A Cosy Genre Subverted
Radio and cinema were the media that monopolized 1950s Ireland. Radio was a very different thing then from what goes by that name now, being carefully structured into programmes that belonged to specific genres, as opposed to the constant flow of talk and music today, when radio functions mostly as background noise. Postwar radio seems to have been a cosy medium on the whole, often reproducing the sounds of a quiet suburb or rural town. Of iconic standing for this period in radio culture is Mrs Dale’s Diary, the pioneering BBC radio serial drama (1948-1969). Readers of Beckett will note with interest the novel device whereby each episode begins with the voice of Mrs Dale speaking as if she were writing in her diary. ‘In February 1962, the serial was renamed The Dales. The linking narratives by Mrs. Dale were dropped at this time. The reason behind the changes was that the BBC were very conscious that the series was considered by the media to be twee and hopelessly old fashioned’ (Wikipedia).
An educative outreach to a more rural, agricultural audience was provided by The Archers, first aired on Whit Monday 1950 and still running in 2007. ‘It was used as a propaganda vehicle to reinforce notions of Englishness, and to foster and inculcate notions of rebuilding in post-war Britain’ (Wikipedia), just as Mrs Dale’s Diary may have aimed to educate its listeners in the refinements of middle-class speech and behaviour. (The patriarch of the Archer family is called Dan, perhaps the source for the name of Beckett’s Dan Rooney, who far from being a patriarch is childless and probably a child-murderer.) The Kennedys of Castleross (1955-1975), with the formidable Marie Kean, was a popular Irish equivalent of these British serials.
Beckett’s radio play All That Fall, written in 1956 and broadcast by the BBC Third Programme on 13 January 1957, plays with the conventions and the particular atmosphere of the medium at that time, and perhaps particularly with those of Radio Eireann plays set in rural locations. The harp introduction to Mrs Dale’s Diary could have suggested the use of a Schubert quartet at the beginning and towards the end of Beckett’s piece. Mrs Rooney’s self-conscious relationship to language could reflect the stilted diary-format of Mrs Dale’s introductions. ‘Do you find anything… bizarre about my way of speaking?... I do not mean the voice… No, I mean the words. Then ‘More to herself”, I use none but the simplest words, I hope, and yet I sometimes find my way of speaking very… bizarre’ (CDW, 173). The Rooneys feel they are ‘struggling with a dead language’ (194). If one listens to excerpts online, it is quite apparent that the actors are reading their lines in a studio; the stiffly unnaturalistic effect appealed to Beckett for its novel potential. The play is heard as a studio piece, the alleged movements of its characters annulled by the factitious and ad hoc character of the sounds supplied to indicate them.
The nostalgic quality of such broadcasting is reflected in the fact that Beckett’s play is set in the Foxrock of the 1930s. The human imitations of animal sounds, the sounds of approaching and departing vehicles, the insertion of musical passages (the record of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet), are among the features of this play, preserved by the BBC in its original form, that give it its quaint ‘period’ quality. But again and again Beckett undercuts the cosiness of the genre. A string of rural chats, as Mrs Rooney labours to the station, have grotesque turns. What could be cosier than the opening words: ‘Is that you, Christy?’ ‘It is, Ma’am.’ But what follows is disturbing: ‘Why do you halt? [Pause.] But why do I halt? [Silence.]’ The second sentence here may be in Maddy’s mind. The ‘voice-over’ character of Maddy’s ruminations, enabling an identification of the hearer with the character, is an expressive device that was probably common at that time, as in the inner monologue of the beleaguered father in ‘The Foley Family,’ another staple of 1950s Irish radio. Beckett leaves it unclear which of her words represent unspoken thoughts. Subversion is in evidence again when so harmless as phrase as, ‘But will it hold up?,’ repeated ‘with emotion’ (CDW, 172), gives a sinister edge to chat about the weather. Again, though Mrs Rooney and Miss Fitt are middle-class like Mrs Dale, their status, even in upmarket Foxrock, is undercut by the mockery of the locals. Miss Fitt is ‘twee and hopelessly old-fashioned’ in the classical Dale mould. Mrs Rooney’s façade of gentility cracks again and again with violent outbursts: ‘Give her a good welt on the rump’ (173).
