Samuel Beckett's Radio Plays  

Music of the Absurd

by Stefan-Brook Grant

|title| |contents| |intro| |chapter.1| |chapter.2| |chapter.3| |chapter.4| |conclusion| |bibliography|
|Samuel Beckett Resources|



Pain and Suffering

Beckett's initial idea for All That Fall was that of an atmospheric soundscape to which he then could add characters and themes:

Never thought about radio play technique ... but in the dead of t'other night got a gruesome idea full of cartwheels and dragging feet and puffing and panting which may or may not lead to something.

Beckett's use of sound seems to break with earlier radio producers' practice, and especially with Louis MacNeice's idea that music must be 'subordinated to the dramatic purpose of the whole.' According to MacNeice, the music should not attempt to 'turn the whole thing into a concert.' Certainly, he suggests, it is dangerous for plays to rely too heavily on musical accompaniment. What Beckett does, however, is to give the entire play a melodic contour based on musical principles rather than dramatic curve.

All That Fall has the framework of a journey to and from the railway station of a rural village in Ireland. Critics tend to divide the action of the play into three parts: (1) Mrs Rooney's walk to the station where she plans to meet her husband off the 12.30 train; (2) the confusion at the station and the arrival of the train, and; (3) Mr and Mrs Rooney's walk back along the country road. This division simply tells us where Mrs Rooney is, and creates the illusion of a goal oriented journey in time and space. On her way to the station, Mrs Rooney encounters three fellow inhabitants of the village. At the station, the crowd awaiting the arrival of the train is notified that the train is delayed, without being told what the cause for the delay might be. The dialogue between Mr and Mrs Rooney on their return journey displays their conception of a life in which suffering is the norm. Mr Rooney embarks on a narrative description of his train journey through which we expect to be told the reason for the train's delay. The answer to this question, however, is postponed until the very end of the play, when a young boy, Jerry, appears and reveals the fact that a child fell out of the train and was killed.

The surprising abundance of local detail in All That Fall fits into a complex cluster of images of sterility, decay, suffering and death: a ruinous old house by a country road; a laburnum which is losing its tassels; an impotent hinny with its cart of dung; a ditch filled with rotting leaves, and the name of the village itself, Boghill. All are examples of scenic images which illustrate the theme of decay. In fact, these themes almost become obtrusive because they are present in practically every detail of the play. The characters, props, weather, voices, sound effects, motion and the main off-stage event itself all provide variations on the theme which is indicated by the title. Mrs Rooney suffers from rheumatism and Mr. Rooney is blind; Christy's wife is 'No better,' and his daughter is ill, but 'No worse' (p. 172); his hinny is impotent and his cart is filled with dung; Mr Tyler's bicycle tyre has burst, and Mr Slocum has trouble starting his car; half way through the play, the day begins 'shrouding the best of its past' as the wind and rain set in (p. 189); Schubert's music, Death and The Maiden, emanates from an old gramophone and Mrs Rooney hums tunelessly on two occasions; she laments the death of her unborn daughter which probably occurred forty years earlier; and the main off-stage event itself, of course, is the tragic death of a young child.

The backdrop of pain and suffering which Beckett exhibits in his work should not simply be seen as a general consequence of man's mortality in an Absurd world, or of disillusionment following the second world war. His suffering is also projected on a personal, perhaps even sentimental level. He was himself a sensitive child, and there are a number of events which must have fuelled the pessimism and pure sadness evident in his writing. The 1916 Easter rebellion in Dublin which he watched from a distance with his father and brother, a simple incident from his childhood in which he witnessed a policeman literally beating a dog to death, and his being unduly punished at school are all events he vividly recounted in later life. Furthermore, in the thirties, he experienced the death of his father and his first love, his cousin, Peggy Sinclair, who had been ill for years. There was also a period in the thirties when he met with his friend, Dr Geoffrey Thompson, who worked at a hospital in Dublin. Beckett's visits to the wards at this hospital allowed him first hand experience of physical and mental suffering. A few years later, Beckett found himself in hospital after having been stabbed in Paris. In the fifties, his mother and his brother Frank both died. The latter suffered from terminal lung cancer, and Beckett witnessed the devastating physical deterioration of a brother who, like himself, had been an energetic sportsman. Beckett himself was prone to unending health problems, dental problems and failing eyesight. The key issues of pain and suffering, therefore, which are so central in Beckett's work seem to have roots in direct personal experience.

Pain, however, is a complex term in Beckett's writing. Physical and mental pain are closely linked. In his novel trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, it may seem as if he is suggesting that pain caused by physical deterioration is of minor significance in comparison with the mental pain of the rational mind's search for something which is not there. The Unnamable's obligation to go on with his frantic mental ravings in the final novel of the trilogy, indicates the magnitude of suffering which may be experienced by a mind in search of something non-existent. However, the obligation to discover the reason for why there is so much suffering is perhaps itself a consequence of the decadent physical condition of man. Because, in Beckett's view, external compassion for humankind seems to be fundamentally missing, humans as rational thinkers search for an answer as to why things should be as bad as they are.

Beckett's pessimism may be seen in light of his differing view on the Christian belief in a compassionate God. As a student, Beckett attended a sermon by a friend of his father, Canon Dobbs, who described his pastoral visits to the sick, the suffering and the dying. The cleric's logic was reduced to an acceptance of the fact that it is the human lot to suffer. 'The only thing I can tell them is that the crucifixion was only the beginning. You must contribute to the kitty,' professed Dobbs (Knowlson, p. 67). Beckett's cynicism towards the idea of suffering as being a part of some divine plan and preparation for the afterlife, has been reflected in his work ever after. Beckett cannot find an answer, and neither can his protagonists.

