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Theatre & the Arts

The Beckett Actor: Jack MacGowran, Beginning to End

Jordan R. Young
Past Times, 1988, ISBN 0940410826; Hardcover $49.50. Out of Print. [
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From the publisher:

Jack MacGowran had a spectacular career ahead of him when he died in 1973. Twenty-five years after his untimely death, his legacy remains intact: Jack MacGowran in the Works of Samuel Beckett – the most highly-acclaimed one-man show in the history of theatre – has changed forever the public perception of the Nobel Prize-winning author, from a purveyor of gloom and despair, to a writer of wit, humanity and courage.

The Beckett Actor is the first biography of the revered Irish stage and screen performer who was Samuel Beckett’s foremost interpreter. It is a chronicle of restless searching and deprivation from beginning to near end; a story of wild escapades and drunken brawls, sobering hardship and bleak despair, Broadway fiascos and worldwide triumph.

Jordan R. Young traces the many twists and turns of MacGowran’s remarkable career: his apprenticeship at the Abbey Theatre where he was considered eccentric and hard to cast, his self-exile to London in search of creative freedom, his memorable performances in the plays of O’Casey, O’Neill and Shaw and his association with filmmakers as diverse as John Ford and Roman Polanski.

MacGowran’s intimate alliance with Samuel Beckett is examined in detail: from their first meeting in the bar of a shabby London hotel, to the close collaboration that culminated in definitive productions of Waiting for Godot and Endgame – with Beckett’s unprecedented cooperation – and the one-man show that toured Europe and the U.S., to critical acclaim the like of which few actors ever see.

The Beckett Actor is the product of extensive research, with access to much public and private memorabilia. In addition to MacGowran himself, over 100 of his friends and associates were interviewed by the author, including Roman Polanski, Burgess Meredith, Melvyn Douglas, Siobhan McKenna, Carroll O’Connor, Joseph Papp, Patrick Magee, Billie Whitelaw, Cyril Cusack and Peter O’Toole.

The book is appended by a chronology of MacGowran’s appearances on stage, screen, radio and television, with a foreword by the eminent drama critic, Martin Esslin, and a personal introduction by the late actor, James Mason. Over 50 photographs are included, including many stage studies.

Directing Beckett

Lois Oppenheim, editor.

1. University of Michigan Press, 1994, ISBN 0-4721-0535-3; Hardcover $55.00 [Browse/Purchase]

2. University of Michigan Press, 1997, ISBN 0-4720-8436-4; Paperback $21.95 [Browse/Purchase]

From the University of Michigan’s “Theater: Theory/Text/Performance” series, this collection of essays focuses on directing, performing and interpreting Beckett’s dramatic works. According to the publisher:

In Directing Beckett, Lois Oppenheim presents interviews and essays with twenty-two prominent international directors of Samuel Beckett’s work, many of whom worked closely with Beckett, assisting him with his productions or acting under his direction before directing his work themselves. Here they speak openly of their experiences of working with him, and comment on various productions that, in taking great liberties with his work, have raised a number of fascinating legal and aesthetic questions.

In exploring this key figure in the history of theater, Oppenheim’s interviews – with such directors as JoAnne Akalaitis, Edward Albee, Herbert Blau, Joseph Chaikin, and Carey Perloff – also address many of the complexities of the director’s role, such as the meaning of directorial integrity and fidelity to the playwright’s vision – an issue of particular relevance to a playwright whose exactitude, with respect to stage directions, is well documented. Additional highlights include photographs from many of the productions; the unpublished text of a lecture by the late Alan Schneider, Beckett’s most accomplished American director; and an interview with the late Roger Blin, the very first director of Beckett’s work.

Billy Whitelaw...Who He?