Paradoxes: The Inner Voice and the Suspension of Time
Beckett seems to have discovered and exploited an affinity between radio and the Theatre of the Absurd. The subversion of logic, shifts from farce to tragedy, Sisyphean repetitions, of this genre (first given its name by Martin Esslin) can be effected more easily in the radio medium where the solid reality of stage props does not get in the way and where space and time are more easily made elastic. The relationships between the characters are all marked by an eerie disconnectedness, in a way that would be undercut by their physical presence on the stage. Christy’s ‘Nice day for the races, Ma’am’ (172), occurring in mid-conversation, is a conventional gambit filling a ‘silence’. The conversation can scarcely be said to ‘hold up’, especially if the listener is conscious that it consists of lines read into studio microphones.
Radio like the silent moving picture is a paradoxical medium. The silent film represents colour in black and white, speech in silence, and its representation of movement is subverted by the static stills filling in the dialogue. The conventions of the radio play represent the wet by the dry (the waves in Embers), the animate by the artificial (the animal imitations), the silent by the loud (Mrs Rooney’s thoughts), the heavy by the light (the cart, car, train, bodies), movement by stasis (the journey to and from the station is conveyed by voices that stay in the same place, before the microphone). Even its representation of time is paradoxical. Forward movement in time seems to collapse into repetition of the same moment. Has it been noticed that the events on the soundtrack do not always correspond to real linear time? Time is interrupted by Maddy’s inner monologue, and there is a replay of the moment preceding it.
Mr Tyler: Come, Mrs Rooney, come, the mail has not yet gone up, just take my free arm and we’ll be there with time and to spare.
Mrs Rooney: [Sobbing.] What? What’s all this now? [Calmer.] Can’t you see I’m in trouble? [With anger.] Have you no respect for misery? [Sobbing.] Minnie! Little Minnie!
Mr Tyler: Come, Mrs Rooney, come, the mail has not yet gone up, just take my free arm and we’ll be there with time and to spare.
Mrs Rooney: [Brokenly.] In her forties now she’d be, I don’t know, fifty, girding up her lovely little loins, getting ready for the change…
Mr Tyler: Come, Mrs Rooney, come, the mail –
Mrs Rooney: [Exploding.] Will you get along with you, Mr Rooney, Mr Tyler I mean, will you get along with you now and cease molesting me? (CDW, 176)
The reminiscence of Minnie is probably interior monologue. Maddy is markedly histrionic here in a way that radio drama favours, as if the disembodied voice were a more malleable channel for emotive attitudinizing. Her psychodrama is played for herself, disconnected from the outer world, which is marking time in this passage. There is a similar effect later:
Miss Fitt: She said she would be on the last train.
Mrs Rooney: Do not imagine, because I am silent, that I am not present, and alive to all that is going on.
Mr Tyler: [To Miss Fitt.] When you say the last train –
Mrs Rooney: Do not flatter yourselves for one moment, because I hold aloof, that my sufferings have ceased. No. The entire scene, the hills, the plain, the racecourse with its miles and miles of white rails and three red stands, the pretty little wayside station, even you yourselves, yes, I mean it, and over all the clouding blue, I see it all, I stand here and see it all with eyes… [The voice breaks.] … through eyes… oh if you had my eyes… you would understand… the things they have seen… and not looked away… this is nothing… nothing… what did I do with that handkerchief? [Pause.]
Mr Tyler: [To Miss Fitt.] When you say the last train – (185)
Clearly we hear an inner monologue here; Mrs Rooney says she is silent; and the words of Mr Tyler are repeated, as if time had stopped for the monologue. There is a suggestion that Maddy is a Berkeleyan observer, that the scene she evokes exists because she perceives it (esse est percipi). Another example:
Mr Tyler: Now now, Miss Fitt, do not –
Mrs Rooney: [With vehement sadness.] Poor Dan!
Mr Tyler: Now now, Miss Fitt, do not give way… to despair. (186)
A Mystery Play
Radio drama had an affinity with the detective story, strewing clues and riddles in a sound-space that allowed special concentration. The mystery element was central in the radio dramas of my childhood – the boss who bullies all his employees, but is never seen, turns out to be a giant computer; the terrifying footsteps in Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight turn out to be those of the husband. In All That Fall there is much that we want to find out – why is the Schubert lady so sad, who was little Minnie, what happened on the train?