However, Beckett's protagonists are sometimes able to curse the force which does not exist and even, ironically, curse it for not existing. In Endgame, Hamm channels his anger at God by shouting at him, '... the bastard, he does not exist' (p. 119) In Happy Days, Winnie asks 'How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones' (Beckett, p. 159). And Mr and Mrs Rooney 'join in wild laughter' at the implications of the sermon text which is to be delivered the following day: 'The Lord upholdeth all that fall and raiseth up all those that be bowed down' (p. 198). The laughter which the Rooney's emit is perhaps the most effective expression of combined despair and cynicism which the human voice is capable of projecting when faced with the prospect of constant pain and inescapable death.

The staggering death-statistics which the daily information-flow confronts us with generally have less impact on our minds than a close study of individual suffering. Beckett, therefore, exposes the suffering individual desperately trying to wring some kind of meaning out of his own existence. By scaling down the suffering to an elementary personal level, orchestrated by sounds alone, he lays bare the reduction of the human condition. The lofty suffering and consequences of the king's downfall in Ancient- and Renaissance tragedy is, in Beckett's plays, transferred to the physical and mental degeneration in the simplest beings; the tramp, the fool, the old, the blind and the lame. As if under oath to Wordsworth's preface to Lyrical Ballads, the life form Beckett exhibits, especially in his first radio play, is low and rustic, stripped of any authentic attempt at expressing itself with intellectual dignity, 'because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint and speak a more emphatic language.'


Implications of Sound and Motion

In All That Fall, Mrs Rooney uses recognisably Irish phrases such as 'surely to goodness' and 'to be sure.' Likewise, Christy, one of the locals she meets on the way, describes his hinny as being 'very fresh in herself today,' another typical Irish colloquialism (pp. 172-73). By using Irish actors, speaking a simple language and using set Irish phrases, Beckett not only gives the play a distinct location, but also restricts the use of any sophisticated speech, displaying an environment of everyday life and language. On one level, Beckett's characters communicate only what is obvious and hence do not contribute any insight into the human condition. Certain expressions are repeated at intervals, and the very fact that we hear them so often humorously underlines their emptiness. Christy's 'Nice day for the races' is repeated by Tommy at the station (p. 172). Mr Tyler greets Mrs Rooney with 'Divine day for the meeting,' and repeats himself at the station with 'Lovely day for the fixture' (pp. 174, 184). Yet these expressions are also infiltrations into another level of expression; the deeper melody which is concerned with the pain of existence.

Beckett's plays and novels revolve around protagonists who are aware of this suffering. However, they are also aware of themselves as artists or performers. As artists, they are at the height of consciousness, sensitive to how they express themselves. Quaint set phrases are intermittently mocked so that we recognise their original emptiness; Mr Rooney wittily comments that one's earnings are 'barely enough to keep you alive and twitching' (p. 193). Mrs Rooney asks whether Christy finds her words 'bizarre,' and later, Mr Rooney comments on a particular sentence structure he uses, 'For which is there?,' suggesting that this 'does not sound right somehow' (p. 196).

The protagonists in All That Fall, therefore, have the same subtle self-awareness which most of Beckett's protagonists have. In Endgame, Hamm and Clov continually reveal themselves as actors and speakers. This kind of alienation, though, does not have the same effect as that which is generated by the plays of Bertolt Brecht or Luigi Pirandello. Instead, the self- reflectiveness which Beckett's protagonists display allows us to perceive the obligation each man has to subscribe to the rules of language, and to be perceived in order to exist. At the same time, Beckett underlines the limits of expression which allow us to be perceived. When Clov asks, 'What is there to keep me here,' Hamm answers, 'The dialogue' (pp. 120-21). Mrs Rooney, too, as mentioned in the previous chapter, asserts her presence after having been silent for about half a minute; 'Do not imagine, because I am silent, that I am not present and alive to all that is going on' (p. 185). Being silent is perhaps the most explicit evidence of the fact that one is alive to what is going on. However, with the obligation to go on, the silence is short lived. Although she is 'a hysterical old hag,' and tries to use 'none but the simplest words,' Mrs Rooney is still conscious of the artistry involved in performing one's lines, and it is her consciousness which is the central melody of the play (pp. 174, 173). Broadly speaking, the problems Beckett exhibits seem to be presented on the level of individual suffering, while his intellectual and philosophical allusions are made more in a spirit of mockery.

The fact that the microphone moves with Mrs Rooney is itself an indication of the freedom which Beckett found with radio. On stage, Beckett insisted on restricting the areas where the individual actors were situated. Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot move a few steps, but remain relatively still. Hamm in Endgame insists on being positioned in the centre of the stage, and arthritis stricken Clov shuffles awkwardly. In the same play, Nagg and Nell are confined to dustbins. The static impression which this creates underlines the limitations of physical mobility, which is consistent with Beckett's presentation of bodily physical restraint and progressive impotence. Beckett also felt that by limiting the area in which the actor could perform on stage, it would be easier for the actor to project himself into the role (Bair, p. 551).

