Mel Gussow's Conversations with & about Beckett (Grove Press, 192 pages, $29.95 cloth) is a concise collection that projects some of Samuel Beckett's personality and genius. Not intended to counter Beckett's numerous detractors or to provoke further sterile erudition by academics, it manages to be wise, witty, and succinct. The formal pieces include selected reviews and essays, as well as an obituary by Gussow, but much of the material is informal-particularly the preliminary interviews with Bert Lahr (the first American Gogo) and Jack MacGowran (one of the greatest Beckettian actors). There are affectionate remembrances of Beckett by Martin Segal, Edward Beckett (the playwright's nephew), and especially by Gussow who conducted nine interviews with him between 1978 and 1989, the year he died. Not permitted to tape or take notes during these meetings, Gussow recorded his interviews in a private journal, and they afford brief sketches of an artist who was more generous with his money and moral support of deserving artists than with explications of his literary mysteries wrapped within enigmas.
The collage has a unifying theme: the unresolved tension between quirks of interpretation or adaptation and the explicit or presumed wishes of the artist. Most of the interviews (but particularly those with Billie Whitelaw, Mike Nichols, Deborah Warner, and Edward Beckett) address the subject, and all provide glimpses of Beckett as a precise director of his own work.
This little book shows us Beckett as a set of paradoxes: a recluse who carried a deep solitude within himself and yet who had numerous friends with whom he would discuss cricket and tennis rather than his own work; a writer who could raise the hackles of actors and yet bring one of them his own bedroom slippers to help achieve the proper shuffle for a role; a courageous pessimist who believed that art was an obligation to express the inexpressible, and yet one who said more with less than any other contemporary writer. The montage of images and the description of his Parisian study is filled with what Gussow calls "echoes and emanations of Beckett".