Discussing Beckett’s second radio play, Embers, Marjorie Perloff writes: ‘All the more reason, then, for the radio artist – and Beckett is surely one of the finest – to turn this information function, this relaying of messages from A to B, inside out.’ Indeed, every function of language is deflected, thwarted or suspended in All That Fall. The voices fall back on themselves, unable to leave the artificial radiophonic space. Maddy is trapped inside her mental bubble, as is the equally histrionic Miss Fitt, while the loud, hearty, cursing mens’ voices becomes stage noises like the artificial sounds of animals and vehicles. Perloff quotes Michel Serres on the disruption of communication: ‘in spoken languages: stammerings, mispronunciations, regional accents, dysphonias, and cacophonies… In the technical means of communication: background noise, jamming, static, cut-offs, heteresis, various interruptions. If static is accidental, background noise is essential to communication.’ But in All That Fall the failure of communication has deeper roots, of which these disruptions are only surface manifestations.
Mysteries and solutions do not unfold logically in Beckett’s play, but are crossed by invasive noises, and leave a residue of unresolved ambiguity. The listener is left asking not, ‘What is the solution?’ but ‘What is the question?’ In this play of noises amid which the human communications fall flat, it is as if the characters were building up to ‘an overwhelming question’, à la Prufrock, but the question never gets asked. Perloff claims it is a very visual play, but, as in Maddy’s evocation of the racecourse above, do we not have the impression that the scene-painting is fictive, the projection of a quasi-authorial consciousness? The more she insists on seeing, the more we are aware that she is a voice before a microphone in a studio where there is no racecourse, no white rails, no red stands. The radio studio is the true space of the play, a black box or skull-like enclosure like the space in Company, the solitary mindspace where the author projects his fictive world. When such massive objects as trains move into this space, we know that they are only make-believe trains: ‘Immediately exaggerated station sounds. Falling signals. Bells. Whistles. Crescendo of train whistle approaching’ (187).
Perloff quotes Esslin: ‘radio is an intensely visual medium… Information that reaches [the listener] through other senses is instantly converted into visual terms. And aural experiences, which include the immense richness of language as well as musical and natural sound, are the most effective means of triggering visual images’. But does this really apply even to All That Fall, the most apparently mimetic of Beckett’s radio plays? Is even the language really so immensely rich, or it is not rather shown up as depleted, listless? ‘What happens’, Perloff asks, ‘when, as Klaus Schoening points out in a discussion of the new acoustic art, words are combined with “nontextual language, nonverbal articulations, quotation, original sound [i.e., ambient sound], environmental noises, acoustic objets trouvés, musical tones, [and] electronic technology”? What do we visualize then?’ But even in All That Fall it is not clear that there is any substantial visualization. The various modes of transport presented – feet, hinny, bicycle, car, train – are a schematic sequence existing only as noise, not really visualized by the listener. The noises indicate not the reality of the objects but their malleability to aural perception: ‘Go, Mr Tyler, go on and leave me, listening to the cooing of the ringdoves. [Cooing.]’ (176). Here the conventional literary phrase summons into existence the sound it denotes, but the actual physical ringdoves themselves are not present or visualized at all.
Perloff continues: ‘After All That Fall, whose characters are still represented as “real” people in a “real” Irish country setting, Beckett’s radio art becomes more abstract and mediumistic, engaging in a dialectic of disclosure and obstacle, information and noise, in which the soundscape – which includes silence – provides conflicting, and hence tantalizing, testimony.’ But Mrs Rooney can already be described as ‘mediumistic’; her consciousness is the medium through which we hear the other voices and sounds, which seem to stall in time when she does not attend to them and to come into existence when she bids them too. All the non-auditory contents of her consciousness, such as her view of the landscape or her memories of Minnie, summon up their objects in a way that again suggests a medium, in the sense that we cannot be sure that these fantasy-projections are real; all objects in the play are ectoplasmic.