When Waiting for Godot was performed on a large stage, the correspondence between the spoken lines and the physical distance between the characters which the production required proved problematic, because the dialogue often required characters to be close to one another. This is not a problem on radio. In fact, characters who are in motion generate more noise than those who are static. In All That Fall, the theme of decay is given more prominence by the awkward movement orchestrated by the pulse of dragging feet and Mrs Rooney's panting. Furthermore, the strenuous effort of walking forces Mr Rooney to stop so that he can transfer his energy to the burden of speaking. Thus, the absence of the sound of dragging feet underlines the theme of physical decay as much as the audible sound itself does.

Beckett certainly seems to have had a tendency to separate speech and physical motion in his plays. Waiting for Godot and Endgame both include sequences of pure mime. Act Without Words is, of course, all mime. In the plays for television as in the radio plays and the stage plays following All That Fall, the characters' movements are again restricted. Henry, in Embers, sits still at the waters edge for most of the play while Winnie, in Happy Days, is stuck in her mound. The three characters in Play are likewise confined to urns, and the face in Not I is stuck eight feet above stage level, obscured in shadow with only its mouth showing, emitting a stream of rapidly spoken words. In That Time, there is a face ten feet above the stage level, listening to his own voice emanating from three different sources around the stage. In the two latter plays, Beckett focuses almost one hundred percent on the voice, restricting it to a monotonous, almost unintelligible verbal sprint. It seem that after the vast experimentation with materials and motion in All That Fall, Beckett's preoccupation with the creative process, the Self and the voice as an instrument rather than a conveyor of meaningful words, makes him reduce his display of external settings and motion, so the setting too, like the words, is abstract. It is perhaps also interesting to note a comment which Beckett once made in connection with a ballet performance. He felt that the dancing and movement took the attention away from the music (Knowlson). It would seem logical, therefore, to restrict the integration of sound and motion on stage.

In Beckett's piece for the silent cinema, Film, there is again an importance attached to motion, but here motion is the only means by which the character can escape being perceived. O comes into view in a scene where workers are hurrying to work all organised in couples moving in the same direction. O is 'hastening blindly along sidewalk, hugging the wall on his left, in opposite direction to all the others.' He 'storms along in comic foundered precipitancy,' in constant flight from the perception of the camera eye (p. 324). Yet his motion only singles him out so that he in fact becomes the object of attention, contrary to his wish. In a note preceding the script for Film, Beckett underlines the premise for the piece; 'esse est percipi' (to be is to be perceived). The film manifests the '[s]earch of non-being in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in inescapability of self-perception' (p. 323). To be seen, O must be kept within E's field of vision, and so O, who longs to be free of extraneous perception so that he can be free of being (existing), must constantly try to move away. The futility of his flight is made clear at the end when E's face is revealed as the same as O's, so that it would seem that in order to be, you need only perceive yourself.

Beckett does not clarify exactly why this particular character is in flight from extraneous perception, so we presume that the reason lies in the Beckett being's general quest for the end of his own existence. The same fear of being observed can be found in All That Fall. Mrs Rooney has a similar need to escape from the hinny's field of vision. The animal's x-ray stare makes her turn inwards, leading her deeper into her own consciousness where she perceives her own anguish, suffering as the consequences of her own physical condition are revealed. Beckett seems simply to be saying that if you are stared at without being spoken to, you become self-conscious and self-aware. The threat of self-perception and the exposure to the 'raw suffering of being' lie at the crest of this mental focus.


The Build up of Sound Effects and the Musical Climax

The sound effects in All That Fall are abstractions of the objects they represent. Thus, in general, they create mood rather than verisimilitude. The prelude of rural sounds does not pretend simply to evoke the image of a farm. The noises are highly stylised human imitations of animal noises, and establish the convention of the play which is, according to Donald McWhinnie who produced the first BBC production, 'a mixture of realism and poetry, frustration and farce' (McWhinnie, p.133 ). The sounds in this prelude also create the four-in-the-bar metre which is continued throughout the play by the sound of Mrs Rooney's dragging feet, four beats to the bar. The other sounds are then added to this rhythm, starting with Mrs Rooney's panting, which occurs on the first and third beats of the bar. Music from a nearby house played on an old gramophone is gradually faded up, overpowering the footsteps. The footsteps cease, and the music is heard on its own. Mr Rooney's voice is then introduced: 'Poor woman. All alone in that ruinous old house.' (p. 172) The music continues for a few seconds before the footsteps are reinstated. As the music fades, Mrs Rooney starts to hum the tune of the music to the established four-in-the-bar rhythm. Her toneless effort notates her characteristic variation on the theme of decay. This first sequence, then, with its highly stylised sounds and strict rhythm sets the basic pattern for the rest of the play. Sounds come into focus gradually until we are told what they are, then the rhythm of the dragging feet resume.

In the first movement of the play, the individual sounds of the vehicles evolve according to their levels of sophistication, leading up to the crescendo of the train sounding through the station. The exaggerated climax is one of pure volume flaunting its own function as a climax, and the light tapping of the blind man's cane which follows emphasises the comparative frailty of man. The musical effect of the tapping is expressive of a cautious post-climactic new beginning. The tapping stick also keeps to the controlled four-to-the-bar metre which was established in the prelude. Furthermore, by drowning out all other sounds, the train reveals itself as the most powerful element in a hierarchy of sounds, where being perceived is ultimately a matter of volume. The signals, bells, whistles and the sound of the first train 'rushing through the station,' tailing off as the down train 'pulls up with great hissing of steam and clashing of couplings,' creates a far more dynamic and grotesque impression than a verbal description or a visual image on stage could (p. 187). The impact of the train is strengthened again at the end of the play, when we learn that a child has been run over by the train and killed.

