Ruby Cohn 1922–2011
The following obituary was written in 2011 by Elin Diamond, professor of English and director of the Graduate Program in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University. Diamond, who specializes in feminist criticism and dramatic theory, earned her doctorate and master’s degree at UC Davis. See the New York Times obituary here.
Renowned theater scholar and Beckett specialist Ruby Cohn, a professor of comparative drama at the University of California, Davis, died Oct. 18, 2011 following a prolonged struggle with Parkinson’s disease.
She was 89 and lived in San Francisco.
For 30 years at UC Davis, Cohn was a member of the comparative literature and theater departments and affiliated with the English and French departments. She taught courses on modern and experimental drama, Shakespeare’s legacies in modern drama, dramatic genres, and Samuel Beckett and his contemporaries.
“Ruby Cohn was and will remain a much-respected and well-loved part of the Department of Theatre and Dance at UC Davis,” said Professor Lynette Hunter, chair of the department.
“She brought a mind and heart open to the radical theater that emerged after the second World War in Europe, especially to studies of the work of Samuel Beckett, but also to the emerging voices of the newly enfranchised British working class. She was responsible for the acquisition of many of the theater materials in the Shields Library Special Collections, and for the shaping of a department that has continued to respond to the challenges of today’s society.”
Earlier in her career, Cohn was a professor of language arts at San Francisco State University, where she launched a comparative literature program and also joined a student strike to bring ethnic studies to the curriculum. Refusing to teach her courses on campus, Cohn resigned in protest in 1968.
In 1969, she joined the faculty of the theater school of the California Institute of the Arts. She joined UC Davis in 1972.
A recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, Cohn was also selected the 1978 UC Davis “Faculty Research Lecturer,” the highest honor bestowed by the Davis Division of the Academic Senate. She retired from UC Davis in 1992, yet continued to teach and write.
At her death, Cohn was the author or editor of more than 20 monographs and anthologies on modern and contemporary U.S., British, and Continental drama, among which was the first full-length study of Samuel Beckett.
Born Ruby Burman on Aug. 13, 1922, in Columbus, Ohio, she later moved with her family to New York City. While in high school, she saw the Federal Theater in action, including Orson Welles’ “Voodoo Macbeth.”
A graduate of Hunter College, she joined the WAVES during World War II, learned to install radar on battle ships and became an accomplished marksman.
She took her first doctoral degree at the University of Paris, reveling in Paris’ genial postwar ferment. One cold January night in 1953, she attended the first public performance of an obscure play called “En Attendant Godot” (“Waiting for Godot”), a work that would establish the reputation of “absurdist” theater in Paris, with its heady mixture of Sartrean alienation, linguistic experimentation, music hall antics, and an emphatic refusal to pander to conventional theater audiences.
Back in the U.S., Cohn took a second doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis, where her husband, microbiologist Melvin Cohn, taught (they were amicably divorced in 1961). She developed her dissertation, on Samuel Beckett, into her first book, “Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut” (1962).
In the Irish-born, French-speaking Beckett, Cohn found a poet, novelist, and dramatist of stabbing wit and formal daring, one whose field of philosophical and literary reference encompassed the entire Western tradition.
“Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut,” was one of the first full-length studies of Beckett, and it set a high intellectual bar for the vast industry of Beckett criticism that followed. With its epigraphs in French (Descartes) and English (Shakespeare), the book’s 13 chapters interweave careful analysis with biographical, translation and publishing information, all of which illuminate and explain Beckett’s paradoxes and arcana.
Throughout, Cohn homes in on Beckett’s words and the peculiar forms they take, sometimes matching his punning wit with her own. In the chapter, “Watt Knott,” Cohn notes Beckett’s comic couplings of, and puns on, names: “Cream and Berry, the hardy laurel, Rose and Cerise, Art and Con,” and wryly adds in a footnote: “Con [is] a French obscenity (as I learned through its homonym Cohn)….” Beckett’s credo of failure — “to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail” — was, for Cohn, testimony of his commitment to explore, through the discipline of art, the ludicrous ironies of human striving, the sham of sexual love, and, as Beckett himself famously put it, “the expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express…no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” That obligation betokened, Cohn felt, Beckett’s deep humanity, which Cohn implicitly celebrated in her criticism.
Literary theory bored and angered her, but she read a great deal of it and read everything ever written on Beckett, no matter by whom.
She walked out of bad theater performances sooner than she closed another scholar’s book. Her scholarly integrity is on view in her conscientiously trilingual bibliography for “The Comic Gamut” (her French was fluent, her German quite good), and in this way, too, she set a standard for Beckett research and criticism, although few had her comparatist’s skill in languages.
As Beckett’s canon unfolded, so did Cohn’s: Casebook on Waiting for Godot (1967), Back to Beckett (1974), Samuel Beckett: A Collection of Criticism (1975), Just Play: Beckett’s Theater (1980), Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (1984), From Desire to Godot: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris (1987), and, finally, A Beckett Canon (2001). The latter is a beautiful book, written in the leisure of retirement, a rumination on the Beckett canon as it unfolds chronologically. It begins: “Having read nothing by Beckett, I fell in love with his ‘En Attendant Godot’ in 1953, when it was performed at the short-lived Theatre de Babylone in Paris.” She promises not “to impose coherence upon the many threads of Beckett’s tapestry” but rather writes for an engaged reader, “and I imagine her/him as one who has been drawn to Beckett in print or performance, and who is curious about other facets of his oeuvre.” In other words, a reader very like Cohn herself, starting on her Beckett journey in 1953.
Even when Beckett was not her obvious subject, his astringent forms influenced her taste in other dramatists, and she was determined to give full exposure to the best modern American and British drama in her “Edward Albee” (1969), “Currents in Contemporary Drama” (1969), “Dialogue in American Drama” (1971), “Modern Shakespeare Offshoots” (1976), and “New American Dramatists” 1960-1990 (1991).
In the 1990s, living half the year in London, she concentrated on British theater in her books “Retreats from Realism in Recent English Drama” (1991) and “Anglo-American Interplay in Recent Drama” (1995).
In these years, she particularly admired the formally adventurous work of Caryl Churchill.
Cohn’s lifelong effort to join the immediacy of theater performance to the careful analysis of dramatic texts made her an eager if exacting theater-goer. She developed warm friendships with the experimental directors and actors who worked on Beckett’s texts, especially Joseph Chaikin and Herbert Blau, and she supported the Mabou Mines experimental theater company, when, with Beckett’s permission, founding member Frederick Neumann adapted eight of Beckett’s nontheatrical prose works for the theater.
Ruth Maleczech of Mabou Mines notes, “Ruby would put her finger on things very clearly. There was a level of trust between her and the company [and] she was interested in what we did even when it wasn’t Beckett.”
This would certainly hold true of Joan Holden’s San Francisco Mime Troupe, of which Cohn was a faithful supporter.
Fiercely opinionated and capable at times of quite memorable rebukes, Cohn was also memorably committed to her students who benefited from her scholarship and lucid criticism, and to her legions of friends on whom she lavished her concern and loving attention.
She is survived by all these people and by her goddaughter, Polly Richards, and her family.