Renowned theater scholar and Beckett specialist, Ruby Cohn died in Oakland, CA, on Tuesday, 18th October 2011, after a prolonged struggle with Parkinson's disease.
She was 89, and is survived by her goddaughter, Polly Richards. Ruby Cohn was Professor of Comparative Drama at the University of California, Davis where, for thirty years, she was a member of the Comparative Literature, Theater, English, and French departments, and taught courses on modern and experimental drama, Shakespeare's legacies in modern drama, dramatic genres and on Samuel Beckett and his contemporaries. In earlier years, starting in 1961, Ruby 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 and in protest of the reactionary policies of the administration, Cohn resigned in 1968. In 1969, she joined the faculty of the theater school of the California Institute of the Arts before moving to U.C. Davis in 1972. A recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, Ruby Cohn was named by her colleagues a "Faculty Research Lecturer," the highest honor accorded the University. She retired from U.C. Davis in 1992, yet continued to teach and write. At her death Ruby Cohn was the author or editor of over twenty books, monographs and anthologies, among which was the first of many influential books on Samuel Beckett and on modern and contemporary U.S., British and continental drama.
Born Ruby Burman on August 13, 1922, in Columbus Ohio, she later moved with her family to New York City, and while in high school, saw the Federal Theater in action, including Orson Welles' Voodoo Macbeth. A graduate of Hunter College, her socially responsible activism was ignited and she interrupted her studies to join the WAVES as a Jewish-identified citizen to fight Hitler during World War II. She learned to install radar on battle ships, and because of her accomplished marksmanship was chosen to be a courier of secret documents. She soon returned to Europe and took her first doctoral degree at the University of Paris, reveling in Paris's 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. Ruby Cohn took a second doctorate at Washington University, St. Louis, where her husband, the microbiologist Melvin Cohn, taught (they were amicably divorced in 1962). This time she wrote her dissertation on Samuel Beckett, which she developed into her first book, Samuel Beckett: The Comic Gamut (1962). She and Beckett became close friends and she continued to visit and consult with him regularly until his death.
In the Irish-born, French-speaking Beckett, Ruby 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 not only the first full-length study of Beckett, it also set a high intellectual bar for the vast industry of Beckett criticism that followed.
She believed the critic's job was not to import structures of value or theories of meaning to the text, but to read and interpret with acuity, accuracy, and imagination. 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.
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 the 1990's, living half the year in London, she concentrated on British theater in her books and in these years particularly admired the formally adventurous plays of Caryl Churchill.
Ruby 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 in New York. 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 Ruby Cohn was a faithful supporter. She was also an early champion of Sam Shephard in his days at the Magic Theater, and of other young emerging playwrights.
Fiercely opinionated and capable at times of quite memorable rebukes, Ruby 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. Ruby Cohn is survived by and adored by all these people. She made our lives fuller, our minds sharper, and our hearts livelier.
In lieu of other remembrances, donations in Ruby's name may be made to The San Francisco Mime Troupe, 855 Treat Ave., San Francisco, 94110.
Published in San Francisco Chronicle on Oct. 29, 2011.