The succession of sounds representing the vehicles in the first movement of the play are clearly organised in a logical progression towards the volume and danger which we associate with the train. Christy's cart, Mr Tyler's bicycle, Connolly's van and Mr Slocum's car are all less powerful forerunners of the train. Each of these sounds are constructed according to the same principle; they are gradually faded up and eventually brought into focus when Mrs Rooney recognises and identifies them. They also each involve an element of danger in mounting significance. Christy walks beside the hinny and cart, and Mrs Rooney therefore concludes that he must be afraid of heights. In the second episode, she is startled by Mr Tyler's bicycle bell, before Connolly's van suddenly 'passes with thunderous rattles' almost knocking them over (p. 175). In the third sequence, Mrs Rooney is offered a lift in Mr Slocum's car. The verbal allusions and the comic sound-effects depicting the car's starting trouble crescendo towards the first actual incident involving death: the killing of the hen.

MR SLOCUM: [Dreamily. ] All morning she went like a dream and now she is dead. That's what you get for a good deed. [Pause. Hopefully. ] Perhaps if I were to choke her. [He does so, presses the starter. The engine roars. Roaring to make himself heard. ] She was getting too much air! [He throttles down, grinds in his first gear, moves off, changes up in a grinding of gears. ]

MRS ROONEY: [In anguish, ] Mind the hen! [Scream of brakes. Squawk of hen. ] Oh, mother, you have squashed her, drive on, drive on!

(pp. 178-79)

Thus, the succession of vehicles prepare for the climax of the train.

The Three Movements

Beckett, it seems, experimented with the possibilities of radio by playing with materials which generate sound, organising them in such a way as to create a musical narrative in which one could recognise themes and a unifying central melodic contour. The listener, therefore, is able to appreciate that something is happening but is, as with music, unable to follow the logical development of a plot. The reappearance of themes in various disguises and the emotional tension these themes provoke in the protagonist's mind is what gives All That Fall its forward drive, while the focus on Mrs Rooney herself gives the play a unified point of view.

As the central instrument in the play, Mrs Rooney's close, worn down voice functions as a kind of tonal centre, and her persistent presence becomes the central recognisable melody to which other elements are added. The play, as previously noted, is organised into three units in terms of Mrs Rooney's location. This mathematical balance appeals to our visual sense of organisation and reflects Beckett's concern for shape, not only in the smaller units of language, but in the play as a whole as well. Symmetrical musical compositions have familiar material at both ends of the time span, with contrasting music placed in the middle. In All That Fall, the laburnum marks points at identical distances from the beginning and the end of the play with exactly the same line, 'There is that lovely laburnum again' (pp. 174, 196). It first appears following Mrs Rooney's encounter with Christy, and later prior to the Rooneys' last encounter with Jerry. Schubert's Death and the Maiden also marks the locality at both ends of the play, and the station steps visually bracket the central part. The implied visual image of the train tracks in the centre of the station-picture, receding into a vanishing point in the distance, may be viewed as the visual accompaniment to the thundering 12.30, train which marks the approximate centre of the play and the approximate temporal turning point of the day itself.

Furthermore, the three parts seem to be equally balanced in terms of activity and significance. During her walk to the station, the compiled effect of Mrs Rooney's encounters with the other characters seem to give the impression that something is happening. The station scene, although static, includes many characters so that the illusion of some kind of activity is upheld. In the final part there are only the two characters, Mr and Mrs Rooney, but because of their pessimistic timbre and the more significant level of communication between them, the emotional compactness here is equal in weight to the surface activity and communication which is projected in the previous two parts.

The three parts of the play may also be seen as three separate movements in a musical composition, each one encompassing smaller units, providing variations on the same themes. The three movements are roughly of the same duration, but the tempo varies from movement to movement according to the pace and curtness of the utterances, by the atmosphere of urgency and the levels of contemplation which the central character displays. This structural framework may be compared to the structural model for the musical sonata cycle, with its three movements in the order slow-fast-slow, for the variation of tempo in All That Fall is equally evident. By changing the tempo, Beckett is able to highlight the delay in the first movement and the postponement in the final movement, comparing them to the illusion of industrious business of the central movement.

The sound effects generated by Mrs Rooney's panting and the slow, regular rhythm of her dragging feet provide the first movement with its tedious undertone. She stops to listen to the music from the nearby house, and stops again whenever she meets other characters. There are also other factors which promote the effect of delay in this part: the hinny refuses to move on, Mr Tyler's flat bicycle tyre slows him down and Mr Slocum's car will not start. Mrs Rooney's mental digressions and associations similarly seem to slow down the tempo of the play, postponing her arrival at the station. The pulse of the dragging feet is reinstated in the third movement when the old couple walk home. Here, too, they constantly stop because the strain of motion prohibits the parallel strain of speaking.

