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By the late 1950s, when Beckett was beginning to be taken seriously by literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic (and, indeed, by audiences all over the world), a pattern for talking about his work quickly developed. You could make sense of Beckett by placing him in the context of the European writers and philosophers who had come before him, and to which his fiction and drama so richly alluded. Hugh Kenner’s intuitive early book on Beckett urged us to imagine what he called, impressionistically, the ‘Cartesian centaur,’ while Ruby Cohn’s seminal study, The Comic Gamut, traced the evolution of comedic structures from Shakespeare to Bergson and beyond. Edith Kern found her way into Beckett through Kafka and existentialism; Rosette Lamont through the long history of the metaphysical farce; Katharine Worth through ‘the Irish drama of Europe,’ and Maurice Nadeau, Georges Bataille, and Leonard Pronko in their commentaries on the emerging nouveau roman and the always dynamic spirit of the French avant-garde. Martin Esslin’s The Theatre of the Absurd inserted an enduring critical phrase into our dramatic vocabulary, one that relied on Sartre and Kierkegaard but also placed Beckett, however shakily, in a new tradition of post-war playwriting. More circumstantial studies of the relationship of Beckett’s theater to Adamov and Ionesco, to Genet and Pinter and Arrabal,and later to its importance to Fornes and Sam Shepard and Heiner Muller, were not far away and were already predicted in Esslin’s landmark book.


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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2004

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