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The life and work of Samuel Beckett // The mood of the man


By Mel Gussow

Grove Press, $21

Conversations With and About Beckett is the third in a series of conversations with modern dramatists (the others are on Pinter and Stoppard) by the former drama critic of the New York Times, Mel Gussow.

The continuity of the series had to be modified for the Beckett volume because, as Gussow acknowledges with a quotation from Beckett's letter agreeing to their first meeting, Beckett refused "to give interviews in any shape or form and would have to ask you to regard our meeting as a strictly private one." A book of interviews on a writer who on principle refused to grant them would seem to present insurmountable obstacles. Gussow's solution is to make public his eight "strictly private" meetings with Beckett and then to fill out the volume with interviews about Beckett, reprints of his New York Times theater and book reviews, and his obituary of Beckett.

Most of the interviews retain their original freshness even after some 20 years, although inconsistencies among the pieces remain unexplained and even unacknowledged despite an "Introduction" to the volume and introductions to the individual pieces. In a 1973 interview, Jack McGowran says, for instance, "He wrote a play for me, Eh, Joe." Gussow later mentions that Footfalls "was created for Billie Whitelaw" in 1976. But Beckett tells Gussow in 1978 that he wrote Krapp's Last Tape for Pat Magee, and "That was the only time I wrote directly for anyone." Such discrepancies are left for the reader to sort out.

Some of the material has been available for some time. The McGowran interview is virtually a repeat of his 1973 interview with Richard Toscan in Theatre Quarterly (with errors repeated), and Billie Whitelaw's comments have been available in any number of sources and most touchingly in her recent memoir, Billie Whitelaw, Who He.

The more interesting material is the fresher, particularly from those more rebellious souls like Mike Nichols, whose Americanized Waiting for Godot in New York with the uncontrollable Robin Williams and Steve Martin scandalized the faithful, and Deborah Warner, whose Faustian Footfalls in London with the irrepressible Fiona Shaw sent the Beckett Estate into a panic from which it has yet to recover.

What's most compelling about these all-too-brief interviews from Beckett's more inventive directors is the absence of any overt iconoclasm. Instead, we find a cogent defense of the directors' textual deviations and appeals for an infusion of new energy into performances of Beckett's plays. Gussow's own sympathies are clearly with those seeking to open up the possibilities of Beckett's theater (without, of course, overtly violating the texts).

The strengths of the volume, then, lie not in the bits of factual information it contains. Even Gussow's sensitive and knowledgeable reviews are in a sense old news. Beckett criticism has moved well beyond opening night deliberations. More important is the mood Gussow creates about Beckett's life _ and that is unerringly right. Beckett's daily routines evoked in Gussow's recollections vividly recall the innumerable double espressos I shared with Beckett in the cafe of the Hotel PLM; and the memory of our final parting (his unshaven cheek, his desiccated lips, and his whispered, "God bless") is invoked on almost every page.

And it is with no little pleasure for this reader that, as he describes the interior of Beckett's Boulevard St. Jacques apartment in his "Afterword" and surveys the books in his study, Gussow notes that among those within easy reach of his desk were "critical studies by S. E. Gontarski and James Knowlson."

Conversations With and About Beckett then is a triumph of mood, a devoted critic's farewell and public "God Bless" to an author who has deeply touched his life.

_ S. E. Gontarski