Furthermore, in the final movement we anticipate an answer to why the train was delayed, but this is postponed by Mr Rooney. His mechanical digressions, counting the station steps and calculating expenditure, ('One of the few satisfactions in life!') his cataloguing of needs and the boredom of home life, 'the dusting, sweeping, airing, scrubbing, waxing, waning, washing, mangling, drying, mowing, clipping, raking, rolling, scuffling, shovelling, grinding, tearing, pounding, banging and slamming' and his prosodic narrative about the train journey, all provide him with safe alternatives to silence and enhance the postponement (pp. 190, 193). Furthermore, he insists on telling the story of his train journey in a descriptive language and an exaggerated narrative tone which only evades the central question of what happened.

If the first and the last movements are compared to the middle one, the wait at the station, the difference in tempo becomes obvious. The stationmaster, Mr Barrell, orders Tommy to 'nip out there on the platform' and 'whip out the truck,' demonstrating the trademark agility of a porter with the monosyllabic 'whip' and 'nip' (p. 180). Mrs Rooney tries to halt Mr Barrell when he turns hurriedly to continue with business. The station mise-en-scene also involves many speakers who simultaneously seem to inhabit the same frame. We hear fragments of speech, such as the female voice, 'Come, Dolly darling, let us take up our stand before the first class smokers. Give me your hand and hold me tight, one can be sucked under' (p. 185). There are also short sequences with an extreme mechanical rhythm which are juxtaposed to Mrs Rooney's attempted mental digressions.

MR TYLER: You have lost your mother Miss Fitt?

MISS FITT: Good morning Mr Tyler.

MR TYLER: Good morning, Miss Fitt.

MR BARRELL: Good morning Miss Fitt.

MISS FITT: Good Morning Mr Barrell.

MR TYLER: You have lost your mother Miss Fitt? (p. 185)

In this scene, each character seems to be preoccupied with his own train of thought. Their shuffled retorts are fragmented, so that the consistency previously maintained by the focus on Mrs Rooney is momentarily broken. Furthermore, the variety of voices and dead-end comments give the scene the quality of a musical character piece or an impromptu:

[...a group, including Mr Tyler, Mr Barrell and Tommy, gathers at top of steps.]

MR BARRELL: What the -


MR TYLER: Lovely day for the fixture.

[Loud titter from Tommy cut short by Mr Barrell with a backhanded blow to the stomach. Appropriate noise from Tommy.]

A FEMALE VOICE: [Shrill. ] Oh, look, Dolly, look! (p. 184)

Here there is a set of stock characters all performing their conventional roles against which we observe Mrs Rooney's ignored efforts at self-assertion. The snobbish female and her crude daughter, the stressed and worried stationmaster, his impertinent helper, the pious Miss Fitt, and the two men, Mr Tyler and Mr Slocum exchanging comments on the day's horse racing, all fit into the kaleidoscopic image which creates the impression of a busy station. The verbal activity itself, both the individual concerns which each character voices and the dialogue concerning the train's delay, becomes farcical and empty, however, as there seems to be no rational action developing the plot of the play. Mr Barrell's orders sound urgent, but in practical terms they are vague, and ultimately only support his empty outburst: 'Ah God forgive me, it's a hard life' (p. 180).

In music, the 'character piece' is a convenient denomination for a large repertory of short 19th century compositions designed to express a definite mood or character. For Beethoven and Schubert, such compositions were by-products in the wake of the more demanding sonatas and symphonies. Beckett must have come across the character pieces by his favourite composer, Beethoven, who wrote 26 pieces entitled Bagatelle. It certainly seems that Beckett, in the central movement of All That Fall, manages to characterise the mood of confusion in the spirit of a light hearted Bagatelle at the station. Mr Barrell refers to the train's delay as a 'hitch,' informing Mrs Rooney that 'All traffic is retarded' (p. 187). Here, it is the collective impact of the voices and the emptiness of the words themselves which create the mood. The surface communication which is performed also counterpoints the dominating pattern of Mrs Rooney's own voice and suffering.

The three movements in the play also seem to have their own openings which spill over and engulf the whole movement. The opening of the play itself, as previously mentioned, establishes the convention for the entire play, but Mrs Rooney's very first words have particular significance in the first movement of the play. Her comment, 'Poor woman. All alone in that ruinous old house', could be taken as a description of Mrs Rooney's own condition as much as it signifies the absent woman she refers to (p. 172). In this case, Mrs Rooney's house would be her decomposing body. The Cartesian distinction between mind and body greatly influenced Beckett and, in fact, practically all of Beckett's characters long for their bodily metabolism, which is already slow, to stop. Mrs Rooney's mind is far more active than her body. Her mind is, furthermore, very much alone in the first part of the play, as the surface communication between herself and the people she meets on her way to the station suggests. In retrospect, Mrs Rooney is able to comment on her mental solitude.

I estrange them all. They come towards me, uninvited, bygones bygones, full of kindness, anxious to help . . . [The voice breaks. ] . . . genuinely pleased . . . to see me again . . . looking so well . . . [Handkerchief. ] A few simple words . . . from my heart . . . and I am alone . . . once more . . .

(p. 182)

She sums up the chance meetings, which momentarily support and complement her, before she is left to herself again to continue her journey on her own.

The second movement of the play opens with a slapstick incident in which Mrs Rooney struggles out of Mr Slocum's car. The simple comments made by her young helper, Tommy, inspire our imagination: 'Easy now, easy,' he beckons, ordering her to 'crouch down' and get her 'head in the open.' He excitedly urges her on as if he was delivering a baby: 'Now! She's coming! Straighten up, Ma'am! There!' (pp. 179-80). The lines are comic and ambiguous because they allow us to associate the scene of an old woman getting out of a car with the event of a child being born. Although the episode is treated in the manner of farce, the comedy perhaps also highlights the theme of decay (physical decay, after all, is a direct consequence of being born). The farce itself establishes the general atmosphere in the central scene.

