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. 313 pages. $18.50 £10.20
In Just play Ruby Cohn has written a book for Beckett ‘theatricians,’ not theoreticians. The latter should take note, for this new study has its eye on the concrete presentness of performance. Turning away from speculation and surmise. Just play, like Clas Zilliacus’s Beckett and broadcasting, centres on fact instead of impression. Ruby Cohn calls our attention to how it is, not how it could, might, or should be in Beckett’s drama: ‘his people are not identical; each person acts in his own space; even his limbo is somewhere in a theatre.’ Back to stage basics this time. It is entirely refreshing to read a book on Beckett by an American critic which does not mention ‘Descartes . . . Mother. Proust..Joyce’ even once, and which displays similar discretion in omitting adventurist flirtations with semiotics, structuralism, reductive biography, or the more ethereal realms of pure linguistics. Just play is that increasingly rare item in Beckett criticism, a study with some reliable information.
The first part of this book isolates Beckett’s ‘functional devices and theatre aspects’ in what Cohn calls ‘plays for precise performance.’ Reworking material previously published in the Journal of modern literature, Modern drama, the Yearbook of English studies, Samuel Beckett: the art of rhetoric, as well as in this journal, Cohn attempts to illustrate the connections that exist between a series of technical devices characteristic of Beckett’s playwriting. The chapter on soliloquy, for example, takes up this dramatic convention to show us how Beckett adapts its possibilities to his own needs. Tracing the use of soliloquy from Waiting for Godot to That time and Footfalls, Cohn makes a rather convincing case for Beckett’s development and eventual transformation of this inherited form of stage dialogue. Along the way Cohn’s practical information will be of some use to future writers on the subject. Working on That time, Beckett first wrote ‘continuous prose for each of the three voice-aspects, then intercalated them into 36 verse paragraphs.’ Extending the formal nature of the soliloquy to accommodate his minimalist dramatic structure, he wanted ‘no break in general flow’ of the recorded speech, heard through separate loudspeakers. In Footfalls, as originally conceived, the whole play might be a soliloquy by the daughter, since the mother announced: ‘My voice is in her mind.’ Cohn points out that Beckett ‘eliminated this sentence in revision, and in directing he distinguished the two women’s voices.’ That time and Footfalls make the traditional form of soliloquy go through a variety of unexpected permutations and combinations.
Just play contains factual information of an even more important sort, for Cohn has had access (thanks to Beckett) to unpublished material. Beckett gave her some 200 pages of notes and a scene for Human wishes, his jettisoned sketch for a play about Samuel Johnson. The notes are the basis for a lively discussion entitled ‘The Play That Wasn’t Written’ (Cohn reprints the one scene from Human wishes in an appendix). Subsequent chapters highlight Eleuthèria (‘The Play That Wasn’t Staged’) and Fin de partie (‘The Play That Was Rewritten’). In the third of these chapters it is nice to be reminded that in the first version of Fin de partie all reference to Genesis, the descendants of Shem and the Flood, are specific. In the published version we have, of course, only ‘traces blurs signs.’
Cohn’s final chapters on ‘Performance’ are perhaps the most stimulating. Here we can see how Beckett’s drama has come to life in recent productions. Another chapter jumps Beckett’s genres: stage to video, radio to stage, fiction to theater. Just play ends with Beckett himself, this time in the role of director in London and Berlin. These chapters compile crucial entries in an ongoing Beckett theatre history, providing us with a concise record of the playwright’s direction of his own work as well as what has happened to it in other sensitive hands.
Just play is, then, a work of considerable acumen concerning the state of a great deal of Beckett criticism today. Though the book lacks a unifying thesis, it replaces that with its sharp focus on ‘theatereality’ itself. Cohn places her emphasis squarely on the stage, combining her perceptions of practical matters of theater with a genuine appreciation for the new directions other critics have added to useful Beckett scholarship. Just play implies that there is a great gulf fixed between stage performance and the changing fashions of critical theory. In placing her energy on the former, Cohn brings us back once again to Beckett, this time with his feet on the boards and our own planted firmly on the ground.