Billie Whitelaw
St. Martin’s Press, 1996, ISBN 0312139292; Hardcover [
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From Booklist:

Best known in the U.S. for her work in Samuel Beckett’s enigmatic later short plays (many of them written expressly for her), Whitelaw had a long and varied career before she became Beckett’s favorite English-speaking actress. Working with Britain’s leading theatrical lights – Laurence Olivier, Albert Finney, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, etc. – Whitelaw appeared in plays, films, and BBC-TV shows. She recounts her remarkable, busy life in a literate, readable, surprisingly gossip-free autobiography that starts with her traumatic childhood during the blitz in the 1940s and ends in the early 1990s with her “new” postacting life as a college lecturer on Beckett. Whitelaw is most vivid when she describes her most difficult moments – the wartime bombings, her father’s early death, her son’s battle with meningitis, and the many trials she endured while making Beckett’s spare, demanding plays live and breath. Meanwhile, her lighter, less focused moments – for example, her remarks in four “intermissions” on noteworthy writers, directors, and actors she has known – will greatly amuse film and theater aficionados.

Samuel Beckett and Music

Mary Bryden, editor.
Clarendon, 1998, ISBN 0198184271; Hardcover $75.00 [
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From the publisher:

Samuel Beckett, one of the century’s most original playwrights and novelists, was also passionately interested in music. He once told a friend that all his work had been written for a voice. Samuel Beckett and Music is the first full-length work to deal exclusively with Beckett and music. This collection of essays, most written especially for the volume, brings together a number of leading composers and academics who analyze their response to Beckett’s intense musicality.

Samuel Beckett and the Arts: Music, Visual Arts, and Non-Print Media

Lois Oppenheim & Daniel Allbright, editors
Garland Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8153-2527-4; Hardcover $95.00 [
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This collection of essays focuses on Beckett’s influence in non-print media. The table of contents are as follows:

Part I
1: Words and Music: Situating Beckett, Earl Kim
2: Samuel Beckett and the Arts of Time: Painting, Music, Narrative, H. Porter Abbot
3: Beckett as Marsyas, Daniel Albright
4: Beckett’s Music, Charles Krance
5: The Word Man and the Note Man: Morton Feldman and Beckett’s Virtual Music, Guy Debrock
6: Reflections on Beckett and Music, With A Case Study: Paul Rhys’s Not I, Mary Bryden
7: Sceptical Pictures in the Music of Company, Daniel Herwitz
8: A Statistical Analysis of Beckett’s Musical Metaphors, Moncef Belhadjali & Edward J. Lusk
9: Interview With Philip Glass, Nicholas Zurbrugg

Part II
10: Resonant Images: Beckett and German Expressionism, Jessica Prinz
11: Six Degrees of Separation: Beckett and the Livre d’Artiste, Breon Mitchell
12: Nor Do My Doodles More Sagaciously: Beckett Illustrating Watt, David Hayman
13: The Becketts of Mabou Mines, Ruby Cohn
14: Interview With Maguy Marin, Lois Oppenheim

Part III
15: The Silence That Is Not Silence: Acoustic Art in Samuel Beckett’s Embers, Marjorie Perloff
16: Working Wireless: Beckett’s Radio Writing, Stanley Ricahrdson & Jane Alison Hale
17: All That Fall and Radio Language, Clas Zilliacus
18: Mediatating On: Beckett, Embers, and Radio Theory, Everett C. Frost
19: Unswamping a Backwater: On Samuel Beckett’s Film, Sidney Feshbach
20: Continued Perception: Chaos Theory, The Camera, and Samuel Beckett’s Film and Television Work, John L. Kundert-Gibbs

The Painted Word: Samuel Beckett’s Dialogue With Art

Lois Oppenheim
University of Michigan Press, 2000, ISBN 0-4721-1117-5; Hardcover $55.00 [Browse/Purchase]

From the University of Michigan’s “Theater: Theory/Text/Performance” series. From the publisher:

The Painted Word examines Samuel Beckett’s relationship with the visual arts, in an effort to shed new light on the author’s work and on his thinking on aesthetics. Lois Oppenheim argues that Beckett was a profoundly visual artist whose work reflects a preoccupation with the visual as a paradigm of creativity. She presents the three principal forms taken by Samuel Beckett’s dialogue with art, and more precisely, painting: his critical writing on art, the function of art in his narrative and theatrical writing, and his indirect “collaborations” with painters.