Mr Rooney's tapping stick introduces the final part, and again there is a reference to birth. Furthermore, the note of cynicism which is followed up in this part is immediately made apparent:

MR ROONEY: Why are you here? You did not notify me.

MRS ROONEY: I wanted to give you a surprise for your birthday

(p. 188).

The Rooneys then descend the station steps, gravitating at the same time into the deeper level of dialogue and suffering which generates the entire movement. The idea that birth is a decline or a fall into a life of decay thus opens each movement of the play; and Mrs Rooney's attempted assertion of her own existence, and her laments over lost life, counterpoint the general mood of decay which runs throughout.


The Emotional Beats

The instances at the train station when Mrs Rooney attempts to assert herself, or when she is 'plunged in sorrow' as she herself refers to her moments of emotional tension, are examples of the emotional beats which give the play its rhythm (p. 181). In these beats, the protagonist transcends the boredom of existence and is exposed to the raw suffering of being. Emphatic variations on the general themes of death and decay are orchestrated in these moments.

The music in the opening sequence of All That Fall is Schubert's Death and The Maiden. By inserting this particular piece, Beckett introduces a tragic theme which he returns to at intervals in the play, namely the theme of the death of a child. The music itself is not actually identified as Death and the Maiden until the end of the play, so if one is not familiar with the title of the music, one may not make the connection between the music and the theme when the theme is illustrated again later. The fact that Beckett quotes a piece of music through which to introduce the theme, is perhaps in itself an indication of the incommunicable emotional impact of that particular subject matter.

The first instance where the theme is returned to and elaborated on occurs when Mrs Rooney moves out of the hinny's field of vision. Her superficial encounter with Christy and the x-ray stare from the animal makes her turn inwards, where she is forced to observe her own mental pain, and ultimately express her impotence and her childlessness; 'What have I done to deserve all this, what, what?' (p. 174) She then tries to remember a quote which might provide her with a more universal and hence a less personal expression of her suffering: 'Sigh out a something something tale of things, Done long ago and ill done.' She falters, is unable to remember the essence of the quote, and begins, instead, to objectify herself in a comic image as if she can fight the personal anguish which the stare from the sterile animal provoked with self-irony:

Oh I am just a hysterical old hag I know, destroyed with sorrow and pining and gentility and church-going and fat and rheumatism and childlessness. [Pause. Brokenly.] Minnie! Little Minnie! (p. 174)

In McWhinnie's production, each phrase is delivered to the beat of the footsteps, which are slightly modified to accompany the delicacy of her pain. The four pairs of footsteps are followed by four sets of brush strokes on a drum, echoing the minimum vocalisation of her soliloquising voice. Her phrases follow on from each other as if provoked by the previous ones in a stream of consciousness. Each line is a step down towards the source of her pain. She is able to express the emotional anguish which her sterility has caused her, but she cannot fathom the reason for her childlessness. She then reveals her longing for love. Here it is perhaps implied that a lack of love results in a lack of life. The only love she can hope for, however, is stripped of its fundamental emotional affect. In her description of the kind of love which is possible, she climbs out of her immediate state of suffering and constructs an increasingly mechanical correlative for love which disguises the actual pain of its absence:

Love, that is all I asked, a little love, daily, twice daily, fifty years of twice daily love like a Paris horse-butcher's regular, what normal woman wants affection? A peck on the jaw at morning, near the ear, and another at evening, peck, peck, till you grow whiskers on you (p. 174).

In this way, the consecutive lines move closer to the surface of consciousness, step by step, as Mrs Rooney works herself out of her emotional state. The sequence ends with an external observation: 'There is that lovely Laburnum again' (p. 174). The dragging feet resume, and a new sequence follows.

The same theme - the death of the unborn - reoccurs in one of the most vivid episodes in which a Beckett protagonist is forced to face the incomprehensible nature of life. In the final movement of the play, Mrs Rooney remembers a comment she heard at a lecture by 'one of these new mind doctors' (p. 195). The psychologist talked about a girl who he was not able to cure because 'the only thing wrong with her as far as he could see was that she was dying.' The talk which Mrs Rooney mentions is directly related to one of Jung's Tavistock lectures which Beckett attended in the thirties. Jung, like the mind doctor Mrs Rooney refers to, claimed that the girl he was treating 'had never been born entirely' (Bair, p. 209). According to Deirdre Bair, Beckett is here using Mrs Rooney's lecture-hall recollection to suggest that one is not born properly until one is able to develop ones own personality (Bair, p. 209). However, Mrs Rooney does not attempt to explain exactly what was meant by the statement. In fact, the perplexity of the case itself is echoed in the doctor's enigmatic, yet simple statement. Mrs Rooney claims that it was 'just something he said, and the way he said it, that have haunted me ever after' (p. 196). It is evident that she associates the death of her own 'Minnie' with the death of the psychologist's patient. What is also evident is Beckett's fondness for simple words devoid of further, second-level explanatory significance, for balanced structure, and for the way the original line was delivered. Mrs. Rooney explains that lecturer 'suddenly raised his head and exclaimed, as if he had had a revelation, The trouble with her was that she never really been born! [Pause.] He spoke throughout without notes' (p. 196). It seems that Mrs Rooney had witnessed the psychologist's exposure to the raw suffering of being, inexpressible in terms of intellectual reasoning. The lecturer was only able to express himself in an unscripted utterance.