Perloff remarks that ‘Embers is an exciting whodunnit. Inevitably, the audience tries to construct the plot, doled out in dribs and drabs of information… Normally and conventionally, radio is the purveyor of messages: who killed whom and why?... But in Embers, there are no findings, no announcement, no “late bulletin.” Indeed, it is these features of radio discourse that Beckett parodies: the radio audience’s demand for fact is consistently undercut by verbal and phrasal repetition, by unanchored visual image… and by rhetorical and sonic excess.’ Again, all this applies to the earlier play as well. There is no clear resolution of the mystery of the child’s death, though we are left with the darkest suspicions. The very question, ‘Did Mr Rooney kill the child?’ seems inapposite; that is not the kind of play we are dealing with. The aura of mystery that radio plays can create is diffused over all the incidents of the drama, to suggest the uncanniness of life itself as recorded in the perceiving consciousness. The soundtrack so blurs the barrier between reality and fantasy that to ask the realistic questions of detective fiction is beside the point. ‘The Rooneys of Foxrock’ pays little tribute to the canons of realism of a lunchtime radio serial. All the realistic references – to characters’ illnesses, for example – are deliberately ‘off’ and create a bizarre or grotesque effect.
Having registered the ‘special effects’ thus produced, we are ready to understand Beckett’s misgivings about the idea of staging the play:
All That Fall is a specifically radio play, or rather radio text, for voices, not bodies. I have already refused to have it ‘staged’ and I cannot think of it in such terms. A perfectly straight reading before an audience seems to me just barely legitimate, though even on this score I have my doubts. But I am absolutely opposed to any form of adaptation with a view to its conversion into ‘theatre.’ It is no more theatre than End-Game is radio and to ‘act’ it is to kill it. Even the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings... will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing’s coming out of the dark.
Anthony Cronin, in his biography of Beckett, claims that Irish households would turn off the light in order to experience the full impact of a radio broadcast in the dark – something that would no doubt add to the spine-chilling effect of such broadcasts as Gaslight. It corresponds to the scenario of Company (1980), two excerpts from which were published as ‘Heard in the Dark,’ 1 and 2 (1979). Barry McGovern notes that its opening words ‘encapsulate the situation of the radio voice. It is a world where sound and silence and the only coordinates. It is the world of the imagination.’ Company also recalls a radio play in its adjustments of the ‘voice’ as if arranging microphones in a radio studio, and in its evocations of the past in a spoken style that one finds only in radio drama.
Beckett exaggerates the typical traits of whatever medium he tackles, so that his writing is hyper-theatrical (Play, 1963), hyper-mime-like (Act Without Words, I and II, 1956), hyper-radiophonic in the series of radio plays dating from 1956 to 1963 (All That Fall, Embers, Rough for Radio, I and II, Words and Music, Cascando, The Old Tune), hyper-tape-recorded (Krapp’s Last Tape), hyper-cinematic (Film, 1963), hyper-televisual in the series of television plays from 1965 to 1982 (Eh Joe, Ghost Trio, …but the clouds…, Nacht und Träume). Thus he signals the limits of the medium in its conventional forms at the same time as he wrings from it new potential – just as some modern composers writing for traditional instruments or ensembles parody the conventions of the medium and then force it to do unprecedented things, which nonetheless remain pianistic, violinistic or ‘string-quartet-ish,’ as the case may be. The ‘hyper’ of parody becomes the self-reflexive ‘meta’ that makes the performance a representation of the medium itself as such.
In Embers Beckett underlines even more emphatically the artifices of the radio play medium and the resulting paradoxes. The medium this time is almost literally mediumistic, for Henry seems to conduct a séance. At the beginning he is addressing his father’s ghost: ‘That sound you hear is the sea. [Pause. Louder.] I say that sound you hear is the sea, we are sitting on the strand. [Pause.] I mention it because the sound is so strange, so unlike the sound of the sea, that if you didn’t see what it was you wouldn’t know what it was’ (253). As addressed also to the radio listener, these lines signal how the radio medium represents sounds and what they are supposed to signify in a quite artificial way, so that the listener’s suspension of disbelief is based on subscription to quite elaborate conventions and on skill in decoding the radio code. Those conventions were taken for granted and had become transparent to the radio listener of those days, whereas when we listen to such programmes now they stick out quaintly and embarrassingly; but most likely they are already ‘defamiliarized’ in Beckett’s original use of them.