The volume’s starting point is the current debate over Beckett’s place with regard to modernism and postmodernism. Contextualizing his practice of art with his thinking on art, Oppenheim resituates the debate in conjunction with philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s writings on painting and reveals the unifying force of all Beckett’s work that resides in a play of visbility. Beckett’s thinking on art had everything to do with his aims as a creative writer. Oppenheim shows that the classic Beckettian themes – language (its expressivity or lack thereof), identity (its, at best, tenuous link to a fragmented self), and the subject-object dichotomy – are all modeled on the sensory perspective of the eye. And that it is the verbal figuration of reality as vision that constitutes, whatever the genre, the Beckettian drama.

The volume includes several reproductions of artists’ renderings of Beckett’s texts and works by Giacometti and Bram Van Velde, two of which were owned by Beckett. Broadly interdisciplinary, The Painted Word will appeal to those interested in aesthetics and the philosophy of art as well in Beckett’s work.

Sails of the Herring Fleet: Essays on Beckett

Herbert Blau
University of Michigan Press, 2000, ISBN 0-4721-1149-3; Hardcover $50.00 [
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From the University of Michigan’s “Theater: Theory/Text/Performance” series. A professor of comparative literature and former artistic director of the experimental theatre group KRAKEN (1968-81), Herbert Blau offers here a dozen pieces (essays, notes, and interviews) which range across all of Beckett’s work, with greater emphasis on the drama, especially Godot and Endgame. Although this collection is at times repetitive, and strikes a sometimes unusual balance between anecdotes and post-structuralist theories, Sails of the Herring Fleet has a great knack for “speaking” Beckett, for interweaving Beckett’s various words and texts directly into the discussion at hand. One of Blau’s most gripping essays concerns Beckett’s fixation on the “eye of prey”; how, in the words of Estragon and Vladimir, “you don’t have to look” but “you can’t help looking.” (TC)
From the publisher:

Sails of the Herring Fleet brings together essays by one of the leading interpreters of the work of Samuel Beckett. The pieces are arranged chronologically and trace more than four decades of Blau’s encounters with Beckett, from early productions of his plays through the remarkable series of theoretical writings that, in the vicissitudes of perception, seem to merge with Beckett’s voice. In addition to these now-classic essays on Beckett’s prose and drama, the collection includes a poignant introduction with elements of a memoir and two recent pieces that reflect on Beckett’s notorious despair, the giving birth “astride of a grave” or, in the insatiable writing itself, “the accusative of inexistence.”

Blau directed Beckett’s plays when they were still virtually unknown, and no one else has sustained, from the theater work into the writing, so extensive a discourse about the mind of Beckett and the quality of his thought. The collection includes, along with the essays, early program notes and two interviews on Blau’s experience with Beckett, from the time he directed Waiting for Godot (the now-legendary production that went to San Quentin prison) to the last visit at the nursing home where Beckett stayed before he died. Blau’s elegy on Beckett’s death is included here, along with the exquisite reading of Barthes and Beckett, both of whom Blau first met during the same week in Paris. The book’s title is taken from Endgame, when the power of the text to “claw,” as Beckett himself described it, is relieved momentarily by a plaintively longing if sardonically lyrical vision.

Go To:

Criticism Main Page – Returns you to the Main Criticism page and the Quick Reference Card of titles.

Biography – Beckett’s life and times, as well as letters, conversations, and anecdotes.

General Criticism – General literary criticism or commentary on Beckett and his writing.

ProseGuides and criticism for specific works of prose, critique, and poetry.

DramaGuides and criticism for specific dramatic works and stage pieces.

Specific Criticism – Beckett criticism with a specific angle: existential, psychological, religious, nationalist, feminist, etc.

Comparative – Studies of Beckett in context with other authors or artists.


–Tim Conley
& Allen B. Ruch
23 February 2005




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