The theme is treated with a similar air of incomprehensibility at the very end of the play. Prior to the appearance of the young boy, Jerry, who delivers the news about the child's death, the Rooney's pass the house by the road where the music we recognise from the opening of the play, Schubert's Death and the Maiden, is still playing. Mr Rooney instinctively identifies it, and a silence follows. Mrs Rooney breaks the silence by observing that her husband is crying. Here, Beckett uses the simplest statements to express emotional despair. The crying is followed closely by the grotesque laughter the couple emit in connection with the sermon text.

Furthermore, the tragedy of the off-stage event is mediated by the young messenger, with no conception of its tragic magnitude.

MRS ROONEY: What was it , Jerry?

JERRY: It was a little child, Ma'am.

[MR ROONEY groans.]

MRS ROONEY: What do you mean, it was a little child?

JERRY: It was a child fell out of the carriage, Ma'am. [Pause.] On to the line, Ma'am. [Pause.] Under the wheels, Ma'am.

[Silence. JERRY runs off. His steps die away. Tempest of wind and rain. It abates. They move on. Dragging steps, etc. Tempest of wind and rain.]

(p. 199)

The simple rhythm and high pitch of Jerry's voice leads to the explicit revelation and proof of the meaninglessness of death. All the earlier variations on the theme are brought to a discordant conclusion in Jerry's message.

The couple's obligation to go on despite the suffering and bafflement they are subjected to is orchestrated by their dragging feet. There is no need to argue whether or not Mr Rooney was responsible for the child's death. Hugh Kenner observes that it is useless to try to find clues pertaining to Mr Rooney's guilt because 'all facts are provisional except the fact that sounds are being uttered.' Here, the emotional impact prevents the intellect from trying to establish the cause, and the impact itself can only be expressed by the silence which ends the play. Kenner continues:

Until now, the indomitable language has absorbed every human shock, and extracted from universal decay a species of melancholy satisfaction. But: 'Under the wheels, ma'am.' There is no reply. . . . It is too terrible for apothegm, epigram, cadence, or plaint.


Sonority, Silence and the Contrast

The emotional beats which are accented throughout All That Fall underline Beckett's concern with the vivid depiction of an emotional state. The same type of focus is typical of Romantic music. And, as previously remarked, Beckett's taste in music was indeed primarily Romantic. What probably attracted Beckett to Beethoven was the composer's great concern for tempo, his heavy sonorities with pregnant pauses, and intensity of feeling. In the fifties, Beckett listened a lot to Beethoven chamber music and Schubert in particular. Chamber music is, of course, music intended for a smaller room rather than a large hall or similar venue. The intimate presentation required for this music, with a few performers each treated as soloists on equal terms, seems to correspond to Beckett's stage plays, which require the intimacy of a small stage for their few characters. The projection of voice on radio likewise allows for an intimate, close up presentation of character so that, although All That Fall includes many characters, the focus is on those who are closest to the microphone. It is through those characters that we are exposed to raw emotion.

Because Beckett focused on the less pompous and more immediate personal expressions of man's suffering, he generally disliked the musical style of Wagner and Mahler for the pretentiousness of their lofty expressions. This is important in respect to the significance of silence in All That Fall, because pauses and silences not only give the play a rhythm, but also indicate the magnitude of the inexpressible compared with the limitation of words. Thus, just as Beckett juxtaposes Mrs Rooney's accented internal suffering with her superficial external encounters, he also sets up her attempts at verbalising pain against the unintelligible silence of the pain itself. Sound and silence are dependent on each other, just as our understanding of the absence of elements is dependent on our ability to imagine their presence.

The actual build up to the emotional swells in this play are not only musical in that they involve a flight from the conscious, rational intellect ending in a climax which cannot be expressed through words. Beckett also imposes contrast whereby we are able to perceive various levels of mentality. Mrs Rooney's dominant voice is intersected by the three successive voices of Christy, Mr Tyler and Mr Slocum, for instance. Christy is curt and quick off the mark with his replies, leaving no pauses for his own thoughts. Mr Tyler's phrase, 'Come Mrs Rooney, come ... ,' cut off by Mrs Rooney, is delivered with the same intonation the three times it is repeated. The entire sequence with Mr Tyler has a slightly flirtatious tone. The communication between the two, therefore, indicates that they are playfully challenging the limits of acceptable social conduct. In Mrs Rooney's monologue, delivered as Mr Tyler rides off, her voice dynamically fluctuates back and forth between the comic propositions she shouts at Mr Tyler and her own mental agony. Her voice also demonstrates the limits of her vocal range and the human being's effort involved in obtaining a substantial volume:

You'll tear your tube to ribbons! [Mr Tyler rides off. Receding sound of bumping bicycle. Silence. Cooing.] Venus Birds! Billing in the woods all the long summer long. [Pause] Oh cursed corset! If I could let it out, without indecent exposure. Mr Tyler! Mr Tyler! Come back and unlace me behind the hedge! [She laughs wildly, ceases.] What's wrong with me, what's wrong with me, never tranquil, seething out of my dirty old pelt, out of my skull, oh to be in atoms, in atoms! [Frenziedly] ATOMS!

