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The Drama in the Text: Beckett's Late Fiction.

Neither of these books is the sort of thing one hands to, uh, the lost ones. Theatre on Trial relies heavily on postmodern gender theory and the writing is sometimes very dense. The Drama in the Text requires some grounding in Beckett studies and, like Atalanta, Enoch Brater can be distracted from the ostensible goal by the treasures that lie along the way. But, for anyone willing to tough it out, there is ample illumination to be had from each of the books under review.

In The Drama in the Text, Brater makes an important and innovative contribution to Beckett studies by following out the practical and theoretical implications of approaching the late prose through the sound of the language. From the early novels onward, memorable passages "are remembered precisely because they are so wonderfully speakable: they are written for the performative voice, a resonant human voice, and they attain their full spontaneity only when spoken aloud. Sound literally makes sense here" (4). In the contemporary critical dialect written by Anna McMullan (but largely avoided by Brater), Beckett's prose privileges speech over writing, the ear over the eye, phonetics over narrativity -- hence the rationale for a review in a theatre journal of a book ostensibly devoted to exegeses of Beckett's late fiction. Brater clarifies why theatres and actors have been so interested in staging this fiction. Beckett -- well known for being stubborn about preserving the separation of genres -- so pushed them to their limits that, as Brater notices, the categories break down: prose text becomes script. The observation makes The Drama in the Text a sequel to Brater's Beyond Minimalism (Oxford, 1987), where the worry was that the "minimalist" pressure of Beckett's late drama, such as Not I, or the radically restrained action of A Piece of Monologue, caused the genre of drama to collapse and metamorphose into a "performance poem."

The cover jacket promises that this is "[t]he only book that deals thoroughly with Beckett's complete late fiction." Well, not quite. The first third of the book considers the radio plays -- clearly the right roadmap for tracking "Beckett's strange journey from the body of words to a voice's embodiment in words" (ix), but leaves a scant hundred pages for the later prose. Brater's exegeses close with a stunning unearthing of the ballad form of comment dire (What is the Word) but includes only incidental references to Comment c'est (How it is), although this novel is the most extended piece of prose Beckett wrote after the trilogy and it can be dated (1960) smack in the middle of the radio plays. With its refrain "I say it as I hear it" (which Brater invokes), this work is, as Linda Ben Zvi has remarked, "Beckett's most insistently auricular book, presenting a series of speakers breathing messages into the ears of listeners ..." (Samuel Beckett 109), and therefore central to the very issues -- of script versus text, voice-in-the-head versus identity, and the tensions between printed text and sounded words -- that Brater examines so eloquently.

Since the book is devoted to the ways in which the sounded words transcend the page, complete with appropriate attention to alliterations, assonances, and consonants invoked for their contribution(s) to meaning, irony, and humor, one might also have wished for more consistent attention to whether the work being considered originated in English or French, with due attention to the different sounds of the different languages. These complaints notwithstanding, Brater's evident delight and skill in exploring the gritty conundrums of his elusive subject are invigorating. He ranges effortlessly through the Beckett canon for appropriate analogies and parallels (and prequels and sequels) to the particular passage under scrutiny.

In Theatre on Trial, Anna McMullan argues that Beckett's work is illuminated by and therefore variously anticipates or confirms the postmodern critical agenda of, say, Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, and Irigaray -- the theorists she "has most relied upon" (124). McMullan posits: "Beckett's work foregrounds processes which are central to much recent critical theory: interrogating and challenging the dominant epistemological systems and values of Western patriarchal history, opening up the spaces erased or repressed by the dominant languages of that history" (1-2). Having subverted the logocentric basis of hierarchical, rationalist, and white male dominated European literature, Beckett comes to imagine -- through an increasingly empathetic encounter with the female characters of his late plays -- a world (represented by Ohio Impromptu) that replaces the privileged world by "a dream space common to text and stage, in which self and other meet and merge, though without (yet) surrendering difference" (120).

In order to discuss the elliptical and enigmatic character of the late plays, McMullan invokes Derrida's suspicion of mimesis and representation as a reliable means for apprehending truth. The psychoanalytic views of representation developed by Lacan and Kristeva which deconstruct the boundaries between self and other, spectacle and spectator, are revoked to clarify the relationships between Beckett's characters and between the performance and the audience. The meaning of identity and the deconstruction of the concept of the self are applied to plays such as Not I (whose protagonist is a mouth) or Play (whose three characters are confined in urns and each imprisoned alone, like Dante's damned, in their mutual history). The deconstruction of self calls into question the fixities of time and space. Irigaray's psychoanalytic studies of the solacing of loss through the replacement of the other with another, even a fabricated other, and/or the absorption of the other into (or projection out of) the self are applied to a reading of Rockabye and Footfalls. This is a process of "feminization" since it deals with solace and comfort rather than domination and power, with repetition (ritual) rather than narrative (linear progress towards a conclusion).

Theatre on Trial is sometimes concerned with articulating the development of the theory outlined above, with Beckett as the illustration, and at other times with explicating those of the late plays most congenial to it. The latter process, informed by McMullan's resident study at the superb Beckett archives of the University of Reading in England, yields important analyses of the late plays discussed.

But the difficulty with her approach is that it is circular. If, on the one hand, the function of the book is to show that postmodern gender theory is applicable to an understanding of Beckett then one has to select the Beckett texts that will challenge and test the theory -- not necessarily be confined exclusively to the late drama. If, for example, "Beckett's work emphasizes that the process of imagining, linked with that of memory, ruptures space" (35), then to achieve maximum validity, the perception wants to be applied not only to What Where but also to the more difficult and fertile ground of Imagination Dead Imagine and All Strange Away. The crucial lines in Company -- "What kind of imagination is this so reason ridden? A kind of its own" -- would seem to be at least as essential to an argument that sees Beckett's imagining as subverting rationalist discourse as the famous passage on the imagination which McMullan invokes from Coleridge. The theoretical dimension of her approach simply requires a larger and better field of available evidence for her case than does her selections from the late drama taken in isolation. If, on the other hand, the function of the book is to enrich our understanding of the plays by the ad hoc application of postmodern theory as it becomes necessary to make the plays yield to comprehension, then the ideological matrix becomes needlessly cumbersome and bogged down by the need to cover vast territory with vague generalizations: "Over the past century, the foundations of Western thought have been increasingly undermined as the authority and value of central epistemolgical concepts such as truth, presence or meaning have come to be radically questioned" (1-2).

Taken together, the two books -- one concerned with Beckett's late drama and the other "reading" the late prose as if it were drama -- demonstrate the need for yet another in which the murky distinction between what counts as late prose and what counts as late drama is simply abandoned in favor of a thorough, consistent, and bilingual examination of the late texts, whether ostensibly or arguably dramatic monologue or dialogue or narrative prose.
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Title Annotation:Gay & Lesbian Queeries
Author:Frost, Everett C.
Publication:Theatre Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1995
Words:1369
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