Review of Anglo American Interplay by Ruby Cohn
Stephanie Tucker argues that comparative studies frequently reveal new insights into the subjects scrutinized. Such is the case in *Anglo-American Interplay*.
Ruby Cohn. Anglo-American Interplay in Recent Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. vii + 190 pp. Cloth $44.95.
The question that DMR’s readers might appropriately want answered is: why should I read this book when much of what Professor Emerita Ruby Cohn says about Mamet’s use of language, she discusses in an earlier essay, “How Are Things Made Round” (Kane, David Mamet: A Casebook)? The answer is one which freshman composition teachers have professed seemingly forever: comparative studies frequently reveal new insights into the subjects scrutinized. Such is the case in Anglo-American Interplay.
Punningly titled, this book pairs six sets of British and American playwrights “skilled in the languages of the stage” (p. 1)—including character, stage space, and properties—and, in the case of David Mamet and Harold Pinter, soundplay. Close readings reveal telling similarities and differences between two countries “separated,” as we’re reminded Shaw quipped, “by a common culture” (p. 1). The other dramatic duos studied are: Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn, Edward Bond and Sam Shepard, Maria Irene Fornes and Caryl Churchill, the Davids Hare and Rabe, and Christopher Hampton and Richard Nelson.
While it is certainly not the first time comparisons have been drawn between Mamet and Pinter (each has begged for as much—the former’s dedicating Glengarry Glen Ross to the latter, who directed Oleanna in London), Ruby Cohn focuses primarily upon language in “Phrasal Energies,” the chapter devoted to this playwriting pair. Noting their “sheer economy of phrasing” (p. 59), Cohn, with surgical skill, dissects their respective languages—from titles to phonemes. Other topics under her scalpel include repetition, rhyme, ellipsis, syntax, cliché, tautologies, obscenities, and slippage—to mention those most fascinating to me. Extremely close examination of soundplay reveals much about each work and about their authors’ respective countries. One of this chapter’s many valuable insights regards how “different lexicons” (p. 68), “quasi-philosophical clichés” (p. 70), and jargon reflect social hierarchies alive in both countries.
As she does throughout, Cohn devotes the latter part of each chapter to a detailed discussion of major plays. Applying the tools of dissection already considered, she renders, in “Phrasal Energies,” a careful reading of Betrayal and Speed-the-Plow. Although we may recognize parts of this discussion (Cohn relies understandably upon her earlier essay, “The Economy of Betrayal” [Gordon, Harold Pinter: A Casebook]), a review of that material juxtaposed to a discussion of Speed-the-Plow demonstrates powerfully how similar theatrical techniques—shaping as well as soundplay—reflect a similar theme: “male bonding is threatened by a woman” (p. 85).
Although this brief review must necessarily focus on Mamet, Anglo-American Interplay is similarly perspicacious in its discussion of other playwrights. Especially valuable are the chapters on Fornes and Churchill, Rabe and Hare, which the author would have “read in tandem, since they react to patriarchies on both sides of the Atlantic” (p. 94).
Professor Cohn’s varied critical tacks and their resulting insights have much to offer anyone with a modicum of interest in contemporary drama—especially in our age of theory-driven criticism, which, in pursuit of the esoteric, oftentimes slights the art. Her study unfettered by “Latinate” theories (p. 1), her prose uncluttered by their various vocabularies, she offers us an extremely lucid piece of scholarship in which close, careful readings of both page and performance serve as a valuable reminder of the rewards such scrutiny can yield—especially to one whose vast scholarship and expansive knowledge has been (to nod once more to Mamet) garnered from “a life in the theatre.”
California State University, Sacramento