(p. 177)

The cooing doves dissolve Mr Tyler's departure and are gradually brought into close-up to correspond with the transition into the mind towards the real suffering of the protagonist. All the while, Mrs Rooney's monologue is still true to the four-in-the-bar metre.

A different example of contrast can be seen in Mr and Mrs Roony's variations on reflected pessimism. On their way home in the third movement of the play, the two protagonists' contrapuntal monologues intersect each other in dialogue, providing a tension between Mrs Rooney, who is mourning lost life, and Mr Rooney, who is morning the obligation to live. I quote the passage at length because it touches upon several central themes and images:

MRS ROONEY: What is the matter, Dan? Are you not well?

MR ROONEY: Well! Did you ever know me to be well? The day you met me I should have been in bed. The day you proposed to me the doctors gave me up. You knew that, did you not? The night you married me they came for me with an ambulance. You have not forgotten that, I suppose? [Pause.] No, I cannot be said to be well. But I am no worse. Indeed I am better than I was. The loss of my sight was a great fillip. If I could go deaf and dumb I might pant on to be a hundred. Or have I done so ? [Pause.] Was I a hundred today? [Pause.] Am I a hundred, Maddy? [Silence.]

MRS ROONEY: All is still. No living soul in sight. There is no one to ask. The world is feeding. The wind - [Brief wind.] - scarcely stirs the leaves and the birds - [Brief chirp.] - are tired singing. The cows - [Brief moo.] - and sheep - [Brief baa.] - ruminate in silence. The dogs - [Brief bark.] - are hushed and the hens - [Brief cackle.] - sprawl torpid in the dust. We are alone. There is no one to ask. [Silence.]

MR ROONEY: [Clearing his throat, narrative tone.] We drew out on the tick of time, I can vouch for that. I was-

MRS ROONEY: How can you vouch for it?

MR ROONEY: [Normal tone, angrily.] I can vouch for it, I tell you! Do you want my relation or don't you? [Pause. Narrative tone.] On the tick of time. I had the compartment to myself, as usual. At least I hope so, for I made no attempt to restrain myself. My mind- [Normal tone.] But why do we not sit down somewhere? Are we afraid we should never rise again?

MRS ROONEY: Sit down on what?

MR ROONEY: On a bench, for example.

MRS ROONEY: There is no bench.

MR ROONEY: Then on a bank, let us sink down upon a bank.

MRS ROONEY: There is no bank.

MR ROONEY: Then we cannot. [Pause.] I dream of other roads, in other lands. Of another home, another - [He hesitates.] - another home. [Pause.] What was I trying to say?

MRS ROONEY: Something about your mind (p. 192).

Of the various dualistic forces evident in this passage is Mr Roony's shift between cynicism and childish simplicity, where his cynical tone can be seen is a disguise for the turbulence of his emotional suffering. Mr Roony's account of everything that ails him may also be a parodic expression of physical decay, underlining one of the central theme of the play. Beckett likewise mocks the institution of marriage by turning the potential magnetism between the sexes into another symbol of decay.

A more obvious show of contrasting elements is Beckett's use of optimistic lines which are immediately negated with the pessimistic. Mr Rooney begins by creating a perfect balance within his lines, 'The day you met me/I should have been in bed. The day you proposed to me/the doctors gave me up. The night you married me/ they came for me with an ambulance.' (my divisions). The three sentences which build up to what should be perceived as a happy union between man and wife follow the formula for the development of a rational argument, but the statements are premises which Mr Rooney uses to support his discordant conclusion; 'No, I cannot be said to be well.' His careful, controlled structure is thus appreciated as a parody on the conventional build up to a climax. The first parts of each of these sentences may be combined in a positive development, allowing us to anticipate a happy ending, while the latter parts afford a negative development in the opposite direction. Thus, it is by opposing the positive and the negative that we are able to see the potential of either.

These contrasting themes underline one of the problems Beckett struggled with throughout his authorship, namely the impossibility of using words to express the inexpressible. Beckett echoes Gorgias' provocative assertions from the latter's treatise On Nature, where Gorgias maintains in the first part that 'nothing is,' in the second that, 'even if it is, it cannot be comprehended by men,' and in the third, that 'even if it can be comprehended, it cannot be communicated to another person.' Beckett indicates the possibility of transcending the rational expressive elements of art to a more immediate perception of existence in his essay on Proust. His focus there is on what cannot be expressed;

there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.

On such premises anything short of silence, therefore, is either failure, self destruction, the fruit of mere empty obligation, or a combination of these.

It is perhaps only in the silence which follows words that we can appreciate the impossibility of communicating. Mrs Rooney fails to answer her husband (the one person who she is perhaps closest to), and the tragedy of man's condition as a mortal being alone in a Godless world is expressed by silence. In this silence, Mr Rooney's question is echoed in our minds, while Mrs Rooney's failure to answer leads her to listen for an answer from the universe.

If it is true, as Declan Kibred suggested in a lecture on Endgame, that in Beckett's writing language purveys the fiction that people can communicate whereas silence discloses the fact that each man is alone, the author ironically manages to communicate the latter in a lucid, yet telling way - with the use of language. Mrs Rooney's 'there is no bench' takes on the magnitude of there is no God. If words can potentially convey as much, no wonder Mrs Rooney attempts to sum up the silence offered by the universe by filling the stillness with potential sound in her short monologue. For where everything is negated, there is no presence other than what the imagination can construct.