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|



We tend to think that Beckett's writing is difficult. The reason for this is partly because we try to find symbols which may clarify what the plays are about, or we look for motivation in the characters when it is profoundly absent. Beckett's works, according to Michael Robinson, 'stand as . . . testimony to the integrity and devotion of a vision that has spared itself nothing in an attempt to state what it sees, and not what it thinks it ought to see,' (Robinson, p. 299). 'Suffering,' wrote Dostoevsky, 'is the origin of consciousness.' Beckett's characters are almost all story-tellers or artists of some sort themselves, revealing, as Declan Kiberd suggests, the human being at its most conscious. One need only look at the title of Beckett's early text, Imagination Dead Imagine, to realise the kind of incapability the Beckett being must be capable of expressing. Words, in this respect can only fail. But it is precisely the riddling words ordered in such a simple, aesthetic structure that makes Beckett's work so enjoyable. The problem is that we often get so tangled up in the seemingly cryptic allusions, and the broken strands of thought, that we forget to listen. If it were possible, Beckett's protagonists would perhaps radiate pure feeling instead of words; the low panting voice in Cascando, being perhaps the closest literary expression gets to musical expression.

A further reason why Beckett's plays are often thought to be obscure is that we do not have the ability to perceive their structure and rhythmic qualities by reading alone. To explain the pauses, and the silent echo which resonates in these pauses is practically impossible. Beckett, James Knowlson writes 'was as conscious of the importance of precisely timed silence as any modern composer' (p. 655). Furthermore, as a director, Beckett would often use musical terms such as piano, fortissimo, andante, allegro, da capo, cadenza to achieve the effect he wanted. Where he strips his characters of emotionally padded lines, he instead reveals their suffering by musical notation, and when we read a play where nothing seems to happen, there is an intricate pattern of discordant points giving the play a rhythm.

On radio, Beckett could control the tempo, the rhythm, the pitch and the timbre of every sound. When we are dealing with an author whose stage directions quash practically all free-play and chance, it is perhaps relevant to ask whether it is possible to stage a Beckett play in any way other than that which the author intended. It is paradoxical that an author who was intent on delivering simple words, inconclusive narratives and unintelligible babble which at times seem completely improvised should be so certain of the fact that there is a right way to stage his plays. However, without paying the strictest attention to the details of setting, pace and sonority, the rhythm of the play will lose its ability to express the rhythms of the mind. Furthermore, without these changes in pace and sonority the voice can hardly express the mental and physical pain of the characters without resorting to emotional padding.

Beckett was always reluctant to allow his writing to be adapted for different media. However, he was far more willing to let his work be set to music. In the course of one year, from 1976 to 1977, Beckett's agents approved at least six different musical settings or operas of his work. Furthermore, That Time, Not I, and Come and Go were all set to music around the same time. Many other fragments of his work have also been used for a musical purpose, and not surprisingly it is generally the experimental composers who are attracted to Beckett's writings. Polish-born Roman Haubenstock-Ramati (who lived mainly in Paris from 1957 onwards, though I do not know if he actually spoke with Beckett about his work) wrote a piece for voice and eight instrumentalists, Think, Think, Lucky, with text from Waiting for Godot. Hungarian composer, György Kurtág (who studied in Paris in the late fifties) wrote Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, for reciter, voices and chamber orchestra. The internationally distinguished Italian composer, Luciano Berio, in his Sinfonia (1968), uses text from The Unnamable as the basis for his lyrics which are shouted, whispered, spoken or sung by the eight vocalists.

There are, of course other writers who show a concern for rhythm and structure comparable to Beckett's, just as there are other authors concerned with the same themes and subjects. In fact, it seems that in his writing Beckett is revealing his own struggle to find a way to express the usual dilemma of man's inexplicable mortality in the face of the universe and a non-existent God. Beckett's problem may perhaps be best explained by his inability to obtain the quality which Keats called negative capability, 'when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'