Henry then has a colloquy with the ghost of Ada – whom he has summoned up as a voice in his head. The ambiguity of her status – ghost or inner voice? – does not demand to be cleared up; ghostly presences are easier to handle in the medium of sound, where the undecideable can reign, without the awkwardness of visual representation (the Furies in Eliot’s The Family Reunion) that sometimes oblige directors to the unsatisfactory expedient of leaving the ghost, when not a speaking role, invisible. Before Ada appears, and after her disappearance despite Henry’s desperate pleading, Henry tells an obscure story to himself about Bolton and Holloway. This is a kind of play within the play, equal in obscurity and ominousness to the main action. At the centre of Embers are placed the wails of Addie, Henry’s daughter, suffering under a music master and a riding master. Here romantic music, a waltz by Chopin, takes the central place that the noisy trains have in All That Fall (in which we heard Schubert at the beginning and the end). To some extent a musical rather than narrative logic presides over the succession of sounds. The tendency of radio drama is to foreground sound in a way that gives it an autonomy it cannot have on stage or screen, so that the voices and sounds take the lead in the drama, reducing the movement of bodies and the gestures and interactions of characters to a secondary, if not shadowy role.
Embers, as its title indicates, can be seen as a memory play; Henry is stirring the dead or dying embers of old obsessions. It does not use the device of the radio flashback, which is perhaps more difficult to manage than its cinematic counterpart. As an intimate voice, radio is attuned from the start to dream and memory, whereas visual drama constantly thrusts one toward the outer real and the present tense. The sound of hooves that is heard several times after Harry has named them may be thought to be created by him, as if he were directing the play (compare Maddy’s ringdoves); one is left with a vague suspicion that Addie may have been killed by the galloping horse in the riding master scene, though according to the literal plot she is alive. As in Company the events of this radio play are projections of the voices – Harry’s corresponding to the Deviser in Company and Ada corresponding to the Voice that narrates a past.
In the end, radio plays were destined to remain a minor strand in Beckett’s oeuvre, perhaps because the effects he could aim at in them were more economically and more fully realized in the medium of quiet prose pieces such as Company. The genre, as he knew it, belonged to a quite narrow strip of time, like the silent film, so that is became pointless to parody it and to exploit its resources (though Film, 1964, is a ghostly revisiting of the silent film decades after its demise). As perhaps in the case of Harold Pinter, Beckett’s ‘apprenticeship’ as a radio dramatist (All That Fall is only his second long play, after Godot, and Embers his fifth, after Endgame and Krapp) may also have given him techniques that will be used in the later stage plays such as Footfalls.
 Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works (London: Faber, 1990).
 ‘The Silence that is not Silence: Acoustic Art in Samuel Beckett’s Embers,’ in Lois Oppenheim, ed. Samuel Beckett and the Visual Arts: Music, Visual Arts, and Non-Print Media (New York: Garland, 1998).
 ‘Samuel Beckett and the Art of Radio,’ Mediations: Essays on Brecht, Beckett and the Media [New York: Grove Press, 1982], 125-54; rpt. in On Beckett: Essays and Criticism, ed. S. E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 1986), 366.
 Samuel Beckett, letter to Barney Rosset, his U.S. publisher [Grove Press], 27 August 1957, cited in Everett C. Frost, ‘A “Fresh Go” for the Skull: Directing All That Fall, Samuel Beckett’s Play for Radio,’ in Directing Beckett, ed. Lois Oppenheim (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 191.
 Barry McGovern, ‘Beckett and the radio voice,’ in Christopher Murray, ed. Samuel Beckett 100 years. Dublin: New Island, 2006, 132-44; here, 132.
 See also: Katherine Worth, ‘Beckett and the Radio Medium,’ in British Radio Drama, ed. John Drakakis. Cambridge University Press, 1981; Clas Zilliacus, Beckett and Broadcasting: A Study of the Works of Samuel Beckett for and in Radio and Television. Abo: Abo Akademi, 1976.